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What should we expect from Willie Taggart’s first year at Florida State?

NCAA Football: Florida State-Willie Taggart Press Conference Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

College football teams operate in reference to goals. Willie Taggart and his team will have the goal of winning every game they play without reference to how likely it is to happen. They will almost certainly have other goals, such as winning the Atlantic Division and the conference.

As fans, we traffic in expectations. We are concerned with a level of performance from the program that warrants continued financial support. Rarely do the two metrics overlap. Even as a fan of Alabama, it would not be reasonable to expect to win every game the team plays in a given season and to pull your program support if it fails to. The critical inquiry, then, is what constitutes a reasonable expectation. It requires an honest evaluation of what a program can and should be. If the expectations are too low, a program could find itself underachieving for years on end, arguably the case for Georgia in recent history. More frequently, a program’s fans set their expectations too high, which leads to premature firings and what SB Nation’s Bill Connelly likes to call “Glen Mason Territory,” after the former Kansas and Minnesota head coach. This occurs when a program is unhappy with a good level of performance relative to its resources, spurns it in an attempt to reach a higher tier, and ultimately takes a step backward.

So, as much as we supporters largely cannot influence on-field play, despite our strongest internet exhortations, our work in establishing reasonable expectations and holding the program to account is important. At Florida State, these expectations are justifiably quite high. FSU is one of the few programs in the nation with the ability to recruit at an elite level and provide the institutional commitment necessary to compete for a national championship. The exact expectations will be detailed in our updated tracker, which we will post shortly. Today, we’re looking specifically at Taggart’s first season at Florida State. In doing so, we’ll need to examine some comparison points for context.

Flip or Flop

Prior to taking over at Oregon, Taggart was known as a head coach who demolished the old program before starting his rebuild. At Western Kentucky, he took over a Hilltoppers squad that ranked 117th in the nation by S&P+ in 2009, one of the very worst in the nation. The reconstruction was far from rapid. In 2010, Taggart’s WKU came in at 111th. In 2011, they stepped up slightly to 104th. The breakthrough came in 2012, when the Hilltoppers went 7-6 and reached 74th in the nation by S&P+.

Willie then took over at South Florida, which ranked 65th while going 3-9 in 2012. As he did at WKU, Taggart set out to eradicate the old program, resulting in a 2-10 finish, good for 103rd in 2013. After reaching 94th in 2014, Taggart’s Bulls went 8-5 (56th) in 2015 and 11-2 (55th) in 2016. It’s worth noting that Taggart adopted his Gulf Coast Offense during the 2015 season at USF and further refined it in 2016, when the Bulls finished 51st and 7th in offensive S&P+, respectively.

Taggart became Oregon’s head coach in 2017. The Ducks were coming off a 4-8 season, checking in at 74th by S&P+. Willie’s transition at Oregon was much swifter, as he led the Ducks to a 7-5 record and a 47th overall finish. Oregon’s offense improved from 32nd to 25th, and interestingly, while starting quarterback Justin Herbert was healthy, the Ducks went 6-1 and averaged 52 points per game, albeit against the easier portion of their schedule.

Surveying the Nation

Taggart’s history is useful to consider, but certainly limited in predictive value. For example, we’ve only seen Willie take over a program and install the GCO from day one once. He’s also never captained a ship as talented as the one he takes over at FSU. To give us a better idea of what we should consider reasonable, it’s worth taking a look at a few programs around the country and how they fared in year one of a new regime.

Years One

School Coach Year Prior Record Year Prior S&P+ Year One Record Year One S&P+
School Coach Year Prior Record Year Prior S&P+ Year One Record Year One S&P+
Alabama Nick Saban 6-7 31 7-6 57
Auburn Gus Malzahn 3-9 73 12-2 5
Clemson Dabo Swinney 7-6 39 9-5 21
Florida Will Muschamp 8-5 28 7-6 33
Florida Jim McElwain 7-5 24 10-4 30
Florida State Jimbo Fisher 7-6 41 10-4 11
Georgia Kirby Smart 10-3 45 8-5 68
Miami Mark Richt 8-5 47 9-4 14
MIchigan Jim Harbaugh 5-7 48 10-3 5
Notre Dame Brian Kelly 6-6 27 8-5 7
Ohio State Urban Meyer 6-7 35 12-0 22
Texas Tom Herman 5-7 36 7-6 50
USC Lane Kiffin 9-4 34 8-5 23
USC Clay Helton 8-6 16 10-3 9
Washington Chris Petersen 9-4 23 8-6 65
Progress. Or lack thereof.

Suffice it to say, first year results, even for the greats of college football, are a mixed bag. Can a new coach dramatically improve a team’s record and/or S&P+ performance in a single year? Yes, but it’s rather rare. And even when there’s improvement in year one, it’s not always predictive of how things will go in the future. Each situation is obviously context-specific, and with that in mind, let’s consider 2018 Florida State.

It’s the Climb

Under Jimbo Fisher from 2010-2016, Florida State finished 11th, 23rd, 16th, 1st, 17th, 8th, and 6th by S&P+. In 2017, the Seminoles fell off a cliff, finishing 43rd. The ’Noles were 76th on offense and 33rd on defense. This, despite a five-year recruiting rank of 4th, and a two-year recruiting rank of 5th. The ’Noles have the fifth-best blue chip ratio in the country in 2018. Florida State returns 59% of its total production, 73% on offense, and 46% on defense.

Taggart has given no indication he intends to raze the FSU program to its foundations, seeming to opt for the approach he took at Oregon. So, how high can we expect him to take the Seminoles in 2018?

For that, we turn to Bill Connelly’s 2018 S&P+ projections. These projections factor in FSU’s two-year recruiting ranking, returning production, and recent history. However, a certain tweak to the recent history factor makes it particularly applicable to 2018 FSU:

“For recent history, I get a little weird. I found last year that the previous year’s S&P+ ratings — which make up the starting point for the returning production figures — were carrying a little too much weight. So what you see below is a projection based solely off of seasons two to five years ago. Recent history now carries less weight in the overall formulas, under 20 percent.”

This adjustment helps to filter out what we FSU fans—and the team’s talent level—suggest was an anomalous 2017.

Connelly’s projections have Florida State finishing 19th overall, with the nation’s 30th-best offense and 21st-best defense. This would represent significant improvements from 2017 and rank Taggart favorably among the above-detailed year one performances. However, in view of FSU’s talent level and the performance preceding 2017, the projections do not seem dramatically optimistic. Indeed, it is tempting to look at FSU’s talent level and expect the Seminoles to bounce back to a top-10 level of play. Until, however, we remember that FSU is installing brand new, significantly different schemes on both sides of the ball. This transition simply doesn’t happen overnight, especially in a college football setting where official practice time is significantly limited.

But even if the Seminoles finish the season as a top-20 team, the schedule may result in what some find to be an unpalatable win total. The projections have FSU at 7.2 wins, which Bill recognizes is a little pessimistic. An 8-win regular season is in line with Vegas win totals. Connelly’s numbers have FSU facing the third-toughest schedule in the country this season. The ’Noles will face three top-12 projected teams, along with five more top-40 squads, and 47th-projected Boston College in a tough spot. So, while it’s reasonable to expect the 2018 Seminoles to improve from last year’s 43rd finish, it’s also worth noting that the 20th best team in the country could easily go 7-5 against this schedule.

We all know win-loss record will be the overriding consideration in how we evaluate Taggart’s tenure at FSU. There’s a reason we have a coach expectations tracker that speaks in terms of such outcomes, not final S&P+ finishes. But we also understand that, particularly in a single-year sample, evaluations of success or failure need to take more than final record into account. There are simply not enough games in one season to judge a coach on his win-loss record. Because the advanced metrics judge more numerous inputs like plays or drives, they stabilize much earlier and give a clearer picture. I submit that a finish in line with Connelly’s projections and within a game of the 8-win total should be considered a success on the field in year one. But if this exercise has been good for anything, it should be to stress the importance of the context that arises as the season progresses. For example, if the Seminoles see injuries at several thin roster spots, or if they experience miraculous 2013 injury luck, we obviously need to factor these developments in.

In short, although just about every team in college football is optimistic in August, the feeling is warranted for Florida State fans. This team is probably not bound for the College Football Playoff, but FSU fans have plenty of reasons to believe it could be soon.