Last week, we dove into the Syracuse Orange’s big Friday night matchup against Pitt. The Panthers could potentially take a step back in 2019, but have also frustrated the hell out of SU for the last decade and a half now. Even a “worse” Pittsburgh team will likely find some way to make it a very competitive contest in primetime.
Perhaps you’re just now starting to entertain looking at this year’s opponents, since it’s only June. But since Syracuse football won 10 games last year, and I run this place, we’ve been at this for weeks (months) already. The Orange have plenty of challenges ahead — some of those greater than others. Today, we take a look at SU’s week nine foe:
School: Florida State University
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Coach: Willie Taggart, second year. Taggart played quarterback for Western Kentucky in the 1990s, then jumped right onto the Hilltoppers’ staff in 1999. He coached wide receivers, then quarterbacks, and spent 2001-06 as some combination of QB coach, offensive coordinator and assistant head coach. After three years as Stanford’s running backs coach, he took over at his alma mater in 2010 and went 16-20 for three seasons before moving on to USF. Taggart went 6-18 in his first two years with the Bulls, before beating Syracuse in 2015 and turning his whole tenure around. He’d go 18-7 in his final two years, which was good enough to earn the Oregon gig. One 7-5 season at Oregon led to him getting the FSU job. He’s already on the hot seat following a 5-7 year one.
2018 Record: (5-7) (3-5)
Recapping Last Season:
Attrition, injuries and a new offensive system felled the ‘Noles almost immediately last year. They were blown out by Virginia Tech in week one, then tested by Samford in week two, before rolling into the Carrier Dome for a week three matchup with Syracuse — which the Orange won 30-7 despite losing Eric Dungey before halftime. FSU would rebound for two straight wins, but then went 2-5 down the stretch to miss a bowl game for the first time since 1981.
Florida State struggled to get much done on offense last year, finishing 97th in offensive S&P+ (and 103rd in yards per game). They actually wound up 28th in passing yards per game last year, but 127th in rushing yards per game despite having Cam Akers on the roster. At the heart of the issue was a beleaguered offensive line that was banged up and patchwork from the start of the season, and wound up allowing 36 sacks through 12 games. The Seminoles scored just 21.9 points per game, putting up 14 points or fewer five different times.
Defensively, the ‘Noles did fare quite a bit better at least, ranking 37th in S&P+ — though they also allowed over 416 yards and 31 points per game. That’s workable if your offense is helping you out. This wasn’t the case for FSU, as noted above. Still, Florida State had a decent pass rush with 28 sacks, which helped make up for a lack of turnovers (just 15 forced on the year). Despite the moderate team results, defensive end Brian Burns still put in an All-ACC campaign with 52 tackles, 15.5 TFLs (10 sacks) and three forced fumbles. He wound up getting picked 16th overall in the NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers.
2019 Season Outlook:
FSU is going to have to fix a lot in a hurry, but they also have talent and resources on their side. The schedule could make it hard for a big rebound, however. They’ll face five top 40ish teams (Clemson, Florida, Miami, Boise State, Virginia) with just one of those games at home. On top of that are tough ACC games against NC State and Syracuse too. That doesn’t leave much room for error as the team hopes to avoid missing a bowl for the second straight year.
James Blackman is likely to resume quarterback duties after playing sparingly last year, which could help the offense find its rhythm a bit more. Though he loses top receiver Nyqwan Murray, the rest of the Seminoles’ pass-catchers are largely back, as is the excellent Cam Akers at running back. Last year’s offensive line loses two more starters in Alec Eberle and Derrick Kelly II. But recent issues at the position yield some mild experience up and down the depth chart for 2019. The five potential starters have over 70 career starts to their name.
Defensively, FSU loses some key players — Burns and A.J. Westbrook — but otherwise brings back a lot of what made this group actually capable last year. Nose guard Marvin Wilson (3.5 sacks) is the standout there. However, there’s plenty to like from a veteran linebacker group that brings back four of the top five tacklers and a secondary that returns all but one player (Westbrook). They weren’t the best unit last year, but there’s experience across the depth chart. Some scheme tweaks could yield big dividends, as we’ve seen ourselves at SU.
Syracuse Game Date: Saturday, October 26
Location: Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, Fla.
Odds of Orange Victory: 45 percent
Very Early Outlook vs. Syracuse:
Back in January, I pegged this as a toss-up game for the Orange and I think that still holds true. FSU has experience but we don’t necessarily know if the glaring issues have been addressed this offseason. A better ‘Noles squad at home should put up more of a fight against the Orange than what we saw last year. And Akers is on the short list of running backs in the ACC that can and should truly exploit SU’s inexperience at linebacker this fall. Though Syracuse is on some extra rest here, two back-to-back primetime games before this could potentially yield a let down at some point. Perhaps this is that point (and if not, we could be in for quite a season).