STORRS, Conn. (AP) -Connecticut has packed a lifetime of experience into only six seasons as a major college football program.
UConn exceeded expectations upon arrival in Division I-A in 2002; joined the Big East ahead of schedule in 2004 to keep the conference from dying, and became part of a legal battle over its dismantling.
Today, the Huskies find themselves nationally ranked for the first time and leading the Big East.
While so much has changed for No. 16 Connecticut (7-1, 3-0), coach Randy Edsall's vision for the program he took over in 1999 and guided out of Division I-AA has never wavered.
``When you have vision and have a plan, you stick to the plan because when you get off the plan, now you could do some things that might make it a little bit longer to obtain the goal you want to obtain,'' Edsall said. ``When you put something in, you're putting it in with a foundation, (so) you're not going to have to go and tear that foundation up and restart it.''
UConn's foundation for big-time football is the substantial financial support it receives from private and public sources.
Fans are a loyal and passionate bunch and residents from all over the state take pride in seeing the Huskies win championships, such as the five women's basketball titles Geno Auriemma's team has won and the two titles Jim Calhoun's men's teams have brought back to Storrs.
``We like to say our community supports us both financially and emotionally,'' UConn athletic director Jeff Hathaway said.
State money paid all of the $91.2 million it cost to build Rentschler Field, the 40,000-seat stadium the Huskies needed to make their move to the big time. UConn rents it out for game days.
The Huskies went 15-9 in 2002-03, their first two seasons in Division I-A. The next season they entered the Big East, about two years before they planned, to make up for the departures of Miami and Virginia Tech to the Atlantic Coast Conference and the impending loss of Boston College.
While the league was in shambles, the Huskies had a great year, going 8-4, including a victory in the Motor City Bowl. UConn was part of a group of Big East teams that sued the ACC and Boston College.
Early on, UConn was being touted as a program with the potential to match the success BC and Virginia Tech.
``Look at Connecticut's history ... they've been successful at everything they've touched,'' Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said.
So well thought of was UConn, there was speculation during the ACC's raid that it would be a target.
At Connecticut, they don't cut corners. Just look at the Burton Family Football complex, which opened in July 2006, complete with a pool table in the players' lounge, a huge weight room and an indoor practice facility any NFL team would love.
The cost: $50 million out of university and athletic department coffers.
In the first season in their first-class digs, the Huskies were dogs.
As the new-look Big East was booming behind West Virginia, Louisville, resurgent Rutgers and burgeoning South Florida, UConn went 4-8 and 1-6. There were also problems off the field.
In October, five players were dismissed from the team for bringing beer back to their rooms the night before a game. Less than a month before that, another player was kicked off after being arrested for stealing a credit card number.
Edsall said the biggest difference between this year's team and last year's isn't on the field.
``I think the biggest thing is that this team is a very close team, a very tight-knit team,'' Edsall said. ``I think this team has tremendous character and tremendous chemistry.''
Edsall helped create the improved camaraderie during the offseason. He assigned players to interview teammates. The guys had to write down what they learned about the other player and submit it to Edsall.
``At first I thought it was kind of corny,'' said cornerback Darius Butler, part of a defense that ranks 10th in the nation in yards allowed (293 per game) and third in points (13 per game). ``But you'd be surprised how many guys don't really know each other on the team.''
For upperclassmen such as Butler and defensive end Dan Davis, they've learned from the good and bad times.
``We've seen what we can do and what we have to do to be successful,'' Davis said. ``And we've seen what you do to not be successful.''
Statistically, the Huskies haven't overwhelmed opponents. They've done well in close games and played solid defense.
Dreadlocked tailback Andre Dixon has emerged to carry the offense. He ran for 115 yards in a 21-17 win over Louisville and 167 in last week's 22-15 victory over South Florida, the Huskies' first victory over a ranked team. Juco transfer Tyler Lorenzen has brought stability at quarterback for the first time in three seasons.
No question, the Huskies also have caught some breaks.
Against Louisville, an illegal fair catch led to a punt return touchdown. The Big East later apologized to Louisville for the officials' mistake. In a 22-17 victory over Temple, the Owls appeared to score a go-ahead touchdown in the final minute, but the receiver was ruled out of bounds and replay officials didn't reverse the call. Last week against USF, the Bulls had 440 yards, but broke down near the goal line.
To their credit, the Huskies capitalized on those breaks and made their own luck.
``Again, I think that goes back to character,'' Edsall said. ``That goes back to the chemistry and guys believing in each other and believing in themselves a little bit more because of the hard work and the discipline that it takes to put yourself in a position to win at this level.''
Getting to this level for UConn has been quite a trip.

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