Opponent outlook: Why has 2018 been such a struggle for Florida State?

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Florida State has not suffered a losing college football season since 1976. That is likely to change soon.

The Seminoles (4-5) probably will not be favored in any of their remaining games — which are against No. 3 AP/No. 4 CFP Notre Dame, No. 17 AP/No. 22 CFP Boston College and No. 19 AP/No. 11 CFP Florida.

Some of FSU’s woes can be pinned on its defense. The Seminoles rank among the middle for defenses Notre Dame quarter back Ian Book has faced this year. FSU ranks No. 64 in pass efficiency defense, No. 17 against the run and ties for No. 85 in scoring defense. The Seminoles plunged in the last two weeks, though, allowing 106 combined points to Clemson and N.C. State. That’s the most FSU has allowed in a two-game stretch since 1973.

Offensively, quarterback James Blackman shined in his first start of the season, throwing for 421 yards and four touchdowns on 29-of-46 passing. FSU’s offensive line remains a concern, however. The Seminoles are tied for No. 119 in sacks allowed and are second-to-last in TFLs yielded.

What happened to the FSU that competed for championships? Does it still have the talent to beat Notre Dame (9-0) on Saturday? We caught up with Wayne McGahee III of the Tallahassee Democrat for more insight on the Seminoles.

The Seminoles are without a sack during this two-game stretch and have issues in their secondary. What are some specific reasons for their defensive plunge?

McGahee: “The last two games for FSU have shown the flaws of FSU’s defense. In the first seven games of the season the defensive line was able to get pressure and that made the job of the linebackers and secondary much easier. Clemson and N.C. State have excellent offensive lines that limited the impact that FSU’s defensive line was able to have, and that put the pressure on the back seven.

“FSU’s linebacker unit is lacking talent and depth outside of a couple players and the secondary has barely any depth and is very young. When the linebackers and safeties were asked to pick up the slack to help out the defensive line they were unable to and both offenses were able to feast on FSU’s struggling safeties.”

Starting in place of an injured Deondre Francois, quarterback James Blackman reenergized the offense against N.C. State. Was some of that because offensive coordinator Walt Bell took over playcalling duties?

McGahee: “It was a combination of both because Blackman is one of those players that brings a spark. Even after losing the starting job to Deondre Francois during fall camp, Blackman was always the first one there to celebrate with his teammates after something went well. His teammates love him and they played hard for him.

“He also does a much better job of spreading the ball around and not focusing in on one receiver. Bell didn’t call as many sideline-to-sideline plays as Willie Taggart had in the first eight games and I believe that really helped the offense. I do believe Blackman will be the starter Saturday.”

Northwestern committed zero penalties against ND. Meanwhile, FSU has been flagged on 32 occasions over the past two weeks. Why has that been such an issue and should we expect it to be fixed?

McGahee: “FSU is one of the most undisciplined teams in the country and can be counted on to have at least one or two dumb personal foul penalties per game. FSU also struggles to line up properly at times and the FSU offensive line is going to be called for multiple false starts and holding penalties during the game. That’s become an every-game occurrence for the Seminoles, and Taggart hasn’t been able to fix it so far this season. His teams in the past have been some of the most penalized teams in the country and it’s no different this year.”

The Seminoles hauled in four top six recruiting classes in the past five years. It seems like the roster is flooded with talent. Was Jimbo Fisher’s departure the biggest reason for their underachievement so far?

McGahee: “Jimbo’s biggest problem in his last few years at FSU was that he wasn’t willing to make coaching staff changes when coaches were clearly not performing. FSU’s linebacker, wide receiver and offensive line coaches weren’t developing their players. FSU finished with highly ranked recruiting classes, but Fisher and his staff did a very poor job with linebacker and offensive line recruiting.

“FSU’s offensive line has been one of the worst in college football since 2014 and Fisher kept offensive line coach Rick Trickett employed despite it. FSU’s biggest issues hasn’t been talent — at most positions — but the complete lack of development. Those issues have come back to bite the Seminoles over the past two years because there’s a roster full of underdeveloped, but formerly highly-ranked recruits on the roster that believe they are better than they are.”

What are your keys for Florida State to pull off an upset win over Notre Dame?

McGahee: “The defensive line is going to have to play well. We’ve seen what happens when that unit doesn’t play well. Notre Dame’s offense seems quite capable of making the Seminoles pay just as dearly on the scoreboard as N.C. State and Clemson did. FSU also needs to win the field position battle. N.C. State’s average starting field position was its own 42, while FSU’s was back at its 23.

“The Seminoles haven’t been able to consistently drive the field this year — though that was better with the Blackman-Bell combination — and starting inside the 25 consistently isn’t going to help. The Seminoles will also need to win the turnover battle, which they’ve rarely done this season. FSU’s turnover margin against FBS opponents is -12 and it has cost the Seminoles consistently this year.”

Florida State head coach Willie Taggart disagrees with the referee in the first half against Clemson. 

WHO: No. 3 AP/No. 4 CFP Notre Dame (9-0) vs. Florida State (4-5)

WHEN: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. (EDT)

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Notre Dame by 18