TAMPA — USF football coach Jeff Scott’s latest double-digit loss felt like a tipping point. Not necessarily for his Bulls, but for a fan base whose simmering frustration has finally boiled over.
Scott deserved the benefit of the doubt entering last weekend. His 1-8 first season came during the pandemic as new coaches faced unprecedented challenges in setting their foundation. His 1-3 non-conference record this year was expected with a tough schedule.
But losing 48-28 to East Carolina in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated? That was enough to invite serious discussions about his future.
USF is 4-22 since Scott took over in December 2019. Since then, only seven other teams have four or fewer wins; six have new coaches this year, and the other (Arizona) has a second-year coach.
The Bulls’ .154 winning percentage under Scott is ahead of only UMass (.095) and Florida International (.143). UConn passed the Bulls last week by beating Fresno State.
Scott has only one victory over a Division I-A opponent (last year against Temple). That’s tied for last with UMass, FIU and UConn.
Of Scott’s 22 losses, 16 were by at least a dozen points. Only UMass and Louisiana Monroe have more.
Eleven of his conference defeats have been by at least 12 points. The only programs with more are Duke, Kansas, Vanderbilt and Temple — all schools that have made coaching changes during Scott’s tenure.
Scott said he wants his team to ignore outside criticism and focus on “what we know is the truth.”
Scott’s truth falls into three buckets, starting with the competition. USF was favored to lose by at least two scores in all four defeats.
“Let’s don’t walk around and act like we’re favored in all these games, and we’ve just been losing all these games,” Scott said.
But let’s not act like the Bulls acquitted themselves well in all those games, either. Though the win/loss record doesn’t account for the opponent, ESPN’s SP+ analytics do. USF ranks 104th out of 131 teams.
Though Scott is 13-13 overall against the spread (according to the betting site OddsShark), his Bulls are 1-4 this year:
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· BYU: 11½-point underdogs, lost by 29.
· Howard: Favored by 39½, won by 22.
· Florida: 23½-point underdogs, lost by 3.
· Louisville: 15½-point underdogs, lost by 38.
· East Carolina: 9½-point underdogs, lost by 20.
The odds lead to questions. Why, in Scott’s third season, were the Bulls two-score underdogs against East Carolina? Why are they four-touchdown underdogs this week against another conference foe, No. 24 Cincinnati? It’s a product of the opponent, yes, but also his team’s performances, the roster he has assembled and the decisions he and his staff have made. And even if you adjust for Vegas’ expectations, USF is underachieving.
The second bucket of Scott’s truth centers on injuries: 11 players with starting experience were out against the Pirates.
Though every team battles injuries, USF’s bad luck has been extreme. Scott said it’s not an excuse because he and his staff must coach the backups better, and those backups must execute better. Does any of that adequately explain falling behind 41-7 to East Carolina?
The final bucket of Scott’s truth deals with administrative alignment and turnover that put the Bulls behind in facilities, infrastructure and culture. When Scott was hired, he was USF’s fifth coach in 12 years. The Bulls have had three athletic directors and three presidents since 2009.
That’s not a recipe to create or sustain success at a program that hasn’t experienced much of it. But does it justify giving Scott more time?
Where do things go from here?
Athletic director Michael Kelly is on record that Scott’s job is safe through at least next season. There is no indication that he or other administrators have changed their stance.
Kelly has called Scott a “fundraising partner” as the Bulls upgrade facilities, and Scott has upgraded the talent level slightly (from 69th nationally to 66th, according to 247Sports).
On Tuesday, Scott pointed to a few areas of on-field growth. The passing game has improved over five games. The run defense had its best showing against East Carolina and, until last week, the Bulls were doing a better job of preventing deep passes.
But Scott admittedly has no answers for USF’s biggest problem: glacially slow starts. The Bulls ranked outside the top 100 nationally in first-half scoring offense and defense in Scott’s first two years and have gotten worse; they’re 119th in offense and dead last in defense. Their average halftime deficit this year against I-A teams: 33-7.
Firing Scott would lead to other questions, beyond paying for his buyout (which is unclear because it would likely involve the private USF Foundation). If the Bulls axed three of their last four coaches after three seasons, how attractive would the job be? And how much would another coaching change set the program back?
When Scott presented his case for patience Tuesday, he cited Mark Stoops, who began his Kentucky tenure with three losing seasons before becoming the winningest coach in program history.
“In today’s society, shoot, two and a half years, they’re pushing reset, right?” Scott said. “Well, I’m sure (Kentucky is) pretty glad that they held on.”
But Stoops started his third year 4-1, not 1-4, and upset nationally ranked Missouri. Stoops was showing progress Scott has not yet shown.
We found 11 recent coaches with comparable records to Scott and a similar number of double-digit conference losses. Nine of them were fired immediately or eventually, including UConn’s Randy Edsall and Colorado’s Jon Embree.
One exception was Eastern Michigan’s Chris Creighton, who matched Scott’s 4-22 record through 26 games. In his third year, he guided the Eagles to their first winning season in two decades. Since then, Creighton is 30-32.
The other was San Jose State’s Brent Brennan, who started 4-22 and lost his debut to Charlie Strong’s Bulls. Brennan earned national coach of the year honors in 2020 after leading the Spartans to the Mountain West title. He’s 15-9 over the last three seasons.
But another example jumps out, too, from a school that put two coaches on our comparison list. Like USF, this program crashed after its 2007 zenith. Like USF, it has had tremendous turnover (five coaches and four ADs since 2010).
Unlike USF, it has risen back into the top 25 and is hosting ESPN’s “College GameDay” this week.
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