The midway point for the first year of the Willie Taggart era has not been a glowing success for Florida State as the Seminoles sit at just 3-3 and 1-3 against ACC competition. Victories for FSU include a late comeback over FCS opponent Samford, Northern Illinois and Louisville with help from a complete meltdown by the Cardinals. The losses are blowouts to Virginia Tech and Syracuse in which FSU managed just 10 total points and a road loss to Miami where the Seminoles let a 20-point lead slip away.
The rough remaining slate has bowl eligibility strongly in doubt for FSU. The Seminoles will need to finish 3-3 in their final six games to run their bowl streak to 37 years and four of those contests are against teams currently ranked in the top 16 of the AP Poll.
The bowl streak and streak of 41 consecutive winning seasons are about all that FSU has to play for aside from winning a sixth straight game over rival Florida. Perhaps most surprising is that FSU has been led by its defense, which had to replace its leaders in virtually every category except tackles for a loss. The “Gulf Coast” offense which Taggart dubbed “lethal simplicity” in the offseason has been simple, but far from lethal early on.
Offensive MVP: QB Deondre Francois
Smooth and seamless aren’t words to describe Francois’ transition to a new system, but coming off a season-ending patella tear, Francois’ play has given the Seminoles a fighting chance. Francois has struggled with his reads and untimely turnovers, but he has led two fourth-quarter game-winning drives and has eclipsed 300 passing yards on two occasions. Francois’ 1,506 yards passing and 11 touchdown tosses rank second in the ACC. He’s been forced to do so with little help from his offensive line or running game.
Defensive MVP: DE Brian Burns
Burns is in the midseason running for ACC Defensive Player of the Year and could find himself the latest All-American in a line of great FSU ends. The junior has seven sacks, which ranks second in the ACC, and three forced fumbles, which leads the conference and ranks third nationally. Burns has been a mainstay in opposing backfields and has done his best work against ACC competition. FSU doesn’t want to begin to imagine where it may be right now without Burns’ contributions.
Best Moment of First Half: Westbrook’s Pick Sets Up Murray’s Game-Winner
A 2-3 start appeared to be an inevitable as the clock ticked up two minutes to play with Louisville marching inside the Seminoles’ 25-yard-line. Down 24-21, FSU had already burned a timeout and looked as though its best hope would be to get the ball back down six with just seconds remaining. That’s when quarterback Jawon Pass inexplicably threw the ball on first down and was intercepted by FSU safety A.J. Westbrook. On the ensuing possession, Francois found Nyqwan Murray on a throw over the middle. Rather than settling for a first down and third down conversion, Murray broke a tackle before racing 58 yards for the game-winning score in an improbable 28-24 victory.
Best Newcomer: S Jaiden Woodbey
There has been a learning curve for the highly-touted freshman safety, but the California native has been a mainstay in the defensive rotation since the Labor Day opener. A big body at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, Woodbey is a hard-hitting safety who runs like a cornerback with the instincts of a linebacker. Woodbey ranks seventh on the team with 22 tackles to go with 1.5 tackles for a loss and a forced fumble.
Biggest Surprise: FSU’s Offensive Line
Most weren’t projecting Florida State’s offensive line to be a juggernaut, but few had it penciled in as one of the worst Power 5 units in the country. The loss of Josh Ball to a university suspension didn’t help, but experienced veterans like Derrick Kelly and Landon Dickerson have struggled to stay healthy. Other players such as Jauan Williams, Mike Arnold and Abdul Bello, who had been in the system but played sparingly, are further behind than anticipated. It should be noted that FSU has seen a modicum of improvement up front.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Offensive progress
Through six games, Florida State ranks 12th in the ACC in total offense and dead last in rushing. How the offensive line progresses over the final six games will be key to whether or not the Seminoles can finish strong. Deondre Francois has had his moments, but continues to struggle with reads while the offensive line has made progress but not nearly enough. Sophomore running back Cam Akers, who was projected to be one of the best in the ACC, has produced very little. The good news for FSU is youngsters such as sophomore tight end Tre’ McKitty and redshirt freshman receiver Tamorrion Terry have emerged.
2. A brutal schedule
Making matters worse when examining Florida State’s 3-3 start is the fact that it seems to have been against an easy part of the schedule. Over the remaining six games, Florida State will face four teams currently ranked in the top 20, including two in the top five and two on the road. The other remaining games are at home against Wake Forest and Boston College. Neither of those two contests should be taken for granted.
As the season goes on, don’t be surprised if Florida State starts incorporating more younger players into the fray. Tre’Shaun Harrison, a freshman wide receiver, could see a lot more touches on offense as could fellow freshman wideouts Warren Thompson and Keyshawn Helton. In addition to Woodbey, Asante Samuel Jr. and A.J. Lytton have each seen time out at cornerback. Robert Cooper, a mammoth defensive tackle, has also watched his role expand in recent weeks.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Oct. 27 Clemson
The three-time defending conference champs will look to become the first ACC team to beat the Seminoles four straight times since FSU entered in 1992. Clemson is 6-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country and may be even better than last season when it reached the College Football Playoff. In addition to a stacked defense, the Tigers are loaded at the offensive skill positions and have upgraded their aerial attack with Hunter Lawrence under center.
2. Nov. 10 at Notre Dame
The 25th anniversary of the 1993 contest dubbed “The Game of the Century” will surely come up, but the 2018 edition of the Fighting Irish should remain ranked in the top five. Notre Dame is very good defensively and seemed to be better offensively with quarterback Ian Book at the helm. Notre Dame owns impressive wins over Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech but wasn’t quite as impressive against Ball State, Vanderbilt or Pittsburgh.
3. Nov. 24 Florida
While Florida State hasn’t had the smoothest transition from Jimbo Fisher to Willie Taggart, things are going well for rival Florida in the first year of the Dan Mullen era. With wins over Mississippi State and LSU, the Gators have ascended to the top 15 and have improved dramatically on offense while remaining strong on defense. FSU has won five straight in the series but has never made it six. Having this one at Doak Campbell Stadium should give the Seminoles a fighting chance.
4. Nov. 3 at NC State
We’ll know more about how good NC State really is after this week’s contest with Clemson. The Wolfpack lost significant contributors on the defensive line, led by end Bradley Chubb, but the offense continues to be efficient with redshirt senior quarterback Ryan Finley at the helm. Although they’re not talked about much, the Wolfpack quietly have one of the best receiving corps in the ACC. FSU is just 5-5 in its last 10 trips to Raleigh.
5. Nov. 17 Boston College
The final ACC game of the year won’t come easy as Florida State plays host to Boston College. The Eagles snapped a seven-game losing streak to FSU last season with an emphatic 35-3 victory in Chestnut Hill. Wyatt Ray and Zach Allen are two talented defensive ends who could make life hard on the offensive line while running back AJ Dillon, who has battled injuries in recent weeks, is a load out of the Boston College backfield.
6. Oct. 20 Wake Forest
The first game out of the bye week may be the most winnable for Florida State when examining the remaining slate. Like FSU, the Demon Deacons are 3-3, but against Power 5 competition, the Wake defense has been no juggernaut. True freshman quarterback Sam Hartman has had his moments for Wake Forest but against stiff competition like Notre Dame and Clemson, he has struggled.