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USF Bulls Preview: Foundation Is Fragile in Make-or-Break Year

Team: USF Bulls

2014 record: 4-8 (3-5 AAC)

Recap: Two years ago, Willie Taggart seemed like the perfect hire—he was one of the hottest coaching candidates in the nation after taking a Western Kentucky program that was 2-22 in the two seasons prior to his arrival (2008-09) and turning it into a bowl team by Year 3 (2012).

Now, there might not be another coach in the nation that is on a hotter seat heading into the 2015 campaign. USF is 6-18 during his tenure, and despite improving in the win column last season, you can make the argument that the Bulls actually got worse. (It beat Western Carolina, UConn, Tulsa, and SMU by a grand total of 17 points.)

Big-time changes were necessary, as Taggart blew up his coaching staff this offseason, while switching up schemes on both offense and defense. And if these don’t equate to the program’s first bowl appearance since 2010, he won’t be around to make any more in the near future.

Key player: Marlon Mack, So., RB

If there was one thing about the 2014 USF offense that wasn’t excruciatingly painful to watch, it was running back Marlon Mack. As a true freshman, Mack rushed for 1,041 yards (5.2 per carry) and nine touchdowns—though if you take out the season opener against Western Carolina, he finished with 766 yards (4.3 ypc) and five scores. Switching to an up-tempo spread should give the passing game a different look and could potentially open things up for Mack on the ground, but if not, Taggart needs to find new ways to get his best offensive player in open space.

15 November 2014: USF Bulls running back Marlong Mack (#5) during the American Athletic Conference college football game between the SMU Mustangs and the USF Bulls at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas, Texas.  SMU leads 13-0 at the half.

It may be another tough year for USF, but Marlon Mack will provide still plenty of highlights.

Biggest strength: Run defense … right?

Former Ole Miss linebackers coach Tom Allen was hired in the offseason to become the new defensive coordinator in Tampa, and he immediately started in on renovations—starting with a change to the 4-2-5. With a stout linebacker corps that features Nigel Harris, Tashon Whitehurst, and Auggie Sanchez, the run defense should see some slight improvement this fall. However, if the d-line isn’t able to produce a pass rush, offenses won’t need to run the ball, and they will continue to obliterate a secondary that ranked 9th in the conference in opponent passer efficiency rating (141.3).

Biggest weakness: Anything that has to do with throwing the ball

Last season, USF quarterbacks combined to complete less than half of their passes (for the second straight year!), posting just 6.5 yards per attempt, 11 touchdowns to 11 interceptions, and a 116th-ranked passer efficiency rating (107.6). And to make matters worse, their most experienced gunslinger left the program this offseason to join Western Kentucky, ironically enough. Taggart needed to do something to try and jumpstart an offense that has generated 15.4 points per game over the last two seasons, and a spread that focuses on its skill talent makes sense. But are Steven Bench and/or Quinton Flowers capable of running something that’s sure to be much more demanding than the smashmouth?

Most important game: vs. SMU (Oct. 24)

Outside of a road trip to UConn the week prior—which still doesn’t seem to be favorable in any shape or form for USF—this might be the Bulls’ only realistic chance at winning a conference game in 2015.

Best-case scenario: 5-7 (3-5)

Let’s say USF gets lucky here and there, sneaking by Syracuse at home in Week 6 and stealing one away from either ECU or Temple—surely not both—toward season’s end. Wins against Florida A&M, UConn, and SMU round things out. That’s it; barring a big upset, there aren’t any other feasible possibilities for another win. Will five W’s keep Taggart around for another year? It’s highly unlikely.

Worst-case scenario: 1-11 (0-8)

Assuming there’s no regular season opening scare against Florida A&M, a complete free-fall of 11 straight losses isn’t out of the question. (And hey, USF did struggle to put away Western Carolina last year.) Every team that serves as a possible “win” situation above is expected to experience some levels of improvement this fall, and there’s nothing that suggests the Bulls are ready for a breakout in Year 3.

Early prediction:
3-9 (1-7)

The second Taggart decided to oust three assistants that held major roles, he accepted the fact that was bracing for a make-or-break year. USF still has the look and feel of a team in transition and flux; while some positions could prove to be sturdy products, there are too many hurdles keeping the Bulls from any real progression. If USF starts the year 1-5 like this prediction would suggest, Taggart might be the first coached fired in 2015.

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