TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -No. 20 South Florida and Cincinnati can only imagine what might have been.
The Bulls and Bearcats each opened the season with six straight victories, but enter a key Big East matchup Saturday riding two-game losing streaks that knocked USF out national title contention and dropped Cincinnati out of the Top 25.
Conference road losses to Rutgers and first-place Connecticut sent USF (6-2, 1-2) tumbling from the No. 2 ranking the Bulls achieved with help from early season victories over Auburn and West Virginia.
Cincinnati (6-2, 1-2) was off to its best start since 1954 and ranked No. 17 before stumbling at home against Louisville and on the road at Pittsburgh. An open date last week gave coach Brian Kelly and his players a chance to reflect on where they are.
``We're going through the development, the process of understanding what it takes to be a top-20 team. The rigors and the preparation and the mental ability to handle week-in and week-out being a top-20 team,'' said Kelly, who believed the Bearcats began worrying about losing and stopped playing relaxed.
``It's new territory for us,'' the coach added. ``I think we've learned a lot about it.''
The same could be said for USF. The Bulls meteoric rise since joining the Big East two years ago has been one of the most compelling stories in college football. The Bulls launched their program from scratch a mere decade ago and - like Cincinnati - began the season unranked.
``We've had two real tough, gut-wrenching losses. ... It does test the character of your football team. It tests your will. It tests all the things, in essence, in your life when you deal with adversity,'' coach Jim Leavitt said.
Three weeks ago, it looked like Saturday's game at Raymond James Stadium could be for first place in the Big East and leave the winner in a nice position to chase a spot in the lucrative Bowl Championship Series.
Some of the anticipated luster may be gone, but it's still a very important game in the race for the conference title.
``Clearly from our standpoint, this is an elimination game, two teams with two losses,'' Kelly said. ``We're excited about going into November and having a chance to compete for the Big East championship.''
Leavitt echoed that sentiment.
Even when his Bulls were in the national title picture, the USF coach stressed the team's focus was not on the rankings or BCS standings but rather on trying to win the conference for the first time.
``November is a huge month. It always is,'' Leavitt said. ``You really want to play your best football during that stretch. That's something that is important for whatever team wants to make a big move throughout the conference.''
In the wake of consecutive losses that left some players in a funk, USF linebacker Ben Moffitt addressed teammates at last Monday's practice.
The message was simple: The Bulls are very much alive in the Big East, but there's no way they win the title if they don't stay together as a team.
``He just got up and told us that the past two weeks we may have let the media or the games that we've won get to our head, and we need to get back to the team that we were the first six games,'' defensive end George Selvie said.
``It was a great speech, and we all took it to heart,'' Selvie, the nation's sack leader, added. ``We know what we have to do now.''

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