WATCH: Layne Herdt and Tim Linafelt preview FSU’s Week 2 matchup against ULM
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Of all the chatter that has surrounded the Florida State football team over the past few days – from attempts to analyze second-half offense and third-down defense, to pseudo-controversies that would make most rational fans’ eyes roll – the line that perhaps best describes FSU football’s present state was uttered by head coach Willie Taggart in the moments after last week’s Boise State game.
“Our football team,” he said, “has got to learn how to win again.”
Those 11 words sum up the last three seasons in Tallahassee – at least.
And they’re words that hit a little bit harder the longer they hang in the air.
“It’s been a while since we won – won big,” Taggart continued.
He echoed that sentiment again at his Monday press conference, less than 48 hours after the Seminoles suffered a punch in the gut in their season opener.
“When you’re up on a team, you’ve got to put your foot on their throat,” Taggart said, “and you’ve got to finish the ball game.
“Our guys have got to understand that. That’s another part of the process that we’re doing in building our program back.”
It’s likely the biggest part of the process.
Because all those other aspects, whether they relate to FSU’s running game or defensive schemes or kick-return strategies – any of the minutiae that is scrutinized in the wake of a loss – are all huddled under that umbrella.
Since the 2017 season, maybe beyond, the Seminoles haven’t done the things that winning teams do.
And their record in that time shows an honest reflection.
Consider that, across FSU’s entire roster, only the fourth- and fifth-year players having winning records for their careers.
Everyone else – meaning the juniors, redshirt sophomores and younger – is sub-.500.
It’s been a long time since many players at Florida State could say that.
But, then again, it’s taken a while to get to this point.
It’s a course that began in earnest in 2017, and one that led to Taggart’s arrival in the first place.
But a look beyond just the final scores showed signs of a wobbly foundation a year or two before.
Blowout losses that seemed to come out of nowhere. And closer-than-they-should-have-been wins that felt empty and unsatisfying.
By the time Florida State entered the head-coaching market in December 2017, it didn’t need a coach to keep things rolling.
It needed a coach who could turn things around.
So the university’s leadership brought in someone whose resume includes about-faces at multiple programs.
Each of Taggart’s previous stops – Western Kentucky, South Florida and Oregon – had losing seasons prior to his arrival.
They had to learn how to win again.
How to fight for extra yards on third down. How to align properly and make tackles in space. How to hang on to the ball in key moments.
There are probably thousands of signs, things separating teams that expect to win from teams that merely hope to win.
Even when they can’t be described, coaches tend to know them when they see them. Florida State’s coaches saw it last week in a Boise State program that’s won at least 10 games in 16 of the last 20 seasons.
“They know how to win,” FSU offensive coordinator Kendal Briles said of the Broncos. “They know how to finish games.
“And I don’t know if we’re there right now.”
Maybe not, but there are a few things that make the Seminoles feel like they are at least closer than they once were.
For all the frustration of last week’s game, there’s also the reality that FSU scored 31 points in a single half, won the turnover battle, had six quarterback sacks and committed only five penalties.
Put up that type of box score on a weekly basis, and the Seminoles will likely win more than they lose. Even with a sub-par conversion rate on third downs.
“We’ve seen what we can do,” center Baveon Johnson said. “We just have got to build off of that.”
“I think we know we have the belief that we can win,” running back Cam Akers added. “(It’s) just actually doing it, finishing. Having that finishing drive, knowing that you can’t pull up. You can’t let off the gas. You have to put your foot on their neck and you have to keep pressing.
“That’s what this team has to learn, and I think we realize that now, coming off last week, having that experience. We’ll take it and we’ll learn from it.”
With that in mind, Saturday’s game against ULM (5 p.m., ACC Network) can serve as something of a progress report for these Seminoles – both in the short and long terms.
A year ago, FSU followed up a disappointing opener with a skin-of-your-teeth victory over FCS Samford the next week.
Officially, the Seminoles moved to 1-1, but not before falling behind by 13 points in the first quarter and making their fans nervous for the rest of the evening.
This year’s team may be improved, but so is the quality of its Week 2 competition.
ULM, a member of the FBS Sun Belt Conference, went 6-6 a year ago (the Warhawks were postseason eligible but not invited to a bowl game) and have a three-plus-year starter at quarterback.
Twenty of 22 listed starters are upperclassmen, all of whom have played on big stages before.
Since 2016, ULM has visited Florida State, Oklahoma, Auburn, Texas A&M and Mississippi.
The Warhawks started their 2019 campaign by running for more than 300 yards in a 31-9 victory over Grambling State last week.
“They’re very athletic,” Taggart said. “Their quarterback has started a lot of ball games. They have really good control of their offense. They’ve got some really good receivers and they run the ball really well.
“Defensively, they’re athletic and very active and do some different things to create havoc and do a good job at it.”
And, as is often the case when a “power five” school meets a team from outside one of the major conference, the Warhawks will also be physically outmatched at virtually every position on the field. ULM lost all of the games referenced above and hasn’t beaten a “power five” team since upsetting Wake Forest in 2014.
So, in all likelihood, Saturday’s outcome – not just who wins, but how that win is achieved – will be determined by how the home team performs.
No, a victory over ULM won’t automatically set every mind in Tallahassee at ease. But the Seminoles have a fine opportunity to show how much they’ve grown in a year’s time.
And how much they’ve learned from their crash course in learning how to win.
Odds and ends …