News broke this morning that USF Bulls Coach Willie Taggart would be leaving Tampa, Fla. for the Oregon Ducks’ job. Just 15 months ago, the Bulls’ head man was on the hot seat. Then he went and beat a 3-1 Syracuse team 45-24 in 2015. Since then, the team has gone 16-4 and was knocking on the door of the program’s ceiling as a perennial 10-win contender in the AAC.
The question now, for Syracuse, is whether the two-game series from 2015-16 was timed poorly or correctly.
I’ve been a long-time proponent of easier scheduling for the Orange, obviously. And while that started as a call to avoid playing two or three Power Five teams per year in non-conference play, it extended to a plea to avoid AAC teams as well.
The AAC is the country’s top “Group of Five” conference and has proven itself as a breeding ground for top coaching talent. If you schedule one of the AAC’s better programs — Houston, USF, UCF, East Carolina (most years), or a host of others — you’re in the no-win situation of being an underdog but still being expected to win. The simple narrative of college football says a P5 school should beat a G5 school, even if it’s clear the G5 school is a better team.
For the past two years, the Bulls have been a better team than Syracuse, and it’s showed on the scoreboard. The combined score of the games? 90-44.
So while the initial thought may be that SU timed this series wrong (if they insisted on having it at all), that also assumes that USF is done competing at his high of a level.
Long a tease in terms of national contention while in the Big East, the Bulls made a habit of hot starts and poor finishes in the mid-2000s. In 2007, they rose to second in the polls, only to fade down the stretch. When program architect Jim Leavitt departed, USF was handed off to Skip Holtz, who ran things into the ground. Taggart didn’t appear to be doing much better, starting 6-18. But he was steadily raising the talent level and stature of the team.
Looking at the Bulls now, I’m not sure they’re going to come down from this high.
Sure, there may be blips of rebuilding and a year or two of roster turnover that occur. But the program appears to be on solid footing once again, whether that Big 12 invite ever comes or (probably) not. Reports on Wednesday morning already said the school would be pursuing Alabama offensive coordinator (and former USC and Tennessee head coach) Lane Kiffin as its top priority to replace Taggart.
As long as they’re in the AAC and not the Big 12 or the ACC, USF will have a ceiling. But that ceiling’s still higher than nearly any other G5 program’s, and it makes them a dangerous opponent any season. Despite how badly Syracuse lost to the Bulls these last couple years, it’s still a fair bet that the best is yet to come for South Florida. The Orange may have ended up dodging a bullet after all.