Willie Taggart: An Experiment Gone Wrong

Photo via Nell Redmond/AP Photo

Ask yourself this question – what has been the go-to hire in today’s football climate? 

If you answered a young offensive-minded coach that, under the right conditions, can become the next Sean McVay of college football, or perhaps a quarterback whisperer in Lincoln Riley, then go to a sportsbook to collect your earnings.  

That is what Florida State thought they would be getting in Willie Taggart when they hired him in 2017. But alas, it was not meant to be. The Seminoles decided to fire him after losing to a Miami team that is not the Miami from year’s past. Through 21 games, he was 9-12 and failed to net the Seminoles a bowl game last season, the first time for the team since 1981. Seminoles’ brass is even buying Taggart out for $17 million. 

Let’s wind the clocks back three years. The Texas A&M Aggies, looking to finally make the leap into the SEC championship fray with Alabama, threw Jimbo Fisher an offer he could not refuse. 10 years, $75 million. 

What did Jimbo bring to the Seminoles? Offense. Before becoming head coach of Florida State, Fisher, as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, was able to catapult Florida State into the upper half of all of college football in points per game. As head coach, he was able to do the same and then some, winning six of eight bowl games he led them to, including a national championship in 2013. 

When they promoted Fisher to head coach, it was brand new for him. Jimbo had never head coached before. Even still, he jumped into the role and did more than many thought he would. He recruited well, coached phenomenally and preached discipline on the gridiron. 

Now, to Taggart. What were the Seminoles thinking they were getting for their buck when they hired him to replace Fisher? 

They first thought they were getting offense. In 2015 and 2016, once the wheels started turning while he was at the helm of the University of South Florida, the Bulls were averaging over five touchdowns a game and garnering AP Poll votes. Even in Taggart’s one year as head coach at Oregon, they averaged 36 points and reached the Las Vegas Bowl. Despite the loss, one could see the possibility of Oregon becoming more and more of an offensive threat. 

That is exactly why the Seminoles grabbed him. With a landscape that is drifting into more and more offense than ever before, they thirsted for it in order to get back to the College Football Playoff, where they previously lost to the Ducks back in January of 2015 by a margin of 39 points. Hiring Taggart seemed like an experiment that would be a huge success. 

But it did not happen. Florida State, last season, averaged only 21.9 points, best enough for 113th in all of the FBS. Worse still, last year they averaged 70.9 penalty yards a game. This coupled with bottom-third total defenses is not a recipe for success. This year, while there was some improvement (offensively Florida State ranked 78th in points per game with 27.2 and 80th in opponent points per game after ranking 90th the previous year), it still was not enough. The penalty yards per game was a hair worse, this time allowing 73.1 yards. 

What Jimbo implemented was a no-nonsense ideology in not shooting yourself in the foot. The team was disciplined. The team was focused. And it showed not only on the field but off the field as well. Under Jimbo’s tenure Florida State consistently ranked in the upper echelon of recruiting rankings. Players wanted to be developed under a strict, yet beneficial system, and while it was only a little over the year into Taggart’s tenure as Seminole coach, the leaps to becoming that were not noticeable. Baby steps could barely be seen. 

Willie Taggart was a reasonable, albeit expensive experiment for Florida State. They made a move that could have cemented the next dynamic coach to not only replace Fisher, but also bring them back into the College Football Playoff fold. They saw a brand-new offense-first oriented mind that could lead to competing with Clemson for ACC dominance. 

Some experiments work, and then some experiments excel. Sean McVay and Lincoln Riley are the successes that net prizes in the form of pennants. Florida State will likely go after someone of this caliber, with the scheme on offense being the hot topic at the interview desk. 

However, the Willie Taggart experiment will not be one of those successes. Back to the drawing board in Tallahassee. 

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