Forde-Yard Dash: Willie Taggart and the 21-Game Test

The second quarter of this week's Forde-Yard Dash looks at Willie Taggart's peers and makes picks for Penn State-Minnesota and more.
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Florida State fires Willie Taggart

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (directions to the end zone sold separately in Evanston):

MORE DASH: LSU vs. Alabama Storylines | News from Tuscaloosa | 5 CFP Rankings Questions

SECOND QUARTER

THE 21-GAME TEST

When Willie Taggart was fired Sunday by Florida State, it represented both a new level of fiscal insanity and a new benchmark for urgency—the move came just 21 games into Taggart’s tenure in Tallahassee. His record was 9-12, which is bad by most Power 5 school standards and quite bad by Seminoles standards. The signs that his hire was a mistake were there from his first game, in 2018, and only intensified from there.

Fact is, the second year at an elite-level program is often when coaches distinguish themselves. From Bob Stoops at Oklahoma to Pete Carroll at USC to Jim Tressel at Ohio State to Urban Meyer at Florida to Nick Saban at Alabama, national championships were either won or seriously chased in Year 2. Taggart was chasing a Military Bowl bid at the time of his ouster.

And yet, 21 games remains a very quick hook, with plenty of evidence that better results can come with a little more time. Jim Harbaugh (11), who had Taggart on his staff at Stanford, started the exact same 9-12 on The Farm. In his third year the Cardinal broke through with a winning record, and in his fourth year they were 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl. Mack Brown (12) started a staggering 2-20 at North Carolina, and has never had a losing season again. (Jury’s still out on this year’s UNC team, which is 4-5.)

If you apply the 21-game test to the rest of the Power 5 coaches who were hired when Florida State named Taggart, there is a lot of failure going on. But only one firing—so far.

The Sub-Taggart Group (13): This is led by Arkansas’s Chad Morris, who is working hard to put his name among the worst hires in Southeastern Conference history. He’s 4-17 with the Razorbacks, still winless in SEC play and has treated the home fans to successive losses by 41 points (Auburn) and 30 points (Mississippi State). Of course, this is par for the Morris course—he was 6-15 through 21 games at SMU. Yet he still got the Arkansas job.

UCLA’s Chip Kelly is 7-14, with the occasional upset win interspersed among the many losses. But Kelly is riding a three-game winning streak and his team is still in contention (kind of) for the Pac-12 South title. So the current arc is promising.

Mississippi’s Matt Luke is 8-13. His team has been increasingly competitive in recent weeks, with close losses to Auburn and Texas A&M, but there have been no truly exciting wins. Luke’s list of the vanquished: Arkansas (and Morris) twice; Vanderbilt; Texas Tech; Southern Illinois; Kent State; Louisiana-Monroe; Southeastern Louisiana.

And the celebrated Scott Frost also is 8-13 at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have been awful in a year when the fan base was expecting a second-year turnaround. This is the time when it’s a really good thing for Frost to have deep Nebraska ties and a lot of allies—things Taggart lacked at FSU—because another coach with his 21-game performance at a place like this would be in trouble.

The Taggart Peer Group (14): Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt and Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin have the same 9-12 record as Taggart. Volunteers fans are so beaten down that they’re excited about wins over Mississippi State, South Carolina and UAB, plus a not-brutal beating from Alabama. Arizona has collapsed after a 4-1 season start, losing four straight and surrendering 47.3 points per game in that slide.

The Better Than Taggart Group (15): Joe Moorhead is 11-10 at Mississippi State, not that anyone in Starkville is turning cartwheels over that. Herm Edwards is the most pleasant surprise of the class at 12-9, although he’s 0-3 this season against Pac-12 South divisional opponents. And Dan Mullen of Florida qualifies as the star of the group at 17-4, the only significant success in a group that has almost completely underwhelmed.

THE WORLD BEYOND TUSCALOOSA

From the time the 2019 schedule went out, everyone knew to circle LSU-Alabama on Nov. 9. That game always matters, and this year it matters more than most. But lo and behold, there also are some unexpectedly interesting games elsewhere to track this week. The Dash has the list:

Penn State at Minnesota (16). The other clash of unbeatens. This is probably the biggest Gophers home game since Nov. 18, 1961, when No. 5 Minnesota beat No. 7 Purdue. It’s the first time the Gophers have been 8-0 since 1941, when they only played eight games.

Tireless hype man P.J. Fleck lobbied for ESPN’s College GameDay to make its first-ever stop at Minnesota, but was denied. That’s the only loss Fleck has taken this season. As it currently stands, he has the highest winning percentage (.581) of any Gophers coach since Bernie Bierman, who led the program from 1932-50, minus a few years during World War II.

Now here’s the catch: Minnesota has played nobody. Fans love to say that about other programs, but in this case it is 100% accurate. Per the Sagarin Ratings, the highest-ranked opponent the Gophers have faced is No. 60 Nebraska. It’s hard, in the Power 5, to get this far into a season without having played anyone.

Penn State, which checks in at No. 5, will be a completely different animal.

What to watch: Minnesota has cranked up its running game since conference play started and ranks second in Big Ten play in rushing yards per game at 253 yards per game and 5.41 yards per rush. That collides with a Penn State defense that leads the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing just 67 yards per game and 2.04 yards per rush.

Dash pick: Penn State 27, Minnesota 17.

Baylor at TCU (17). The only 8-0 team more surprising than Minnesota is Baylor, which has a few noteworthy victories to date (Iowa State, at Kansas State, at Oklahoma State) but faces a challenging November. Oklahoma and Texas are looming Nov. 16 and 23, but it starts with the Horned Frogs, who have beaten the Bears four years in a row.

Baylor is finding ways to win, but not often the easy way. Four victories have been by one score, and its average margin of victory is 16.6 points. Compare that to the other unbeatens: Ohio State 40.4; Alabama 33.3; Clemson 32.5; Penn State 28.9; LSU 26.8; Minnesota 18.4.

This suggests that the Bears’ time to lose is at hand—if the Horned Frogs are good enough. They might not be. TCU went 1-3 in October, with its lone win an upset of Texas. After throwing zero interceptions in his first six games as a collegian, freshman quarterback Max Duggan has thrown four in the last two.

What to watch: Can an underwhelming TCU defense make some big plays against the Baylor offense? One of the most unbelievable stats of the season is that a Gary Patterson team has zero fumble recoveries through eight games. The Frogs also rank eighth in the 10-team Big 12 in sacks and ninth in tackles for loss. During TCU’s four-game winning streak over Baylor, the Frogs were a plus-10 turnover margin, including seven forced fumbles.

Dash pick: TCU 26, Baylor 24.

Iowa at Wisconsin (18). The loser in this meeting of 6-2 teams is all but eliminated in the Big Ten West race. The winner, if it gets some help from Penn State Saturday, could have its shot to beat Minnesota later this month and capture the division.

What to watch: Can either team score? These are not the most robust times offensively for either the Hawkeyes or Badgers. Iowa averaged 15.3 points per game in October. Wisconsin’s point production has dropped three straight games, from 48 against Kent State to 38 against Michigan State to 23 against Illinois to seven against Ohio State.

Dash pick: Wisconsin 14, Iowa 6.

The vast and volatile middle class of the Atlantic Coast Conference (19). There is Clemson, lording itself over the league, and then there is everyone else, an indistinguishable muddle of mediocrity that continues to produce blips of hope amid long stretches of despair. It is highly unpredictable and thus highly entertaining, with all hell breaking loose on a weekly basis somewhere.

Keep this in mind: If Clemson makes the College Football Playoff, one of these jokers is going to the Orange Bowl.

The most interesting game this week is Louisville at Miami, pitting a pair of teams that have mustered up some momentum. The Cardinals are the only team to beat Wake Forest to date, and also took down Virginia to get to 5-3—a remarkable record given the wreckage of Bobby Petrino’s last season. The Hurricanes, who somehow lost to Georgia Tech, followed that with road wins over Pittsburgh and Florida State.

Dash pick: Louisville 28, Miami 27.

Dartmouth vs. Princeton (20). There are two undefeated Ivy League teams, and they’re playing each other in Yankee Stadium. That’s worth a note, especially when you consider how Dartmouth won its last game.

Trailing Harvard Saturday on the final play, quarterback Derek Kyler somehow dodged a certain sack and launched a Hail Mary pass that was deflected into hands of teammate Masaki Aerts. “Honestly, I’m not sure how I got out of that,” Kyler told the Dartmouth student paper.

Dash pick: Princeton 28, Dartmouth 17. Princeton is No. 1 on the U.S. News & World Report rankings of American universities and Dartmouth is No. 12. Hence the margin of victory here.

MORE DASH: LSU vs. Alabama Storylines | News from Tuscaloosa | 5 CFP Rankings Questions