ACC play officially starts this weekend for the Syracuse Orange (2-0, 0-0), as they host the Florida State Seminoles (1-1, 0-1) at the Carrier Dome. While SU has gotten off to a running start, the ‘Noles have struggled a bit, including last week’s harrowing contest against Samford. No matter what happened on the way here, though, FSU’s still a very talented squad.
Since we’re not Florida State fans, we went ahead and asked one about what to expect in this game. Tomahawk Nation’s Dylan Kidd (who you should follow on Twitter) joins us to talk about the ‘Noles. We also answer some questions over there, so check those out too.
The year hasn’t started as planned for FSU. What’s been most problematic through two games?
As much as I want to avoid stating the obvious and talk about the special teams or the transition as a whole, the answer is the offense. And the struggles certainly stem from that transition, but even still, the offense has underachieved relative to expectations to the greatest extent.
I will acknowledge that, even as a staff, we underestimated the learning curve Willie Taggart’s Gulf Coast Offense would involve. They’re transitioning from a very slow, pro-style offense to a high-tempo spread attack, and they’re doing so with some personnel that might not be ideal fits for it. Add in the significant culture change that needed to occur, and we were probably always in for a challenging first year.
But everything we saw and heard in the preseason suggested they were adapting well, including ripping up the defense in the final fall scrimmage. While they weren’t quite as bad as the scoring output would lead you to believe against Virginia Tech and made some significant strides in week two, this unit is still behind where we expected they’d be, and it definitely has some fans concerned, even this early.
On a related note: Thoughts on Willie Taggart so far?
I loved what Taggart did during the off-season. I thought he crushed every aspect of this job. He salvaged the ’18 recruiting class, laid the foundation for this year’s class, and did a great job generating fan support from both the older and younger generations. I also think his vision for FSU makes all the sense in the world, and I have no reason to believe he can’t implement it.
But, as we all know, he’ll ultimately be judged on his on-field success, or lack thereof. I won’t have a real opinion on his overall performance until year two or three because I think you run serious risks if you try to judge a college football coach based on limited sample sizes. Florida State plays one of the toughest schedules in the country this year, and the same quality team could go 6-6 or 9-3 against it, just depending on bounces in one-score games. I’ll look at how he fares by the advanced statistics this year and next, and we’ll see how the win/loss record looks by that time, as well.
What set Deondre Francois apart from James Blackman in camp to give him the starting QB gig?
According to the coaches, Francois took care of the ball better than Blackman did and ran the offense more smoothly. I also think his mobility, or at least the perception, was a reason for getting the nod. However, he hasn’t been overly willing to take off running so far this year, which poses a problem in Taggart’s offense. While the ‘Noles don’t need a quarterback to run for 1,000 yards per season to make the GCO effective, they do need someone who can make the defense respect the signal caller’s legs. So far, Francois has not accomplished this, as evidenced by his rushing touchdown last week, during which Samford’s defense was completely shocked to see him pull the zone read inside the 10 and prance into the end zone.
I do think Taggart has made it quite clear to him that he needs to keep the ball when the play warrants it, so I hope to see him improve on this front. He does not look 100% after his devastating knee injury a year ago, and I’m not surprised by that. Francois also missed an unacceptable number of reads in the Virginia Tech game on zone read and run pass option plays, and the main focus for him has to be improving his correct read percentage. If he doesn’t, the coaches will have to consider Blackman, who throws a great deep ball, but has also been prone to some turnovers.
The offensive line’s been a problem, but that doesn’t necessary explain the lack of carries for Cam Akers so far. What’s up there?
Well, the ’Noles have had to throw the ball a lot more than they’d like to due to the offensive line being flat-out bad and because they’ve trailed in games. Taggart has historically liked to operate the GCO as a 60% run attack, but FSU has not had the luxury of leaning on the run game to that extent so far. This is because, while the OL starters could have been okay, particularly in the run game, the one place the team could not afford injuries was offensive tackle. And what happened in game one? FSU’s best lineman, tackle Landon Dickerson, suffered an ankle injury. Guard Cole Minshew has also been banged up, and the result has been mixing and matching along the OL with some players who just can’t get it done at this level.
So, quite frankly, barring massive improvements from several players along the offensive line, the Seminoles are going to get whipped up front pretty regularly until they get healthy. Now, there are things FSU can do to try to mitigate this, and you’ve seen it with the attempts to split Akers out wide and involve him in the passing game, as well as the heavy screen game usage. But it seems unlikely that the ‘Noles will implement the power running offense they’re really seeking with the current state of affairs in the trenches.
That said, Taggart absolutely tries to get the ball in the hands of his best offensive players, so Akers will get his touches one way or another.
The ‘Noles haven’t been able to get to the quarterback much this year - what’s held back the blitz (or has there been a lack of it)?
I think it’s still a little early to judge the FSU pass rush, especially considering what they were trying to do on defense during their first two games. The ‘Noles wanted to keep both quarterbacks in the pocket, so they were looking to contain rather than pin their ears back up front. The Seminoles also played a bunch of different kinds of coverages last week and involved quite a few freshmen. And even still, the defense did generate a bunch of turnovers against Samford, and they were often the result of some sort of pressure.
One thing to know is that FSU’s linebackers are not good, so they’re not inclined to entrust them with too much responsibility. You may see defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett send them on frequent blitzes rather than ask them to play assignments.
Florida State didn’t get a full game of a healthy Eric Dungey last year. How do they plan to slow him down this time around?
It’s a great question, and I can’t give you a confident answer with the new staff and scheme. I think the plan will be similar up front as far as making sure they’re trying to keep him in the pocket. But I think the ‘Noles have put a ton of different coverages on film now, and I’m not sure if they’ll continue to try to mix it up or go with their base cover-4 for most of the afternoon. Florida State also eventually wants to press a bunch, but so far that hasn’t happened with much effect.
The idea behind the FSU defense is to complement the offense in that they’ll try to produce turnovers to give the offense the ball back, even understanding that they’ll give up big plays sometimes. It works with the tempo and, in theory, allows FSU’s superior depth to eventually prevail. That hasn’t happened so far, as the offense has failed to get rolling and impose its pace. But, given that Syracuse seems to have similar team goals regarding tempo, we might have a track meet on our hands, provided that FSU can stop shooting itself in the face long enough to take advantage of some holes on the Orange defense.
Other than Eric Dungey, which Orange player is most concerning for you?
On offense I’ll say Jamal Custis. I remember he scored against us last year, and he’s looked good so far in 2018. On defense, it has to be Chris Slayton or Alton Robinson. As I mentioned, Florida State’s tackles are the weak link at the moment, and I expect Syracuse to score on Saturday. The Seminoles will have to keep pace, and they can’t do it if the Orange ends are in the backfield all afternoon.
Who’s one unsung Seminoles player that Syracuse fans should get more familiar with?
If I’m choosing one, I’d go with tight end Tre’ McKitty. He’s a big athletic target who will be a problem for the Orange over the middle. He narrowly defeats hybrid linebacker and safety Jaiden Woodbey, a true freshman who is already FSU’s best linebacker despite not really playing that position.
Prediction time: What’s the final score and how do we get there?
I really want to see a Big 12-style, runaway train of a noon game. Understanding that FSU isn’t winning anything of consequence this season, I’m here purely for the fun, and that sounds like the most realistic way we get it. The Orange gave up more than nine yards per play to Western Michigan, and despite how poor FSU’s attack has looked so far, I think they’ll put up a pretty good offensive effort. I also love Eric Dungey and think Syracuse will score.
Florida State’s defense is somewhere between how good they looked against VT and how bad they looked last week, and I think they can make a few stops. This is where I can point out how absolutely dreadful FSU’s special teams have been so far and pin the outcome on them. The ‘Noles will continue to be unable to have nice things, and they’ll drop what’s hopefully a barn burner in the Dome, 34-31, with one or more missed kicks.