The Bulls began the campaign 2-0, highlighted by a thrilling 32-31 win on the road over Nevada. With that win it looked as if the Bulls' issues with finishing games might have come to an end.
That would not be the case though as after the solid start the Bulls won just one more game the rest of the season, while suffering a six-game losing streak. Several of those losses were tight, with defeats of four points or fewer to Ball State (31-27), at Louisville (27-25) and to Syracuse (37-36).
However coming close can only take you so far and with the Bulls finishing the season at just 3-9 and a paltry 1-6 in Big East action, once promising head coach Skip Holtz was fired and the Bulls are now forced to move in a different direction.
OFFENSE: In the wake of the Holtz era comes the regime of Willie Taggart. After serving in a number of roles as an assistant for Western Kentucky and Stanford from 1999-2009, Taggart got his first head-coaching gig in 2010 with the Hilltoppers. At his alma mater Taggart built quite a solid program with back-to-back 7-5 seasons in 2011 and 2012, while getting the team to its first bowl game ever last year.
Taggart isn't inheriting a ton of experience on the offensive side of the ball. Daniels smashed a number of school records and would likely have excelled under Taggart's tutelage. Unfortunately the former Bull is just that, leaving the starting quarterback position up for grabs.
The candidates to replace Daniels are senior Bobby Eveld, sophomore Matt Floyd and Taggart recruit Mike White. Floyd was the more productive performer as Daniels' backup last season. Floyd threw for 466 yards and completed 51.8 percent of his pass attempts. However, he was intercepted five times and did not throw for a touchdown. Eveld threw just eight passes. White completed 68.8 percent of his pass attempts and threw 22 touchdowns to just two interceptions in his senior season of high school.
Though the quarterback situation is still muddled, whoever wins out will have a solid go-to receiver to throw to in Andre Davis. The 6-foot-1 junior caught 46 passes for 534 yards and six touchdowns last season, all of which were team highs. In fact no other receiver had more than three touchdown receptions. The rest of the unit doesn't have the production of Davis, put players like D'Vario Montgomery have a ton of potential.
Austin Reiter and Quinterrius Eatmon are a pair of juniors that will lead the offensive line as the only returning starters. Both could make strides forward this season and if they do, it could open things up for the inexperienced backfield which is led by Marcus Shaw, who rushed for 248 yards last season.
DEFENSE: Taggart and his new defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan are inheriting a team that needs a complete makeover on the defensive end. Bresnahan will have his work cut out for him as the Bulls are coming off a season in which they ranked second to last in the Big East in scoring (274. ppg), rushing (149.9 ypg), passing (251.9 ypg) and total (401.8 ypg) defense. The Bulls were also horrific in creating turnovers with just a pair of interceptions all season and a turnover margin of -19, which was among the worst in the FBS.
The defense does have six returning starters so Bresnahan's job will be primarily turning experience into production. Up front Luke Sager and Ryne Giddins are a pair of seniors that can be disruptive. Giddins regressed in 2012 and will be trying to get back to his 2011 form when he had 11.0 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. Helping to fortify the defensive line will be Notre Dame-transfer Aaron Lynch, a former Freshman All-American.
The linebackers will be led by DeDe Lattimore, who is the de facto leader of the defense with 36 starts under his belt. Lattimore led the team in tackles for loss (7.5) and sacks (3.5) last season and is also the team's top returning tackler (76). Reshard Cliett had 40 stops last season and also has starting experience.
Both cornerback spots are open in the secondary where the Bulls desperately need better play. Ja'Quez Jenkins and Mark Joyce are both seniors that return as starters at safety but neither showed a ton of promise a year ago. The secondary could see a lot of moving parts all season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Marvin Kloss will enter his junior season with the unenviable task of replacing USF's all-time leading scorer, Maikon Bonari. Kross took care of kickoffs the last two seasons. Mattias Ciabatti will be the full-time punter. He had just one punt a year ago which went for 43 yards.
It is unclear how much Taggart will use Shaw in the return game with the senior the top option as starting running back. Shaw returned a team-high 10 kickoffs for a 24.5 yard average last season. Davis had just a 3.3 yards per return average on punts and will likely be shielded from those duties. Derrick Hopkins is the most likely replacement.
OUTLOOK: The Bulls were horrific in conference play in the last two seasons of the Skip Holtz era (2-14). To be fair, they were not much better in non-league action which led to Holtz's untimely departure. Enter Taggart, who is tasked with reinvigorating a once promising program.
"Our program is a sleeping giant. But we can't rely on anybody else to say that for us. It's on us to go out and do it. We've got to stop making excuses or blaming anyone else," Taggart said.
Taggart's first time on the sideline for the Bulls will be against a non-FBS squad in McNeese State. The schedule takes an abrupt turn in difficulty the following weeks when the Bulls travel to face Michigan State and then close out September against Miami-Florida. The league schedule begins with alternating home and away contests against Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville and then Houston. From there the Bulls play a pair of home contests before ending the season on the road against UCF and Rutgers.
This is the first year in a while that expectations surrounding South Florida aren't particularly high.
However Taggart has certainly kept them up in the locker room.
"You look at our schedule, and I think every game we have on our schedule is winnable," Taggart said. "Our intention is to win a championship. That's what we want to do. And we intend to do that."
Though Taggart's confidence is understandable for a first year coach looking to infuse enthusiasm into a stale program, if he can get this team to claw its way to postseason eligibility it would come as a bit of surprise. Taggart has the coaching chops to do it but he will need a ton of big improvements throughout the roster for the Bulls to be a real threat in the American Athletic Conference.