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  • In the aftermath of FSU's decisive Labor Day loss, Willie Taggart can follow one of two recent paths taken by offensive-minded coaches stepping into high-profile jobs. Plus, who's in the (very fluid) playoff field after Labor Day, the return of the Big Ugly of the Week and the rest of this week's Punt, Pass & Pork.
By Andy Staples
September 04, 2018

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — You’re about to read three quotes from offense-oriented college football head coaches who lost debut games. See if you can guess the identities of each coach.

Coach No. 1: “It’s not a situation where you scrap what you do or you throw a fit and yell and scream and all those things. A lot of it was a byproduct that they’re a good football team.”

Coach No. 2: “We can correct some of the things that happened today. We had too many penalties. We went really sloppy there after we had gotten off to a pretty clean start. We can correct that kind of thing.”

Coach No. 3: “I look at it as a game against a good football team. We’ve got to play much better. We played a sloppy game. That’s on all of us—starting with me. We’ve got to do a better job.”

Here’s a hint. You see the dateline on this column, so you know one of these coaches is Florida State’s Willie Taggart, whose debut Monday night was an unmitigated disaster. The Seminoles lost 24–3 to Virginia Tech, and Taggart’s vaunted Gulf Coast offense looked like it was being run in mud. (Even though it actually outgained Virginia Tech’s offense.) The Hokies won the field position game, won on special teams and racked up 13 tackles for loss—negating nearly every positive Florida State play with at least one negative play. “We did exactly what we preach not to do,” Taggart said Monday night.

Taggart is Coach No. 3. And as bad as Taggart’s offense looked Monday, it didn’t match the ineptitude of Coach No. 1’s debut. This coach’s up-tempo scheme rolled up 152 yards, averaged 3.5 yards a play and made only six first downs in a 19–8 road loss. That coach’s name? Chip Kelly. You probably don’t remember how awful Kelly’s offense was in his first game as Oregon’s head coach because LeGarrette Blount sucker-punched Boise State’s Byron Hout, and that’s all anyone wanted to talk about after the game. (Until Kelly sent a fan a refund for his road trip.)

Coach No. 2 actually had some offensive success in that first game. His group gained 445 yards and averaged 5.7 yards a play. But his team lost 33–28 after its underdog opponent connected on a Hail Mary as time expired. His name? Mike Riley. In Riley’s first game at Nebraska, BYU stunned the Cornhuskers with a 42-yard bomb from Tanner Mangum to Mitch Mathews.

In the aftermath of Monday’s debacle, Taggart must decide who he wants to be: Kelly or Riley?

Kelly’s offense was abysmal in his debut, but the 2009 Ducks would lose only one more regular-season game (51–42 to Jim Harbaugh’s Stanford team). They would win the Pac-10 that season and play in the Rose Bowl. Kelly would go on to go 46–7 at Oregon with three conference titles in four seasons. 

Riley, meanwhile never really did purge the sloppiness from the Huskers’ program. During his tenure, Riley’s Nebraska teams always seemed a notch or two below the best of the Big Ten in terms of preparation and execution. Eventually, that caught up to Riley and he was fired at the end of season three.

Taggart has a saying that he cribbed from an old coach at Western Kentucky. Whereas most people would bid a friend goodbye by saying “Have a great day,” Taggart bids players and co-workers goodbye by saying “Have a great day if you want to.”

Now Taggart has to decide what he wants to do.

He can choose to go either the Kelly route or the Riley route. Taggart came to Florida State after only one season at Oregon because Florida State is his dream job and—since the Seminoles have had exactly two head coaches since 1976—he wasn’t sure if it would ever open again in his working life. But if he didn’t know it already, Taggart learned Monday that a spear on the helmet guarantees neither success nor even respectability. Each has to be earned, which means the real work begins Tuesday.

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The Florida State job is less like Taggart’s first two head-coaching stops (Western Kentucky and South Florida) and more like the Oregon job. Yes, the Seminoles struggled in 2017 after starting quarterback Deondre Francois went down for the year in the season opener and coach Jimbo Fisher flirted with the Texas A&M job, which he eventually left Florida State to take. But the Seminoles are not a total gut job like Western Kentucky and USF were. They have the talent to win now. They just didn’t look like it Monday. Oregon was in a similar place when Taggart got there. Mark Helfrich had been fired after a 4–8 season, but there were still players on the roster who had been on a team that won the Pac-12 and reached the national title game. Taggart engineered a three-win improvement in year one before he was offered the job he just couldn’t refuse.

Now Taggart will have to prove he can handle an elite job. He has a talented roster that fractured last season, and he can’t let that happen again. “We have to stay together,” center Alec Eberle said Monday night. “Y’all know as well as I do that last year, when times got tough, we separated as a team.”

After Eberle spoke, quarterback Deondre Francois, ice bags on both knees, slowly lowered himself into the same chair and expressed a similar sentiment. “We’re going to see what type of team we are,” Francois said. “We’re not going to break up like we did last year. We’re going to stick together.”

Times seemed especially tough Monday. Virginia Tech coordinator Bud Foster’s defense flummoxed Florida State’s linemen and skill position players by routinely shifting a split-second before the snap. A Bear front could instantly morph into a 4–2, and players running their offense for the first time weren’t sure how to alter their assignments to compensate for the change. This isn’t the first time Foster’s defense has frustrated an up-tempo team, of course. The 2014 Ohio State team that ultimately won the national title looked helpless against the Hokies’ defense in September of that season.

The part that’s hardest to swallow for the Seminoles is that the shift to this offense was supposed to take some pressure off a line that struggled in the final few seasons of Fisher’s tenure. The way this offense spreads the field—wider than anyone except Syracuse and Tulsa—and the pace should make blocking easier. The defense essentially has to declare based on positioning if it will focus on the run or the pass, and if the quarterback chooses correctly, the offense should have either a numbers advantage in the run game or one-on-one matchups in the pass game.

So why did Florida State only have 15 rushing yards on its first 24 carries Monday? (Cam Akers made the rushing stats look respectable with an 85-yard run, but he was in the arms of a Virginia Tech defender at the line of scrimmage on that play and broke free. Akers’s other 13 carries combined for a three-yard loss.) Perhaps it’s because Virginia Tech never had to worry about the quarterback as a runner.

One of the critical ways this offense has stressed defenses in the past is by forcing defenders to respect the possibility that the quarterback may keep the ball and run. At USF, Quinton Flowers kept it frequently and shredded defenses. At Oregon, Justin Herbert relied more on his NFL-caliber arm, but he carried out every fake and took off when a favorable situation presented itself. That kept defenses honest.

Monday, Francois never looked like a threat to run. This wasn’t because of any fear on Francois’s part. In the first half, he was running downfield and throwing blocks for receivers. He’s never been afraid to mix it up physically. It looked more like a strategic decision. Francois, who missed most of last season after a knee injury suffered in the season opener against Alabama, was only cleared for full contact last month. Maybe he isn’t quite ready to be unleashed as a true dual threat. If this is the case, better opposing defenses could feast on an offense that only has two of its three usual options on each play.

Taggart said sophomore James Blackman was available Monday night, but he never thought about using him. Blackman started in place of Francois last season. He wasn’t ready to run one of college football’s most complex offenses after only a few months on campus, but he made the best of it. But the speed with which Taggart announced Francois as the starter after Francois was finally cleared to play suggests Francois outplayed Blackman at practice to the point that Francois felt like the only option. Complicating matters was the departure last week of redshirt freshman Bailey Hockman, who competed against Francois and Blackman in camp. Monday, Chris Nee of 247Sports reported that Hockman will play this season for Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. If there ever was a plan to try to redshirt Blackman, it evaporated when Hockman left.

As the Seminoles left the field Monday, another potentially major issue loomed. Right tackle Landon Dickerson limped into the tunnel, treading gingerly on what looked like a bum ankle. One of the areas Taggart needs to fix is tackle depth, but that isn’t something that can be done by a coach who arrived in December. That takes time, and if Dickerson is out for any extended period, the Seminoles could struggle even more up front. Not that the players intend to use injuries as an excuse. “We’re Division I athletes,” Eberle said. “We’re all on scholarship here. We should be able to put anyone in and they can do the job.”

Taggart, meanwhile, will have to prove he can do the job. Until Monday, he had done everything right. He had infused the program with positivity following an overwhelmingly negative year. He had embraced all the things Fisher had shunned. One of Fisher’s chief complaints in his final seasons was that the booster club—which makes all the important decisions in Florida State’s athletic department—had elected to spend money on Doak Campbell Stadium upgrades instead of on a dedicated football operations building. Sunday night, Florida State announced a $100 million capital campaign for athletics that includes $60 million for that operations building. Taggart kicked off the drive by donating $1 million of his own money.

Taggart has proven to be a deft political operator, but he learned Monday how far political capital goes when the offense can’t convert third-and-seven. Riley had everyone in Lincoln eating out of his palm until it became clear that Ohio State and Nebraska were playing two different sports. Kelly, meanwhile, turned around the Ducks so quickly after that first hiccup that he wound up getting nearly everything he wanted in Eugene.

Taggart has to figure out which path he’ll follow. Will he emulate Kelly, who quickly corrected the mistakes of a disastrous opener and took Oregon to the top of the sport? Or will he emulate Riley, who let the issues fester until Nebraska’s administration decided they needed someone else to fix them?

That’s totally up to Taggart. Even after an opening night from hell, he can still have a great career at Florida State.

If he wants to.

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A Random Ranking

Aretha Franklin was laid to rest this past weekend. In her honor, here are my 10 favorite Aretha songs.

1. “Think”
2. “Respect”
3. “I Say A Little Prayer”
4. “Chain Of Fools”
5. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”
6. “Something He Can Feel”
7. “Do Right Woman-Do Right Man”
8. “Amazing Grace”
9. “You’re All I Need To Get By”
10. “I Knew You Were Waiting (with George Michael)”

Projected Playoff

In this section, we’ll use what we’ve seen so far this season to predict how the playoff committee will seed the bracket. This won’t always match the top four of the Top Ten Plus One that I publish after each week of games. While that is a pure power ranking, this takes into account schedules and conference dynamics along with other factors that affect playoff selection/seeding. That said, this week’s matches the top four from Saturday night’s column exactly. But expect the rankings in both pieces to vary wildly in the first few weeks and become more consistent as more data points arrive.

1. Alabama (1–0)
Last week: Beat Louisville, 51–14
This week: vs. Arkansas State

Wait, the Crimson Tide have the usual death-dealing defense and might also have a dynamic offense led by a quarterback who can beat teams deep with regularity? Gulp.

2. Ohio State (1–0)
Last week: Beat Oregon State, 77–31
This week: vs. Rutgers

The Buckeyes are going give Big Ten defenses hell this season. Sure, it was just Oregon State, but QB Dwayne Haskins was ruthlessly efficient. He averaged 10.4 yards per attempt and threw five touchdown passes with no interceptions. Meanwhile, Ohio State rushers averaged 7.1 yards a carry. We’ll still need to see how this offense fares against TCU in Week 3 to get an idea of how it will look against better defenses, but the Buckeyes have a plethora of weapons.

3. Oklahoma (1–0)
Last week: Beat Florida Atlantic, 63–14
This week: vs. UCLA

Basic probability dictates that Oklahoma’s offense won’t be as good as it was last season because Baker Mayfield had one of the best seasons a college quarterback has ever had, but the Sooners sure looked as if they hadn’t lost a beat while shelling a team that won 11 games last year and returned a significant portion of its defense. UCLA coach Chip Kelly hasn’t lost back-to-back games in the same season as a college head coach. That streak probably ends Saturday when the Bruins visit Norman.

4. Clemson (1–0)
Last week: Beat Furman, 48–7
This week: at Texas A&M

The Tigers could make a move in this ranking if they roll at Kyle Field. But new Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher is very familiar with Clemson’s personnel, so the Aggies could make it tough on Clemson. The big question isn’t who will start at quarterback for the Tigers—it’s going to be Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence is going to play—but who finishes. If one guy takes all the second-half snaps, it’s quite possible he’s the guy.

Big Ugly of the Week

In 2013, defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow was a five-star recruit who could have gone anywhere. He chose USC, and while he got a degree from an excellent school, injuries derailed the football portion of his time in Los Angeles. After last season, he decided to retire from football. He changed his mind shortly after, and now Bigelow is a graduate transfer playing his final season at West Virginia, and the former high school teammate of Mountaineers receiver David Sills V may be exactly what West Virginia needed to shore up a defense that struggled last season. Both of Bigelow’s tackles in Saturday’s 40–14 win against Tennessee were for loss, but that doesn’t even come close to explaining how he affected Tennessee’s offense. With Bigelow caving in the inside of the Volunteers’ line play after play, Tennessee struggled to find any offensive rhythm.

Three And Out

1. Texas coach Tom Herman explained the first quarter of Saturday’s 34–29 loss to Maryland—which saw the Terrapins take a 14–7 lead that would stretch to 24–7 midway through the second—with … John Steinbeck?

“Yesterday we were talking about it, and [Texas linebacker Gary Johnson] had never read Of Mice and Men. I told him he needs to read Of Mice and Men. It was kind of Lenny with the rabbit and with George, right? That Lenny wanted so badly to touch the rabbit and play with the rabbit, and he squeezed it so hard, he killed the rabbit.

“I know that seems maybe out there a little bit, but I think that’s what the first quarter was. We wanted it so badly that we got in our own way quite a bit, and that’s correctible. That also means that when you suffer a setback like the one that we did, your locker room is still very strong, and everybody still believes in what we have spent the last year and a half creating and building here.”

Texas did come back from that deficit to eventually take a 29–24 lead in the third quarter, but the Longhorns allowed 10 fourth-quarter points and turned the ball over on their final two possessions.

Meanwhile, OrangeBloods.com writer Anwar Richardson offered a much less literary explanation for the difference between the Texas offense in the first quarter and in the rest of the game.

2. The Big Ten Network has indefinitely suspended Braylon Edwards for a tweet the former Michigan receiver sent Saturday shortly after the Wolverines’ loss at Notre Dame. The since-deleted tweet criticized Michigan center Cesar Ruiz and quarterback Shea Patterson as well as the offensive line play in general. “Michigan football is sadly one thing…....Trash,” Edwards wrote at the end of the tweet.

Monday, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh responded to those comments by asking that all criticism be directed at him.

“Number one, first of all, it’s not true. It’s not factual,” Harbaugh told reporters. “There’s nobody in our program who thinks those things about any player on our team, let alone the two players he describes. On the other level, it’s disappointing that a member of the Big Ten Network would choose to attack the character to our players. It’s disappointing. If someone else wants to attack the character of anybody on our ball club, come after me.”

On Monday, Edwards sent a tweet apology to Ruiz and to Patterson, but Edwards did not back off his criticism of the program.

3. You don’t need to go to Las Vegas to bet legally on college football anymore. SI’s Ross Dellenger spent Saturday on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, where the sports books expect fall Saturdays to be much bigger than fall Sundays.

What’s Eating Andy?

Boise State debuted the greatest turnover prop in Saturday’s 56–20 win at Troy: the turnover throne.

Now I just need to convince SI to create a good lede throne.

What’s Andy Eating?

Of all the foods I’m addicted to, Brussels sprouts are the healthiest. Now, the way most restaurants prepare them these days is decidedly less healthy. They’re covered in oil and bacon and cheese and all manner of goodness, but I’d be happy to eat them roasted in the oven with a light dusting of salt, pepper and olive oil. But if you’ve got bacon and balsamic vinegar, by all means, cover those sprouts.

Andy Staples

The description of the Clay’s Sprouts appetizer at Tallahassee’s Backwoods Bistro contained all the usual sprouts accoutrement—bacon, roasted almonds, parmesan, feta and honey. But it also contained something called Beast Sauce, which I assumed would be something common. Usually, when a place slaps the “special” moniker on a sauce, it’s some version of Thousand Island dressing. That would be disgusting on sprouts—mostly because Thousand Island is disgusting on anything—so I figured Beast Sauce must be something else. So I did some investigatory journalism (I asked the bartender) and learned it’s just what Backwoods Bistro calls its Buffalo sauce.

Now I was intrigued. Buffalo sauce and sprouts? When a tray of sprouts the size of a small gondola arrived, there was no discernible Buffalo sauce. And when I bit down into a bacon-covered sprout, I didn’t taste Buffalo sauce. What I tasted instead was a combination of the Buffalo sauce and honey, which created a spicy-sweet combo that paired nicely with all the savory flavors that had turned my once-healthy appetizer into something decadent.

Andy Staples

That massive tray of sprouts probably would have sufficed as a meal, but I couldn’t resist ordering the Seminole Chop, a giant hunk of bone-in pork loin that comes covered by a parmesan-herb crust and riding atop a bed of stone-ground cheddar grits. Bone-in chops can be tough sometimes, and pork loin can dry out. But this one was tender and juicy, and I struggled to finish because I’d already eaten what felt like several pounds of sprouts.

Andy Staples

This was a night to drink dessert, and Backwoods Bistro had a perfect option. The Old Fashioned & Southern combines the usual makings of an Old Fashioned (with Bulleit Rye for the whiskey and peach-flavored bitters) with sweet tea and lemon. The flavor profile of sweet tea matches perfectly with whiskey anyway, and this addition made an already smooth drink even smoother. Like the sweet tea–flavored vodkas, this goes down so easy that it could get a drinker in trouble if he’s not careful.

I practiced moderation. But if I hadn’t, I would have just soaked it all up with another boatload of sprouts.

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IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)