Every year that coach Willie Taggart has been at the helm of USF, the team has faced doubt.
Maybe it was the team not picking up his playbook quick enough in Year 1, or the staff turnover through Year 2, or maybe just the lack of any real success.
In his first offseason, fans were filled with hope that he’d turn things around from the start.
The next season, same hype, same results.
But then came last season — a season that saw the same man some had already written off, holding the exit door open with a smile, suddenly awaken the Bulls, who rattled off seven wins in their final nine games.
That remarkable charge that Taggart shot through the USF community has once again filled the loyal fans in green and gold with peaked expectations of what is to come in 2016.
“Just remind them of last year, remind them of what all them people were saying about us last year,” Taggart said. “They picked us fifth in the conference, coach T wasn’t going to be here and all those things they said, we did the total opposite. We warned them what was going to happen this year: everyone’s going to praise you with pats on the back.
But with fans, media and most of the country now backing the Bulls as college football’s sleeping giant, can USF answer the call?
“That’s what we came here for, to build those expectations like coach T’s always said,” senior receiver Rodney Adams said at USF’s fall media day. “We’re going to try to play up to those expectations and exceed those expectations so that we can continue to build our legacy and build the program up.
“We embrace them, but we don’t focus on them because we’re trying to exceed those expectations.”
Despite players deflecting the notion of this season carrying any extra weight, it is the intangible factor that will be nipping at their heels.
For five years, USF has yearned for national relevance with little reward. Now that they have all the makings for what could be the program’s finest hour, the pressure is at an all-time high.
But this time, USF needs to thrive.
“I was here when we were 2-10, I was here when we were 4-8,” senior safety Nate Godwin said. “I was here when we were losing, so just the fact that we’re winning, it doesn’t change our mentality.
“We’re still going to grind. Just because people are patting our backs, we do appreciate it, but we’re still going to go hard. We want more, we’re not satisfied with where we’re at now.”
On offense, USF returns a wealth of weapons in Quinton Flowers, Marlon Mack and Adams — to name a few. But Taggart also gets to brandish some new toys as well.
The much-awaited debut of speedy N.C. State transfer Marquez Valdez-Scantling is moments away and with the 6-foot-5 matchup nightmare in Elkanah “Kano” Dillion getting a second crack at a breakout season, opposing defenses will be forced to cover every inch of the field.
Defensively, longtime assistant Raymond Woodie is finally in his rightful place as the mind behind USF’s “Bull Shark” defense.
Running the same scheme that former coordinator Tom Allen saw success with last season, Woodie looks to do much of the same.
But it all comes down to how the Bulls handle the pressure. It will be what they tout hoisting the conference trophy in December , or the excuse they point to if they’re watching the game at home.
“I think nobody’s expectations are as high as ours,” junior linebacker Auggie Sanchez said. “I mean you get people talking about us wanting to do all this stuff. It’s not just you guys that want us to do all this, we want it for ourselves, we want to do it for USF. We’re setting these expectations just like everyone else is. Our goal is a conference championship, if we don’t achieve that goal then we kind of failed.”
It’s now or never for USF. Want to be mentioned among the top-tier programs in the country?
Prove you belong.