For years, Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger has keenly followed the growth of South Florida's program with hopes of mimicking what the Bulls have done.
``I feel like they're an older brother,'' Schnellenberger said.
In a lot of ways, that's true.
South Florida began play 11 seasons ago, four years before Schnellenberger and the Owls took the field for the first time. Coaches from FAU and USF have talked often about the challenges that come with building a program, and Schnellenberger has even traveled to Tampa to study how the Bulls run their team.
He'll see them up close on Saturday, when No. 6 South Florida - perhaps the biggest surprise in college football this year - travels to Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a matchup with Florida Atlantic.
``We face a major challenge, obviously, facing the sixth-rated team in the United States,'' Schnellenberger said. ``In my poll, I picked them in that spot. I'm so proud of what they're doing up there.''
The Bulls (4-0) are the highest ranked opponent FAU (3-2) has faced in its history.
``They taught me all the things that they thought were important and all the things that they would do differently if they had a chance,'' Schnellenberger said. ``It was a great help to me to walk through the minefields of failure to get through to success.''
FAU has played ranked teams before. The Owls lost 45-17 at Kentucky last week, face Florida later this year, and Schnellenberger has never shied away from scheduling meetings with teams from Bowl Championship Series conferences.
But this is different - because probably no one expected Saturday's game to feature the sixth-ranked team in the nation.
``When we look at USF, they're only a couple years ahead of us ... and they're already in the top 25, top 10,'' FAU quarterback Rusty Smith said. ``In a couple years, that could be us. They get a lot of players from the state of Florida. We get a lot of our players from the state of Florida. So, there's no reason that can't be us in a couple years.''
South Florida coach Jim Leavitt is at least sounding leery of facing the Owls.
His Bulls play in the Big East and have been rapidly gaining attention on the national scene, while FAU plays in the Sun Belt and probably made its biggest headlines during its run to the Division I-AA semifinals in 2003.
Still, Leavitt insists there's reason for USF to be concerned. During the on-field celebration last Friday night when his Bulls knocked off West Virginia and set the stage for vaulting 12 spots in this week's AP Top 25 poll, he said he was only thinking about the challenge of playing FAU.
``This is a very good football team, and it's going to be a very difficult challenge for us, as all of them have been,'' Leavitt said. ``It has been difficult the last couple of weeks and our players will have to play at a very high level this Saturday.''
Much like USF, which hired Leavitt to start a program from scratch and has watched the Bulls' fortunes rise, FAU has made some big strides since its early days.
The Owls hope to have a 30,000-seat stadium for the 2010 season. They beat a Big Ten team - Minnesota - earlier this season and expect to be in the hunt for a Sun Belt title and the bowl berth that accompanies that.
A win on Saturday, though, would unquestionably be the Owls' top achievement yet.
``USF is a great example of what Florida Atlantic could be,'' Schnellenberger said, ``should we do the right things.''

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