Things have been looking up for South Florida head coach Willie Taggart. After entering the 2015 season with a 6-18 (5-11 AAC) record in his first two years, the Bulls are 4-3 (2-1) and winners of three straight, already with as many wins as they had the entire 2014 campaign.
Taggart has been able to breath a little easier during the month of October. But that could quickly change.
USF, needing two more wins to reach bowl eligibility — a feat that likely needs to be met in order for Taggart to remain in Tampa for at least another season — is preparing for the most difficult stretch of its American Athletic Conference schedule.
The Bulls, who head into Halloween weekend with a record above .500 for the first time since 2011 (started 4-0, finished 5-7), have a very difficult road ahead if they hope to extend their schedule into the postseason. Starting with a road game at Navy (5-1, 3-0) on Saturday to finish out the month, USF then plays at East Carolina (4-4, 2-2), vs. No. 21 Temple (7-0, 4-0), vs. Cincinnati (4-3, 1-2), and at Central Florida (0-8, 0-4).
It doesn’t take an expert to guess how many games USF is expected to win out of that bunch: one. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), the Bulls are projected to lose their next four games before finishing off the regular season with a consolation victory over rival UCF, which is still searching for its first win of the season.
If that proves to be the case, USF athletic director Mark Harlan — who was not the AD that hired Taggart back in 2013 — could be inclined to make a move a little early, sending Taggart packing not long after the Bulls become mathematically eliminated from bowl contention. That would come as early as November 21, which is the day after a Week 13 matchup with the Bearcats, and would give Harlan some extra time to search for the next candidate.
“I think you’ve got a bunch of guys that’s ready to settle some scores this year,” Taggart said back in early August, per the Tampa Bay Times. “THAT’S why you should go buy your tickets and want to be there, so you can say, ‘I was THERE when they turned it around.’ DON’T be that guy that wasn’t there. You’re gonna be ticked off, you’re gonna be so mad. I want you to BE there and BE loud and BE part of that turnaround.
“That’s one thing you will never see Coach T worry about — his job,” Taggart added.
Handing Navy its first ever conference loss on Saturday would be clear evidence of the South Florida turnaround, and would prove to be monumental for Taggart and company, serving as a motivational tool for the Bulls as they’d enter November needing just one more win.
USF has just a 27.3 percent chance to pull off the upset at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, but the Midshipmen enter as seven-point favorites, which isn’t a number that reflects what looks like a “sure win.” Taggart has the Bulls’ offense clicking on all cylinders, scoring 28 points or more in three straight games for the first time since he was hired.
A big reason for USF’s most recent success is the emergence of sophomore quarterback Quinton Flowers, who is 35-of-57 (61.4 percent) with 513 passing yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions over his last three games. Throw in 354 yards (6.7 ypc) and five more scores on the ground for him as well. The Bulls have averaged 37.0 points during this stretch, beating Syracuse, UConn, and SMU.
However, Navy’s defense ranks No. 2 in the American, allowing opponents to score just 19.2 points per game — 17.7 against conference opponents. ECU had won three of five before losing to UConn on Friday night (including another win against Virginia Tech) and lost to BYU and Temple by a combined 17 points. Temple is one of the three undefeated teams in the AAC and has an opportunity to upset Notre Dame on Halloween night. Cincinnati was the preseason favorite to win the conference; and, well, throw the records out when it comes to the War on I-4.
It’s difficult to predict where USF will be in a month from now, but if it doesn’t include the number “six” or higher in the win column, it’d be hard to imagine a scenario in which the Bulls aren’t in the market for a new head coach heading into the offseason.