TAMPA -- South Florida's homecoming game against Syracuse offers a clear picture of how far the Bulls football program has fallen.
A former BCS opponent in the Big East Conference, Syracuse is now a member of the ACC, one of five power conferences. USF is in the American Athletic Conference, one of the so called "other five."
USF under head coach Jim Leavitt beat Syracuse all five times they played up until 2009. The first year after he was fired, Skip Holtz lost to the Orange 13-9 and again in 2012.
Willie Taggart took over in 2014 after Holtz was fired and will be facing Syracuse for the first time. In his third year, the former Manatee High quarterback is on the hot seat. There is a prevailing opinion that he needs six wins to keep his job.
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The Bulls are 1-3, which makes those six victories tough to find on the schedule. Syracuse is 3-1, beating winless Rhode Island and mediocre Wake Forest with a victory over Mid-American Conference squad Northern Illinois.
The Bulls are getting close. They held high-powered, unbeaten Memphis to less than half its scoring average last week and played well against unbeaten Florida State earlier in the season, but couldn't get the win.
"Our guys just have to keep learning to finish," Taggart said. "When it's finishing, I'm not just saying the fourth quarter. I'm talking about finishing a block, finishing a tackle, finishing a catch. If we do that, we'll get some of those explosive plays we're looking for."
Syracuse likes to run the option behind true freshman quarterback Eric Dungey, who be making his first road start. He is averaging 4.4 yards per carry and has thrown five TD passes with no interceptions.
The Orange have trouble converting third downs and are ranked 95th with a 35.8 conversion rate. In contrast, the Bulls defense has a 63-percent success rate in stopping third-down conversions.
Most of the criticism of Taggart has been on offense and his play calling came under question last week. Dual threat quarterback Quinton Flowers has shown improvement, but the quick, uptempo offense he was supposed to run hasn't been dynamic in a conference that has a lot of explosive offensive teams.
"We just have to keep staying the course and not veer off and not panic," Taggart said. "We are close. Our guys believe in it and they'll get it done. We made a big time improvement from the Maryland game to the Memphis game and it's important that we make a big improvement from the Memphis game to this game.
Syracuse ranks 24th nationally with 11 sacks and is 11th in turnover margin, but Bulls co-offensive coordinator Danny Hope says he expects an improved offensive line to more than hold its own.
Hope, who began his coaching career at Manatee High under Joe Kinnan, also a USF assistant now, said the Bulls offensive line is starting to jell and develop continuity.
"We've been together a little bit longer now and that makes a big difference," Hope said. "Some of the dialogue I have with the offensive linemen to pick up the pressure now is a much shorter conversation then maybe it was three or four weeks ago."
Syracuse likes to run the spread option, which will test a Bulls defense that has allowed an average of 117 yards rushing the last two games.
The defense did its part against Memphis, but the Bulls fell short in a 24-17 loss because the offense struggled. USF defensive coordinator Tom Allen is hoping for another strong outing.
"Play after play we were doing great things (against Memphis). It just came down to two or three mistakes that cost us," Allen said. "I'm very, very encouraged by the effort and encouraged by the passion."
Now if only they can get that signature win.