What does USF need Friday night to beat Wisconsin? We will get to that question in a bit.
Let’s start this look at the Bulls’ game against the Badgers by noting the Florida angles and intersections which form the backdrop to this intriguing Week 1 clash.
Because this game is on a Friday, it won’t compete with the first full-service Saturday of the 2019 college football season. One of the games which will be played on Saturday involves another Florida school, the Florida State Seminoles, who will face Boise State in an anticipated intersectional encounter.
No Florida State player will be more interested in Wisconsin-South Florida than a man who transferred from Madison to Tallahassee… and did not get the starting quarterback job with the Seminoles.
Much as Ohio State quarterback Tate Martell transferred to a Florida school – the Miami Hurricanes – in the hope of becoming a starting quarterback, Alex Hornibrook transferred to Florida State in the hope of a fresh start. His departure from a Big Ten school also didn’t work out as planned. He and Martell could have an interesting conversation if the two ever had an occasion to discuss the directions of their collegiate careers.
Hornibrook can only wonder what his world might have looked like if he had stayed in Madison and taken the flight to Tampa to face USF. Jack Coan will be Wisconsin’s signal-caller. He will try to stabilize the Badger program after Hornibrook’s rough 2018 season led to a rare dip in form for the usually consistent Badgers.
Wisconsin – over the larger arc of its 21st-century history – has been known for its ability to crank out at least nine wins per season, as though it owns a manufacturing process other industry competitors can’t seem to figure out.
No matter the coach, no matter the quarterback, Wisconsin generally manages to win at least nine games. The Badgers had won at least nine games in 12 of 14 seasons from 2004 through 2017. Their 8-5 season in 2018 was a minor shock and a genuine failure when measured against the standards Wisconsin has established.
In the 2017 season, a Florida school – Miami – faced Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl. Hornibrook was there to lead the Badgers to a New Year’s Six bowl victory and a 13-1 season, the best in terms of wins and losses in UW history. Hornibrook was never a dazzling quarterback, but he made the clutch throw on third and six. He came up with the right play at the right time.
In 2018, he lost that knack, and since his ceiling was never very high, his floor became very low. Wisconsin took a hard fall… and even though it beat Miami again in a bowl game, this bowl had a very different feel.
Wisconsin defeated the Hurricanes in the cold of New York in late December at the Pinstripe Bowl. Even though Miami was lost and adrift at the end of the Mark Richt era, one had to wonder if this Wisconsin team – nothing like the confident bunch which had won the Orange Bowl a year earlier – would have won on Miami’s turf.
Now we get to wonder about Wisconsin again. The Badgers won’t be playing a Florida-based school as a 12-1 powerhouse in full command of its skills (which they did in 2017). They won’t be playing a Florida-based school in Yankee Stadium just before New Year’s Day (as they did in 2018).
The Badgers now come to the Sunshine State in late August. Wisconsin will play in uncomfortable weather, not its opponent. South Florida won’t have to play in brutal cold. Its opponent will.
Can the man who replaced Alex Hornibrook – Florida State’s backup quarterback – make Wisconsin the team it was in 2017, or will the Badgers stumble through 2019 much as they did in 2018?
This is where we turn to the Bulls, and how they are going to win.
Let’s be honest: Wisconsin has the pedigree, the status, the stature. South Florida flirted with greatness in the 2007 college football season, when it was briefly No. 2 in the nation, but Wisconsin has undeniably established itself as a national power with its body of work over the past 15 years.
USF is intent on winning this game, but Wisconsin expects to win this game. USF is hoping to move upward in the AAC East standings and challenge both UCF and Cincinnati, but the Bulls appear to be third in the division in a best-case scenario. Wisconsin expects nothing less than a Big Ten West Division championship and a January bowl game.
How can USF win? This isn’t a pleasant or happy truth, but it IS the truth: Wisconsin needs to play poorly. South Florida can force Wisconsin to play poorly to an extent, but the Badgers have more heft, more power, in the trenches and at linebacker. They will need to be off their game if South Florida is to have a real chance.
The key question becomes: If Wisconsin opens the door, can USF step through the portal?
Blake Barnett – you will remember – very briefly played in Alabama’s season-opening win over USC in 2016. He was replaced by Jalen Hurts. He never again became the leader of the Alabama offense, but he tasted what a huge Week 1 game felt like.
Three years later, Barnett, who played well, especially early, in year one in Tampa, gets another chance to stand in the Week 1 spotlight against an elite program. If Wisconsin is ragged and rusty enough to give USF a genuine opening, Barnett has to be ready to pounce.
His new offensive coordinator this year? Yet one more Florida angle emerges in this game.
Kerwin Bell quarterbacked the Florida Gators in the mid-1980s. He is a beloved Gator who coached for many years in the state of Florida, both in high school and the lower (non-FBS) rungs of college football.
USF could no longer retain former offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, whom head coach Charlie Strong brought with him to Tampa after Strong was fired at Texas. Gilbert took the head coaching job at McNeese State.
Strong turned to Bell to take Barnett – and the offense – to the next level.
A first – and very big – test arrives this Friday, in a game bursting with Florida football flavor.
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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