At the preseason football media day before the season, coach Willie Taggart told the crowd gathered in the Lee Roy Selmon Athletics Center that a bowl game was one of the team’s top goals for the season.
“I wouldn’t say ‘bowl game or bust’, but bowl game’s a must,” Taggart said.
Throughout the season, it remained a goal, but a distant one. Fans likely weren’t expecting the Bulls to qualify for a bowl game only one year after Taggart’s disastrous first season. But Taggart is only teasing the fans along with aspirations of bowl games.
“I saw this team making a bowl game from the beginning of the year,” Taggart said after the loss against Houston. “That’s our goal and it’s still there, so we’re going to get back to work and find a way to make that happen and not give up or think that it’s not (going to happen) because we didn’t play well (Saturday). We have to play better if we want to get that.”
He did admit that, to achieve these goals, USF has to dramatically step up its play over the final stretch of the season.
The Bulls have given up a combined 61 points in their last two losses including a nearly unbelievable 590 yards against the Bearcats in Week 8. As the unit has regressed from its status as a top-25 defense in 2013, the offense has fallen flat on its face as well.
But Taggart’s declaration of faith in his football team Saturday night wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic as his pre-season predictions.
With only three games remaining on the schedule, the Bulls (3-6, 2-3) will have to win out to qualify for a bowl game. While not impossible, it’s unlikely a team that has only been able to win two games since the season opener against Western Carolina will suddenly be able to win three consecutive games.
USF will have a bye week to prepare for the struggling Mustangs. SMU (0-7, 0-3) is still in search of its first win and has been held below seven points five times this season. No matter how poorly the Bulls play, it’s difficult to imagine them losing to the Mustangs, who are ranked dead last in the country in total defense and second to last in total offense. Only Wake Forest has produced fewer yards per game.
But after SMU, the Bulls must play two of the top teams in the AAC: one a road game against Memphis (5-3, 3-1) and the other a rivalry game at home against UCF (5-3, 3-1).
With the current state of the offense, the Bulls won’t be able to close out their final three games. USF didn’t come remotely close to scoring a touchdown against Houston.
But that’s not to say there hasn’t been progress made this season.
USF took a tie or led heading into halftime twice against the No. 19 team in the country.
The 2013 Bulls would have needed a running clock after halftime.
Taggart has turned promising freshmen from last season such as Nigel Harris, who leads the nation in forced fumbles, and Johnny Ward, who leads the team in interceptions, into reliable starters, but the rest of the team has yet to catch up to speed.
When lofty goals are set for fans, frustration comes more quickly with the losses. Taggart said after the game Saturday, he knows how the fans are feeling and pleaded with them not to lose faith.
“I tell them I understand it and rightfully so,” Taggart said. “I tell them keep the expectation up, keep the fire. I think that’s one of the great things about this job is we have a passionate fan base. And I think that’s one of the reasons we’re going to get out of this and get to where we’re going because of that. If we didn’t have that with our fan base, I don’t think we stand a chance.”
Taggart knows the importance of having loyal and passionate fans, but for every goal he falls short on, the fans lose patience. That could go for recruits as well.
Taggart can offer playing time and the glory of rebuilding a program for now, but if USF continues to falter week after week, things may turn from ‘bowl game’s a must’ to bowl game or bust.