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Going fourth
USF MAKES CASE IT BELONGS WITH UM, FSU, UF
BIG FOUR?: 'It can't be three forever,' Miami native Brouce Mompremier said referring to USF breaking into the state's elite teams (UM, UF and FSU). AL MESSERSCHMIDT / GETTY IMAGES

For the 22 years Brouce Mompremier has been alive, the state's college football passions have revolved around the state's "Big Three."

Miami, Florida, Florida State. Arrange however you wish.

Hey, no one said it had to stop there.

"There's room for a fourth, a fifth, a sixth," Mompremier, a linebacker for South Florida, said with a laugh. "There's too much talent down here. It can't be three forever."

USF stands in position to chip away at that template. After an eye-opening 2007 that saw the Bulls soar to as high as No. 2 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, the program enters its 12th season with national buzz.

The preseason rankings make a strong case for USF as the second-best team in the state. The Bulls were slotted at No. 19 in The Associated Press poll and 21st in the coaches' rankings.

Among Florida teams, only UF stands above.

"There's more eyes on us than ever," coach Jim Leavitt said.

Added safety Nate Allen: "It's nice to see we're getting some respect. But when it comes down to it, we've just got to go out and win games. That's all you can do."

That is how the Bulls launched last season. An overtime victory at Auburn and upset of No. 5 West Virginia at home thrust USF into the top 10 by the end of September and awakened the campus.

"It was just our time," said Mompremier, a Miami native. "A lot of us on the team believed, but getting the fans and support from the community really helped."

The heady times didn't last too long. No sooner did the Bulls hit No. 2 on the BCS chart, they dropped three games in a row to Rutgers, Cincinnati and Connecticut. Then after three consecutive victories to close the regular season, they were riddled by Oregon in the Sun Bowl.

"We're not there, that's for sure," Leavitt said.

It was enough, though, to no longer fly under the radar.

"Coach Leavitt's done a great job getting that program going and building the enthusiasm they have at South Florida," UM coach Randy Shannon said.

With 17 starters back, including All-American defensive end George Selvie and dual-threat quarterback Matt Grothe, USF is considered the biggest threat to West Virginia's Big East supremacy.

That race figures to hinge on their Dec. 6 meeting in Morgantown, WVa., and USF has won the past two meetings.

"We're looking to win a championship," Selvie said. "We've been up there; we know we can beat anybody in the nation. Now we know what we can do and we have the confidence."

A Big East trophy and ticket to a BCS bowl would go a long way toward opening up another chair among the state's hierarchy.

"It's a work in progress," said tackle Marc Dile, one of seven Bulls from Miami-Dade and Broward counties. "We're just focused and taking it one step at a time. Hopefully we'll get there one day."

Leavitt isn't ready to insert his team among the Big Three. But Leavitt, a St. Petersburg native, also recalls the days when the ruling class was a monarchy.

"When I was a senior in high school, Miami and Florida State weren't real strong. So it was only Florida," he said. "Then all of a sudden, Miami and Florida State started winning, and now they're three very powerful programs."

So what would it take to make it a quartet?

"You've got to beat them," Leavitt said, noting that USF begins a five-game series against UM next year, with three meetings in Tampa. USF also visits UF in 2010.

Said Mompremier: "We can't just win games in our conference and win some other games. We've got to beat those guys at some time."

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