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Perception is reality: The importance of optics for FSU football in 2018

After a disappointing 2017 season and a brutal schedule this year, can Willie Taggart still change the way that people view the Seminoles?

Florida State v Clemson Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The most important responsibility for any coach, incumbent or newly hired, is to win games. With Florida State coming off a frustrating campaign in 2017, an improvement in the win/loss column should generate a ton of goodwill for first-year head coach Willie Taggart.

Unfortunately for Taggart, there is a major factor working against him this upcoming season: the schedule. The team’s strength of schedule is ranked 2nd in the country by ESPN’s Football Power Index. Furthermore, experts are currently giving the ’Noles a win-total over/under of 8.5 wins. So, here’s the question: how can a new head coach erase the memory of a disappointing season when his schedule won’t cooperate? It’s all about the optics.

The Florida State football program had developed a distinctive style of play in recent years. Visually, it wasn’t always the most entertaining, but it did produce results. Oftentimes, a team with a less-than-entertaining on-field product will find itself susceptible to negative recruiting tactics from other schools. It was easier for FSU to combat those tactics with 10+ wins every season. That situation can change drastically after a year like the ’Noles had in 2017. Boring wins are easy to justify, but nobody wants to be boring and lose. With that in mind, the following are changes that Taggart can implement this season that will have a positive effect on team perception (even without a double-digit win total).

Florida State played offense at a glacial pace

In 2017, FSU was ranked 127th in the country in adjusted offensive pace, per 127th. It’s hard to get a high school senior excited about playing in an offense that was on the field so little. This pace also did not allow the Seminoles to leverage the roster advantage they had over almost every team they played, leading to some unnecessarily close games. For reference, Taggart’s team in 2017, Oregon, was ranked 8th in that same statistic, even without its starting quarterback for most of the season. Taggart has stated on multiple occasions that the ’Noles will have a much different tempo in 2018. This could lead to the opportunity for more blowouts against lesser teams and a more exciting product to show off to 2019 recruits.

It was tough for younger players to make an impact in FSU’s offense

Complex schemes can have negative and positive results. When it works, you have the recipe for something historically great, like the Seminoles had in 2013. When it doesn’t work, you have a unit plagued with mistakes and miscommunication like Florida State’s offense last year. However, one thing was consistent, whether it succeeded or failed: younger players had a tough time getting on the field. This fact especially rang true for FSU receivers, who rarely did anything of note until they had been in the system for a few years.

Taggart famously described his offensive philosophy as “lethal simplicity,” and it was music to the ears of many. He wants to use his most talented players, regardless of experience. It will be easier to sell a recruit on early playing time when they realize that seeing the field is actually a possibility. The sight of true freshman like Tre’Shaun Harrison making plays during the upcoming season could prove to be an excellent visual for 2019 receiver prospects who are considering the ’Noles.

Florida State quarterbacks take avoidable punishment

This one was primarily the result of a passing-oriented, ball-control offense that relied on intermediate dropbacks and long-developing routes. Taggart’s emphasis on running the ball, simple route combinations, and heavy use of play-action passing will greatly help with this in 2018. With the increased focus on concussion-related injuries in college football, this might be the most important change that Taggart makes from a player health and recruiting standpoint.

The ’Noles played defense tentatively

Florida State has had undeniable talent on the defensive side of the ball in recent years. Last year, it was also the unit that many considered to be the most disappointing. There was a noticeable lack of confidence, aggressiveness, and coordination between the position groups. Taggart’s choice of defensive coordinator, Harlon Barnett, was made to rectify those issues. Barnett coaches an attacking style of defense with more importance placed on reaction rather than analysis. This philosophy will allow FSU’s talented athletes to play rather than think. Fans and recruits will notice.

Wins are the most important team statistic and the ultimate arbiter of success for the Willie Taggart era at Florida State University. However, with an unforgiving schedule in his first year at the helm, they aren’t the only thing that he will be judged on in 2018. Taggart can alter the perception of the team by implementing the aforementioned changes. He can build positive momentum for his new program, even with the opponents he must face this year. In other words, he can still make some noise this season, despite a schedule that could silence FSU fans on several occasions.