TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Now that he's lifted South Florida out of the American Athletic Conference basement, Willie Taggart is aiming to take the Bulls all the way to the top of the league.
The coach enters the fourth season of a reclamation project coming off an 8-5 finish that saw the team hit its stride after a disappointing 1-3 start that included losses to Florida State, Maryland and Memphis.
And while contending for a conference championship has always been a goal, Taggart appears to have finally re-assembled the talent and depth necessary to realize the potential of a program generally regarded as one of the country's fastest growing that plummeted after the Bulls climbed as high as No. 2 in the nation in 2007.
''When you win and see how much fun it is, it's contagious,'' Taggart said, adding he doesn't anticipate his players having much difficulty retaining the hunger that fueled last season's turnaround.
''All you have to do is remind them of last year when no one gave us much of a chance,'' the coach said. ''We're going to embrace these (heightened) expectations because that's what these guys came here for. At the same time, this team hasn't accomplished anything. They understand that.''
The Bulls won seven of eight after stumbling out of the gate last fall, with two-time AAC rushing champion Marlon Mack and dual-threat quarterback Quinton Flowers helping the team's so-called Gulf Coast offense hit its stride during a four-game winning streak that saw USF outscore East Carolina, Temple, Cincinnati and UCF by a combined 175-70.
While a loss to Western Kentucky in the Miami Beach Bowl didn't detract from the program taking a significant step forward, it was a humbling finish that kept players motivated in the offseason.
The Bulls return 15 starters, including Mack, Flowers and leading receiver Rodney Adams. Linebackers Augie Sanchez and Deatrick Nichols are back, ready to lead an improved defense.
Taggart said the entire team hasn't forgotten ending 2015 on a losing note and is driven to revive the euphoria of winning.
''What we were last year wasn't enough,'' the coach said. ''I love their attitude. That's what we want.''
Some things to watch as USF tries to build on last season's success:
AWARD WATCH: Mack, Flowers, Adams, Sanchez and Nichols are among a school-record seven Bulls named to ''watch lists'' for national postseason awards. Mack led the AAC in rushing for the second straight season, finishing with 1,381 yards and eight touchdowns; Flowers ran for 991 yards and 12 TDs, while also completing 59 percent of his passes and throwing for 22 touchdowns vs. eight interceptions, and Adams had 45 receptions for 822 yards and nine TDs. First-year co-offensive coordinator T.J. Weist said its important the players realize this is a news season. ''All those accolades mean nothing until we go out there and prove it.''
SPREAD `EM OUT: The Bulls switched to a fast-paced spread offense in 2015 and compiled some impressive statistics, particularly over the final month of the regular season, when they averaged 542 yards and 47 points per game. During that four-game stretch, the team averaged 313 yards on the ground and 230 passing. ''When we're clicking nobody can stop us,'' Adams said. ''That's our mindset.''
STAFF CHANGES: Weist and Darren Hiller have joined the Bulls as co-offensive coordinators and face the challenge of keeping the high-powered Gulf Coast attack humming. Taggart also brought in a new quarterback coach this offseason, hiring former NFL QB Shaun King to work with Flowers and the team's backups. Raymond Woodie shifts from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator following the departure of Tom Allen, who left for Indiana.
STINGY DEFENSE: The Bulls adopted an attacking 4-2-5 scheme a year ago and ranked 13th nationally in tackles for loss (7.5 per game) and 14th interceptions with 17. Sanchez led the team in tackles with 117, while Nichols had a team-best four interceptions. With seven starters returning, Taggart expects the unit to be even better this year.
KEEP IT GOING: Mack enters his junior year with 2,422 career yards, 309 shy of the school record. He averaged 6.6 yards per carry and had nine 100- yard games last season, including five in a row to end the season. ''He's a fantastic running back,'' Taggart said, ''one of the best in the country if you ask me.''