Episode 9: Why Florida State sucked goes beyond what you saw on the field

Florida State is a great example of all the other factors that go into making a program great.

True class mobility in college football is pretty uncommon. If you were really good decades ago, chances are, you’re probably still pretty good now.

When a blueblood, even one of the more modern bluebloods, is suddenly bad, and not like, 8-4 and go to the Outback Bowl bad, but get their asses whooped by Syracuse and miss a bowl game entirely bad, we generally assume the coach is incompetent.

Florida State is one of those schools. Given what we assume to be their natural advantages, they are never supposed to be bad. But last year, they went 5-7, and a pretty ugly 5-7 at that. So naturally, many in the college football world think their coach, Willie Taggart, sucks.

But what if…those assumptions we collectively had about the invulnerability of Florida State were all wrong? Or at least, kinda wrong?

I’m gonna go ahead and spoil this for you. I think they were.

Florida State isn’t a gut rehab job like say, Louisville, but it required, and still requires, some significant remodeling. SI’s Andy Staples explained everything that went into last year’s disaster, and where Florida State goes from here. To me, it’s a really interesting look at what goes into really building and sustaining a program.

The comparison to Nebraska is interesting to me. From Staples:

Unlike Scott Frost at Nebraska, who happily opened the door to leave for players who didn’t want to get on board, Taggart elected not to burn everything down. Nebraska was downright horrific early, but that was partly a byproduct of Frost finding the group he could ride with. The Cornhuskers got better as the season progressed. Florida State was still struggling to line up offensively in game 12. That’s why the perceived trajectory of those two programs is so different even though the Seminoles actually won one more game than Nebraska did last year.

Let’s set aside the differing roster management strategies for a second. The Cornhuskers are a popular preseason Top 25 team, and most national voices are pretty bullish on their program future. But let us consider for a moment:

  • Nebraska’s 2019 recruiting class included 7 blue chip players and was ranked 18th in the final 24/7 Composite Rankings. I think most analysts would agree this is near the upward bound of here Nebraska is likely to finish (their ranking is boosted by the large class size). Directly behind them is Florida State, at 19th. The Seminoles actually signed more blue-chippers (9), and far more room to grow.

  • Florida State has 8 blue chippers currently in the 2020 class. Nebraska has 2.

  • Nebraska, in case you forgot, went 4-8 last year. Florida State went 5-7.

  • Nebraska finished 49th in S&P+ last year. Florida State was 71st in S&P+ last season.

I don’t think the positive feelings about Nebraska are unwarranted. But it is interesting, one of the biggest differences is just the perception. Everybody knew Nebraska was going to be a rebuilding job. Few realized Florida State was.

The on the field stuff, we know about now

In case you forgot anything you saw about 2018 Florida State (which would be smart, IMO - they were hard to watch), the biggest problem was the offensive line. Taggart didn’t inherit any depth when he took over the job, and the unit was hit hard by injuries. FSU played nine different combinations of linemen over the season. If you can’t block, you can’t run a tempo-heavy offense. Hell, you can’t run any offense. And they didn’t.

Taggart did what just about any coach would do after such an atrocious offensive showing. He shuffled his offensive assistants (including bring in the talented but uh, controversial, Kendal Briles) and brought in transfers to fortify depth at quarterback and the offensive line. If you want to hope that those moves can chip away at the negative culture that had developed with the program, perhaps best demonstrated by their atrocious APR, I think that’d be perfectly reasonable.

But there are off the field reasons this job can be challenging too

One thing I think a lot of folks forget is that Florida State, compared to the schools it competes against, isn’t rich. It was a teacher’s college for decades, and before Bobby Bowden, didn’t have much of a football tradition. The school’s endowment, ($742 million), is less than half of Florida’s ($1.7 billion), and trails other large schools in the region. The donor base is not quite what you’d think it is, given how high profile a football program Florida State is (Miami, FWIW, also has this problem). They’re not poor by any means, but they don’t have Alabama money.

And as Staples notes, the school’s relationship with their athletic boosters is…challenging.

One of [Florida State athletic director] Coburn’s mandates is to repair the athletic department’s relationship with Seminole Boosters. Why wouldn’t the athletic department and the booster club be on the same page? Because for decades, the president of Seminole Boosters has been more powerful than the athletic director at Florida State. Boosters president Andy Miller, hired in 1975 at age 24 to run the club, was a driving force of Florida State’s success for decades. But he doesn’t have to answer to the AD. That’s unusual. At most other Power 5 schools, the athletic director directs the booster club to fund the projects the AD deems most necessary. It doesn’t work that way at Florida State. “We have a lot of folks we do business with who find that abnormal,” Coburn says.

Florida State had some trouble recruiting a new athletic director after Stan Wilcox departed, and Staples says this relationship is a big reason why. Andy Miller and university president John Thrasher won’t be there forever. Maybe Coburn, or even Willie Taggart, won’t either (also this dynamic is a big reason why I think Taggart isn’t really on the hot seat right now). But it’s hard to move forward on any department priorities if your money people aren’t on the same page. That makes the regular ol’ football coaching job more difficult too.

Staples also points out that Florida State (and Florida) do not have the same standard of facilities that Clemson, Alabama and others do. I’m much more skeptical this actually matters that much, but coaches certainly think it does, and they’ll undoubtedly mention it while recruiting.

This is a great example of why you don’t play football on spreadsheets

Generally speaking, it isn’t that hard to predict who is going to be good in college football. Your budget, your geography, and your history broadly determine how good of players you can recruit, and the teams that recruit the good players usually beat the teams that don’t. You can track all of that stuff on a spreadsheet and come up with some good guesses about how a season will go.

But an awful lot of stuff that doesn’t show up on a spreadsheet, or even necessarily on your TV, goes into determining that final result. Your coach might not be on the same page with his athletic director, boosters, regional high school coaches, and other important people in the orbit of a program. Your school might have recruited one too many assholes and now your program culture is rotted. Your assistants might not be getting along, or they have one foot out the door. The entire building may not have developed the emotional toughness needed to weather adversity. You might just be really unlucky. You never know.

Florida State was a good example of this. We can pull up the spreadsheet, check the numbers, and come up with a good argument for why they should be at least decent this season. And maybe they will be.

You can probably check the data and correctly predict the national title this year. But the math is gonna get at least some teams really wrong in 2019. And Florida State’s quick decline is a good case study for how the stuff we can’t see, can make all the difference.

Conference USA football. Now on another channel you might get!

Good news if you want to watch North Texas, Marshall, or the FAU Fightin’ Kiffins. Conference USA football is coming to the NFL Network.

Per the official announcement, Conference USA and the NFL Network have agreed to broadcast 10 football games a season (on Saturday afternoons) for four years. The broadcast schedule hasn’t been released yet, but you’ll be able to watch the games on the NFL app and the Watch NFL Network, and will begin for the 2019 season.

CBS Sports carries the league championship, as well as select regular season games. Others can be found on Stadium, Facebook and ESPN streaming services.

I haven’t seen any financial terms reported anywhere, and my guess is that if the NFL Network is paying the league anything, it’d be a very modest amount. If the NFL was writing the league a big check, I suspect somebody would have made sure a reporter knew about it.

Conference USA is one of the big data points if you’re skeptical that the rising TV rights wave will lift all FBS boats. As the Virginian-Pilot noted, media rights revenue dropped significantly after fiscal year 2016. Many AAC members are over the moon to be getting a hair short of $7 million for the next decade. Conference USA schools aren’t likely to sniff $1 million again for a while. Old Dominion, one of the bigger brands in the league, didn’t even make a quarter million in fiscal year 2018, for example.

I’m not going to try and sell you on the future of the league. In 2019, the bottom of the league is FCS bad, and many schools in the conference are struggling to establish an identity and fanbase. But this year, maybe a half dozen schools have a shot at a league title, and Marshall, North Texas, and the two Florida schools should certainly be interesting.

It’s cool that it’ll be a little easier to watch some of those teams this year. Kudos to everybody for thinking outside the box a bit.

Kansas really wants to sign lots of recruits at once. I think that’s a bad idea

Earlier, I wrote about how Kansas is facing a massive scholarship hole, and it’d like to be able to sign lots of recruits at once to climb out. Right now, they figure to have around 70 scholarship players. The FCS limit is 63. The FBS limit is 85. So it really isn’t hyperbolic to say Kansas is a few bad injuries from being an FCS team.

Athletic Director Jeff Long is pushing for rule changes to either allow a team to sign 50 recruits over a two year period, or increasing the annual limit from 25 to 35 or 30.

Keep an eye on this topic over the offseason. It’s a little unusual for a program to find itself in such a scholarship hole over a prolonged period of time like Kansas, but it is possible, and Long’s concerns about player safety are well founded, in my opinion.

But mark my words, there’s little legislation that would harm what tiny inkling of parity this sport has than an increase in recruiting limits. That’s going to lead to more players being “processed” (cut for not being good enough), and for bigger schools to hoard talent.

Maybe the solution is some sort of one-off waiver, I’m not sure. And maybe if Kansas is the only school to advocate for it, nobody will care.

But these are the small details that can make a huge difference in the sport.

Thanks for supporting Extra Points. The subscription numbers have been really exciting for me to see and thanks to this growth, I’ll be recording a college football history podcast this week. I’ve gotten requests to talk about The Black 14, and the hubbub over the split between D1A and D1AA. If you feel strongly about wanting to hear about one of those stories, or a different story first, let me know.