McNeese State Preview: "The Honeymoon is Over"

Chris Graythen

We take a look at the first game of the 2013 season and the beginning of the Willie Taggart era.

Nine months.

It's been nine months since USF's 2012 season ended with a thud, with a half-filled Raymond James Stadium witnessing one of the worst USF football games since this happened. A day later, the axe finally fell on the Skip Holtz era (one of those "do you remember where you were?" moments. I was sitting in my PJs on my bed and received a Facebook message from my ex-girlfriend's little brother). Since then we've been treated to nine months of changes.

This was probably the most eventful offseason I've witnessed as a Bulls fan, if you're not counting overly optimistic Phil Steele previews as events. We switched coaches, switched conferences, lost one of the best known players in program history-- he's making the 49ers, by the way-- and are looking at a pretty new team in 2013.

In those nine months, Willie Taggart has really yet to do anything wrong. From his introductory press conference where tossed out his first "Get on the bus", he's passed every test. He pulled in a transfer quarterback, has been recruiting well, made the best USF-related song since Delbert Alvarado's "G to tha R-O-T-H-E" and, most importantly, instilled hope in a fanbase that seemed like it could never hope again.

But all of that means absolutely nothing compared to the next three months.

Skip Holtz, you remember, had the fanbase in a tizzy with his pleasant demeanor contrasted with Jim Leavitt's Jim Leavitt-ness, his "Beat Florida!" comment at his first press conference, and hell, his 8-5 first season. Then everything, in the course of just two seasons, promptly crashed and burned.

What I'm trying to say is that we can only judge teams based on on-field results, and Skip Holtz really sucked at coaching football.

Willie Taggart understands this, which is something I appreciate. He's not beating around any bush. Earlier this week he offered "The honeymoon is over... Everything's been peaches and cream, everybody's been smiling and laughing. I haven't heard many negative things about me, but it's coming. That's part of it. That's what you love about it. We have to go do something."

Coach T gets it. He gets that in three months, or a year, all this enthusiasm surrounding him could turn into people at RJS wearing bags over their heads and booing if he doesn't win games. What he's done thus far is no guarantee of future success.

Or maybe Willie Taggart will actually be the man to finally take this program to the promised land. One way or another, it all begins tomorrow night against McNeese State.

It's pretty customary to shrug off games against FCS opponents-- USF is 23-0 against them as an FBS team-but McNeese State is pretty decent, and at this point we really have no idea how good USF is. Last season the Cowboys went 7-4 and beat a Middle Tennessee team that was probably a fair deal better than Skip Holtz's last squad, so this isn't a game the Bulls should be taking lightly. You don't have to search too hard to find in-conference FCS horror stories-in a situation a bit too similar to USF's for my liking, Youngstown State spanked Pitt last season in Paul Chryst's first game, and of course last night LOLOLOLOL UCONN.

So the Bulls would be wise to not overlook the Cowboys. McNeese had a pretty capable offense last season and returns a lot of key components among the skill positions, led by senior QB Cody Stroud. Stroud wasn't spectacular in 2012, but he was efficient, throwing for 2,075 yards and 19 touchdowns to just five interceptions. Senior backs Marcus Wiltz and Javaris Murray round out the backfield, forming a pretty solid one-two punch on the ground. The diminutive duo-- both are 5'9" and sub-200 pounds-- combined for nearly 1200 rushing yards last season.

That backfield is a little concerning, but the Cowboys also sport an inexperienced offensive line that combines for just 11 career starts. This is probably an ideal situation for the USF defensive line. If they're as good as advertised, they should be able to control the line of scrimmage and dominate up front.

McNeese had a stingy 4-2-5 defense last season that held opponents to about 21 points per game. Coordinating that defense in 2013 will be Lance Guidry, who filled the same position for Willie Taggart at Western Kentucky. It's difficult to say which side this favors more-- if it favors anyone at all-- but the Cowboys have a few players that will test the Bulls' offense. Sophomore safety Terrence Cahee was essentially a third linebacker, racking up 92 tackles and four TFL, and the entire starting defensive line returns intact. It'll be interesting to see how the USF offensive line matches up, and particularly if they're able to establish the power running game we've heard so much about.

I'll put it this way: I'd be very surprised if the Bulls didn't win this one, but I'd also be surprised if they breeze through it. This is the team's first game under a new coach and a new quarterback-- there are bound to be some kinks that need to be worked out. We should be happy the team gets to work out these kinks against McNeese and not Michigan State.

It'll be tough to draw any big conclusions one way or another from a game against an FCS team-- remember, that Pitt squad that lost to Youngstown State last season actually wound up having a halfway decent year-- but for me, this game is all about taking the first step in the Taggart era. The honeymoon is over, folks. It's time to do something.

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