TAMPA — University of Central Florida junior quarterback Blake Bortles is confident, productive and bursting upon the national scene as someone who could lead the Knights to a BCS bowl victory and position himself as a Heisman Trophy contender in 2014.
University of South Florida freshman quarterback Mike White is talented but inexperienced, eager to learn but occasionally unsure, capable of making dazzling plays but often way ahead of himself and sometimes lacking patience.
As the No. 17-ranked UCF Knights (9-1, 6-0) and USF Bulls (2-8, 2-4) renew their on-again, off-again rivalry tonight at Orlando's Bright House Networks Stadium — an intense game assured to become an annual fixture in the American Athletic Conference — their divergent paths are reflected in the quarterbacks.
Bortles and UCF are about now.
The Knights have squeezed into a tight window of opportunity. They can clinch a tie for the inaugural AAC title tonight and clinch their first BCS bowl next week, an automatic bid that won't exist for the league in 2014 when college football begins its new playoff system.
White and USF are about the future.
In coach Willie Taggart's first season, the Bulls already have clinched the program's third consecutive losing season. The offense has been brutal, managing just nine touchdowns all season. But the Bulls have a glimmer of hope with six freshmen who have started at least one game.
Tonight, though, is not about the future.
“We have to beat these guys,” Taggart said. “They're in the conference. This is much bigger than a rivalry or bragging rights. It's a conference game and it's going to be that way every year.
“It's just the fact we're playing UCF, not what they have done this year, not us being a spoiler, not what they have at stake. We have a lot at stake, too. We haven't lost to them (4-0 in games from 2005 to 2008). This is like a bowl game for us.”
USF's defense, ranked 30th nationally, has been exceptional of late. But the offense, ranked 120th, has been exceptionally horrendous. White provided some juice Halloween night at Houston, completing 26 of 41 passes for 311 yards in his first start.
Since then, he has looked like, well, a freshman.
“We just need him to run our offense and not try to do more than what we ask him,” said Taggart, who said White has been hampered by diminished production from USF's running game. “Don't feel like you have to win this game (individually) for us. Mike's struggles have been when things have gotten tighter in the latter part of the game when we really, really need to make plays.
“You want guys who can make those plays, but who also understand how to make those plays. That's part of the whole development and teaching these guys to win.”
UCF doesn't have that issue.
Bortles knows how to make all the plays. And he knows how to win.
That was never more evident than UCF's dramatic 39-36 victory on Nov. 16 at Temple. Bortles was 27 of 38 for 404 yards and four touchdowns. Five times, he rallied the Knights from a deficit on an afternoon when they seemed prone to the upset.
“Their quarterback is a stud,” Taggart said. “He's one of the better ones we faced this year. You watch the kid play and you know he's a winner, you know he has control over that offense. You can see it in the way they play. They have such confidence.”
“With Blake Bortles leading us, we feel like there's nothing we can't do,” said UCF senior receiver Jeff Godfrey, a converted quarterback.
USF's success tonight depends on how the Bulls handle Bortles, who is aided by Storm Johnson, the AAC's leading rusher (916 yards). USF's secondary features four freshmen playing in prominent roles, but they have proven capable, holding Memphis to 59 passing yards and SMU to a season-low 229 yards in the air.
But Bortles, maybe even more than Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, represents the greatest challenge for USF's defense this season.
“Bortles appears to be a coach on the field,” Houston coach Tony Levine said.
“I absolutely think he's a pro quarterback,” Temple coach Matt Rhule said. “That's a complex offense and he runs it well. He represents all the tangible and intangible things you're looking for in a great quarterback.”
He also represents the difference between UCF and USF.
The Knights, 27-point favorites tonight, are ready for elite status. The Bulls are trying to avoid the worst season in the program's 17-year history.
“Like I told our guys, we're not playing for most people (and their expectations),” Taggart said. “We're playing for each other. If all the games went the way the oddsmakers make them, then there wouldn't be much use in playing. Let's see if we can prove the oddsmakers wrong.”