In a switch, USF is playing catch up
Three short seasons ago, USF rejoiced following an overtime victory over Miami, proof once again the commuter school in Tampa could take down one of the traditional powers in the state.
Miami promptly fired coach Randy Shannon. Losing to USF? Simply unacceptable at a program with five national championships. Unacceptable at Florida State, too. The Noles also lost to USF, in 2009, in what turned out to be Bobby Bowden's final season.
Those two victories stand as signature moments in USF history. But as the Bulls prepare to host No. 15 Miami on Saturday, there have been fewer moments to rejoice. USF is 0-3 for the first time in school history. Signature moments instead have become cringe-worthy moments.
Indeed, a program that once put up a billboard proclaiming itself a part of the "Big 4" in Florida has had little to brag about since that win over Miami.
To make matters worse, USF fans have had to watch bitter rival UCF -- just 90 miles down Interstate 4 in Orlando -- emerge as perhaps the second-best team in the American Athletic Conference. The Knights are off to their first 3-0 start as an FBS program and host No. 12 South Carolina on Saturday, fresh off a win at Penn State in Week 3.
The seeming flip-flop the programs have made is particularly stunning when you consider where USF has been. The Bulls once climbed as high as No. 2 in the national rankings, not UCF. They have the wins over Florida State and Miami, not UCF. They have the wins over UCF, too, dominating the nascent series 4-0 before the series ended in 2008.
In other words, USF always has lorded over UCF like the know-it-all big brother -- older, wiser and worldlier. For the first time, though, UCF is expected to be the overwhelming favorite to win when the teams play in Orlando on Thanksgiving weekend.
Nobody could have predicted that the last time they met. But nobody could have predicted the tumult that would unfold for the Bulls. USF is on its third coach since 2008, and a combination of coaching instability and indifference on the recruiting trail has severely hampered any progress toward building a championship team. It is now up to Willie Taggart to turn around the flagging fortunes.
"It's a matter of our guys believing in ourselves and playing for each other," Taggart said in a recent phone interview. "Whenever you have a program that's not winning a lot of games, I don't feel that's a team that cares a lot about each other. I felt that way about our team here. We've been trying in every way possible to get our guys to understand that. The way they play is like a gift to their teammates. They have to play for each other and enjoy being out there and working hard enough to do the things that it takes to win ball games."
Preseason hype has been a yearly staple, based on talent and potential. USF has posted big nonconference wins against its in-state brethren, Notre Dame and Auburn. But the Bulls never could piece together the important conference wins. They never have finished higher than third in the Big East or Conference USA.
Still, coaches, players and fans always could count on a winning season -- and an edge over UCF. Until 2011. USF has been mired in muck it has been unable to shake, losing 15 of its last 19 games.
Taggart brought energy, passion and enthusiasm when he took over for Skip Holtz. But those intangibles only get you so far when you do not have the talent to stop the losing. USF has had five turnovers converted into defensive touchdowns in its first three games and has had a revolving door at quarterback.
"Not in a million years would we have thought we'd be 0-3 right now," Taggart said. "There were games we felt like we should have won, and we didn't play well. I think with our football team and where we're at mentally, we can't go into games thinking we should just win. Everybody is going to bring their A game against us. We're not that team we used to be. No one really fears us anymore. We have to get to that point by the way we play football."
Meanwhile, UCF has what USF does not -- coaching stability, recruiting success and championships. The Knights once struggled for winning seasons and consistency, but they won 10 games last season and 11 in 2010. Coach George O'Leary credits depth and better players for the upward tick.
The biggest challenge in building his program has been convincing recruits that UCF is a place they can flourish. You can point to the UCF recruiting class of 2010 as perhaps a turning point for the program. Eight players from that class are starters, including quarterback Blake Bortles and three offensive linemen.
"Right now, the kids are just interested in initials, SEC, ACC that's all they want to talk about," O'Leary said. "But I keep telling them that you can take two or three teams from each of those conferences, and that's the conference. The rest of them are just members. I truly believe that. We may not have as much good depth as other people, but I think we can line up and compete against pretty much everybody that we play."
Both O'Leary and Taggart said they have not paid too much attention to what has gone on outside their campuses. But it is hard to believe they are oblivious, considering they are within close proximity, under the same conference umbrella and general competitors with fanbases that are sworn enemies.
UCF and USF do compete sometimes for recruits. Linebacker Terrance Plummer had USF No. 1 on his board before changing his mind and signing with UCF, because he never got the sense that the Bulls truly wanted him.
"I saw UCF as an up and coming program that was winning games," Plummer said. "Both had beautiful campuses, but I loved the family atmosphere at UCF, and Coach O'Leary was straight up with me told me I'd get my degree, and if I wanted playing time I'd have to earn it."
Taggart believes his team will start winning games as soon as it cuts out all the mistakes and plays more efficiently on offense. USF has the facilities and the fertile recruiting ground to win. It also has a coach with a simple sales pitch: Have faith.
"Do you know what faith is?" Taggart says. "Faith is believing without evidence. I can't show you evidence right now, but have faith."
Former players do. Jerrell Young made a key interception for USF in its win over Miami three years ago to send the game into overtime, one of the best plays in his college career. He was a redshirt the year the Bulls climbed up to No. 2 and saw USF make four bowl trips in his career.
He plans on being on the sideline Saturday to cheer on his former teammates, with faith in the future.
"It's going to happen again," Young said. "There's so much talent in Florida. They have a lot of talent on the team; it's about fitting all the pieces together, getting everybody on the same page. When they do that, the sky's the limit."
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