Following yet another sluggish start to the season that featured a blowout loss to Maryland, it seemed that Willie Taggart’s short stay in Tampa was sure to be coming to an end. USF had begun Year 3 under Taggart with a 1-3 record — with three straight losses under its belt — and the head coach’s mark of 7-21 since joining the program turned into a heavy cloud hanging over his head.
But a few weeks later, and that 1-3 record quickly turned into 4-3. Fast-forward to December, and that 4-3 mark shaped up to be an 8-4 (6-2 American) record and a second-place finish in the AAC East Division, not to mention the program’s first bowl appearance since 2010.
To the surprise of many, USF has won seven of its last eight games, outscoring opponents 303-157 during that stretch. That also includes wins over then-No. 22 Temple, the conference preseason favorite Cincinnati, and in-state rival UCF by an average of 33.3 points — and all three came back-to-back-to-back to end the regular season.
The sudden surge was good enough to send the Bulls to the Miami Beach Bowl against Conference USA champion Western Kentucky (11-2, 8-0), as the two play later today, at 2:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. It was also good enough to award Taggart a five-year, $9 million contract extension so that he has the chance to ride the momentum in hopes of taking the program to the next level.
“We are very excited about the direction of our football program and the leadership, vision and enthusiasm that Coach Taggart has provided,” said USF athletic director Mark Harlan in a statement. “I’ve been so impressed with how he has created a winning culture in the classroom, in the community and on the field and he has never waivered from his belief in what he is building. This extension is well-earned and well-deserved.”
Whether the result of the bowl game is a win or a loss, USF’s 2015 season should be dubbed as a gigantic success. Expectations were to win six or seven games (achieving a winning record for the first time since 2010) and receive an invite to participate in postseason festivities; the Bulls, instead, went above and beyond, and nearly played in the American Athletic Conference championship.
They also have the opportunity to reach nine wins for the first time since 2007.
“We had a vision of what we could create at USF and I would like to thank the players, coaches and staff who believed in that vision and who came together to make it a reality,” Taggart said. “…We appreciate the Bulls fans, students and alumni who have taken Bulls Nation to places it has never been before.
“We are just getting started.”
Taggart has been praised for his ability to recruit, and now it seems as if all that work on the trail is starting to finally pay off. His No. 1, 1, and 2-ranked (in the AAC) recruiting classes from 2013-15 began to thrive on the field down the stretch this season, and it presents cause to believe that USF could be a title contender as soon as the 2016 season.
The Bulls should be returning 14 starters (seven offense; seven defense) next fall, and underclassmen fill 69 spots on the roster, meaning depth begins to become a huge advantage as the two-deep continues to develop and improve.
That includes offensive stars in quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack, who are both sophomores and will return to the field to make for one of the best tandems in the conference.
As a dual-threat, Flowers has totaled 2,906 yards (883 rushing) with a school record 31 touchdowns (10 rushing) and only eight interceptions. Meanwhile, Mack heads into the Miami Beach Bowl with a conference-leading 1,273 yards (6.6 ypc) and eight scores of his own. With another offseason to work on deficiencies and learn the system, both could be poised to put up gaudy numbers in 2016.
“Just seeing him in practice every single day and seeing him get better, I knew that kid was gonna be special,” senior left guard Thor Jozwiak said of Flowers, according to Joey Knight of the Tampa Bay Times. “I knew he was the guy, absolutely, from Day 1.”
With a good chunk of a starting lineup that ranks 40th nationally in scoring (33.5 points per game), t-29th in yards per play (6.32), 23rd in scoring defense (21.1), and 38th in yards allowed (361.2), coming back to resume football practices this offseason, USF has reason to believe it can build from its milestone-achieving 2015 season and take it one step further once the 2016 campaign begins next September: play for an AAC title.
Sometimes patience can pay off.