Expect profitable turnaround from Florida State, Willie Taggart

By now, you probably know the numbers: 5-7, 1976 and 37.

As in, the Florida State Seminoles finished with a 5-7 record in Willie Taggart’s first season as head coach. It was the first losing season for the FSU football program since 1976, and the first time the Noles failed to play in a bowl game in 37 years.

Media and fans documented the problems well. An inconsistent, ineffective, injured offensive line topped the list. Florida State struggled to run the football, finishing 126th nationally in rushing yards per game, and the talented Seminoles backfield averaged 2.8 yards per carry. It was the second-worst rushing performance in Florida State history.

The Seminoles stumbled to a 4-8 ATS record, and thanks to two upset losses, fell well short of its posted win total.

There are a few more numbers to keep in mind for those looking for value in a potentially underrated Florida State team: 2, 10 and 7.5.

2019 represents Year 2 of the Taggart era. He has a track record for improvement in his second season.

As a first-time head coach at Western Kentucky in 2010, the Hilltoppers went 2-10. Never mind two wins was an improvement over the team Taggart inherited from David Eason. That qualified as a disappointing start to Taggart’s tenure. But he guided Western Kentucky to to a 7-5 record in 2011, including 7-1 in the Sun Belt.

Following a second 7-5 season in 2012, Taggart left for South Florida. He went 2-10 in Year 1 (a step back from the 3-9 record the Bulls produced in Skip Holtz’ final season), and doubled the win total to four in his second season in 2014.

Before Taggart left for Oregon in late 2016, he guided the Bulls to an 11-win campaign and a spot in the Top 25.

The No. 10 holds several meanings. Two of Taggart’s programs reached 10 ATS wins. Western Kentucky finished 10-2 ATS in his second season, and South Florida finished 10-3 ATS in his third year.

There’s no guarantee Taggart will get the time to turn around FSU. Fans and media already have placed him on the hot seat in Tallahassee. Therefore, we reached out to WarChant.com’s Managing Editor, Ira Schoffel, to get a better feel for Taggart’s future.

“Willie signed a six-year deal at $5 million per season, so he’s going to be here unless [2019] is just a complete disaster,” Schoffel told MajorWager. “A disaster would be below .500. He should be ok if they go 7-5. If FSU finishes 6-6, the heat would be on going into 2020.”

Taggart’s buyout is 80 percent of what’s left on his contract. So if FSU wants to make a move after this season, it would be on the hook for $16 million.

His hot-seat status may lower the market price enough to back the Seminoles as a contrarian strategy. If FSU shows improvement early, and the market is slow to correct itself, another 10-win ATS season is possible.

But there’s more evidence Florida State could be poised to break out in 2019. Thanks in part to success on the recruiting trail under previous head coach Jimbo Fisher, Florida State ranks No. 10 nationally (and second in the ACC) in Roster Strength, according to CFB Winning Edge. Roster Strength accounts for the talent potential of a given team using individual player recruiting ratings, and adjusts for the experience on the roster as well as career production to date.

Only two 2019 opponents have a higher Roster Strength Rating than the Seminoles (88.98): Clemson (90.97) and Florida (89.33), which is a major reason why the Seminoles are favored to win every other contest.

That’s right. According to the early CFB Winning Edge game-by-game preseason projections, Florida State should be favored in 10 games. So not only is a 10-win season against the spread a possibility, the Seminoles have the talent to reach 10 straight-up wins.

That brings us to another important number: 7.5, which is the FSU win total posted by SportsBetting.ag last month. If the Seminoles are better than 10 teams on their schedule, the “over” will cash even if Taggart’s squad suffers two more upset losses.

The hitch, of course, is coaching. Many Seminoles fans point to Taggart and his coaching staff as the primary reason his team underachieved last season. But as Andy Staples pointed out recently for SI.com, it’s not that simple.

Staples laid out the case that the Florida State administration, as well as a less than perfect roster situation, hampered Taggart.

Taggart has improved his teams in second seasons, but he’s racked up four losing seasons and just one 10-win campaign.

Factoring in his 52-57 career record, as well as a host of other facts and figures, Taggart has earned an 80.39 Coach Rating from CFB Winning Edge, which ranks No. 71 in the country and No. 11 in the conference. The difference between Florida State’s Roster Strength (88.13) and its Team Performance Rating (75.46) was the biggest in the country in 2018.

Help is on the way. New Florida State offensive coordinator Kendal Briles has risen to the level of superstar play-caller given his success at Florida Atlantic and Houston, respectively. In 2018, the Cougars ranked fifth nationally in scoring (43.9 points per game), 24th in rushing (217.1 yards per game), 16th in passing (295.5 yards per game) and seventh in total offense (512.5).

“Willie has given Briles free reign with the offense,” Schoffel said. “They’re using all of his terminology, his signals, everything. And why not? Briles has been successful everywhere he’s been.”

Briles’ undersized dual-threat quarterback D’Eriq King accounted for 50 total touchdowns in 11 games last season. Those numbers should be a good omen for QB James Blackman, who has a similar skillset and a 6-foot-5 frame.

Briles’ right-hand man, offensive line coach Randy Clements, followed him to Tallahassee. Reports this spring are optimistic the Briles-Clements combo already has improved the offensive line, and once Northern Illinois transfer Ryan Roberts and five signees arrive this summer, the unit’s depth will get better.

“The offensive line should be improved, “Schoffel said. “I don’t know that the personnel has improved, but I think they’ll protect better because of scheme and play calling.”

If the offensive line opens more holes for RB Cam Akers and the rest of the Seminoles, and better protects Blackman (and/or Wisconsin grad transfer Alex Hornibrook) by allowing fewer than 36 sacks, the offense could thrive. Paired with a talented defense, the revamped offense could put the Noles back in the ACC title hunt.

At the very least, Florida State should focus on a final important number: one. 2018 was just one losing season, only one bowl-less winter, and possibly a one-year blip on the way to success under Taggart.