USF, Taggart host McNeese

TAMPA, Fla. — Willie Taggart is excited about the challenge of changing the perception of South Florida as an underachieving football program.

The Bulls begin their first season under the 37-year-old coach Saturday night against McNeese State. Taggart wants to set the tone for what he insists can be a special year.

USF was ranked as high as No. 2 in the country in 2007, but haven’t come anywhere close to realizing what generally is regarded as the program’s enormous potential since then.

Taggart takes over for Skip Holtz following the worst finish in the school’s 16-year football history.

He turned around a struggling team at his alma mater, Western Kentucky, and last year led the Hilltoppers to their first postseason appearance since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision.

“The honeymoon is over. It’s time to get into the thick of things,” the one-time assistant to Jim Harbaugh at Stanford said. “Really interested to see how our guys play this game.”

McNeese State is beginning its eighth season under coach Matt Viator, who’s hired Taggart’s former defensive coordinator Lance Guidry to lead the Cowboys’ defense.

Guidry was appointed interim head coach at Western Kentucky when Taggart moved to USF in December, then led the Hilltoppers in the Little Caesar’s Bowl.

“We’re going to continue to do what we do,” Taggart said, playing down the significance of facing a former assistant who has intimate knowledge of what he likes to do on offense.

“I don’t think it’s Guidry we’ve got to worry about, it’s their players and our players doing what they do. He can know it, but he’s got to get his guys to know. Just like we know it, we’ve got to get our guys to go out and do it well,” Taggart added. “He knows some of the tendencies, what we like. We also know what he likes. It’s who puts their kids in the best position to make plays.”

USF lost 9 of 10 games following a 2-0 start last season. The Bulls were 1-6 in the Big East and dropped 14 of its final 16 in a league that’s been renamed the American Athletic Conference.

“It means to world to me to get our program turned around. I said from day one that this can be a special place. I think the time is right to take off and be what we all intended for this program to be,” Taggart said. “We all were on a high note when it was going good. We had a little bump in the road, but that doesn’t mean we take our eyes off the prize. We’ll keep our eyes on the prize and we’ll run over those bumps.”