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Jimbo Fisher left Willie Taggart a high standard, but also a path to raising it

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7-5? 11-1? Pretty much anything is on the table for Taggart’s first year in Tallahassee.

NCAA Football: Florida State Spring Game
Willie Taggart
Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

The FSU ship might have eventually righted, had Jimbo Fisher stayed in Tallahassee. Toward the end of 2017, things had improved.

The Seminoles’ 2017 was defined by injury, youth, and staleness. Fisher had labored through 2016 with a redshirt freshman quarterback (Deondre Francois), and just as he was set to take advantage of that experience, Francois was lost for the season in the first game, so Fisher went through 2017 with a true freshman (James Blackman).

That’s death for a coach with a complex offensive system, and after losing no more than four games in any of his first seven seasons, Fisher had lost five by the end of October.

The Noles won five of their last six games, though, albeit mostly against “ain’t played nobody” competition. They had eventual ACC champ Clemson on the ropes — they had the ball in Tiger territory with a chance to take the lead with under seven minutes left — in Death Valley in mid-November. They rallied to make a bowl and (after Fisher’s exit) win it, and they finished 7-6, just as they had in Bobby Bowden’s final season. It could have been worse.

FSU in 2017

Category First 7 games Last 6 games
Category First 7 games Last 6 games
Record 2 W, 5 L 5 W, 1 L
Avg. score Opp 24, FSU 17 FSU 40, Opp 18
Yards per play FSU 5.3, Opp 5.1 FSU 6.1, Opp 4.3
Avg. percentile performance 46% (31% off, 65% def) 66% (65% off, 71% def)
Avg. performance vs. S&P+ proj. -16.1 PPG +15.2 PPG

Throughout, there was a sense that Fisher either needed a massive transfusion on his staff or to find another job. Though the circumstances became less grave, the latter still unfolded when Texas A&M whipped out a Texas-sized check.

FSU is starting all over all the same. Maybe that means FSU can actually be fun again.

For three straight years, Fisher deployed a new QB to run an offense with a high barrier to entry — first, Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson, then Francois and Blackman. There were more shots of Fisher lecturing his QB on the sideline than there were big pass plays, and while all Francois averaged 6.6 yards per non-sack carry in 2016, and Golson rushed for about 500 non-sack yards at ND in 2014, Fisher all but demanded his QBs not cross the line of scrimmage. Plus, the defense was always solid but rarely as good as its recruiting rankings suggested.

The Noles were, until early-2017, consistently excellent, but they were frustrating. It felt like they were leaving points on the board, especially considering their use (or total lack thereof) of tempo.

If Willie Taggart has his way, that might change. A member of the Jim Harbaugh coaching tree, FSU’s new head coach found at USF that the more he opened up his offense, the better he did. He was on the ropes two years and just six wins into his USF tenure, but by his fourth year, the Bulls were 11-2 and eighth in the country in Off. S&P+. He went to Oregon last year, and when ace QB Justin Herbert was healthy, Taggart’s Ducks went 6-1 and averaged 52 points per game.

The 41-year-old is still full of potential. So is his 33-year-old offensive coordinator, Walt Bell. And he’s now got two sophomore QBs who fit that description, too. I’ve only used the f-word once in the last five FSU previews (to describe the Noles’ 2016-ending Orange Bowl win over Michigan), but I’ll say it: FSU could be fun this year.

Fun doesn’t equate to awesome. FSU was mostly awesome during Fisher’s tenure, after all. But it’s easy to see how the two might work in tandem. A Taggart/Bell offense that uses its QBs’ legs, creates more space for a receiver like Nyqwan Murray, and creates more chances for blue-chip sophomore running back Cam Akers could work.

It could work doubly well if FSU uses tempo to its advantage. When you’ve got a per-play talent advantage, it makes sense to want more plays, to maximize that advantage and increase margin for error. Oregon ranked eighth in my adjusted pace measure last year; tempo is likely coming to Tallahassee.

Offense

2017 FSU offensive radar

If you looked at FSU’s 2017 stats without any context clues, your first impression might be, “Damn, this had to have been a really young offense.” The Noles were decent and had the talent to carry out the plan — they were 23rd in Standard Downs S&P+, after all — but they were constantly done in by mistakes.

They ranked 121st in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 108th in Adj. Sack Rate; eventually a drive would be done in by a glitch, and the Noles didn’t produce enough big plays (or, with their slow tempo, opportunities) to counter that. And with the youngster at QB, they weren’t in position to catch back up to the chains.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Florida
Cam Akers
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Experience should help. Either Francois or Blackman will have each of last year’s top three running backs, four of six wideouts, and four linemen with at least 11 career starts.

The QB will also have one more new weapon: his legs.

I think it’s justifiable to expect FSU’s QBs to run twice as often. It could be triple, but that’s not a place I’m willing to go just yet. [...] Almost all of FSU’s running plays under Willie Taggart will have at least the legitimate threat of the QB running. It makes a defense defend 11 on 11, as opposed to 11 on 10.

Akers had some dominant spurts as a freshman, rushing a combined 35 times for 236 yards against Miami and Duke early in the season, then posting 32 carries for 211 yards against ULM and Southern Miss to finish the year. Plus, veteran backup Jacques Patrick was, despite his 6’3, 235-pound frame, perhaps more explosive than Akers. This should be a fun duo, and we’ll see what junior Amir Rasul or a four-star redshirt freshman like Khalan Laborn or Zaquandre White can bring. The threat of a rushing QB can only help.

The line should be solid, at least on the interior. Second-team all-conference center Alec Eberle’s back and healthy, and the depth chart will see a constant battle between experienced three-star veterans (Eberle, tackle Derrick Kelly II, guard Cole Minshew) and young blue-chippers. Guard Landon Dickerson, who missed enough of last year to get a medical redshirt and now has 11 career starts as a redshirt sophomore, is both.

Talking yourself into the passing game takes a bit more faith. FSU had a problem with developing receivers — Fisher brought in plenty of star recruits, but few were demonstrably better when they left — and veterans Murray and Keith Gavin have flashed between awesome and frustrating. Most of the “awesome” comes from Murray, who had 16 catches for just 99 yards in his first four games and four for 41 in FSU’s last three; in between: 20 catches, 464 yards. Dominant.

Gavin had four catches for 78 yards against hapless Delaware State last year but otherwise averaged just 9.6 yards per catch. He and another junior, oft-injured George Campbell, were both star recruits, and they’ve combined for just 453 career receiving yards to date.

There’s plenty of room for a youngster to break through. A redshirt freshman like Tamorrion Terry, not to mention maybe a true freshman or two, could see first-string reps. Sophomore slot receiver D.J. Matthews could benefit significantly from Bell’s system.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Clemson
Nyqwan Murray
The Greenville News-USA TODAY Sports

This is all secondary to the biggest debate: Francois vs. Blackman. Francois is finally to be medically cleared this summer, so the battle can begin in fall camp. Let’s go to the tale of the tape.

Francois vs. Blackman

Category Francois in 2016 Blackman in 2017
Category Francois in 2016 Blackman in 2017
Completion rate 58.8% 58.2%
Yards per completion 14.3 12.9
INT rate 1.8% 3.7%
Passer rating 142.1 135.0
Ratio of pass attempts (inc. sacks) to rushes 5.9 8.8
Yards per (non-sack) carry 6.55 4.57

This all favors the more developed Francois, right down to the run-pass ratio. But Francois had a redshirt year to prepare for his trial, and Blackman was unexpectedly thrown into the fire. Plus, Blackman scored major leadership points and began to figure out where to go with the ball (last four games: 63 percent completion rate, 13.9 yards per completion, 168.9 passer rating, albeit against mostly shaky competition).

Despite Francois’ statistical advantage, this feels like a pretty even battle that could simply come down to which QB Taggart trusts more as a leader. But as long as the runner-up doesn’t immediately transfer, FSU will have a backup QB situation better than what Taggart had at Oregon last year.

Defense

2017 FSU defensive radar

FSU’s defense was solid but inconsistent in the years after the 2013 title run. The Noles ranked 38th, 14th, 10th, and 33rd in Def. S&P+; last year’s unit basically reciprocated whatever hope its offense gave it. FSU allowed just 4.5 yards per play against Alabama, but after Francois’ injury, the Noles slumped to 5.4 per play in the following five games.

But after getting knocked around by Lamar Jackson and Louisville, FSU allowed under 5 per play for each remaining game.

The Noles were perhaps less efficient than they should have been and were significantly worse on passing downs (second-and-long or third/fourth-and-medium/long) than on standard downs, but they prevented big plays and shut down scoring opportunities before they reached the end zone.

But that’s probably enough about last year. This year’s defense will have a different coordinator and about eight new starters. Gone are stalwarts like safety Derwin James, linebacker Matthew Thomas, end Josh Sweat, and tackle Derrick Nnadi. This year’s defense will have some young stars.

NCAA Football: Miami at Florida State
Stanford Samuels III
Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

You never want to rely on sophomores, but FSU’s could be pretty devastating.

  • Cornerback Stanford Samuels III made the second-most havoc plays (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles) in the secondary as a freshman, combining three TFLs with two picks, five breakups, and an FF.
  • End Joshua Kaindoh made just 14 tackles as a backup, but 6.5 were tackles for loss, and four were sacks.
  • Safety Hamsah Nasirildeen saw extensive playing time and broke up three passes.
  • End Janarius Robinson and tackle Marvin Wilson made only a combined 7.5 tackles, but they were both also star recruits and could be ready for more responsibility. The same goes for linebacker Leonard Warner III (3.5 tackles) and safety Cyrus Fagan (4.5).

Samuels is a keeper, and Kaindoh could be dynamite opposite junior Brian Burns, who had a nice sophomore breakout, leading the team with 20.5 havoc plays (13.5 of them were TFLs). And a foursome of senior tackles led by Demarcus Christmas should assure that not too much is asked of Wilson and other young tackles.

There’s a veteran presence throughout the lineup in guys like safety A.J. Westbrook, corner Kyle Meyers, and linebackers Adonis Thomas, Dontavious Jackson, and Emmett Rice. But it’s hard not to get distracted by the younger guys here — not only the sophomores, but also the latest round of blue-chip freshmen: DBs Jaiden Woodbey, A.J. Lytton, and Asante Samuel Jr., tackle Robert Cooper, etc. (Note most of the standout names are linemen and DBs. Linebacker could be an area of concern.)

Set the bar for new coordinator Harlon Barnett at a top-25 performance this year, then raise it to top-10 in 2019.

NCAA Football: Independence Bowl-Southern Mississippi vs Florida State
Brian Burns
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

FSU has been consistently dominant, ranking first in Special Teams S&P+ in 2015, fifth in 2014, and eighth in 2017. Logan Tyler’s punts were pretty long but returnable last year, but if that’s your biggest weakness, you’re doing alright.

Ricky Aguayo is excellent at place kicking, and the baseline of Amir Rasul and Keith Gavin in kick returns and D.J. Matthews in punt returns makes for a lovely unit overall.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
3-Sep Virginia Tech 21 3.3 58%
8-Sep Samford NR 34.4 98%
15-Sep at Syracuse 71 10.4 73%
22-Sep Northern Illinois 69 14.8 80%
29-Sep at Louisville 29 0.5 51%
6-Oct at Miami 13 -7.6 33%
20-Oct Wake Forest 34 7.4 67%
27-Oct Clemson 3 -10.6 27%
3-Nov at N.C. State 37 2.6 56%
10-Nov at Notre Dame 7 -11.6 25%
17-Nov Boston College 48 10.8 73%
24-Nov Florida 32 6.6 65%
Projected S&P+ Rk 18
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 31 / 23
Projected wins 7.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 17.0 (5)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 5 / 4
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -6 / 0.5
2017 TO Luck/Game -2.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 59% (73%, 46%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 6.9 (0.1)

There was a strange symmetry in Fisher’s last year, which produced an almost identical résumé as Bowden’s (both were 7-6 and between 41st and 43rd in S&P+).

There could also be symmetry in how the next season goes. In 2010, Fisher inherited a young but discombobulated two-deep, brought a few new influences, refocused the core, and surged to 10 wins and a No. 11 S&P+ ranking. That feels a little bit ambitious, but top-20 and eight or nine wins? I could see it.

The biggest obstacle is the schedule. S&P+ projects FSU 18th, but the Noles will face three teams projected 13th or better and eight projected 37th or better. There are about three or four baked-in wins (depending on what you think Florida is capable of) and an otherwise brutal schedule.

Still, you have to like where this is headed. Taggart brings all the energy that the program lacked, his staff is exciting, and early returns suggest recruiting is going to go just fine. FSU should be fun again, even if there are some fits and starts.

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