TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Willie Taggart’s first eight months as Florida State’s coach could not have gone much better. He has reinvigorated a team and fan base that has found itself out of contention for a College Football Playoff spot by early October the past two seasons and saw Jimbo Fisher leave for Texas A&M last December.
As Florida State prepares for Taggart’s first season the biggest question is how long will Taggart’s honeymoon last.
“Anybody can do really well when things are going good. It’s how you respond when you get hit in the mouth. How you respond when things get tough. To me, that’s life,” said Taggart, who previously led Western Kentucky, South Florida and Oregon. “We were one of the most talented football teams last season, but talent wasn’t the issue. We weren’t a football team that handled adversity well, and we had a lot of adversity last year. We didn’t respond well to it until the end of the season.”
Last season the Seminoles were ranked third in The Associated Press preseason poll but lost starting quarterback Deondre Francois to a knee injury in the opener against Alabama. Florida State needed to go on a four-game winning streak to go 7-6 and avoid its first losing season since 1976.
Since winning 33 of 34 games between 2013 and ’15, including a national championship, the Seminoles are 21-12, including 10-10 in the ACC.
Taggart’s biggest decision of the preseason will be who will start at quarterback on Sept. 3 against Virginia Tech. James Blackman started 12 games last season following Francois’ injury. Blackman threw for 2,230 yards, 19 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as he was the program’s first true freshman to start at quarterback since 1985.
Francois has 14 career starts and is 10-4 during that span. In 2016 he threw for the fifth-most yards in school history (3,350) as he was named the Atlantic Coast Conference’s rookie of the year.
“They know what it’s going to take. They know they got to separate themselves and again, like I told you guys before, I’m looking forward to seeing who separate themselves,” Taggart said.
Some other things to know about Florida State’s upcoming season:
AKERS’ ENCORE: Cam Akers had four 100-yard games last season along and set the program’s freshman rushing record with 1,025 yards. The expectation going into the season is that Akers could have another breakout season, especially with Taggart installing a more up-tempo offense. Oregon was eighth in rushing in the Football Bowl Subdivision last season, averaging 268 yards per game. The Ducks rushed for 40 touchdowns last season, including 15 by Royce Freeman.
WHO WILL CATCH THE BALL? Nyqwan Murray led FSU in receptions (40) and receiving yards (604) last season but he is still working his way back from a knee injury that he suffered during the spring. Junior Keith Gavin was third in receptions with 27 last season but has yet to score a touchdown in his collegiate career. Sophomore D.J. Matthews and redshirt freshman Tamorrion Terry performed well during the spring while true freshman Tre’Shaun Harrison is making a bid for playing time.
DEFENSE REBUILDING: After four seasons running a 3-4 alignment, new defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett has returned the Seminoles to a 4-3. He inherits a unit that returns only four starters, but with talent on the defensive line with Brian Burns and a secondary led by cornerback Levonta Taylor. The biggest question is linebacker, which doesn’t return any starters.
KEY GAMES: FSU’s Oct. 6 game at Miami will cap a stretch of three road games in four weeks. The Seminoles will be looking to break a three-game losing streak when they host Clemson on Oct. 27 before making its their first trip to Notre Dame since 2003 on Nov. 10.
SEASON OPENER: The Taggart Era faces a difficult test right from the start when the Seminoles host Virginia Tech on Sept. 3. Difficult openers are becoming routine for Florida State as this will be the fourth time in five years the first game is against a ranked opponent.
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