Florida State is in a “year zero” after hiring promising young coach Willie Taggart. Known for his “Gulf-coast offense” Taggart was seen as potentially able to shake things up this year with an always talented FSU roster, they came into the season ranked 19th. Seven games, and seven sets of starting linemen later, and that hasn’t happened. The Noles are currently sitting 4-3 and fifth in the Atlantic Division. FSU has performed better their last few games but the rough start and the reality that their offensive line can only improve so much without some new blood have put their NCAA record bowl streak in jeopardy.
Clemson meanwhile will roll into Tallahassee with what looks like the safest shot to make the College Football Playoff. This is the largest spread FSU has faced at home in at least three decades.
The Seminoles 2.96 YPC average is their lowest since 1969, and talented running back Cam Akers has yet to reach 100 yards in a game. Akers had 98 yards against Wake Forest and was given two attempts to reach 100 yards, one was stuffed behind the line and one was called back due to penalty. FSU runs mostly inside zone, dart and power. The wide receivers are usually split extremely wide to force defensive backs to cover far from the action.
When given space Akers is incredible, last year he had twenty-nine 10+ yard rushes, as many as Saquon Barkley. This year he’s managed just nine. The Noles have been stuffed behind the line on 27.5% of runs this year, making it nearly impossible to assemble an efficient offense. Their rushing efficiency ranks 126th out of 130 FBS teams.
Taggart’s offense relies on a lot of bubble screens, especially to bunched formations. These, in addition to RPO slants and hitches to the outside receivers, punish teams that creep in against the run.
The QB run game is part of the offense, and essential to making their empty formations work, but Francois hasn’t been the same type of dual threat since returning from a leg injury.
The offense will attack wide with the running game every so often with jet sweeps and bash running schemes. Taggart is fond of using formations to create space, particularly in matchups (such as Miami) where he couldn’t move the ball from vanilla alignments. The Noles are probably going to run a trick play or two as well. It almost worked against Miami, with FSU jumping out to a 27-7 lead, but problems with the running game and overall efficiency makes it hard to close a game out.
Tight end Tre McKitty is an excellent receiver. They tend to lean on him and their running backs (Akers and backup Jacques Patrick might have the most reliable hands on the team) to move the chains. FSU sticks mostly in 11 personnel, but will move their tight end and backs around a lot.
Taggart gets the ball to his players in imaginative ways, such as with this tight end screen. Notice how the running back shifting out furthest (with a linebacker chasing him) tells Francois the defense is in man.
When given time Francois can carve a defense up. He’s rarely gotten that time, and is unlikely to get it on Saturday. The offensive tackles are just straight up bad. Longer developing play action passes often get Francois killed.
Blitz pickup remains an issue as well. Francois doesn’t always do himself any favors, he seems to struggle to make reads in this new offense. He’s most comfortable as a drop back passer, and can move the chains with the quick game. Vertical passing hasn’t been a big part of this offense because they can’t block long enough for the routes to develop.
When the Noles do get aggressive they like to attack the middle of the field with three and four verticals. FSU’s receivers can make plays with the ball in their hands, their passing game is much more explosive than their running game, but they also drop the ball a lot. This has been one of the worst offenses in a power conference so far.
FSU is turning things around, and could be a formidable team in the very near future. Right now Taggart hasn’t had time to address the offensive line issues that Jimbo, who didn’t field a good offensive line after about 2015, left him with. The matchups with McKitty and the FSU running backs on Clemson’s linebackers favor FSU. The secondary could have its hands full with FSU’s receivers. It’s still hard to see FSU being able to score much without turnover luck, a glaring error on Clemson’s part, or special teams. There’s only so much you can coach around not being able to block anybody. As good as the skill players are, this offensive line is worse.