Previewing Florida’s 2019 Opponents: Game Twelve, FSU Seminoles

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The Sunshine Showdown moves back to Gainesville, where Florida hasn’t won it since Tim Tebow’s playing days. Is this the year that changes?

Previously previewing:

Game 1: Miami Hurricanes

Game 3: Kentucky Wildcats

Game 4: Tennessee Volunteers

Game 6: Auburn Tigers

Game 7: LSU Tigers

Game 8: South Carolina Gamecocks

Game 9: Georgia Bulldogs

Game 10: Vanderbilt Commodores

Game 11: Missouri Tigers

FSU SEMINOLES (2018: 5-7, 3-5 SEC)
Head Coach Returning starters 2018 offense 2018 defense
Willie Taggart 6 offense, 8 defense 361 YPG/21.9 PPG 416 YPG/31.5 PPG
2nd year (5-7) 70%, 80% of stat production 103rd/113th in FBS 79th/95th in FBS

All time series: Florida 35, FSU 26, 2 ties

Last meeting: Florida 41, FSU 14 (2018)

Introduction: Year Two is judgment time for Willie Taggart, who took over a program that Jimbo Fisher left in shambles and either made it worse or took the necessary first step back in the “it’s going to get worse before it gets better” effort to clean up the mess. Which was it? We don’t know. He inherited, and pardon the hyperbole, quite possibly the single worst offensive line I have ever seen since I started following college football in 2004. Frankly, it was a miracle that the Noles could even win five games with it. But regardless of how FSU’s season goes, it can always be made sweeter with a win on Thanksgiving weekend. Meanwhile, as the seasonal sun begins to set, the Gators- who I’ve projected to come into this game at 8-3- will have lured their final and most desirable opponent of all into the Swamp, with their final chance to salvage something from a winless decade against the Noles in Gainesville.

Offensive breakdown

Deondre Francois is gone, meaning that James Blackman- who played nearly all of 2017 and sparingly in 2018- has the quarterback job all but locked down in Kendal Briles’ new offensive scheme. Though not as talented physically as Francois, coaches like his leadership ability and though he won’t be up for any awards at the end of the season, he’s good enough as a passer to make you respect his arm. There’s no debate that he’s just a placeholder until FSU can recruit the next “franchise” quarterback, but given the mess Taggart & Co. have to deal with elsewhere, he’ll do just fine.

Now we come to the biggest issue facing FSU in 2019: the offensive line, which surrendered 36 sacks and “led” the way to finishing 124th out of 130 FBS teams in offensive success rate. The task at hand is akin to cleaning up and rebuilding Hiroshima on August 7, 1945. For starters, the best lineman FSU thought they would have in 2019, tackle Landon Dickerson, has transferred to Alabama after missing last year due to injury. Injuries have plagued guard Cole Minshew since he signed, tackle Jauan Williams was benched due to incompetence last year, and Mike Williams struggled mightily at guard after playing the last eleven games. The Noles will need new OL coach Randy Clements to work some serious magic here, though adding Northern Illinois transfer Ryan Roberts should help.

If this unit somehow can make the leap from “the worst OL ever” to just plain mediocre, though, watch out. Cam Akers (706 rushing yards, 6 TD’s in 2018), along with Anthony Grant and Khalan Laborn, could thrive in the running game. And the Noles are stacked at receiver, too. Nyqwan Murray is gone, but FSU’s next top four pass catchers all return from last year, including the dangerous Tamorrion Terry (35 catches for 744 yards, 8 touchdowns in 2018), Keith Gavin (26 catches for 425 yards), DJ Matthews (42 catches for 382 yards) and tight end Tre McKitty (26 catches, 256 yards, 2 TD’s).

Offensive grade: C. But that C comes with a caveat: it’s the grade of complete and ultimate neutrality pending the offensive line’s development. If the Seminoles again fail to field a competent line, it shuts down the entire offense and earns an F grade. If Clements can turn this line into an average one- really, even average will do the trick- the talent at the skill positions is enough to make this offense a nightmare. And if the line takes a marginal, but not sizable, step forward in 2019 as I expect- then this offense will be passable, but by no means dangerous.

Defensive breakdown

Marvin Wilson (41 tackles, 3.5 sacks in 2018) takes over as the leader of this defensive front, and he’ll have plenty of help. Fellow interior lineman Cory Durden will be expected to do much more in 2019, and coaches have been pleased with him so far this offseason. And though Brian Burns is gone, end Joshua Kaindoh (3 sacks) should help him apply some pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

FSU’s linebacker group should be solid as well, but they could definitely use some improvement in the pass rush department. Nickel/outside linebacker hybrid player Hamsah Nasirildeen and Dontavious Jackson form a respectable tandem, and the Noles will be counting on senior Emmitt Rice and sophomore Amari Gainer to step up and help out. The wild card will be Jaleel McRae. If he can step into a key role as a freshman, FSU will be strong here.

The secondary has talent, and most of the contributors from 2018 are back, but that’s a double edged sword. The Seminoles’ secondary ranged from adequate to bad to downright horrible throughout the season. Senior Levonta Taylor is reliable even as he moves from corner to safety, Cyrus Fagan will be counted on to rebound from an ugly 2018 campaign, and if Stanford Samuels II can stop throwing punches at opponents long enough to not cost his team valuable chunks of yardage, FSU should be fine- particularly if freshman Akeem Dent pans out.

Defensive grade: B-. The lack of pass rush and breakdowns in the secondary in 2018 were pretty glaring, but with so many naturally talented players back, it’s difficult to think the Noles won’t be appreciably better on defense. Pencil FSU in as a “very good, but not great” defense.

Key Matchup: FSU’s offensive line vs. Florida’s front seven. For all the X’s and O’s that go into the game of football, this game is actually quite simple. FSU’s chances to win their fifth straight game in the Swamp decrease from “low” to “zero” if they can’t block the likes of Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard. If FSU can’t block for James Blackman or establish running lanes for Cam Akers, this game is over before it begins. If they can, though, this game could be interesting for far longer than most would like.

Florida key to victory: establish the running game and wear FSU’s defense out. The tempo Kendal Briles brings to Tallahassee comes with a catch: if the fast-paced offense can’t move the ball, it’s doubly bad for the defense. Even if the Noles can move the sticks, though, the Gators should look to use LaMical Perine as a battering ram to try to make the Seminoles wilt. If they do, that opens the door for Feleipe Franks to catch them napping and make toast of them deep.

FSU key to victory: distribute the ball around on offense. The Noles have plenty of playmakers at the skill positions and what figures to be, at best, a mediocre offensive line. So the way to combat that is to feed guys like Akers and Terry the ball in positions where they don’t have to rely on their offensive lines to block for them. And the more guys they get involved, the better. Florida’s cornerback tandem of Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson may be America’s best, but there’s not exactly an infinite amount of depth behind those two.

Fun fact(s): See article hyperlinked here.

Overview

The Florida State Seminoles cannot possibly be expected to be the train wreck of a football team they were last year, so by default, FSU has to be better in 2019. Better coached, with better offensive line play, and without the line dragging the rest of the team down, better across the board. For all the shrapnel Jimbo Fisher catches for the state in which he left the Noles’ program, he definitely left them with some pieces to succeed.

That said: even if Willie Taggart is this guru of building programs from scratch as FSU fans like to claim, the Seminoles are still nowhere near where they need to be to seriously compete with the likes of Clemson or Alabama for college football’s ultimate prize. Being better than last year’s Chernobyl of a season is a low bar to clear, and so even a mammoth step forward is not likely to bring FSU even with Florida as a program as the Gators continue to rise under Dan Mullen. And that’s all putting aside the fact that I have never had a high opinion of Taggart, and his ability to serve as the CEO of a football program. Seriously. Go check the date of that tweet.

So I expect this game to play out in a somewhat similar fashion as last year’s game. A physical, defensive slugfest throughout the first half will turn on a dime, and things will begin to snowball against the Seminoles as the second half progresses. The Gators’ front seven will be too much for FSU to deal with, Feleipe Franks will shake off a rough first half and Florida will turn a 7-3 halftime score into a blizzard of misery for FSU for the second straight year.

Projection: Florida 31, FSU 3

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