clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How does Florida State respond to its first losing season since 1976?

Will Willie Taggart’s attempts at an offensive overhaul stick? And what happens if the Seminoles lose to Boise State?

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

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

I was talking to SB Nation’s (and Tomahawk Nation’s) Bud Elliott about Florida State’s 2018 prospects while we were at a conference last August, and he had maybe the most prescient preseason summary of a team that I will ever hear.

Quarterback Deondre Francois was decent, he said, and the Seminoles seemed to have the skill talent they needed to score points in Willie Taggart’s first season as head coach. But the depth at offensive tackle that Jimbo Fisher had left for Taggart was terrifying, and if they suffered any injury there, the line would potentially fall apart.

Tackle Landon Dickerson got hurt within days of our conversation. He would end up starting two games all year. Cole Minshew and Derrick Kelly, both experienced interior linemen who had moved to tackle out of desperation, would miss eight games between them. By the end of the year, injury and a total lack of development (by the new staff or the old one) had combined to create maybe the least stable line I’ve seen. It was certainly one of the least effective.

In 12 games, the Noles started nine different combinations of linemen. Not sure I’ve seen that. They didn’t start the same combination in back-to-back weeks until the seventh and eighth games of the season. Not sure I’ve seen that either. Nine different players started at least two games each, and only one, center Alec Eberle, started all 12.

The result was the worst Florida State offense in a generation. The Seminoles ranked 124th in offensive success rate and 97th in Off. S&P+, their lowest standing since ending up 109th in 1975 — a.k.a. Year 1 B.B. (Before Bowden). They finished 5-7, their worst record since 1976.

When your offensive line struggles this much, it prevents you from getting a truly accurate picture of virtually anything else. Francois was under pressure far too much. Cam Akers and the other running backs had no holes to run through. Whatever offensive philosophy Taggart and coordinator Walt Bell wanted to express went out the window. When you can’t do the basics, you can’t do anything. There are no good plays to call. This affects your defense as well — it’s probably dealing with horrible field position, and it has to think twice about taking risks, knowing that giving up two touchdowns maybe ends the game.

To say the least, change has come. Bell left to become UMass’ head coach, the program dismissed Francois, the offensive line might have five new starters this year, and, no matter how much he was or wasn’t to blame, offensive line coach Greg Frey was predictably let go.

Taggart, now feeling some obvious pressure, brought offensive coordinator Kendal Briles to town, despite Briles working in and standing by his father’s Baylor program that collapsed in a sexual assault scandal, and amid criticism from sexual assault-prevention advocates. Along similar lines, he hired line coach Randy Clements. On the field, it’ll probably work.

Taggart proved himself a strong turnarounds architect early in his head coaching career. He inherited an 0-11 WKU squad in 2010 and brought the Hilltoppers to back-to-back bowls in 2011-12. He inherited a 3-9 USF squad in 2013, then went 8-5 in 2015 and 11-2 in 2016. You could joke that he evidently doesn’t feel comfortable until he has something to turn around, and, well, he’s got that now.

From Fisher, Taggart inherited a roster that had stagnated a bit. There was obvious talent, but development and identity had become an issue. Taggart envisioned an energetic, high-tempo offense and aggressive defense, but we didn’t get to see it. Briles is, for all of his last-name-related flaws and issues, a hell of an offensive coach and will likely bring to the table exactly what Taggart needs. And with a defense that can play with a little bit more ambition, we might get to see what coordinator Harlon Barnett has to offer on that side of the ball as well.

Offense

Briles has become a fixer of sorts since his departure from Baylor. He was hired by Lane Kiffin’s FAU in 2017 and raised the Owls’ Off. S&P+ ranking from 69th to 30th. He went to Houston last year and improved the Cougars from 43rd to 20th. They were as high as 11th before QB injury issues crept into the picture.

This might be Briles’ most onerous task yet. I’m curious how much improvement he can engineer in a single offseason.

FSU’s offense was all-or-mostly-nothing in 2018. There was no efficiency to be found, so the Noles just had to hope to bust a dam and get some points off of a big play.

There were certainly some explosive options. Former all-world prospect Cam Akers knew what to do in the open field, even if he never actually found it. When he had more than 90 yards rushing, FSU averaged 30 points per game. Unfortunately, that was a two-game sample.

Receiver Tamorrion Terry, then a freshman, averaged 21.3 yards per catch, and Keith Gavin and Keyshawn Helton each averaged 16. When the QB had time to survey the field and step into passes, and he almost never did, good things happened.

NCAA Football: Florida State at North Carolina State
James Blackman
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

James Blackman likely takes over for Francois, just as he unexpectedly did as a true freshman in 2017, when Francois was lost to injury in Week 1. He finished that season brilliantly — after producing a 121.6 passer rating in his first eight games, he raised it to 168.9 in his last four — and threw for 421 yards and four touchdowns when subbed in for an injured Francois against NC State last fall.

(If Blackman goes down, his replacement could be Wisconsin grad transfer Alex Hornibrook. The thought of a Wisconsin quarterback running a Briles offense made me black out due to cognitive dissonance.)

Briles and Blackman will probably get along swimmingly, but after what transpired last year, there will be almost as many eyes on Clements as Briles. Taggart brought in NIU grad transfer Ryan Roberts, JUCO transfer Jay Williams, and a foursome of freshmen, including 330-pound blue-chipper Dontae Lucas, in the hopes of rejuvenating the front five. It’s likely that both Roberts and Lucas start.

If Clements can find three stable entities from the six returnees with starting experience, and then if he can simply keep his damn starting five on the field, then the Noles might actually be able to run their offense.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Florida State
Tamorrion Terry
Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s depth issue might be at running back. Akers returns and could quite obviously thrive under Briles — Houston’s leading rusher in 2018, Patrick Carr, went from averaging 4 yards per carry to 5.7 — but he’s the only returning back with more than five carries last year. Sophomores Anthony Grant and Khalan Laborn are both exciting, but Laborn missed last season with a knee injury, and neither has proven anything.

Luckily, if the RB corps does succumb to injuries, the passing game can probably pick up the slack. Terry and Helton — both three-star prospects in a land of blue-chippers — are among the most exciting tandems of sophomore receivers in the country, and veterans like Keith Gavin and D.J. Matthews are still around as well.

Defense

Barnett is a Mark Dantonio disciple who came to FSU after 11 seasons at Michigan State. The Spartans’ defense has always been at its best when crowding the line of scrimmage and daring college QBs to make throws college QBs can’t always make.

His first FSU defense was pretty young, with 12 freshmen and sophomores logging at least 9.5 tackles. It was also saddled with the worst starting field position in the country and some of the worst turnovers luck to boot: they recovered only three of 17 opponent fumbles, and while 72 passes defensed (interceptions or breakups) would typically result in about 15-16 interceptions on average, FSU reeled in only 12. (By comparison, opponents defensed only 51 total passes but finished with 13 INTs.)

FSU was defending with one hand tied behind its back but still produced decent, if unspectacular, results. The Noles ended up 37th in Def. S&P+, their worst ranking since Bowden’s last year (85th in 2009), but considering the degree of difficulty, it could have been much worse.

NCAA Football: Samford at Florida State
Marvin Wilson
Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

Granted, with its tempo and fast possessions, a Briles offense can put strain on its own defense at times, but there’s still plenty of hope for improvement here. Ace pass rusher Brian Burns is now a Carolina Panther, but five other contributing linemen return, as do the top two linebackers and all but one defensive back. And while the Noles could start as few as two or three seniors, there’s still more experience this time around.

Tackle Marvin Wilson was almost as good as Burns up front. Per Pro Football Focus, the former all-world recruit was among the best tackles in the country as a sophomore, and sophomore Cory Durden, his potential battery mate, logged six tackles for loss among his 16 tackles last year. Joshua Kaindoh is the only returning end with more than one sack last year, though. Someone will have to do at least a decent Burns impersonation.

Linebacker Dontavious Jackson and nickel/OLB Hamsah Nasirildeen give FSU a veteran presence in the middle, and while Jackson made no mark in the pass rush, he’s tremendous in run support. Either freshman Jaleel McRae or senior Emmett Rice could be strong in the blitz department, but neither has been healthy of late.

NCAA Football: Florida State Spring Game
Jaiden Lars-Woodbey
Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

For the most part, the secondary played the role Barnett wanted in run support -- both versatile safety Jaiden Lars-Woodbey and corner Kyle Meyers recorded at least four TFLs, and as a freshman Lars-Woodbey combined eight run stuffs with eight pass breakups. That’s a rare combo.

In pass defense, though, the Noles struggled with breakdowns. They were 19th in completion rate allowed but 60th in passing marginal explosiveness and, in open-play situations, 84th in big-play rate.

If safety Cyrus Fagan bounces back from a shaky season, that will allow Stanford Samuels III to move back to corner, where he’s more comfortable. Blue-chip freshman Akeem Dent had a great spring, and with Lars-Woodbey, Fagan, and senior Levonta Taylor, it appears the back line of the defense should be far more sturdy.

Special Teams

After ranking in the Special Teams S&P+ in six of Fisher’s eight seasons, FSU plummeted to 96th last year. Logan Tyler ranked 108th in punt efficiency, which was a field position disaster considering all the three-and-outs, and the return game was all-or-nothing. Returning place-kicker Ricky Aguayo was still solid, but consistency was lacking.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug vs. Boise State 24 -1.6 46%
7-Sep UL-Monroe 103 22.3 90%
14-Sep at Virginia 41 0.5 51%
21-Sep Louisville 87 16.1 82%
28-Sep N.C. State 47 7.1 66%
12-Oct at Clemson 3 -21.5 11%
19-Oct at Wake Forest 62 5.3 62%
26-Oct Syracuse 56 8.8 69%
2-Nov Miami 19 -0.5 49%
9-Nov at Boston College 72 7.7 67%
16-Nov Alabama State NR 56.7 100%
30-Nov at Florida 6 -16.2 17%
Projected S&P+ Rk 28
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 72 / 15
Projected wins 7.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 20.0 (8)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 15
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -11 / 2.2
2018 TO Luck/Game -5.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 77% (74%, 80%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 4.4 (0.6)

Florida State might be the biggest wildcard in the country. On one hand, you can pretty easily see an experienced, healthy, and Briles-defined offense surging and a more experienced, well-supported defense gaining in confidence. FSU has top-20 talent and could easily play at a top-20 level.

On the other hand, when your program has done this recently ...

... it’s hard to simply assume things will be alright. Maybe the offense only improves instead of improving dramatically. Maybe the defense gets weighed down by fatigue and depth issues due to Briles’ tempo.

S&P+ is optimistic, sort of. The Noles are projected to improve to 28th overall — quite the surge from 71st — but that’s only good enough for a seven-win projection.

FSU’s schedule features three likely wins (ULM, Louisville, Alabama State), two likely losses (at Clemson, at Florida), and a ton of tossups.

The first game of the year, a battle with Boise State in Jacksonville, is enormous. It’s the first of the many tossups, and a win could trigger a 5-0 start, happy headlines, and a run at nine or 10 wins. But a loss could trigger a 1-2 start, with a Week 3 loss at Virginia, and ... well ... after leading FSU to its first losing season in 40 years, a slow start is probably not something Taggart wants to be a part of.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.