TAMPA, Florida — Turning around South Florida's struggling football program is proving every bit the challenge Willie Taggart suspected it to be.
The Bulls went 2-10 a year ago in the team's inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference, failing to earn a bowl berth for the third consecutive year.
Taggart is beginning his second season at USF after spending three years as Western Kentucky's head coach, transforming the Hilltoppers from conference doormats and into winners. He remains confident he can do the same with the Bulls, who just a few years ago were widely viewed as the fastest growing program in the nation.
"I knew everything wasn't going to go smoothly and change just because there was a new coach," Taggart said. "The culture doesn't change just because you have a new coach. The thing I had to do was be patient, but stay the course."
Taggart notes that 2013 was as much a learning experience for the coaching staff as it was for players, who not only had to adjust to new offensive and defensive systems, but also warm up to the ways Taggart prefers things be done.
"Last year I thought the guys had to get over the stigma of not being successful. This year guys have to become true believers," the coach said.
"It's hard to trust somebody just because they show up. You have to build a relationship," Taggart added. "I think coaches and players know each other better. ... That's a big part of them buying into what we've been asking them to do from Day 1."
Mike White, who started five games a year ago as a true freshman, is the front-runner to get the first shot at giving the Bulls the consistency and stability Taggart said Bulls need at quarterback to be successful. If he's not the guy, then Steven Bench — beginning his second season at USF after transferring from Penn State — likely will get an opportunity.
"It's not going to me that decides who that guy is, it's going to be our players," Taggart said. "Those guys know the standard we're looking for, the expectations for the position. They're going to have a license to do those things."
Five things to watch for as the Bulls try to end a string of three consecutive losing seasons.
LONG MEMORY: Last season began with a crushing, lopsided loss to Football Championship Subdivision opponent McNeese State that set the tone for a long year. The Bulls opened with a four-game skid, won two straight and then dropped six in a row down the stretch. The loss to McNeese State still stings. Western Carolina is this year's opener, and players say they won't they anything for granted.
BOWL OR BUST?: While Taggart insists the Bulls don't necessarily have to earn a bowl berth to consider this season as success, he concedes it would be significant. USF made six consecutive bowl appearances from 2005-2010, a stretch that spoiled fans of the relatively young program.
NEW-LOOK AAC: With former Big East and AAC mates Louisville and Rutgers shifting to the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big Ten, respectively, the Bulls welcome AAC newcomers East Carolina and Tulsa to the schedule.
CHASING RECORDS: Senior receiver Andre Davis begins his final season within striking distance of USF career records for receptions, receiving yards, touchdowns and 100-yard games.
HOME SWEET HOME: The Bulls play their first four games — five of the first six, overall — at home. The one road game is at Wisconsin. And with Maryland and North Carolina State heading to Tampa, September will not be a breeze, even though they'll spend most of the month at Raymond James Stadium.