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The Curious Case of Willie Taggart

How has the USF coach recruited so well and won so little?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

By now, it's become common knowledge that Willie Taggart recruits at a much higher level than his team has performed in the past two seasons. This is not necessarily an indictment of Taggart's skills as a coach-- he was, after all, left a team in disarray from predecessor Skip Holtz, and it was generally understood among the USF fanbase that the Bulls wouldn't be an easy fix.

But now, after two seasons where the on-field product has declined (99th in F/+ in 2013, 122nd in F/+ in 2014) despite recruiting classes ranked at the top of the conference, Taggart is finding himself on more than a couple offseason hot seat lists, and it's widely assumed that the Bulls need to finally live up to their potential if Taggart is to get a fourth year.

Why is USF recruiting so well despite the lack of on-field success?

USF kind of recruits itself, honestly, especially in the AAC. This wasn't necessarily the case in the Big East when the Bulls were recruiting against the likes of West Virginia, Louisville, Pitt and Rutgers, but given the new level of competition in conference, you or I could probably bring in a top-three AAC class to Tampa.

The Bulls have built-in advantages in their facilities, which are far above the standard for a Group of Five team, and their location, surrounded by recruiting hotbeds in Florida. Still, the longer their bowl drought continues (USF hasn't been bowling since 2010), the more luster the program will lose.

How much credit should Taggart get for this?

Taggart's done a marvelous job recruiting, even with the natural advantages that USF provides over its competition. When you take a look at how Skip Holtz did on the recruiting trail before him-- with a winning team and a BCS conference to sell, no less-- it's clear just how well he's done. Taggart has actually raised USF's recruiting standards despite the fact that they've slipped into the AAC. Take a look at the average commit ratings (via 247 Sports) from the past few seasons:

2011 (Holtz): 79.29
2012 (Holtz): 84.10
2013 (Taggart): 83.02
2014 (Taggart): 84.22
2015 (Taggart): 83.07

Pretty remarkable, right? It's not difficult to see why Taggart is such a good recruiter: he's a young, charismatic guy with Florida ties from his playing and coaching days. But the on-field results just haven't been there. In fact, it's been getting worse.

How well has Taggart recruited historically?

Pretty darn well. Part of the reason Taggart was such an attractive hire for USF-- and make no mistake, apart from Voodoo Five, this hire was almost universally lauded-- was his recruiting success, even though his best record at Western Kentucky was just 7-5. WKU is not exactly located in fertile recruiting territory and was in the middle of a transition to FBS ball in 2010, but Taggart consistently pulled in classes that ranked at the top of the Sun Belt. When you consider the circumstances, that's pretty remarkable.

His m.o. for recruiting at WKU was pretty flawless-- he looked in-state and across the Midwest for offensive linemen to anchor his power-running scheme, and found a handful of low three-star skill players that had been passed over by the first wave of Florida schools. There were 13 offensive lineman on the Hilltoppers' roster when Taggart left for USF, and only four were from Florida. This was really smart! Florida produces skill players in droves, but there's not nearly as many good linemen once the top schools-- Florida, FSU, etc.-- have had their pick.

How did Western Kentucky perform with all that talent?

There's no denying that Taggart did a really, really nice job at WKU. The Hilltoppers went winless in their first season at the FBS level, and Taggart put together two consecutive seven-win seasons just two years later. But what we're trying to examine here is how good the Toppers were versus how good they should have been, so let's compare 247's recruiting ratings with the corresponding F/+ rankings.

Here's the old Sun Belt, organized by average recruiting rating from 2010-12-- Taggart's tenure at WKU-- and average F/+ from 2011 and 2012 (I omitted the 2010 season here, because it wouldn't be fair to judge Taggart's coaching ability from his first season taking over a no-win team). Here are the results:

Team Recruiting Rank (2010-12) F/+ Rank (2011-12) +/-
Western Kentucky 1 4 -3
FIU 2 3 -1
Arkansas State 3 1 +2
UL Lafayette 4 2 +2
FAU 5 9 -4
Troy 6 6 0
North Texas 7 7 0
Middle Tennessee 8 8 0
UL Monroe 9 5 +4

In the last column you can see which teams outperformed their recruiting ranking, and which underachieved. Although Taggart did a remarkable job recruiting at WKU, his teams didn't quite live up to their billing.

Is it fair to say that Taggart recruits far better than he coaches?

Probably, yes. But there are also a few other possibilities here that we have to take into consideration.

1) His USF team is about to hit its stride.

This is pretty unlikely. The Bulls ranked 123rd in F/+ last season, so even a remarkably large jump to like, 90th, would still make them pretty darn bad. But they say you can't judge a new coach until his third season when his recruits are upperclassmen, so it's not unfair to say we have to reserve judgment until after 2015.

2) The plan that he used at Western Kentucky just can't work at USF.

This is a good middle ground between "Taggart just needs more time" and "Taggart can't coach." As we mentioned above, Taggart succeeded at WKU because he was able to bring in local linemen to work with skill players from Florida that were probably a little better than Sun Belt-caliber. The Sun Belt-caliber linemen could adequately block Sun Belt-caliber defensive players, and the skill players could get to work.

This doesn't work at USF, because they need bigger and better offensive linemen to run Taggart's power scheme against Power Five-level defenses like Temple (16th in defensive S&P+) and UCF (34th), and those linemen just aren't widely available in Florida. Taggart's managed to bring in a handful of speedy skill players to USF-- Marlon Mack was a star as a true freshman and leads an exciting stable of backs, and Rodney Adams and Ryeshene Bronson are potentially dynamic receivers-- but the offense hasn't been able to get going at all, because the line has been wholly ineffective.

This isn't to say that Taggart is doomed to fail. He is, after all, switching to a much more personnel-friendly spread offense for this upcoming season, although that might be far too little, too late. But even for all the success he had at WKU, he was never quite able to deliver on the potential of his recruiting classes, and barring a remarkable turnaround under the new scheme, he's headed the same way at USF.