The Tigers are 5-0 and coming out of their bye week to face arch-rival Florida State. The Seminoles are 3-2 and also coming off their bye week. While they’re far from “back,” they’ve been competitive against solid competition and just blew out the NCSU Wolfpack. They have the talent to beat Clemson (look for a depth chart analysis to come out soon), but they may not be ready to put it all together quite yet. Jon Marchant from Tomahawk Nation has joined us to answer some questions and help preview the Florida State game.
STS: Florida State had their best performance of the season in Week 5 – a 31-13 win over NC State. NC State is bad. They haven’t beaten a P5 team yet. Nevertheless, FSU beat them the way good teams should beat bad teams – handily. Do you think it’s the start of a renewed, maybe we can say “unconquered,” spirit coming from the team? If so, what’s the biggest factor in that change?
TN: That’s hard to say. I want to believe the team is turning the corner, but if it is it’s more akin to a sluggish cruise ship than anything else. It’s hard to tell if the ship is actually turning or if you’re just drunk. I think that Willie Taggart’s rebuild of this program, while perhaps somewhat behind schedule of where it could ideally be, isn’t off course. Some guys are starting to buy in, but there are still systemic issues at play that’s holding the rebuild back. Still, the win against NC State definitely feels like a watershed moment. If there’s one factor I had to point to, I’d say it comes from the top – the coaching changes. New offensive coordinator Kendal Briles has maximized the talent on offense and recently acquired defensive analyst Jim Leavitt has got the defense playing more competently.
STS: QB Alex Hornibrook, who transferred in from Wisconsin, has been playing while James Blackman was injured. Can you give us some background on the QB situation as well as any updates you may have on what the QB position will most likely look like for FSU against Clemson and moving forward?
TN: Hornibrook is a luxury I’m not sure FSU deserves, to be honest. Few teams carry backups with his experience, and I’m not sure where the ’Noles would be right now without him on the roster. Earlier this year there was legitimate concern whether FSU could get enough bodies in the room, especially with Blackman’s slight frame. It appears those concerns were well-founded, and Blackman sprained his MCL while having what was perhaps his best game of the season.
However, if James Blackman is healthy, he will start this game and every game. He has the higher ceiling of the two, and is more capable of pushing the ball down the field with plus throws. Hornibrook might have a higher floor and will probably be the safer play against teams FSU is expected to beat. But if Florida State is going to pull an upset against anyone Blackman will have to start and be effective.
STS: Florida State’s offensive line has been an issue for years. It’s really come to a head the last two seasons as poor offensive line play has wasted elite skill position talent. It was supposed to be better this season, but Florida State ranks 124th in the nation with 3.8 sacks allowed per game (tied with UNC) (19 total sacks allowed). Has the offensive line improved some or is it as bad as in past years?
TN: The short answer is that there are just going to be some teams that FSU won’t be able to block up front, and Clemson is one of them. So to you guys the Seminole offensive line may not look very different.
The long answer is that they have definitely improved…some. Briles brought with him offensive line coach Randy Clements, who has done a remarkable job improving the base play of this unit, especially in the run game. Teams are getting pressure and sacks at about the same rate as last season, which admittedly isn’t a good mark, but the difference is that teams are having to blitz a lot more in order to do so.
Still, there was never much hope for a giant leap in the quality of play, and it would be a lie to say they’re even average. It would take a near-miracle for any unit on most any team to go from ‘the worst in the country’ to ‘below average’ in just one season, right? The key difference in my opinion between this season and last is that Briles has done a great job scheming around their weaknesses – namely pass protection. He uses tempo and motion and RPO run-blocking action to help them. It’s working. But the flip side of that is FSU can’t afford to get into long passing downs, as the old issues quickly resurface.
STS: After a dismal sophomore campaign where he averaged only 4.4 YPC and totaled just 706 rushing yards and 6 TDs, Cam Akers, the former five-star RB, is getting back to the success he had as a freshman. He is averaging 5.1 YPC and already has 582 rushing yards and 7 rushing TDs. FSU is leaning on him heavily as he already has 115 carries through five weeks compared to 161 carries through all of last season. After UNC running backs averaged 5.5 YPC against Clemson, do you think FSU will try to ride Cam Akers to an upset in Death Valley or will we see a more balanced approach?
TN: What other option do they have? Haha, no seriously, got any ideas? Akers is the best player on FSU’s offense, so he should get the ball and get it a lot. Unfortunately, him getting the ball a ton doesn’t necessarily mean FSU is playing keep-away from Trevor Lawrence. This offense can’t score if they go slow, and because of the RPOs whoever gets the ball is kinda up to the defense and whether Blackman can make the correct reads. Not to channel John Madden, but this offense will do whatever it takes to put up as many points as they can, because who knows how many they’re going to need to win. I hope Akers is a big part of that, because it’s just really fun to watch him play.
STS: Just when FSU has seemed to turn the corner with the big win against NC State, their two toughest games – at least until they go to Gainesville – are up next: at Clemson and at Wake Forest. The four games after those they should win (vs. Syracuse, vs. Miami, at BC, vs. Alabama St.), but is there a risk that Willie loses the team if they drop these two and sit at 3-4 heading into that very winnable stretch of their schedule?
TN: I still don’t think FSU can overlook anyone (except maybe Alabama St.). Do I think Taggart will lose the team if they drop to 3-4? No, I don’t, not after what this program has been through the last couple years. If FSU had lost one – or especially both – of the last two games, then I’d be more likely to say yes. Or that FSU might already be in that dark place. Lose one and they’re 2-4 following what could be a shellacking by Clemson, needing to win three of the FBS five with Miami and Florida left to play. Lose to Wake too and fall to 2-5? Say goodnight.
I’m glad FSU put themselves in a “good” spot here, and I’m inclined to believe we’re past the team quitting (except maybe barring losses to the next three). If FSU falls short of the upset vs Clemson, and assuming a win vs. Alabama State, they just need two of the rest. At 3-4 I think this team will keep fighting.
STS: The Tigers are favored by more than three touchdowns and ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) gives the Seminoles less than a 7% chance to win. Do you think the Seminoles can keep it interesting for a while? Short of an upset, what are hoping to see from the Seminoles?
TN: I don’t know, maybe? It depends on things like turnover luck, and hitting on several explosive plays. Things that are hard to predict but FSU would need in order to win. Can FSU hang around? Sure. Can they get blown out? Absolutely. I guess since I kinda wrote this game off a long time ago I’m really just less interested in the result than I am the process. I want to see how FSU stacks up against a really good team, a kind of barometer of where the program is at. What do they do well vs. the Tigers, how did they challenge them, where did they fall short or get dominated, etc. Is this team improving, and learning? Are they fighting and being tough and doing the little things well? That’s what I’m hoping to see.
STS: Lastly, how long until FSU is back to approximately equal footing with Clemson?
TN: Good question. When is Trevor Lawrence eligible for the NFL? 2021? Ask me again in 2021.
The truth is the culture, APR, and offensive line issues (just for starters) that Taggart inherited from Jimbo Fisher are all things that take multiple years to fix. They were an absolute mess, and there’s no way to take shortcuts. In some respects Taggart hasn’t helped himself as much as he probably could have, but he hasn’t caught a lot of breaks either, and has kinda had to coach with one hand tied behind his back. That’s not to say I think Taggart is an elite coach, just that he’s good at rebuilding programs and some of the issues have restricted his ability to deal with them head on as much as he’d probably like. That in turn has decelerated the rebuild a bit, which has got to be frustrating for him.
What some of us understand is that it’s going to be a long road back. I don’t know how far Taggart will take FSU down that road, but I do feel confident that when it’s over he will leave them much better than he found them.
A huge thank you to Jon Marchant. Tomahawk Nation is one of the top SB Nation sites so be sure to check out their preview content for the upcoming game. The other half of this Q&A where we answer their questions about Dabo, Lawrence, and the rest of the Tigers is now live there!