Sunday, January 26, 2014

Even the Losers: South Florida

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. Our third team we feature is South Florida.

South Florida

2013 Record: 2-10 (2-6 American)

Summary: Under new head coach Willie Taggart, the Bulls began the season rather inauspiciously, losing to IA McNeese State, by 32 points. They followed that up with an expected road loss at Michigan State before coming home and losing by 18 points to 'little brother' Florida Atlantic. In their final non-conference game, Miami beat them by four touchdowns. Just when it looked like the Bulls would struggle to win any games in the American Athletic Conference, the Bulls found less conventional ways to score. They returned a block field goal and a fumble against Cincinnati and held on for a six point win. They returned another fumble for a score the following week against Connecticut in a three point win. After their first two league games, the Bulls stood 2-0 with zero offensive touchdowns. They Bulls proceeded to lose their final six league contests with each coming by at least ten points save for an inexplicable close loss to eventual league champ and Fiesta Bowl winner UCF.

What Did the Bulls Do Well?
The Bulls were actually quite competent on defense in 2013. Though they allowed over 28 points per game (tied for 74th nationally), this was primarily due to the fact that the offense continually put the defense in unenviable positions with their general ineptitude. Opposing defenses also scored eight touchdowns on returns (five interception and three fumble) against the woeful offense. As a point of reference, the offense managed just eleven touchdowns of their own all season. In terms of yards allowed per game, the Bulls ranked 21st nationally, permitting an average of 351 per contest. I don't think they were quite that good, but they did rank a respectable fifth in the American in both yards allowed per play and touchdowns allowed.

What Didn't the Bulls Do Well?
It has been said many times, in many ways, but I'll say it again, the Bulls were terrible at all facets of offense. The Bulls scored just eleven offensive touchdowns in twelve games (with three coming in the first game against McNeese State). That means they managed just offensive eight touchdowns in their last eleven games. The eleven offensive touchdowns they managed is the lowest by any IA team since at least 2006. The Bulls accrued just 154 first downs in 2013, the lowest in the nation. If you ever want to see a clinic on how not to play offensive football, look no further than the 2013 Bulls.

The Bulls Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists South Florida's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference South Florida played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Bulls averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Bulls allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.
In 2010, South Florida, reeling from the player abuse scandal under former coach Jim Leavitt, hired an established mid-major coach, Skip Holtz, to lead their program. After a 3-3 start, the Bulls won five of their final seven games, including a bowl upset over Clemson and appeared to be headed for if not great, at least good things under the younger Holtz. The Bulls did lose three players from that team in the 2011 NFL Draft, but opened the 2011 season 4-0. Included in the early season highlights, was a win at Notre Dame Stadium. However, after the 4-0 start, the fates conspired against the Bulls. They won just once the rest of the season, with five of the losses coming by six points or fewer, and four coming by exactly three points. Despite improved statistical numbers, the Bulls caught no breaks and finished with their first losing season since 2004 and just the second in the school's short history. All indicators pointed toward 2012 being a bounce-back year, but the Bulls regressed again losing nine of their final ten games after a 2-0 start. Skip Holtz was canned and Willie Taggart was brought in to lead the Bulls back to respectability. Unfortunately for Taggart, quarterback B.J. Daniels, who played for what seemed like three presidential cycles, exhausted his eligibility, and no competent quarterbacks emerged. The offense endured one of the worst seasons in recent memory, and well, here we stand with South Florida coming off three consecutive losing seasons and sporting a 6-26 mark since opening 2011 4-0.  

The 2014 Schedule:
While we do not yet know the eight opponents South Florida will face from the American, we do know the identity of their four non-conference foes. South Florida opens the season at home against Western Carolina. While the Bulls did lose in grisly fashion to McNeese State last season, Western Carolina is a bad IAA team, finishing 2-10 last year and not winning more than three games in any season since 2005. A win here is all but assured. The Bulls also host Maryland and NC State in non-conference action. Maryland qualified for a bowl game last season, but is hardly an elite program. Meanwhile, NC State went winless in the ACC last year. The Bulls should be competitive in both contests and a sweep would not be out of the question. Their final non-conference game is a trip to Madison to face the Badgers of Wisconsin. This one will be infinitely more difficult to win. Realistically, South Florida fans should expect nothing worse than a split of their non-conference games, and a 3-1 mark should not raise many eyebrows. With at least two wins banked, the Bulls would just need to break even in the American to qualify for a bowl, a task that is not impossible considering the American is more like Conference USA's big brother.

Reasons for Optimism:
Willie Taggart and regression (progression) to the mean. There is no denying South Florida has a long way to go, particularly on offense, to return to the postseason. However, Taggart has already engineered one gigantic turnaround in his career.
In his first season at Western Kentucky, the Hilltoppers were IA neophytes with a very bad offense. The Hilltoppers ranked last in the Sun Belt in yards per play (though they were a more respectable sixth in touchdowns). In Taggart's second season, the Hilltoppers moved all the way up to third in the Sun Belt in yards per play and second in touchdowns. The team went 7-1 in the league and were bowl eligible for the first time (though they were snubbed in the postseason). Last season South Florida was historically bad on offense, at least in regards to scoring touchdowns. They struggled to move the ball, but realistically could have been expected to score three or four more touchdowns in 2013. Like historically great performances, historically poor performances are hard to repeat. Thankfully, for teams like South Florida, regression pulls both ways. Even with minimal offensive improvement, the Bulls can expect to score between twice and three times as many touchdowns in 2014.

Final Prognosis:
Believe it or not, the pieces are in place for a return to the postseason for South Florida. The Bulls experienced a lot of growing pains in Willie Taggart's fist season, but he has far more resources at his disposal than at his previous stop at Western Kentucky. The offense simply cannot be as bad as it was last season, opposing defenses cannot score as many times off of returns, and the conference itself gets a little bit weaker. I wouldn't place a large sum of money on South Florida winning the American in 2014, but a return to respectability seems likely.

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