In the autonomy narrative consuming college football, USF is filed among the "have-nots," at least in an economic sense. If Alabama and Florida State are the Ali and Frazier of the moment, USF's in the cruiserweight division.
But strip away the business part — the dollars and cents and season-ticket sales and 24-hour league networks — and focus on the roster. At that point, one can't help but realize the Bulls are far wealthier in the "have" department than a season ago.
Physically, they have girth inside and speed on the flank. Internally, they have cohesion. In terms of offensive scheme, they have a clue.
And just as crucial, if not as conspicuous: They have a precedent.
Second-season turnaround? Willie Taggart has pulled it off before.
"And I feel like we're probably (more) ahead of schedule here than we were there," the Bulls coach said recently.
"There" is Western Kentucky. For those less familiar with Taggart-ology, the abridged version: In 2010, the former record-setting Hilltoppers quarterback returned to help resuscitate his alma mater, which had totaled two wins the previous two seasons.
After a 2-10 record in Taggart's first year as coach, WKU finished 7-5 in 2011, rebounding from an 0-4 start to win seven of its last eight.
"Basically, it was holding all the guys to a standard," recalled Tampa Bay Buccaneers tailback Bobby Rainey, who in 2011 was a WKU senior and the Sun Belt Conference offensive player of the year (1,695 rushing yards).
"In our situation, the standard wasn't that high from the previous years. When he got there, he set the bar real high. A lot of guys who were very competitive wanted to meet that standard, so we came together. We knew we wanted to be great, so we knew we had to do the things he wanted us to do."
Three autumns later, Taggart finds himself in a situation strikingly — if not eerily — similar.
The 2013 Bulls, like the '10 Hilltoppers, finished 2-10. Both teams relied on young quarterbacks — WKU sophomore Kawaun Jakes, USF true freshman Mike White — who didn't participate in spring practice. Both offensive lines gave up a litany of sacks (WKU 28, USF 33).
And at the end of those seasons, both coaching staffs scoured west central Florida for replenishments.
Of the 26 signees in WKU's 2011 class, ranked the best in the Sun Belt, 12 were from the Sunshine State. Six of those were from the Tampa Bay area.
Twenty-four members of the Bulls' most recent class, ranked the best in the American Athletic Conference, hail from Florida. Twelve are from the bay area.
"(Recruiting's) always the answer when you want to go in with your scheme and try to turn something around," said Bulls inside linebackers coach Raymond Woodie, a Hilltoppers assistant from 2010-12. "Coach Taggart came in with his plan and we stuck by the plan. The road was rocky, but we just kept pressing forward."
Fowler and Fletcher avenues haven't been much smoother to this point, but Taggart and Co. expected no different.
Recruiting and teaching are processes, and time is a prerequisite. While bringing in his own recruits, Taggart had to implement his own offensive system, a hybrid of the West Coast offense and power running game, with some option and zone-read principles interspersed.
This time last year, most of the Bulls had spent only a few months in the offense. In the case of White and fellow quarterback Steven Bench, it was only a few weeks. Recently, White said he finally has the system "down pat."
"I'm not making excuses for (Taggart), but he wasn't there with his guys (in '13)," Rainey said. "He had to deal with what he had. Now he has his guys in, some of the guys really know him, know the style he is and what he wants from his players. It'll be a big turnaround."
Bulls constituents who have experienced five total wins in the past two years are counting on it. If USF wants to become a "have" in every sense, it must win consistently, thereby attracting fans, revenue and maybe the attention of a power league.
It needs another Taggart turnaround.
"I feel like guys here have bought in to what we're trying to do a lot quicker than we did (at WKU)," Taggart said. "And we have players here that can play as well. But again, it's going to be a process, and everything is good now."
Times staff writer Greg Auman contributed to this report. Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.