USF couldn't move the ball to save their lives last season. I know that, you know that, the team knows that. Their success this season was going to be largely dependent on whether or not the offense could make some big strides, given that we expected some regression from a young defense.
On the surface, the Bulls are marginally improved on offense. After averaging a rousing 13 points per game in 2013, the team is averaging 19.1 so far this season and surpassed their 2013 total of offensive touchdowns around the halfway point of 2014. But when you move beyond the raw numbers, the improvement is pretty underwhelming.
Issue #1: The USF offense is improved... but not much improved. It's still terrible.
You don't need advanced stats to realize this, but let's start here. Last season the Bulls ranked 123rd in offensive F/+, which was in the bottom five in the nation. USF has improved to 115th in offensive F/+ this season. That is technically improvement, yes, but that's nowhere near the kind of improvement that we figured had to happen for this team to be anywhere close to bowl contention. So what exactly is holding them back here?
* Quick sidenote: the 2013 Bulls finished 99th in overall F/+, which factors in defense and special teams. This season's team is currently ranked much lower than last season--117th in overall F/+--despite the offensive improvement. How? The Bulls' senior-laden defense last season actually got pretty decent down the stretch without any of us noticing. Sadly, the offense was so putrid that it didn't matter much. This season, both the offense and defense are putrid.
Issue #2: The offense is more explosive than last season, but just as inefficient.
Let's dive further into F/+ so as to gleam some meaning from these numbers. F/+ is the most commonly referenced metric for evaluating college football teams around these parts. It's a combination of Brian Fremeau's FEI rating and Bill Connelly's S&P+ numbers-- take a peek at them here, if you're unfamiliar-- and it's ridiculously thorough and incredibly accurate.
We can't take apart every piece of the formula, but we can examine its biggest component-- Success Rate. Success Rate is a very simple concept that measures a team's offensive efficiency by classifying plays as either successful or unsuccessful. If a play picks up 50% of the necessary yardage of first down, 75% of the necessary yardage on second down, or 100% of the yardage of third or fourth down, it's successful. The average Success Rate in FBS is about 47.5%.
I'm sure you can guess where this is going. USF ranks 123rd in the nation with a Success Rate of 34.7%. Essentially, they're playing behind the chains about two-thirds of the time. Again, this is a modest improvement over last season: the Bulls posted a Success Rate of 28.8%, dead last in the nation at 125th. But when you adjust the two figures for opponent strength, they're pretty identical.
This is a huge issue, because Willie Taggart's entire offense is based on running the ball well and creating short, easy-to-convert passing opportunities for the quarterback. Any team that prides itself on running the ball and controlling the clock will have a good Success Rate-- Alabama, Michigan State, and triple option attacks Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern are all in the top ten nationally. But USF--for two years now under Willie Taggart!-- has been one of the worst five teams in the nation at running the ball and staying ahead of the chains.
The slight improvement in USF's offense this season can be attributed to added explosiveness. Marlon Mack, through no fault of his own, has been a boom-or-bust runner, and Andre Davis is a big play waiting to happen at receiver. In the factor of F/+ that measures explosiveness-- IsoPPP-- the Bulls rank a respectable 63rd in the country. This is essentially the inverse of what Willie Taggart wants to do on offense: he wants to control the ball and grind defenses down; right now the offense is stalling for long periods of time before occasionally popping a big run or pass. Being explosive is nice, but it doesn't matter if you're not moving the ball in between your big plays.
Issue #3: They're the slowest team in the country.
Sure, Taggart wants to play slow and control the clock. We wouldn't expect USF to be running an uptempo offense. But the Bulls rank dead last in Adjusted Pace-- a metric which takes into account how many plays a team is expected to run based on their run/pass ratio. So even given the fact that Taggart heavily favors the run, the Bulls are still slowest. That's not a good thing (other teams in the bottom five: Wake Forest, UConn, Vanderbilt), and suggests that A) Taggart is struggling to get plays in, B) the players are still struggling to understand the plays, or C) that USF's strategy is merely to sit on the ball and hope the game ends quickly.
Issue #4: USF moves the ball much better with Mike White at quarterback.
It's true, and it's not that close. In the two games Steven Bench has played this season-- against Maryland and Houston-- the Bulls have managed an abysmal 27.5% Success Rate. That's worse than their average from last season. Their Success Rate with Mike White at quarterback is 38%. If you prefer raw stats, it's still not a contest: USF averages 21.7 points per game with White, and 10 points per game with Bench.
This just shows how strange a move it was to start Bench against Houston last week. Mike White may not be the answer, but he's performed better than Bench at nearly every opportunity. When you add in the fact that Quinton Flowers' redshirt has been burned for nothing more than a handful of drives so far, Taggart's handling of the quarterback position has been altogether suspect and reeks of win-now desperation.
Issue #5: This team is not devoid of talent.
Our reaction for most of the Taggart era has been to shrug off the results and say that the players need more time. This has been completely accurate and fair, but we're quickly arriving at the point where it's not such a valid excuse anymore. Even if we make the assumption that anyone recruited or coached by Skip Holtz has a Football Plague and is worthless--which is not even close to true, guys-- there's still enough talent on this offense that it should reach some level of competency. Marlon Mack and D'Ernest Johnson were big-time recruits. Mike White's had a year of experience now. Andre Davis is a stud, and Rodney Adams got four stars out of high school. Sean Price and Mike McFarland were both near-blue chippers. The offensive line may be low on talent, but it's loaded with seniors and will likely get worse before it gets better. Yes, a lot of these guys are young, but that should combine for a product better than a bottom-five FBS offense.
The point of all this is not to make some huge, grandiose statement, or to suggest that Taggart should be fired tomorrow. Worse teams than this one have turned themselves around over the course of a season. But even if the Bulls beat SMU next weekend, don't be fooled by the win total: this offense--and this team-- are not significantly improved from last season, and have a very long way to go to reach respectability.