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To rebuild FSU, Mike Norvell must fix the ‘Noles offense

Last season FSU went 3-1 in games in which it scored at least 24 points and 0-5 in the games it didn’t.

Don Juan Moore/Character Lines

ESPN’s Bill Connelly has been reviewing and previewing college football programs for years, and recently, he tweeted about Florida State:

Like the saying goes, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, and the recent collapse of the Florida State football program is a pretty big elephant. “Permanently mediocre” seems a bit of an exaggeration for three down years, but there’s no denying Florida State’s football program currently finds itself in a rather large hole.

Connelly also compares FSU’s collapse to what happened to Nebraska. That’s a bit premature, especially since Nebraska is not the talent-rich state that Florida is.

(But then again, Miami of FL’s collapse since its glory days has seemed pretty permanent for the last 20 years.)

To be fair, Connelly states Nebraska and Texas have leveled out around 30th in SP+, and that Miami has only dipped below 50 in SP+ twice in the last 40 years. And in hindsight we’ve learned the best running back in school history, Dalvin Cook, held together several Seminole teams under Jimbo Fisher, delaying the collapse.

If Mike Norvell is going to dig FSU out of this hole, he’s going to have to do something he didn’t have to at Memphis.

When the Memphis Tigers hired now-Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente in 2012, the Tigers were one of the worst mid-majors in the FBS and had won just three games over their previous two seasons.

When Norvell took control of Memphis from Fuente in 2016 he inherited a program that was 55th in SP+ and had won 19 out of 26 games over the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

In his first season at Memphis, Norvell improved the Tigers from 55th to 44th. In 2020, he took over an FSU program ranked 58th, finishing 86th.

Instead of improving FSU by about 10 ranks in Norvell’s first season in Tallahassee like he did at Memphis, the Seminoles dropped nearly 30 spots.

In his defense, that 2016 Memphis team and the 2020 Florida State team had more than a few significant differences, all of which have been mentioned ad nauseam, but as a refresher:

In Memphis, Norvell inherited a recently rebuilt program with a ton of returning talent and experience, with an established foundation and culture. At Florida State, Norvell inherited a team with a broken culture that had gone 11-14 over the previous two seasons and had suffered two transition recruiting classes in the last three seasons. Aside from a handful of players like Asante Samuel, Jr., it was a roster that lacked talent and depth and development, and one that didn’t get true interaction with its new coaches.

Week-by-week, Norvell and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham built an offense around the talent they had — which is to say, an option offense around explosive quarterback Jordan Travis:

For anyone that has followed college football long enough, it was obvious the situation at FSU was always going to get worse before it got better. Even Willie Taggart lamented the fact he couldn’t flip the roster like he wanted to.

A 30 point drop is alarming.

But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost, or that Norvell can’t improve a team.

In Norvell’s first season at Memphis, the Tigers scored at least 24 points in every game, prompting Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly to poach Norvell’s offensive coordinator, Chip Long. Last season FSU went 3-1 in games in which it scored at least 24 points and 0-5 in the games it didn’t. In his second season at Memphis in 2017, Norvell took the Tigers to 10 wins and all the way to 20th in SP+.

Building offenses is what Norvell knows how to do and he’s pretty good at it. Florida State’s receiving corp remains one of the weaknesses on the team heading in 2021, but securing the services of three freshmen (Malik McClain, Joshua Burrell and Destyn Hill) who should see the field, a legitimate threat in Kansas transfer receiver Andre Parchment and the addition of UCF transfer quarterback McKenzie Milton shows Norvell has a plan to fix Florida State’s offense.

Memphis ranking 20th in SP+ in 2017 doesn’t tell the whole story. The Tigers’ offense actually ranked 4th in the country in SP+, while injuries and attrition dropped their defense to 102nd. That team averaged 49 points per game and gave up 35. They won five games despite giving up at least 31 points. Winning 10 games despite a terrible defense is, while perhaps not sustainable, still a pretty good job and right now most FSU fans would gladly take something similar.

The following season the Tigers fell to 36th in SP+, but rebounded in Norvell’s last season in Memphis. That team finished with a 12-2 record and a 17th overall ranking in SP+, with the offense at 8th and the defense improved to 40th. Norvell was wildly successful at Memphis, both overall and at building offenses, despite having to replace three offensive coordinators (including Dillingham), a defensive coordinator, plus a special teams coach.

He likes his defenses to be fast and aggressive, but it’s clear Norvell’s won big with bad defenses before. In all three of FSU’s wins last season the ’Noles gave up at least 24 points. Florida State beat Duke in the season finale despite giving up 35.

While defense still has a significant way to go in establishing FSU’s true rise to the contenders of college football, it’s clear rebuilding FSU’s offense will be the key to whether or not Norvell becomes just the guy who got Florida State off the ground, or the guy who revived FSU and brought it back to prominence.