TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Five years after soaring into the limelight as one of the nation's fastest growing college football programs, the South Florida Bulls are struggling to become relevant again.
An uncharacteristic 2-3 start has drawn attention to a shaky won-loss record that suggests USF's meteoric rise not only has leveled off, but is in gradual decline.
The Bulls have yet to win a Big East title, much less flirt again with the level of success they achieved while climbing to No. 2 in the country in October 2007.
Skip Holtz's team dropped its conference opener to Rutgers and returns to league play Saturday at Temple, hoping to end a three-game skid. The losing streak includes a road slipup at Ball State — USF's first loss to a non-BCS opponent since the Bulls joined the Big East in 2005 — and last week's closer-than-expected 13-point home loss to then fourth-ranked Florida State.
"We're a work in progress, and I think I think we made improvement and got better, but we also played a much better opponent in Florida State," Holtz said. "It was a great measuring stick for us, and I think we learned an awful lot about ourselves."
Not exactly the kind of talk South Florida fans want to hear.
The Bulls raced to a 6-0 start five years ago under former coach Jim Leavitt, who launched USF's program from scratch in the 1990's and presided over its growth from a cluster of trailers on campus to BCS conference status to the No. 2 ranking that heightened expectations for competing among the nation's elite.
But since climbing to the lofty spot that briefly thrust them into the race for the national championship, the Bulls have gone 31-25, including 12-23 in the Big East. That spiral began with a puzzling three-game conference losing streak that took the air out of the 2007 season.
The slide has continued under Holtz, who replaced Leavitt after a messy scandal cost the former coach his job following the program's fifth consecutive bowl appearance in 2009.
USF lured Holtz away from East Carolina, where he won a pair of Conference USA titles, with a $9.1 million, five-year contract after Leavitt was fired for mistreating a player who accused the former coach of grabbing him by the throat and slapping him in the face during halftime of a game.
The son of former Notre Dame and South Carolina coach Lou Holtz arrived with a reputation of transforming struggling programs into winners and declared: "We can win conference championships here. We can win national championships here."
That's still the goal.
Yet under Holtz, the Bulls are just 15-15 nearing the mid-point of his third season, including 4-11 in the Big East. They're 1-7 in conference games at home and have dropped 10 of 13 overall following a 4-0 start that included a win at Notre Dame and lifted the team into the Top 25 early last year.
Six of the next seven games will be against conference foes, a stretch coaches and players feel will provide an opportunity to shed a perception of being underachievers.
"Our goal at the beginning of the season was to win the Big East, not to win every other game outside of the Big East," defensive tackle Ryne Giddins said. "We didn't declare going undefeated. We declared to win the Big East. Any other game outside of the Big East wasn't really our (main) objective."
Holtz called the 30-17 loss to Florida State, which moved up to No. 3 this week, disappointing.
"But at the same time I was encouraged. There was some growth," the coach said, adding if the team plays with the same type of passion it did against Florida State that he likes the Bulls chances of being competitive in a conference race where No. 19 Louisville, No. 22 Rutgers and unbeaten Cincinnati appear to be the teams to beat.
"A lot of naysayers may only see the end result. ... But I felt we got better as a football team," Holtz said.
"There's an awful lot of excitement to get back in the conference. I loved the opportunity to play Florida state, but I'm really excited to have the opportunity to get back into conference play. These are the games that have a residual effect," Holtz added. "Florida State game is kind of one and done. It's over. This game has a residual effect with lasting implications for the end of the year."
With quarterback B.J. Daniels leading the way, the players feel they're capable of making a run. After facing Temple, the Bulls have a bye before sandwiching Big East games against Louisville, Syracuse, Connecticut, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh around a nonconference date at Miami.
"We have to make sure we come out with the same feistiness and energy we came out with against Florida State," said Daniels, who's fifth on the Big East's career total offense list.
"The last couple of games, we lost. But right now, we're where we want to be," running back Demetris Murray said. "If we run out the rest of these games, we should be in good shape to win the Big East, which is our main goal."
Holtz is optimistic, too.
"I like the morale of this football team right now. I know that's hard to believe when you're sitting here with three losses in a row, but I don't believe morale just comes from winning," the coach said. "I think it certainly does for alumni and your fan base. But the morale for a football team, it comes from them feeling like they're getting better. They see the light at end of the tunnel."