TAMPA — Last weekend, in the postgame emotion of the University of South Florida’s fourth consecutive defeat, senior defensive tackle Luke Sager had a message for his teammates. He spoke about Friday night’s game against the University of Central Florida Knights.
“We don’t lose to those guys,’’ Sager said.
Note: Sager has never faced UCF.
USF and UCF last played in 2008, after a four-game run swept by the Bulls.
Is this a rivalry?
You bet it is.
“This type of game is what college football is all about,’’ USF first-year coach Willie Taggart said.
Now, USF-UCF returns Friday night at Orlando’s Bright House Networks Field. The Knights will break out the black-on-black uniforms and are asking for their fans to wear black — on Black Friday, no less.
Now it’s an annual game. The Bulls and Knights are members of the first-year American Athletic Conference. Now they are on equal footing.
Or are they?
USF (2-8, 2-4) is trying to avoid the worst season in the program’s 17-season history. Meanwhile, UCF (9-1, 6-0), already with two Conference USA titles in hand, has reached the brink of an AAC title and a guaranteed Bowl Championship Series game appearance.
The Knights are playing for history.
The Bulls are playing for pride.
“We want to do anything we can to get a win,’’ USF junior receiver Andre Davis said. “The lights are going to be on, and everybody wants to make plays when the lights are on. UCF is a real good game for us.’’
In the beginning, USF refused to play UCF, often insinuating the Knights were a lower life form in college football’s power structure. Despite the 98 miles that separate the campuses, USF once scheduled Southern Utah, Utah and Utah State in an 11-game season — but not UCF. USF created a deep gulf while the Knights begged for a matchup.
The state legislature tried to mandate the game, nearly sneaking that provision onto the tail end of a bill. Eventually, the schools agreed to two games, then USF was forced into two more as part of exit provisions with its shift from Conference USA to the Big East.
USF won all four games, each one played before large, spirited crowds. After the fourth, the Bulls said they’d consider future games against UCF, but gave the Knights no priority over other state opponents such as Florida Atlantic and Florida International.
It was reported that USF president Judy Genshaft worked to block UCF’s long-desired ascension into the Big East, a charge she vehemently denied.
Now, the Bulls and Knights are linked in a game that AAC commissioner Mike Aresco targeted for Thanksgiving weekend, although he’s also intrigued by potentially staging it as a season-opener. Either way, it’s destined to be special.
“This is something we need to win,’’ Sager said. “You definitely feel the pressure put on by the public and the students. It’s important to them. This is for respect, not being the first class to lose to UCF. You do not want to lose.’’
“I talked to a few of the older guys when I got here as a freshman,’’ USF junior center Austin Reiter said. “I just know we don’t lose to them. We take pride in that record and we’re going to be fired up.’’
USF senior JaQuez Jenkins has never faced the Knights, but his sister attended the school. In fact, because of the love for her brother, she owns a half-and-half USF/UCF license plate.
“I’m glad the game is going to be played all the time now, and I’m glad I get one shot at them,’’ Jenkins said. “I can already tell it doesn’t matter what the records are in this game. It’s going to be intense.
“It’s like competing with your brother. It’s going to bring out the best in you.’’
USF dominated the two games in Tampa, including a 64-12 rout in 2007, just before the Bulls reached the nation’s No. 2 ranking. Leading by 38 points in the fourth quarter, the Bulls twice went for deep touchdown passes.
In Orlando, there were two thrillers, each decided by a touchdown, one in overtime.
Regardless of how the games played out, they were all USF victories. An “Interstate 4-0’’ T-shirt was unveiled by Collin Sherwin, the mastermind behind Voodoo Five, a website devoted to USF athletics. The Bulls asserted their aura of superiority.
Now, everything is different. The Knights, ranked 17th nationally, are 27-point favorites against USF, which is playing out the string in its third-straight losing season.
“Both fan bases are looking forward to the game as far as talking rights,” UCF coach George O’Leary said. “This is something I always tried to get done, having this I-4 corridor game. To me, it’s a natural game. It’s going to lead to great competition from both schools.’’
That’s true after listening to USF players. It’s a game none of them have experienced. Yet, it’s a matchup they know the Bulls can’t afford to lose.
That sounds like a rivalry. And this one is here to stay.