South Florida Bulls
2015 Record: 8-5 overall, 6-2 American Athletic (Lost 45-35 to Western Kentucky in Miami Beach Bowl)
1 Burning Question: Can Willie Taggart and USF become a true contender after going 14-23 the last three seasons?
If the transformation doesn’t happen this season, then it never will at USF for the former Western Kentucky quarterback and coach.
That’s not taking away from the incredible resolve that his team showed after it started 1-4 last year and bounced back to win seven of its final eight regular season games.
Yet, the cold-blooded truth is that in the college football landscape — losing big when expectations are through the roof — is unforgiving.
If anyone knows that, it’s Willie Taggart.
Two seasons and five weeks into his tenure at USF, he sat on the hot seat with a 7-22 record in Tampa.
Two months later, he found himself interviewing for the vacant South Carolina job, which resulted in a new five-year deal with the Bulls after his team went 7-2 to end the season.
Heading into 2016, the expectations are higher than ever for a head coach that has a 30-43 career record over the last six seasons.
Say what you will about his overall record or past performances — his coaching performance wasn’t a fluke in 2015.
It’s that experience last year that has many, including myself, convinced that Taggart is the right fit to mold the Bulls into a contender in 2016 and beyond. USF will have an explosive offense this fall, welcoming back seven starters from a stellar unit that averaged more than 540 yards of total offense over the final four games of the regular season.
The only question marks are on defense, where a team that returns seven starters — including seven of its leading tacklers from a year ago — will have its third different coordinator in three seasons calling plays.
Tom Allen heads to Indiana, but promoted defensive coordinator Raymond Woodie still plans to run the same 4-2-5 alignment that made South Florida respectable in conference.
The AAC might be a pass-heavy league, but the teams that contend for titles do so with a potent running attacks. The Bulls, despite playing a pass-favored defensive formation, did a decent job of pushing the secondary to the point of attack.
USF had the fifth-best rushing total defensively in AAC play last season, with opposing offenses averaging just 151 yards on the ground. That average includes a 428-yard rushing performance by Navy — their second highest total all season.
In order to contend against the top echelon teams in the conference, USF will have to shore up their rush defense in big games.
2 Key Stats to Pay Attention to
1,976 — The amount of rushing yards the Bulls compiled in eight conference games last season. That was the third-best total in the AAC last season, behind the Navy Midshipmen and Houston Cougars. Navy ran the ball fifteen more times per game in conference play than anyone in the conference. South Florida averaged 247 yards per game on the ground in conference play. The only team to hold them under 170 yards was those same Midshipmen that out-rushed them. In total, 66 percent of the Bulls offense in 2015 came on the ground.
64 — This is the percentage of first downs that opposing offenses converted on 3rd down, with 1-3 yards to go. That ranked 97 out of 128 FBS schools last season. In 39 attempts in those situations, offenses gained 159 yards total and gained over four yards per carry, which ranked 81st. The Bulls did improve their rush defense at the end of the season, giving up less than 100 yards in three of their final four regular season games.
3 Key Games That Will Make or Break the Season
Full 2016 Schedule
9/3 — Towson
9/10 — Northern Illinois
9/17 — at Syracuse
9/24 — Florida State
10/1 — at Cincinnatti
10/8 — East Carolina
10/15 — Connecticut
10/21 — at Temple
10/28 — Navy
11/12 — at Memphis
11/19 — at Southern Methodist
11/26 — Central Florida
Saturday, September 24, vs. Florida State
Record in the Last 5 Meetings: 1-2
Last Year’s Result: L, 34-14
Why it matters: This is a rivalry game against a top five team that USF competed with for three quarters last season. This time, the Bull defense cannot be content with giving up nine yards per carry to Dalvin Cook — who scored three touchdowns on runs of 24, 37, and 74 yards.
After an even first half, the Seminoles punched USF straight in the mouth out of the locker room — scoring on all five of their second half possessions.
For USF, this game is about demanding respect from their rival and earning it from the national media, which won’t give it any chance to win at Raymond James Stadium. Head coach Willie Taggart said earlier this offseason that he feels like his team is the hunted and not the hunter in 2016.
That might be the case if they can pull off their second upset of Florida State at home in the last seven seasons.
Friday, October 21, at Temple
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 1-1
Last Year’s Result: W, 44-23
Why it matters: Nobody gave USF a chance when it defeated Temple at home in mid-November.
The Owls were coming off a tough loss to Notre Dame, but still were unblemished in AAC play heading into their match up after a win over Southern Methodist on the road.
Temple’s hopes of clinching the East Division crown on the road came to a screeching halt after USF used an interior rush attack to silence The Owls. USF ran for a then season-high 326 yards as Marlon Mack scored three touchdowns and paced a rushing attack that averaged 6.79 yards per carry.
So, why does a signature win for a program matter in 2016, especially with Temple expected to take a slight step back this season?
The road to an AAC Conference Championship must go through Philly.
Friday, October 28, vs. Navy
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 0-1
Last Year’s Result: L, 29-17
Why it matters: Revenge is the fuel that keeps a championship engine operating at full horsepower.
Navy embarrassed USF in nearly every facet of the game last season. The Midshipmen defense held the Bulls to just 62 yards rushing. The Bulls had just one offensive touchdown.
Marlon Mack, the stud of the green and gold rushing attack, was held to just 29 yards.
Keenan Reynolds punched in two touchdowns in the fourth quarter — both capping off ten play drives.
In total, the Midshipmen racked up 428 yards of rushing offense.
If USF plans to win the Eastern division title, they can’t have a letdown following their showdown with Temple the week before, regardless of whether it wins or loses in Philly.
4 Key Players
Marlon Mack, RB – The best rusher in the AAC is just 309 yards away from breaking the USF career rushing record, but it isn’t just stats that stick out about this highly-touted runner. His vision at the line of scrimmage ranks among the elites in college football. Look for coach Taggart to use him more than 17 times a game in 2016.
Quinton Flowers, QB – Houston’s Greg Ward casts a big shadow at quarterback for fellow conference signal callers to fill. Nobody does a better job than Flowers, who continues to improve his passing prowess. If he can add decision-making to his already athletic play-making ability, he will become elite in his final two seasons at USF.
Rodney Adams, WR –All the senior did last season was set the USF single-season record for receiving yards. Adams has game-changing speed and could be the first 1,000-yard receiver in school history if Taggart and the offensive coaching staff open up the passing game in 2016. Adams finished with 822 yards and 9 touchdowns last season. In addition to being the team’s top receiver, he’s a very dangerous as a runner on end around and sweep plays. He will also play a huge role on special teams as one of the best returners in the conference.
Auggie Sanchez, LB – There has to be at least one player to watch on defense right? If you put on the tape of USF football games, one player you’ll constantly see is ball-hawking linebacker Auggie Sanchez. He is literally the reason why USF can run two linebackers throughout games. The best interior linebacker in the conference, Sanchez becomes a super glue like adhesive in games. He has such a great form tackler that its nearly impossible for offensive players to get past him in running situations. Sanchez led the Bulls with 117 tackles last season.
5 Bold Predictions
5. Marlon Mack will finish as a top five rusher in the country
Last year, the offensive staff got a taste of what Marlon Mack can bring to the table. They also learned that controlling the line of scrimmage can pay dividends when it comes to winning consistently.
Mack averaged 17.5 carries a game last season. That will rise in 2016, as Taggart depends more on his running back to move the chains and his quarterback to sit more in the pocket and deliver the football.
With a non-conference slate that includes Towson, Northern Illinois, and Syracuse, he should put up some huge numbers.
4. Quinton Flowers will pass for over 2,500 yards, rush for 1,000, and score over 40 total touchdowns
Coach Taggart said that Flowers gave his team an identity last season. Now that the Bulls know who they are, I expect their leader to blossom as the face of a potential championship program.
Flowers definitely needs to improve on his footwork in the pocket and putting himself in the best position to make accurate throws. He doesn’t have the arm strength to always fire passes off his back foot, but if you give him time to make a play, he’ll capitalize on it.
If he can find consistency with pass plays in the pocket — he won’t just repeat as team MVP in 2016… he will rival Houston’s Greg Ward as the AAC Offensive Player of the Year.
3. The Stampede Defense will hold opponents to less than 135 yards rushing per game.
As much as people want to rip the 4-2-5 defense, it really clicked for South Florida last season.
The Bulls held opponents to 141 rushing yards per game, despite monstrous performances from Florida State’s Dalvin Cook (266 yards, three touchdowns) and the Navy offense putting up 400-plus yards on the ground.
It doesn’t hurt that they’ll face UConn, East Carolina, Cincinnati, SMU, and UCF. All finished in the bottom half of the conference in total rushing.
2. USF will finish 4-0 in non-conference play
Taking down Florida State will be the toughest task, but wins against Towson, Syracuse and Northern Illinois are well within reach.
After a 1-3 start a year ago, the Bulls should not be satisfied with anything more than three wins in non-conference play.
The Bulls should handle Towson, defeated Syracuse pretty dominantly last season, and should be favored against Northern Illinois.
Outside of the Seminoles, non-conference opponents went 19-18 last season.
The major test will be rival Florida State at home, a team that returns all eleven of its starters on offense.
Can South Florida relive the magic of 2009?
I tend to believe they have a really good chance of putting themselves in a position to win late.
1. The Bulls will play Houston in the AAC Championship game, with the winner playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl
Greg Ward vs. Quinton Flowers. Marlon Mack versus the best defensive line in the American Athletic Conference.
One of the best receiving corps in the conference, battling Deatrick Nichols and the South Florida secondary.
This is a dream matchup for any college football fan that loves athletic playmakers taking over ballgames.
The Bulls have a lot to prove in 2016 if they plan on building their program into a perennial challenger.
With the talent that will take the field this season, there is no reason South Florida can’t accomplish feats that seemed unobtainable just two a few years ago.
The Bulls proved in 2015 that they can compete with the best the AAC has to offer.
The next step is seeing how the stack up as a contender against the heavyweight champion of the conference.