The Daily Nole

Taggart Turnarounds: South Florida

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Although most were expecting a smoother transition, 2018 showed Florida State fans that head coach Willie Taggart has his work cut out for him.

While Taggart did not achieve anything close to what fans had hoped for in 2018 and put his future in Tallahassee significantly more in doubt than when he was first hired, the situation did prove to be more of a rebuild than initially thought — although talent isn’t the issue. Rebuilding programs, fortunately, has been Taggart’s forte.

After a 3-year stint at Western Kentucky in which he led the Hilltoppers to two winning seasons and their first bowl appearance as an FBS program, Taggart left to come closer to home. Following the 2012 season, the Bradenton native became head coach at South Florida.

The Bulls had gained nationally credibility with wins over the likes of Auburn, Florida State, Clemson and Miami and actually ascended to No. 2 nationally in 2007 under Jim Leavitt — who would become Taggart’s defensive coordinator at his next stop. In the two seasons prior to Taggart’s arrival however, the Bulls had losing seasons under Skip Holtz.

As was the case with Florida State this past season, things did not get immediately better under Taggart. After going 5-7 in 2011 and 3-9 in 2012, Taggart’s tenure began with an embarrassing home loss to FCS McNeese State, 53-21. By the end of September 2013, the Bulls were 0-4 in Taggart’s first season.

USF finally broke through with consecutive wins over Cincinnati and Connecticut to improve to 2-4, but that would be the final victories of the season. South Florida finished the year 2-10 under Taggart and failed to score more than 26 points in any game.

In 2013, South Florida doubled its win total, improving to 4-8, but the offense remained putrid. The Bulls scored more than 20 points just once against FBS competition and Taggart would enter the 2015 campaign squarely on the hot seat.

The early parts of 2015 looked to be more of the same as the Bulls started just 1-3 although they were remotely competitive with the likes of Florida State, Maryland and Memphis. By the time the calendar turned to October, Taggart’s new “Gulf Coast Offense” fueled by the backfield of quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack had hit its stride and USF as a program was on the verge of turning a corner.

The Bulls would close the regular season by winning seven of their final eight games. That streak began with a 45-24 victory over Syracuse. The lone blemish was a 29-17 loss to Navy. The hot streak to end the season included a 44-23 thumping of No. 19 Temple. That would serve as the only regular season conference loss for the Owls, who finished as American Athletic Conference runners-up.

South Florida would lose to Western Kentucky in the Miami Beach Bowl, but the strong finish and final record of 8-5 set up a 2016 campaign that would be the best in program history. In what would be Taggart’s final season at South Florida, the Bulls notched their first-ever 10-win season and tied for the American Athletic Conference’s East division title with Temple.

Temple served as the Bulls’ only loss in conference and would go on to defeat Navy for the AAC crown. South Florida finished 10-2 during the regular season with the only other blemish coming in a 55-35 shootout to Florida State.

Taggart would leave for Oregon prior to the Birmingham Bowl match-up with South Carolina. Although Taggart wasn’t around, the Bulls topped the Gamecocks, 46-39, to set a new program record with 11 wins and finish in the AP top 25 for the first time ever at No. 19.

Over his final two seasons in Tampa, the USF rushing offense ranked in the top 10 nationally both times. In 2016, the Bulls ranked fifth nationally in rushing, 11th in total offense and fourth in scoring.

Taggart left South Florida with its best season ever. Under successor Charlie Strong, the Bulls enjoyed similar success in 2017 while keeping Taggart’s offensive system. South Florida finished with 10 wins, a second straight Birmingham Bowl title and a No. 21 national ranking.

Given FSU’s rich football history, fans likely won’t be as patient with Taggart in Tallahassee as they were in Tampa, but what should be encouraging is that like this past season, Taggart initially moved the program back in terms of wins before taking the program to heights never before experienced. “New heights” seems virtually impossible at FSU, but his tenure at USF should provide some hope that the 5-7 campaign in 2018 is not the new normal.

Mike Ferguson is the editor of The Daily Nole. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson

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