Opponent outlook: Florida State struggling under first-year head coach Mike Norvell

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

The direction of Florida State’s football program is not showing an upward trajectory in Mike Norvell’s first season as head football coach.

In fact, what Norvell inherited may have gone from bad to worse.

First came the offseason controversies. Star defensive tackle Marvin Wilson alleged Norvell lied in a statement to the Athletic in June that said he had one-on-one conversations with all of his players in wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Multiple players also said there was a lack of transparency in FSU’s coronavirus testing.

Then Norvell tested positive for COVID-19 last month. Without Norvell and while under interim head coach Chris Thomsen, the Seminoles were pummeled by Miami 52-10 on Sept. 26. Norvell returned last week for FSU’s uninspiring 41-24 victory over Jacksonville State.

Now FSU (1-2) will have to play at No. 5 Notre Dame (2-0, 1-0 ACC) as 21-point underdogs on Saturday (7:30 p.m. EDT on NBC). The Seminoles named their third starting quarterback of the season for the game: Jordan Travis.

Since Jimbo Fisher’s final season with FSU in 2017 before he left for Texas A&M, the Seminoles have gone 19-22. They hired Norvell from the University of Memphis last December after firing Fisher’s successor, Willie Taggart, midway through his second season.

What has gone wrong under Norvell? Will he turn things around? We caught up with Curt Weiler of the Tallahassee Democrat for more insight on the Seminoles.

There have been some low moments for FSU so far this season. What have been the biggest concerns?

Weiler: “A few games into Mike Norvell’s tenure at FSU, I’d say the biggest concern has been that many of the issues from the last few seasons have remained problems this season. The defense is still struggling to get stops — even against offenses that appear worse on paper {span}—{/span} while the offense still hasn’t found much consistency against FBS competition outside of scripted drives to start the game.”

Was this expected in Norvell’s first season?

Weiler: “It wasn’t expected. Some of that can definitely be credited to perhaps unfair expectations from the media. Many, including myself, had FSU pegged for seven wins this season. I think we all underestimated the impact that this offseason spent more virtually due to the pandemic would have on a first-year coaching staff. I still believe Norvell will right the ship. There has been evidence of how much better coached this team is early this season, even if it hasn’t yet shown up in results. I think the first month of the season has just drilled home exactly how bad a situation Norvell inherited.”

Quarterback Jordan Travis will make his first career start against Notre Dame. What have you thought of him and what do you expect going forward?

Weiler: “Since arriving at FSU ahead of the 2019 season, Travis has been used almost exclusively as a running quarterback. Somehow, he has found consistent success doing exactly that in spite of his predictable usage. He showed Saturday, though, that he has an arm too. His downfield throws weren’t perfect, but they added a much-needed aspect to the FSU offense, which looked far better with him running it than it had at any point earlier in the season. And that passing ability will keep defenses honest, making his legs even more lethal. Do I see him as the long-term answer at quarterback? No. But it makes sense for Norvell to ride the hot hand in the form of the only quarterback who has found much of any success this season.”

There is a lot of talent and potential draft picks on FSU’s defense. What went wrong for them against Miami and at times against JSU?

Weiler: “It’s a question without an immediately evident answer. It doesn’t compute that FSU’s defense, which has two players who could hear their names called in the first round of next year’s NFL Draft. FSU’s defensive line, especially the defensive tackles, were supposed to be the strength of the team, but Marvin Wilson and the rest of the defensive front haven’t been able to create any sort of consistent pass rush. FSU’s secondary was lauded for its depth entering the season but has underwhelmed outside of cornerback Asante Samuel Jr.’s play. Part of it is that the new FSU coaching staff, which got only three spring practices, is still figuring out which players to rely on. They’re also missing safety standout Hamsah Nasirildeen, who is near a return from a knee injury and will bring some needed stability to the secondary. The second half of the JSU game was the best the defense has looked this season, but ND’s offense will test that progress in a big way this weekend.”

Notre Dame could be vulnerable after not playing since Sept. 19 against South Florida. What do you think will be the keys for FSU to make this game interesting?

Weiler: “I think the biggest factor that could make this a competitive game more than anything FSU could do is just taking advantage of any rust Notre Dame may have. It won’t be easy to just pick back up after the better part of a month between games and the chances may be there for the Seminoles to take advantage. If they’re able to build an early lead, string together efficient offensive possessions to limit the time ND’s offense gets on the field, who knows what could happen?”

Score prediction: Notre Dame 41, Florida State 17.

Weiler: I do think this FSU team, especially with the much easier back half of its schedule, could look a good bit better by the end of the season. But I don’t see FSU as able to keep this one especially close. The Seminoles are outmatched, will be dominated on both sides of the line and struggle to string together stops or drives.

Florida State head football coach Mike Norvell speaks at a press conference in Tallahassee, Fla., last December.

NO. 5 NOTRE DAME (2-0) vs. FLORIDA STATE (1-2)

Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m EDT

Where: Notre Dame Stadium


Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 21