TAMPA, Fla. – Miami is off to its best start in nine years, and South Florida coach Willie Taggart believes the 15th-ranked Hurricanes are on the verge of reclaiming a spot among the nation's elite.
Taggart grew up in nearby Bradenton, rooting for Florida State during a time when Miami (3-0) was one of college football's most dominant programs.
The 'Canes are looking to begin a season with four straight victories for the first time since 2004 when they face winless USF (0-3), which is still chasing its first win under Taggart.
Taggart concedes it will be difficult to get it Saturday because Miami, in his eyes, is a team that doesn't have a real weakness.
"They're back. ... but we'll be ready," the first-year USF coach said. "We're not going to bow down to them, that's for sure."
Miami's promising start includes a 21-16 victory over No. 20 Florida. The Hurricanes are coming off a 77-7 blowout of overmatched Savannah State.
Taggart left Western Kentucky last December to take over a team that dropped nine of its final 10 games under former coach Skip Holtz. The Bulls (0-3) opened with a lopsided loss to Football Championship Subdivision foe McNeese State, and continued to sputter offensively in losses to Michigan State and Florida Atlantic.
Still, Taggart is optimistic about turning his struggling program around. USF has yielded five defensive touchdowns on turnovers, one more TD than the Bulls have scored on offense.
Penn State transfer Steven Bench becomes USF's third starting quarterback in four games. Miami boasts a defense that has allowed three TDs in three games.
"You really haven't seen our offense yet," Taggart said. "We're not a team built to come from behind yet. ... If we go out and play like we're capable, I think we have a shot."
Miami running back Duke Johnson is expecting a tough test.
"Their record doesn't say anything about their team, at all, especially on the defensive side," Johnson said "Their front four is their strength, but their linebackers are no joke, also. Their front seven, they take pride in it and they have good reason to."
Five things to look at while Miami looks to build on its best start since the 'Canes won six straight to begin the season in 2004:
OFF THE BENCH: Matt Floyd lost USF's starting quarterback job during the season opener, and Bobby Eveld was less than a quarter into his second start, when Taggart turned to Bench, who had limited success against FAU, yet impressed the coaching staff enough to earn Saturday's start. "He's still not there where he knows our offense completely, so we've got to be smart with what ask him to do," Taggart said. "We don't need him to be Tom Brady. We want him to be Steven Bench."
GUESSING GAME: Miami already had two practices completed this week, including one of its major game plan-installation sessions, before getting word that USF was starting Bench. The bad news for Miami is that there simply isn't much film on the sophomore. But the good news is that what film there is, it's primarily against Florida Atlantic — a team the Hurricanes are familiar with, given that they beat the Owls in Week 1.
MORRIS' ANKLE: Miami QB Stephen Morris got quite the initial scare last weekend when his right ankle got hit, and when the Hurricanes started practice this week he wasn't able to fully participate. But Miami expected all along that its quarterback would be ready to go against USF, a team he threw for 413 yards against last season. (That's nine more than he has this season, total.) The Hurricanes obviously wouldn't complain if he got rolling before the Atlantic Coast Conference opener against Georgia Tech next weekend.
EMERGING STAR: Running back Marcus Shaw has been USF's most consistent — and productive — player on offense, rushing for 398 yards and one touchdown, while averaging 7 yards per carry.
FIRST ROAD TEST?: Miami hasn't trailed in 2013, and actually hasn't trailed for a single second in any of its last five games going back to last season. In fact, Miami's offense hasn't faced a deficit in any of its last 345 snaps. But this is also the first road trip of the season for the Hurricanes, and coaches have been prepping players all week for a different sort of challenge. If USF strikes early in its upset bid, it'll be interesting to see how Miami responds.