TAMPA, Fla. — Skip Holtz relishes the opportunity to take South Florida into The Swamp for the Bulls' long-awaited shot at playing Florida.
Win or lose on Saturday, the USF coach says it's just one game and won't determine whether this season is a success or failure. That's a message that should resonate throughout the Big East, which is 4-4 against nonconference opponents, with two of the losses coming against other BCS leagues.
"I've continually said, I don't want to put all my eggs in one basket in any one of our 12 games," said Holtz, whose team opened with a 59-14 rout of overmatched Football Championship Subdivision member Stony Brook.
"At the end of the day, this is going to be one game out of 12 that's going in the win or loss column," he said. "It's not more heavily weighted than any of the others. ... This season is not about whether we win or lose this football game. This season is about how we respond to either one of those."
A victory would give USF, which launched its program from scratch 13 years ago, an early-season signature win over a Top 25 team from another conference for the third time in four years.
The Bulls upset Auburn on the road in 2007 and beat Florida State in Tallahassee a year ago with quarterback B.J. Daniels making his first college start.
"If we were fortunate enough to win this game and lose the rest of them, I would be hard pressed to say this would be a successful season," just as it would be difficult to characterize it as a bad year if USF loses and then wins all of its remaining games, Holtz said.
"How we respond to where we are is more important than what happens in this game alone. We're going to learn a lot about our football team. Florida's a team that has competed for and won national championships a number of years now. And for us as a football team, that's the level we aspire to play at. That's the level we aspire to be at. This will be a great opportunity."
And a chance to maybe bolster the image of the Big East which — despite ranking second among Football Bowl Subdivision leagues in nonconference winning percentage over the past four-plus seasons — generally is not perceived to be nearly as strong some other BCS conferences.
From 2006 through last week, the SEC is 192-45 (.810 winning percentage) against nonconference opponents, followed by the Big East (142-49, .743), Big 12 (168-66, .718), Big Ten (150-66, .694), Atlantic Coast Conference (150-84, .641), and Pac-10 (98-59, .624).
With Pittsburgh and Cincinnati dropping openers on the road to Utah (Mountain West) and Fresno State (WAC), respectively, and Connecticut and Louisville falling short in tests against Michigan (Big Ten) and Kentucky (SEC), the Big East is off to a slow start this year.
It doesn't get any easier with USF making a two-hour ride north to Gainesville to face the eighth-ranked Gators before a crowd of more than 90,000 — second-largest to ever watch the Bulls. Meanwhile, Syracuse travels across the country to face Washington after beating Akron to start 1-0 for the first time since 2003.
"It's impossible to duplicate the athleticism and speed that they have on the field. Your scout teams can't duplicate it. ... It's going to be very difficult to duplicate the atmosphere and crowd noise," Holtz said.
USF aspires some day be held in the same regard as Florida, Florida State and Miami — thereby expanding Florida's Big Three into a Big Four. The Bulls are 1-4 all-time versus SEC schools, with a 26-23 overtime win at Auburn helping them climb as high as No. 2 in the nation three years ago.
The Bulls are 11-2 against teams from the Sunshine State, with both losses coming against Miami. USF and the Hurricanes meet for the third time on Nov. 27.
With Florida fumbling eight times while beginning the post-Tim Tebow era with a 22-point win over Miami (Ohio), some feel USF could be catching the Gators at the right time.
Holtz, preparing for only his second game at the Bulls' helm, doesn't subscribe to that theory. He noted Florida's defense allowed .2 yards rushing (4 yards, 22 carries) and didn't allow a touchdown last week.
"You look at that, and I just think it goes to show the volumes of the program that Urban Meyer and that staff has built and what the expectations are when you've won a couple of national championships and have the type of athletes that they have," Holtz said.
"They have a very committed, very determined team. A team that wants to be good, a team that's used to winning and probably a team that gets embarrassed by a performance that most people — or 90 percent of the country — would take the numbers and feel like it was a great day."