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Here’s what the hell happened to Florida State

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Five keys to the Noles becoming 2017’s most disappointing team.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Boston College Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, we swing and miss.

  • In 2016, LSU was the preseason No. 5. Ole Miss was 11th, and Michigan State was 12th. They combined to go 14-20.
  • In 2015, Auburn was preseason No. 6, Arizona State was 15th, and Georgia Tech was 16th. They went 16-22.
  • In 2014, Oklahoma was fourth and South Carolina was ninth. They went 15-11.

There are always the alternative stories, too. TCU going from unranked to the brink of the CFP in 2014, Penn State doing the same in 2016.

Sometimes, we whiff spectacularly. My favorite example has long been 1997 Colorado. The Sporting News, no stranger to bold predictions, named Rick Neuheisel’s Buffaloes No. 1 in the preseason. The AP had them eighth. They fell apart against a rugged schedule, going 1-5 against ranked teams on the way to a limp 5-6 finish.

The 2017 season might have produced the standard-bearer for swings and misses.

Florida State began the season third in the AP poll. I damn near decided to rank Jimbo Fisher’s Seminoles even higher than that.

They returned all the pieces they could need on defense, from Buck end Josh Sweat to linebacker Matthew Thomas to the star, safety Derwin James, thought to be the best player in college football.

If there was an issue, it would come on offense.

No Dalvin Cook. Cook was an amazing security blanket for a first-year starting quarterback. He not only rushed for 1,765 yards (and behind a line that started nine guys at least twice, no less) and powered an offense that ranked fifth in Rushing S&P+; he also caught 34 passes for 513 yards and a 53 percent success rate. Among other things, FSU doesn’t win the Orange Bowl without Cook.

No receivers? FSU must replace last year’s top four receiving targets: Travis Rudolph, Jesus Wilson, Kermit Whitfield, and Cook. Rudolph, Wilson, and Whitfield combined for 120 catches, 1,616 yards, and nine touchdowns. On a per-target basis, they weren’t great, but continuity in the receiving corps is a big thing, and FSU doesn’t have much. [...]

FSU’s line ranked 72nd in stuff rate and 63rd in Adj. Sack Rate, and that was with All-American left tackle Roderick Johnson and all-conference guard Kareem Are.

You had to have faith in FSU’s recruiting and offensive coaching to believe in the Noles as a national title contender, but it wasn’t difficult to find that faith, especially with the return of quarterback Deondre Francois.

On the first Saturday of the season, however, Francois was lost for the season with a patella tendon injury. That redefined the Noles’ season, virtually eliminating a national title run.

But Fisher still had a roster full of former blue-chippers. It was easy to assume they would still have a large role in the ACC title race and would have a successful, if marginally disappointing, season.

Wrong on all counts.

On Friday night, Florida State lost 35-3. It was the third time in four years that a Fisher team has lost by 30-plus points, but whereas the other two came against Heisman winners and good teams — Oregon in 2014, Louisville in 2016 — this one came against ... Boston College. It dropped FSU to an incredible 2-5 for the season.

FSU’s first four losses were at least competitive. Before Francois’ injury, the Noles trailed Alabama only 10-7 late in the third quarter. And losing to NC State, Miami, and Louisville by a combined 13 is not the end of the world. You could craft a narrative that FSU wasn’t that far away from being FSU.

No matter how impressive BC has been over the last few weeks, however, you can’t create any sort of positive spin from Friday night.

At this point, the Noles have about a 10 percent chance at best of reaching bowl eligibility. They are on their way to their first losing season since 1976, Bobby Bowden’s first year. When the wheels came off for Bowden at the end of his career, it meant unacceptable 7-6 seasons. There is a chance this FSU team finishes about 3-8.

So what the hell happened?

You can’t just pin this all on Francois’ injury. Maybe that’s worth an extra couple of wins at this point, but again, FSU is 2-5. And a recruiting machine like Florida State’s should have at least a tolerable backup quarterback situation.

It should be able to produce a run game capable of taking pressure off of a young QB. And good lord, no matter how many injuries we’re talking about, it should be capable of ranking better than 110th in Off. S&P+ at the moment.

In the BC aftermath, we’ve seen a new narrative: that FSU is this year’s version of Notre Dame, a talented team suffering from a rash of close losses with a stale coaching staff. And to be sure, Fisher — whose buyout is large enough to preclude any sort of hot seat conversations — will likely make quite a few staff changes this offseason.

But the advanced stats paint a shaky picture. Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish finished the 2016 season 26th in S&P+ despite the 4-8 record, suggesting they weren’t far from improvement. FSU’s down at No. 75 right now.

Their offense finished 36th, their defense 28th. Kelly made a series of changes, but at least one was not because of some urge; offensive coordinator Mike Sanford finished 2016 well-regarded enough to earn the Western Kentucky head coaching job.

Kelly still made some great choices. Despite a new quarterback (and, yes, some QB injuries) offensive coordinator Chip Long has the Irish up to 12th in Off. S&P+ and first in Rushing S&P+. Fellow new coordinator Mike Elko has a defense that is both aggressive and good at the bend-don’t-break routine. The Irish are 18th on that side of the ball.

Some new blood on the field and sideline made a world of difference for Notre Dame. But the Irish didn’t have that far to go.

FSU still has time to rebound a bit, but the Noles have a lot more questions to answer than Kelly did a year ago.

Here are the five things most wrong with the FSU product on the field at the moment.

1. Extreme offensive youth

This doesn’t explain an offensive ranking in the triple digits, but it has to be mentioned. The offense has been wrecked by injury, far beyond Francois. The Noles’ backfield is now manned primarily by true freshmen: quarterback James Blackman, who did not enroll early, and running back Cam Akers.

There isn’t a senior to be found in the receiving corps. The only senior with more than one target this year is former safety Ermon Lane, who moved back to offense because of injuries. Junior Auden Tate and sophomore Keith Gavin have missed significant time, and sophomore George Campbell’s season is over. The offensive line has been wrecked by the injury bug as well.

In fact, there were only two seniors, period, on FSU’s depth chart last week: right tackle Rick Leonard and reserve tailback Ryan Green. There are 11 freshmen, redshirt freshmen, or sophomores.

There are still blue-chippers everywhere, but those players still have to develop. And it’s always going to cost you when the team you think you’re bringing into August in no way resembles the team you have at the end of September.

2. The offensive line is a sieve

The FSU line has long been less than the sum of its parts, at least from a statistical perspective. The Noles ranked 22nd in Off. S&P+ in 2015 despite dreadful short yardage success (114th in power success rate) and leakiness (107th in stuff rate, 74th in passing downs success rate). They ranked third in Off. S&P+ last year despite a lot of the same issues: 77th in power success rate, 105th in passing downs success rate.

FSU had to replace Johnson and two other part-time starters, but it wasn’t hard to believe depth and experience would be an asset.

Considering the youth behind it, the line needed to raise its game. It has not. The Noles rank 67th in power success rate, 120th in passing downs sack rate, 125th in stuff rate. Worse than ever.

The sack rate has a lot to do with Blackman. The run blocking figures? Less so.

3. The defense hasn’t stepped up either

Charles Kelly’s unit was the primary reason for title-level optimism. FSU had rebounded from early-2016 issues, enough to finish 10th in Def. S&P+. With James’ return, it was easy to see the Noles dominating on that side of the ball.

The 2017 defense hasn’t been bad, but it hasn’t been as good as advertised. And it has had to face a hefty slate of good offenses: Louisville ranks eighth in Off. S&P+, Alabama is 19th, Miami is 20th, NC State is 27th, Wake Forest is 40th, and Boston College has become one of the hottest attacks in the country.

Adjusting for opponent, you see that the defense has been ... fine. The Noles are 25th in Rushing S&P+ and 16th in Passing S&P+. But we expected elite. And you can’t really blame injuries for the discrepancy.

The overall Def. S&P+ ranking has been dragged down by niggling issues and situational breakdowns: awful short yardage execution (101st in power success rate) and too many big plays on passing downs (107th in passing downs explosiveness). Opponents have no fear of the pass defense and are passing non-stop on passing downs.

It is unfair, but the hapless offense has forced the defense to be even better than expected. Instead, it is worse.

4. Punting hasn’t helped

A good punter can make up ground in the field position battle.

Instead, Logan Tyler has struggled. He’s averaging a decent 42.2 yards per kick, but opponents are also averaging 12.3 yards per return, resulting in a punting success rate of just 50 percent, 99th in FBS. Is net punting your preferred measure? FSU’s 108th in that. FSU’s averaging a 35.4 yard net, about eight yards worse than your typical top-10 punt unit.

5. FSU isn’t taking advantage of its biggest asset: athleticism

FSU has yet to score 30 points in a game this season and only scored more than 20 once in October. Part of that is a tempo issue, as in, FSU has none. But overall, the Noles’ statistical profile shows minimal signs of aggressiveness.

Just about the only sign of aggression on the stat page is the number of big plays they’re allowing on passing downs. You could craft a “they’re blitzing and getting burned” narrative ... until you see that they never actually get to the QB.

Conservatism makes sense when you’re young on offense and trying to grind out wins or trying to avoid demoralizing blowouts. Either way, it’s not working, and there doesn’t appear to be a Plan B.

  • Taking deep shots? None of that.
  • Simplifying concepts and executing them with pace? The exact opposite. The offense remains complicated, and the snail’s pace allows defenses to make complicated calls as well.
  • Risking big plays in the name of havoc on defense? Not much of that either (they’re 51st in havoc rate).

To be sure, a lot of this has to do with the stale coaching staff. There have been rumors of major discord, and one should expect quite a few more changes than Kelly made in South Bend.

On Friday night, we saw a team that had pretty much packed it in for the year.

The defense began to play more as individuals than a collective and got burned. The offense ... scored three points.

A team with a pulse could still win three of its final four games, home games against Syracuse and Delaware State and road games against Clemson and equally lifeless Florida.

And in this scenario, FSU could attempt to reschedule its game against ULM (which was canceled in September) or ask for an NCAA bowl waiver because of the cancellation.

Or, the Noles could simply play out the string, make staff changes, and move on.

The former appeals to pride, but I’m betting the latter sounds tempting.