Florida State may be down this year, but if any claimed Notre Dame rival deserves a double dose of insights from beat writers watching the other sideline, it is the Seminoles. Others (Stanford, USC, Michigan) are more familiar due to the regularity of their Irish matchups, and Miami does not show up on the calendar again until 2024.
DF: I am not sure where to start with the Florida State. Let’s begin with weaknesses, otherwise known as the offensive line. It has been an obvious issue since September, but has it improved at all as the season has progressed?
CW: Coming into the season, it was known that Florida State was going to need injury luck on its side with a lack of offensive line depth. There has been almost no luck in this regard. FSU’s most talented offensive lineman, Landon Dickerson, has played in only two games and looks to be done for the season. Two other experienced linemen, Cole Minshew and Derrick Kelly, have also missed time with injuries. Center Alec Eberle has started 41 straight games, but there’s been total flux everywhere else. FSU has been forced to use players out of position and far earlier than they were ready for playing time, trotting out eight different starting offensive lines in nine games this season.
CC: Well, in a word …. No. Florida State is left with a mess up front. It has a converted defensive lineman, Arthur Williams, starting at one spot and a backup center, Brady Scott, starting at one of the tackle positions. Center Alec Eberle is the only lineman with any real experience.
Last week, Florida State rushed for 24 yards. The Seminoles are currently averaging less than 2.4 yards per carry, and Florida State has two former five-star running backs (Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick) in the backfield. The offensive line isn’t just bad. It’s historically bad. And it gives the offense almost zero chance of moving the ball consistently against competent defenses.
Part of that struggle has been giving up 3.11 sacks per game. Meanwhile, one of the greatest reasons to believe in Notre Dame’s chances at running the table is its defensive line. Might the Irish front be able to feast this weekend?
CC: Well, in a word … Yes. I would be stunned if Notre Dame doesn’t just win the line of scrimmage but dominate it. Florida State has some playmakers outside — most notably Tamorrion Terry — and either one of the quarterbacks can make plays with his right arm. But neither is a great runner. That’s not part of their skillset. So if FSU is going to move the ball it will almost exclusively have to be through the air. And if Notre Dame knows that, if the FSU offense is as one-dimensional as it will likely be, if the FSU offense continually faces second- and third-and-long plays, then yes, I expect Notre Dame to harass the Seminoles QBs all night.
Deondre Francois led the way in the season’s first eight games for Florida State. His 254.9 passing yards per game were the primary source of any Seminoles’ offensive success, even if he completed only 60.9 percent of his passes and complemented 13 touchdowns with seven interceptions. Then James Blackman got the start last week at North Carolina State. My understanding is that tied to a Francois ribs injury, correct?
CW: It was first reported as a head injury, then a rib injury and then Francois said this week it was a concussion suffered against Clemson. Whatever it was, he said he’s 100 percent again and has practiced in a full capacity all week.
Blackman played well, throwing for 421 yards and four touchdowns on 29-of-46 passing. Could there be a budding quarterback controversy on Willie Taggart’s hands? Who should Notre Dame fans expect to see this weekend?
CW: There’s been a quarterback controversy in Tallahassee for some time. Francois has been either unable or unwilling to keep the ball on read plays with any sort of consistency in Taggart’s offense and fans have been clamoring for a glimpse of Blackman for weeks. The glimpse they got last weekend did little to silence the noise. Francois has worked first all week in practice and went so far as to say Taggart made it clear to him he’s the No. 1 guy, but Taggart hasn’t yet announced a decision on the matter. I don’t expect him to before Saturday as Florida State needs every competitive advantage it can gain, but I expect it to be Francois as Blackman has only played in four games and can redshirt if he doesn’t play again this season.
CC: Much to the dismay of many Florida State fans, all indications are Francois will again be the starter in South Bend. He throws a nice ball. If he gets time, he can really pick a defense apart. But he rarely has time, as discussed. And since his injury (torn ACL in the season opener vs. Alabama in 2017) Francois doesn’t look like nearly the athlete he was beforehand. He just can’t move well. Being a sitting duck, behind this offensive line, is a recipe for a lot of turnovers and punts.
With the way Blackman played at NC State, albeit against a below-average secondary, it seemed like he did enough to get another chance to run this offense. He’s not exactly a great runner either. But he’s at least a little bit more mobile than this current incarnation of Francois. Plus, Blackman showed a propensity to just throw it up to Terry, who is one of the most talented receivers Florida State has ever had. It might be a bit of a “controversy,” but I think most FSU fans understand it doesn’t much matter who starts at QB in this one.
Before getting to Taggart, let’s take a look at Florida State’s defense. Advanced numbers consider it to be pretty good: S&P+ ranks it No. 39. That is hard to believe considering the Seminoles gave up 106 points across the last two weeks, part of allowing 30.4 per game this season. How do you square that ranking with those frequent trips to the end zone by the opposition?
CC: Florida State’s offense offers zero help. Against Clemson, the Seminoles set a school record for punts, most coming on three-and-outs, which meant Clemson was getting the ball in terrific field position. In fact, Florida State’s defense averages the worst starting field position in the country. Part of that is on the offense. Part of that is on the special teams, which have been an abject failure in Year 1 under Taggart.
Florida State’s defense is far from great, but it’s not quite as bad as the last two weeks would have you believe. They played two really good quarterbacks and got picked apart. Plus, they got down by so much early in both games that I think there was a bit of a give-in factor on that side of the ball. That’s still in the DNA of this program a little bit.
If Florida State can make Notre Dame go 75 or 80 yards every drive, then I think it has a chance of staying in the game for a while. But if the Irish continually get the ball at midfield or better — a frequent occurrence against this FSU defense — then it could get out of hand quickly.
Taggart has not shied from commenting on his team’s general effort. Of course, fans expected more from him on day one, no matter what difficulties Jimbo Fisher may have left for the new staff. How much of this year’s struggles do you put on Taggart and how much on his predecessor?
CW: Upon his arrival in Tallahassee, Taggart underestimated how much the culture at FSU had fallen off. From players skipping workouts to a mess of an offensive line left behind, there are remnants of FSU’s problems this season that can be directly attributed to Fisher. Still, Taggart is not blameless. He did himself no favors by talking up this team all offseason. More realistic expectations may have given him more breathing room from a rabid fanbase. Some facets of his drastic culture change have taken more time than anticipated and he’s struggled to find in-game adjustments when things start going south.
CC: This has been the biggest talking point down here all season. Personally, I put most of the blame on Jimbo. In his last three years as a head coach, Willie Taggart had rushing offenses that finished No. 11, No. 5 and No. 12 in the nation. With three different offensive lines, at two different schools, Taggart produced offenses that were elite at running the football. This year, behind the mess that was left for him up front, Florida State is 128th in rushing offense. Out of 129 teams. I can’t possibly blame Taggart for that, because we’ve seen that his scheme can work.
Even still … Taggart doesn’t get a complete pass either. He was given a mess, sure. But through nine games it’s hard to say he’s made much progress cleaning it up. The Seminoles are atrocious at special teams. That’s not Jimbo’s fault. And they’re second-to-last in the country in penalties. Hard to blame all of that on Jimbo, either. I think most Florida State fans realize that the program is in the situation it’s in because the previous head coach made some drastic and dire mistakes the last few years, but through nine games they’ve seen nothing from the new guy to make them believe this thing is about to turn around.
Now that we have covered both the weekend-specific topics and the big picture, let’s get to the one remaining piece … What is your prediction for a game in which the Irish are favored by 18?
CW: Nothing Florida State has shown me lately leads me to believe this one will be especially close. Yes, Notre Dame has sweat out a few close wins against less-talented teams this season, but three of its last five wins have been by 20+ points while FSU is coming off consecutive losses by 17+ points. I think the result is in hand by the beginning of the fourth quarter, if not sooner, in a 37-13 ND win.
CC: Notre Dame. By more than 18.