After a year off, Boston College is back to facing its uniform rivals in Florida State. Jon Marchant of SB Nation’s Tomahawk Nation returns to tell us about this new iteration of FSU. From Head Coach Mike Norvell to playing a round of everyone’s favorite game, Who’s Going to Win the ACC, Jon takes us through it all and tacks on a kind score prediction. We like that.
BCI: Great to be back on the schedule with you guys. This season, FSU started 0-4 for the first time in program history and now needs to win out to obtain bowl eligibility. The season includes a brutal loss to FCS Jacksonville State (shoutout BC tight end Trae Barry’s former teammates), but also an electric opener against Notre Dame and of course a big win last week over Miami. Is the season meeting your expectations?
TN: Yes and no. Going into the season, my expectations for FSU was five wins, maybe 6 if they got lucky or upset someone they had no business beating. Which honestly I thought they had a decent shot of doing given the 15-point underdog win over North Carolina last season. But the real goal I had for them was improvement. Improvement over not just Mike Norvell’s debut season where they went 3-6, but also over the Willie Taggart teams that never seemed to get better from one year to the next. I was looking for . . . momentum. A future. And despite the ugly loss to Jacksonville State that will likely follow Norvell’s coaching record forever I believe that momentum not only exists, but is headed in the right direction. Further, Bobby Bowden once said that first you lose big. Then you lose a little. Then you win a little and finally you win big. Last year was the “lose big” year and this is the “lose a little” year and for the most part they’re right on schedule.
BCI: It’s been a curious start for Mike Norvell’s tenure in Tallahassee. His first season in 2020 got off to a controversial start, before the games were played, after the team called him out for making untrue statements. Even going back to his accepting of the job rubbed me the wrong way, if I recall correctly. The team finished 3-6 last season. What’s the temperature around Norvell, and if you had to guess now, are we more likely to see yet another coaching buyout or are we here for the long haul?
TN: Norvell has made mistakes, there’s no doubt about that. He’s never really had to navigate his way through rebuilding a program. But the challenges at FSU have been unique even among rebuilding programs, and to answer this question we have to take a step back and look at the big picture. But first - before the Miami game some misguided fans were calling for Norvell’s job. Much of their basis for that was how the school treated Willie Taggart, who was fired after just 21 games with a record of 9-12 (.429). Norvell’s current record is 7-12 (.368), so I get it. But Taggart wasn’t fired for just his coaching record; there were also issues with rampant disorganization around the program, among other things.
So, the big picture. ESPN wrote an article in November of last season: ‘They’re in a deep, deep hole’: Inside the 6-year unraveling of Florida State football, which covers all the things that led up to Jimbo Fisher leaving the program with a rotten culture and other systemic problems like the Power 5’s worst offensive line and the country’s worst APR. Taggart didn’t inherit an easy job. The APR limited how much of the roster and perhaps to some extent the poor culture he could turn over. That’s not his fault. But I believe a solid argument could be made that Taggart also largely left the program and especially the overall roster worse off than he found it. A part of that isn’t his fault, as no one knew just how damaging transition classes during the Early Signing Period would be, which we’ve found are often annihilated by attrition and become sinking weights on the roster.
But that’s the job Norvell walked into. There’s now two transition classes on the books plus Fisher’s last years that have left this roster devoid of talent, plus years of zero player development. FSU was no longer going to be an overnight fix. So, I wrote an article on Tomahawk Nation in back in September of this season: Firing Norvell now will only set Florida State back even further. Fair or not, FSU cannot afford to treat Norvell like they did Taggart. Whatever coach Norvell turns/turned out to be, FSU needs stability and it needs time to clear the transition classes off the books. The thing FSU fans need to keep in mind is that progress is not linear from week to week, or even guaranteed from one season to the next. But, I get it; fans want to know there’s a future, and in my opinion the Miami game was a lighthouse in the fog. Also, I think FSU could literally - wait, yes literally - not afford to fire him right now. So I expect Norvell will get at least until after the 2023 season (imo the 2024 season as well) before a decision will be made.
BCI: After Mackenzie Milton nearly heroically brought Florida State back in Week 1 against Notre Dame, I felt as though we would see him get his shot. He’s played intermittently this season, but it’s clearly Jordan Travis’s job. What can you tell us about the two and why Travis has the gig?
TN: Several reasons. Milton is not nearly the player he was before his injury. He struggles to drive the ball because he can’t plant his leg, and his scrambling ability that made him a household name is not there anymore. However, Milton still throws with tremendous anticipation and has a lightning-quick release. The issue with those things is the talent around him. FSU just doesn’t have the pass protection or talent at receiver to consistently take advantage of Milton’s plus traits. In fact, FSU likely has the worst receiving corps in the ACC.
Travis, on the other hand, fits FSU’s current talent on offense. He’s a dynamic dual threat, FSU has good depth at RB with Jashaun Corbin and Treshaun Ward, and the offensive line can open lanes in the run game. Plus, Travis can hit the deep shot plays with great timing and accuracy, especially down the sideline. There’s now enough of a sample size to see that Travis is clearly the better option. Had he started the Jacksonville State game I believe FSU would have easily won that game. But after Notre Dame I think the staff wanted to see how far Milton could take it. The issues with Travis revolve mostly around his inability to stay healthy for long, but he also has nearly zero anticipation over the middle and frustratingly won’t throw in rhythm.
BCI: The offense as a whole seems to distribute around without one main focal point, and have some nice running backs. Still, who’s the key skill position guy to watch? What’s the best recipe for success?
TN: It’s true, there isn’t one skill player, but I think the most important ones are Travis and Corbin. Norvell wants to throw the ball, but is limited by talent. So the offensive identity is simple. It’s an explosive rushing attack that will use those chunk yards on the ground to set up big shot plays in the passing game. Norvell schemes up the rushing attack by pulling offensive linemen and other players like TEs and HBs in different combinations to mess with opponents’ eye discipline and gap fits. With Travis under center the last two seasons they like to run power and counter, split-zone, midline read, read toss, a version of the spread triple option, and much more. They’ll use these plays to set up other plays; for ex., running split-zone three times and then later fake the split-zone action and throw to the tight end. They also like to scheme up one on one matchups for FSU’s skill positions. The “catch” with this offense is they need these explosive plays in order to score. They are not very capable of being methodical and putting together something like a 10-play drive. So the key for a defense is to keep everything in front of them.
BCI: The Seminoles defense picked off Miami twice and held them to under 50 rushing yards last weekend. They’ve been really efficient in red zone defense as well. Where can the defense cause the biggest problems and who are the biggest playmakers?
TN: FSU’s defensive line is the strength of this defense. They are pretty good up front. First, stud edge rusher Jermaine Johnson, who terrorized Miami with five TFLs and three sacks and I believe leads the ACC in sacks. On the other edge is Keir Thomas. Norvell landed both through the portal. In the middle there’s nose tackles Fabien Lovett and Robert Cooper. All have played well this season. There’s also some good depth. If FSU can control the line of scrimmage in the run game and pressure Jurkovec, they could cause some big issues for the Eagles. The big weakness is at linebacker, where FSU really struggles in coverage. In the secondary it has been a mixed bag, but true freshman cornerback Omarion Cooper has improved a tremendous amount in just a few weeks and has likely solidified a starting spot.
BCI: The ACC has been a bit of a punching bag in this very down year. I’ll ask who do you think wins the conference in the end, and how long before you expect FSU to get back into the conversation?
TN: Remember when ESPN used to spin the ACC Wheel of Destiny™ for the Coastal division when each team won the division in a row? Haha. I feel like the entire conference is like that this year. I could throw a dart at a wall between a handful of teams. But I guess I’ll go with Wake Forest, who has seemed really solid and whose loss to North Carolina was ridiculously a non-conference game and doesn’t count for this haha. But I would not be even a little bit surprised if Pitt (or someone else) wins it.
I expect/hope FSU will return to the conference title conversation somewhere around 2023 or 2024. That depends on whether Dabo Swinney and Clemson can right the ship. Despite their program appearing to be headed in the opposite direction, they’re obviously still much closer.
BCI: Alright, let’s circle back to the game in hand. How does this one play out? What’s your final score prediction?
TN: I’m honestly not sure FSU is in a place where it has the mental fortitude or experience to keep the level of effort they gave against Miami. I fear a repeat of the ND-Jacksonville State dynamic. But like I said, it’s the “lose a little year”, so I’ll go BC 34, FSU 27.
Guess we need to thank Bobby Bowden for this one. But a bigger thanks to Jon for giving us a whole lot to know about the state of FSU. Be sure to check out all of his great work at Tomahawk Nation, and follow along their side of the coverage for this weekend’s game including my own end of the Q&A.