People in the state of Florida are gearing up for Decision 2018 — oh, and also the upcoming elections.
Yes, for college football fans in the Sunshine State, the big moment of truth this November is focused on this unfolding drama: whether the UCF Knights will remain unbeaten and #ChargeOn to a second straight “New Year’s Six” bowl against a Power 5 conference school with a glossy brand name?
UCF’s attempt to pull off the NY6 double play — becoming the first Group of 5 team to make back-to-back appearances in a signature bowl since the new postseason format began in 2014 — is an important national story. It also will affect McKenzie Milton’s chances of getting an invitation to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Tua Tagovailoa is the runaway favorite for the award, even at this relatively early juncture in the journey to December 8 in New York, but Milton has a strong chance at a ticket to the Downtown Athletic Club if he runs the table for a second straight regular season.
The team which might have the best chance of standing in UCF’s path is the other Florida-based team in the American Athletic Conference. South Florida engaged UCF last year in a classic game — probably a better game than the AAC title game against Memphis a week later. The Bulls played their best game of the year BY FAR… and still lost to the Knights in Orlando.
USF was not unbeaten in that game, but it had only one loss, meaning that a win over UCF would have given USF the AAC East Division title and a chance to win the conference championship against Memphis. In that 2017 season, Charlie Strong led the Bulls through several close shaves. The team didn’t figure to be in UCF’s league, but it played the Knights on even terms and left a memorable imprint on a quality season.
This year, we could very easily see the same scenario. So many stars are aligning… but there is reason to pump the brakes on the optimism surrounding the 2018 edition of USF-UCF, this time in Tampa.
As in 2017, USF is dodging landmines left and right.
Georgia Tech, Illinois, East Carolina, and most recently, Tulsa have all made USF sweat... but the Bulls found the magic needed to pull off a trick and somehow emerge alive from two sets of chains in a box placed underwater. USF is once again the best escape artist in the AAC. The hope in Tampa is that this team can find a higher gear so that it won’t continue to live on the edge.
The problem: After this Saturday, USF and UCF — but especially the Bulls — will not face an easy schedule. USF plays Connecticut Saturday while UCF faces East Carolina. Those are the last layups for these teams. Then, the slate gets much harder.
UCF has to prepare for everyone’s best shot, as anyone would naturally expect for a team with a target on its back. However, UCF gets the biggest non-USF contests of the season at home. USF is the team which could lose more than once before the UCF finale, which would take the air out of the balloon and force the Bulls to be nothing more than a spoiler in late November.
Whereas UCF gets Cincinnati (an unbeaten team) and Temple (unbeaten in AAC play) at home, USF must face those two teams on the road, in what will likely be cold November conditions. USF also has to go to Houston, where the Cougars are not easy to beat. USF had a great team in 2016, but it could not solve Temple in Philadelphia. Winning in the Northeast or Upper Midwest is a challenge for Florida-based teams later in the season.
Just ask Miami how that November trip to Pittsburgh went last autumn.
If the road for USF has been bumpy thus far, it will only get more turbulent for the Bulls, who will have to improve their level of play if they want the UCF game to have conference championship implications for both schools.
This won’t be an easy run for UCF. Cincinnati, Temple and USF are all currently unbeaten in the AAC East. This division has — through half of the season — held up much better than the ravaged and feeble West, in which Navy and Memphis have both taken huge downward tumbles in the standings. Nevertheless, UCF is a more proven team than USF and won’t have to leave the state of Florida for the Temple-Cincinnati-USF trio of games.
What are the odds of another USF-UCF showdown for all the marbles in the AAC? Not great, but this much is clear: The far bigger burden rests with the Bulls than the Knights. Charlie has to make his team Strong-er in order to create a 2018 reunion on par with the 2017 classic that Floridians won’t soon forget.
New Bulls coach Scott eagerly embracing new challenge
Fresh off a runner-up finish in Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game loss to LSU, former Clemson co-offensive coordinator, and new USF head coach, Jeff Scott is now going full throttle in his first few days back in Tampa with his new program.
— Coach Jeff Scott (@coach_jeffscott) January 17, 2020
This is not unfamiliar for the first-time head coach, as this was part of his role was procuring players for Dabo Swinney’s Tigers out of West Central Florida.
Scott also gave access to the Tampa Bay Times and beat writer Joey Knight on his inaugural meeting with his new team Thursday at the USF facility.
And, Scott began by prioritizing his team in the meeting room having the seniors sit in the front with the juniors behind and then, the underclassmen behind them.
— Joey Knight (@TBTimes_Bulls) January 16, 2020
It will be a challenge over the next season or two for Scott to revitalize a program that essentially went “off the cliff in the middle of the 2018 season.” That’s when the Bulls under Charlie Strong lost their remaining six games, including their bowl game and then, were blown out twice early in the 2019 season to drop to 1-3.
USF regained their footing in the middle of the year wining against lesser American Athletic Conference competition in a couple of games, but promptly lost out, including their final 4 games to finish 4-8. That resulted in Strong’s firing.
The 39 year old Scott had Clemson through and through, as he played for the Tigers in the early 2000s for three years and returned to become an assistant coach for the Tigers in 2008. Since then, he has been a receiver’s coach, recruiting coordinator, and then, co-offensive coordinator for the last three years.
The Tigers, behind All-American QB Trevor Lawrence, rolled through a second straight unbeaten season and then, a 62-17 blowout win over Virginia in the ACC Title Game. In a bid to repeat as National Champs, the Tigers defeated Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on December 28th in one of the College Football playoff semi-finals.
Alas, the “fairy tale” did end well, as LSU behind Heisman winning QB Joe Burrow, defeated them 42-25 Monday night in New Orleans.
There’s some more that USF fans can be excited about and Scott’s successes with wide receivers. He has helped develop some great NFL prospects like DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, and Mike Williams. His current Clemson group likely has at least two more NFL wideouts, too.
After years of the inconsistent offense, it appears that the Bulls leaders felt a change in philosphy was needed.
And Scott, the son of former FSU and Clemson offensive coordinator Brad Scott, appears to be the guy to change it all.
Coordinator musical chairs all related to Willie Taggart
Now that head coaching hires have been made at the prominent jobs in the state and around college football, the musical chairs of assistants and specifically coordinators is also fascinating. And in the case of FSU, USF and FAU they are all interrelated to former USF and FSU-now FAU, boss, Willie Taggart.
In Boca Raton, the new FAU coach has announced his first coordinator hire and it’s none other than his former defensive consultant at Florida State, his former defensive coordinator at Oregon and the former USF head coach, Jim Leavitt:
WELCOME to the newest resident of "Paradise." https://t.co/sQDMrJ6gld
— FAU Football (@FAU_Football) December 22, 2019
Taggart had brought Leavitt on board, as the season began to unfold in Tallahassee, initially, to consult, but eventually as a defensive coach on the field.
The tandem came together in Eugene, Oregon three years ago, when Taggart left USF and was hired by the Ducks. He then brought Leavitt with him from being the defensive coordinator at Colorado.
However, Leavitt did not follow Taggart to Florida State in 2018, as had been reported that he would. He stayed behind for one more season, in Eugene.
Meanwhile, Taggart had a disastrous 5-7 first season with FSU after having hired former Michigan State defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett to run his defense. Meanwhile, Leavitt was fired after the 2018 season by Oregon coach Mario Cristobal and then, was available to come join Taggart this year.
However it was to no avail , as Taggart was fired himself, on November 3rd after just nine games into his second season.
Continuing, Taggart had hired Kendal Briles to run his offense in 2019 from Houston, but Briles had previously been at, wait for it… Florida Atlantic as the OC. And now, there’s word of where Briles is headed, and, that’s to the University of Arkansas, as their new offensive coordinator.
The Hogs made a surprising coaching hire of former Georgia offensive line coach, Stan Pittman, who has never been a head coach at the college level before. Desperate to improve in the SEC West, Briles up tempo offense did help the Florida State in terms of increases of yardage per game and points per game output this past season.
Meanwhile, back at USF, new coach Jeff Scott had already announced on Sunday that former FAU defensive coordinator and head coach for their bowl game, Glenn Spencer, is his new defensive coordinator in Tampa.
Spencer has extensive experience, especially as a defensive assistant and coordinator for over a decade at Oklahoma State.
Staying with the “musical chairs” connected to his current and former jobs:
On Monday evening Scott also announced that Charlie Weis Jr., the son of the former Notre Dame coach and Patriots offensive coordinator, would be joining his staff with the Bulls.
Welcome to the Bay, Charlie Weis Jr. ! 🌴
Named Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach.
✅Led FAU offense that ranked 14th in FBS in scoring (36.4 ppg) and posted 6,280 yards & 65 TD.
➡️https://t.co/cqjC1ROYcW#United #Bullieve #HornsUp 🤘 pic.twitter.com/9dbeXxTnav
— USF Football (@USFFootball) December 23, 2019
Weis had most recently been the offensive coordinator for…..you guessed it again, the last two years at Florida Atlantic taking over for Briles with Lane Kiffin. But, Kiffin did not take Weis with him, when he left FAU for Ole Miss two weeks ago. And, Taggart did not retain Weis.
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So, to recap: Taggart and Leavitt are back together for the third time in four seasons in the third different location.
Spencer and Weis, who were the coordinators at Florida Atlantic for Kiffin, weren’t kept by Taggart, but are now are now both at USF, where Taggart and Leavitt used to be head coaches.
And Briles, who coached for Taggart and for part of the year with Leavitt in Tallahassee is now on his way to the SEC with the Hogs.
It’s never dull with a coaching carousel.
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