How Worried Should Florida State Be About the Willie Taggart Era?

For the second consecutive recruiting cycle, FSU failed to sign a quarterback, and the panic in Tallahassee needs to be addressed this offseason. Plus, the history of Heisman hype and the rest of this week's #DearAndy mailbag.
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National Signing Day (Part Deux) has come and gone, and you have questions.

From @GatorRy: How screwed is Florida State? Were you wrong about Taggart?

The Twitter handle pretty much explains the gleeful tone of this question, but after Florida State went a second consecutive recruiting cycle without signing a quarterback, this is something people from all fan bases—including Florida State’s—have asked. Short answer: I definitely was wrong when I said at this time last year that Willie Taggart would bring back Florida State quickly.

But there is a longer, more complicated answer. To reach it, we have to figure out exactly what I was wrong about, and I’m not sure we have enough information yet. Basically, this boils down to two questions:

• Is Taggart the right guy for the job?

• Was Florida State a bigger project than we realized?

It’s possible that Taggart isn’t the right guy and that Florida State was a bigger project than expected. If both of those things are true, then we’ll find out pretty quickly once the Seminoles start playing this season. That scenario probably would mean change is on the way.

It’s also possible that the answer to both of the above questions is yes. If that is the case, then Florida State still can be successful under Taggart. Remember, Taggart has been a head coach at three other programs, and all of them got better. To put it in HGTV terms, Western Kentucky and South Florida were total gut jobs, and they took time. In 2010, Taggart went 2–10 in his first season with the Hilltoppers, who went 0–12 in ’09. In Taggart’s third and final season at Western Kentucky, the Hilltoppers went 7–6. He then took over at USF, which went 3–9 in Skip Holtz’s final season. In 2013, Taggart’s first Bulls team went 2–10. His last Bulls team in 2016 went 11–2, though Taggart only coached 10 of those wins* because he was off to Oregon to take over a program that had gone 4–8—which got Mark Helfrich fired. In his only season at Oregon, Taggart went 7–5. But that instant improvement seems like the anomaly in Taggart’s career.

*Taggart nearly got fired at USF in 2015, but he turned around the program by scrapping his preferred West Coast offense in favor of something more similar to the offense Baylor ran under Art Briles.

Oregon was not a total gut job. The Ducks had some good pieces, including then sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert and senior offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby. It seemed logical that Florida State would be in a similar or better state. While the Seminoles had gone 7–6 in Jimbo Fisher’s final season, they had gone 20–6 the previous two and finished No. 3 in the 247Sports Composite in the 2016 recruiting cycle and No. 6 in the 2017 recruiting cycle.

That suggested an easy road to improvement, but watching the Seminoles—especially along the offensive line—last year suggests there was far more work to be done. The line was awful, and everything else offensively devolved from there. Meanwhile, the team seemed to lack leadership at the player level.

To continue our HGTV analogy, perhaps the Seminoles needed to be ripped down to the studs and we didn’t realize it. Jeff Cameron, who hosts a show on Tallahassee’s ESPN Radio affiliate, posited last week that Taggart realized early that he had the same job ahead of him that Scott Frost had at Nebraska but was hesitant to run off the locker room issues the way Frost did because it would put Florida State’s bowl streak in jeopardy. (Spoiler alert: The bowl streak ended anyway.) Frost immediately warned that Nebraska could struggle, and when the Cornhuskers did struggle, Frost said it could get worse before it got better. And then it got much, much worse. But then it got better.

Nebraska looked like a different team in Week 12 than it did in Week 1. Florida State did not, and that, combined with a lack of buzz on the recruiting trail, has generated even more concern in Tallahassee about the leadership of the program. Whether Florida State needed a Year Zero or not, the Seminoles got one. And it’s time to start getting better or else.

Florida State did have a quarterback committed for the 2019 class for eight months. Sam Howell, from Monroe, N.C., began re-examining his options in December after Florida State offensive coordinator Walt Bell left to become the head coach at Massachusetts. Howell signed with North Carolina in December, leaving Florida State with only redshirt sophomore James Blackman and senior Deondre Francois—who at the time wasn’t sure he was going to stay with Florida State—at the position for 2019, pending an NCAA eligibility decision on Louisville transfer Jordan Travis. Now Francois, who wasn’t supposed to factor into Florida State’s plans anyway, has been dismissed. Blackman, who redshirted in 2018, is the presumed starter for new coordinator Kendal Briles. After losing Howell, the Seminoles tried hard to land Louisiana quarterback Lance LeGendre, but Legendre chose Maryland on Wednesday.

Winners and Losers From the Second Round of National Signing Day Decisions

“We have a plan, I think a pretty good plan,” Taggart told reporters Wednesday when asked about the quarterback situation. “I don’t necessarily want to discuss it right now, but I think we’ve got a pretty good plan of where we want to go.” This sounded a little like when I was in high school and my mom would ask me about a paper I had due the next day and I would point at my head and say, “It’s all up here.” But many of those papers turned out just fine, and Taggart may be able to pull a graduate student out of the transfer portal to help at quarterback.

The next few months will help answer those two questions I asked above. But to quote Taggart himself, he needs to do something this offseason to inspire more confidence.

From @SAJohnny_Utah: Why is the Heisman Trophy less of a big deal these days? Do schools run preseason Heisman campaigns anymore?

The Heisman Trophy remains a huge deal. But the media landscape has changed, and it has rendered preseason Heisman campaigns largely unnecessary and occasionally harmful.

Back when college football was more of a regional sport, Oregon had to put Joey Harrington on a billboard in Times Square to make people on the East Coast aware that Joey Harrington was a person who threw footballs. Now, there is no one who follows college football who isn’t aware of current Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert. Because almost every Power 5 game is available on television nationwide, awareness—which used to be a huge hurdle—isn’t an issue.

Now, schools must be careful not to overexpose a great player lest they create a hype train that ultimately leads to a backlash. Increased television exposure is one piece of it, but we’re bombarded with so much information on the web and on social media that months of touting a player for the Heisman likely would hurt the player unless he could put together a Cam Newton-in-2010 season. The more a player gets hyped, the greater the chance the public and the voters get disillusioned if that player isn’t Baker Mayfield, Reggie Bush and Charles Woodson rolled into one person.

It’s actually quite difficult to win the Heisman Trophy now as a preseason favorite. The last favorite to go wire-to-wire and win was Marcus Mariota in 2014. (Mayfield was in the mix going into ’17, but he wasn’t the favorite.) But often a player comes seemingly out of nowhere. No one had Johnny Manziel (’12), Derrick Henry (’15), Lamar Jackson (’16) or Kyler Murray (’18) on preseason Heisman watch lists the years they won.

In most years, a player needs to put up great numbers and then surge in November. And that’s the best time to launch a (limited) campaign. Manziel jumped into the favorite spot by winning at Alabama. Henry carried Alabama’s offense late in the season he won. It took until this past November for the college football world to realize that Murray’s 2018 might be even better than Mayfield’s 2017.

That’s when Oklahoma began touting Murray, who in early November was considered a distant second to Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The Sooners sent targeted stats comparisons between Murray and Tagovailoa to reporters (be they voters or not). Oklahoma also created this image to precede the launch of a web site touting Murray’s candidacy.

Obviously, the baseball-football connection made paying homage to an iconic Nike ad campaign featuring 1985 Heisman winner Bo Jackson a no-brainer. But Oklahoma officials also were keenly aware that a good portion of the Heisman electorate is in its 40s, meaning those voters either had that Bo Jackson poster on their wall as kids or knew someone who did.

Murray’s play, not the recreation of a favorite photo, won him the Heisman. But Oklahoma brought its campaign at the perfect time. Any earlier, and it probably wouldn’t have helped.

From Adam: Will college football ever change the rules to stop pausing the clock whilst they set the chains?

Gosh, I hope not.

Why would you want to make comebacks more difficult? Comebacks are exciting, and those extra seconds allow for more playcalling flexibility.

Also, anything that reduces the football-to-commercials ratio is a bad idea. The game would end sooner—I’m still not entirely sure why that matters—but you’d spend a higher percentage watching commercials. That would be silly.