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American Athletic Conference needs USF-UCF rivalry to flourish

Christopher Fischer



Photo by Icon Sportswire

We have the full understanding that “War on I-4” will always belong to the Arena Football rivalry Tampa Bay Storm vs. (Now Defunct) Orlando Predators first. The name, a new trophy and a new rivalry has re-emerged with USF and UCF. And it’s one that the AAC needs to have succeed for the play on the field and the attention it will bring.

USF currently has “the hardware” after a blowout win in Orlando last year and Coach Willie Taggart was showing it off early in the week:

“It’s one of those game you can take the records out, it doesn’t matter,” said Taggart.

There will be more at stake than a piece of hardware hoisted by the victor. Recruiting, a potential trip to the conference championship game, a 10-win season, and bowl games will all be on the line.

“This is a natural rivalry, I think it’s good for both programs,” said UCF head coach Scott Frost. “I think there is a little extra motivation when your playing someone just down the road from you.”

It didn’t always used to be this way.

When the Bulls and Golden Knights were in different leagues earlier this century, USF had zero desire for this game. From former head coach Jim Leavitt to still current President Judy Genshafft, they felt no need to play UCF and legitimize them. This infuriated those associated with UCF, but you could understand and appreciate USF’s point. This is especially when Leavitt and the Bulls beat them four straight times head to head and then, would say “we have nothing to gain continuing to beat them/play them.” So, the series expired.

Obviously, Leavitt is long since gone as coach, and the Bulls and Knights are now in the same division in the same conference. So, the point is moot about playing/not playing.

Here’s the reality: It’s in both schools interest to develop a rival/game to point to every year, and it’s obviously in the American Conference’s favor, too. With programs spread literally from Connecticut to Dallas to Greenville, NC, to Tulsa and back to Central Florida, they NEED two teams this close to each other to be good and want to “get after it” in a rivalry game.

American Commissioner Mike Aresco has said he believes the AAC makes it a “Power 6” when it comes to major conferences. Let’s be honest, that’s just salesman talk and IF the AAC was taken so seriously, then how is it USF could win their tenth game and still be unranked? That wouldn’t indicate they beat quality opponents comprising your conference, Mr. Aresco.

That brings us to Saturday at noon at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. USF has had a spectacular offensive season and is a win from earning their best regular season ever at 10-2. UCF is back from a horrific 0-12 season and an upset of the Bulls makes them 7-5. That’s coaching, right there.

There are plenty of story-lines at play, but maybe, one of the biggest won’t actually be on the field, it will be in the stands.

USF Athletic Director Mark Harlan has noted that attendance has risen compared to last season. But will there be enough combination of black, green and gold so that the red Raymond James Stadium seats don’t appear on national televisions.

Only 16,585 showed up for USF HOMECOMING. One would think the seventh highest scoring offense in the country would intrigue Bulls fans to show up for a game. Maybe the allure of the rivalry will constitute a better turnout, because we all know a noon kickoff time doesn’t help the situation.

It’ll be Senior Day, and a chance for the USF senior class to go back-to-back over the Knights. Imagine when the Bulls’ senior class arrived on campus as freshman, USF stunk. That’s right I said it: Skip Holtz made them horrendous. Now they have a chance to climb in to the rankings, and with some help from ECU over Temple, play for in a conference championship game.

This game isn’t a battle of national heavyweights like Michigan and Ohio State will be Saturday, nor is it a showdown of sunshine state juggernaut’s like Florida and Florida State Saturday night. This rivalry is more like two little brothers pounding it out, and who doesn’t love a good sibling scrap?

The AAC is smiling, as they should be, at this match-up in the latest edition of the new “War on I-4.”

A game that everybody needs.

A native Floridian who graduated from Clearwater High School and the University of Florida, Chris Fischer has spent nearly 15 years in Sports Televison, including the last five as Sports Reporter and Anchor with the CBS affiliate in Tampa Bay-WTSP. He is a multi time AP Sports and Local Emmy award winner and will be seen this season as a sideline reporter on CBS-TV’s network coverage of the NFL.Chris brings enthusiasm and passion (particularly when it comes to his Gators) to College and NFL coverage to F.F.I.

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