ORLANDO (AP) — Located just 85 miles apart, South Florida and UCF have on paper always seemed like natural rivals.
But in four meetings between 2005 and 2008, the Knights could never break through with a victory.
Now as members of the same conference, UCF will be playing for more than its first victory in the series when the teams meet on Friday. With two victories over the final two weeks of the regular season, the No. 17 Knights (9-1, 6-0 American Athletic Conference) can wrap up not only the league title outright, but their first BCS berth.
UCF is heavily favored this time around, but Knights coach George O’Leary understands why his players are shying away from the rivalry aspect this week. After all, there isn’t a single player on either side that was around for the last meeting in 2008.
“If you have a bunch of goals — some teams have eight, nine, 10 goals — I don’t know how you follow them,” O’Leary said. “We have one goal, and that’s to win the conference each year no matter what conference we’re playing in. As long as you keep sight on that goal, I don’t think it’s hard to get your kids ready to play, because they know what’s at stake, they know what they have to get done.”
Since his arrival, O’Leary has been an advocate of playing the game yearly. It was largely because of reluctance on the part of former USF coach Jim Leavitt that the series went dormant after the initial four-game contract.
UCF offensive lineman Chris Martin was in the stands for UCF’s 64-12 loss in Tampa in 2007 and on his recruiting visit in 2008 when the Knights came up short in overtime, falling 31-24 at home. He said no extra motivation is needed this week.
O’Leary’s “definitely stressing the fact that we’ve never beat this team,” Martin said. “He says it’s not a rivalry game until we’ve actually won. So I know it’s as important to him as it is to any of us. We’re going to do our best to go out there and give him the game he deserves.”
Since the teams haven’t played for several years, first-year USF coach Willie Taggart said he showed his players highlights of the past games and tried to portray atmosphere with big crowds in Tampa and Orlando to give them a sense of what games mean to fans and alumni.
“I think the fact that we’re playing UCF should be that edge, not what they’ve done this year or anything they have at stake,” Taggart said. “We have a lot at stake, too. We haven’t lost to them. So we have a lot at stake, too. That’s how we see it. It’s like a bowl game for us.”
UCF (2-8, 2-4) will also be honoring its eight seniors before the game.
Martin, a member of that class, said a win for the Knights wouldn’t just be for him, but all the past alumni before him that helped lay the foundation for what UCF could accomplish this season.
“When I first got here the idea of even getting a BCS bid was just never in the question,” he said. “That’s probably the biggest thing to me … It’s not like we haven’t worked for it. We’ve worked for everything we’ve got. That’s what makes it so much better. Nothing in this program has been handed to us.”
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