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Clemson has separated from Florida State. How do the Seminoles gain ground?

Courtesy: Greg Oyster | 247Sports
Courtesy: Greg Oyster | 247Sports(WCTV)
Published: Nov. 17, 2020 at 10:20 PM EST
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - A sellout crowd of 82,316 people at Doak Campbell Stadium grew restless as No. 1 Florida State trailed No. 22 Clemson, 17-10, with just over six minutes left in regulation.

The defending national champions were on the ropes with its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston standing on the sideline, demoted to cheerleader after being suspended earlier in the week.

The Seminoles were on the brink of unraveling until backup quarterback Sean McGuire launched a 74-yard touchdown pass to Rashad Greene on 2nd-and-24 to tie the game, which would eventually go to overtime.

After Adam Choice was stuffed on a 4th-and-1 carry, Karlos Williams walked it off with a 12-yard touchdown run to clinch the Seminoles' 19th win in a row. The crowd erupted and the rest of the team surrounded Williams in the end zone.

Florida State conquered its toughest regular-season opponent and Winston with returning the next week, they were in a great position to run the table and potentially win back-to-back national titles.

That was the scene on September 20, 2014; the last time Florida State beat Clemson.

After that night, the two programs gradually moved in opposite directions for the next six years to the point where the tables have completely turned now.

Florida State labored to an undefeated regular season and ACC Championship victory in 2014, but never looked like the same team that won it all the year before. The Seminoles subsequently lost by 39 to Oregon in the inaugural College Football Playoff, and it has slowly gone downhill from there.

Clemson finished 2014 10-3, with a 34-point win over Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl. The concerning part for Florida State was Winston would be off to the NFL after that season, while Clemson had a budding superstar quarterback in Deshaun Watson, who was poised to elevate Clemson to heights the program had never reached.

The next season, Watson and the Tigers cruised to an undefeated regular season, an ACC Championship and narrowly lost 45-40 to Alabama in the national championship game.

But as everyone knows, that was only the beginning. Clemson has since won two national titles under Dabo Swinney, is recruiting better than ever and has become the gold standard in college football.

Meanwhile in Tallahassee, the Seminoles enjoyed back-to-back 10-3 seasons after Winston left and the program still seemed very healthy.

Then that disaster 2017 season happened. Florida State entered the year ranked No. 3 in the country with national championship aspirations and a season opener against No. 1 Alabama. It started with John Thrasher saying what he knew wouldn’t sound great to those outside of the Florida State community.

“I shouldn’t talk much trash,” the Florida State University president said in front of a room of Seminoles fans in August 2017. “I think we’re going to beat Alabama. Pretty bad.”

From that moment forward, Florida State’s luck ran dry. The Seminoles lost 24-7 to Alabama and the entire season turned upside down when starting quarterback Deondre Francois tore his ACL with 5:41 left.

That was the start of Florida State falling off a cliff, from which it still hasn’t recovered. The Seminoles went 7-6 in 2017 and Jimbo Fisher left for the vacant Texas A&M job, which few could have foreseen coming into that season.

After a loss to N.C. State last Saturday, the Seminoles have clinched three-straight losing seasons, dating back to 2018. Fisher’s replacement in Willie Taggart was fired just 21 games into his tenure and the on-field product only seems to be getting worse in 2020 under first-year head coach Mike Norvell.

How did Clemson and Florida State take such drastically different turns so quickly?

The simple answer is that since the College Football Playoff began in 2014, the sport has become a massive arms race. Last year, 38 college athletic departments across the country made more than $100 million in total revenue, according to 247Sports. 37 schools reported spending more than $100 million last year, some of which reported a deficit.

The vast majority of revenue that athletic departments make is generated through their football programs. As a result, colleges around the country are pouring massive amounts of money into their football program to attract better talent, put a better product on the field and, in turn, make more money.

There are several layers to this arms race in modern college football, and when comparing Florida State and Clemson in that regard, the Tigers are winning the battle in all areas right now.

Facilities

The best college football programs across the country nowadays are investing tens of millions of dollars into building state of the art facilities for their teams. Why?

How teams train and recruit players is essential to compete at the highest level.

The four teams that made the College Football Playoff last year (LSU, Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma) all rank inside 247Sports' list of top-10 most impressive football facilities in college football this year.

Clemson’s football facilities currently rank No. 1 on that list and it’s easy to see why. The $55 million Allen N. Reeves Football Complex that opened in 2017 is basically a player’s paradise.

There’s a clever tribute to Memorial Stadium’s ‘Hill’ and ‘Rock’ in the lobby and a metal slide near the back of the building adjacent to the program’s three national championship trophies.

The Tigers also have a basketball court, mini-golf course, a Whiffle ball field, bowling lanes, arcade games and various other activities for players between classes and practice. Also, Clemson’s recently updated 23,000 square foot weight room is arguably the ACC’s most impressive and one of the nicest in the country.

Florida State’s facilities, on the other hand, ranked 20th on the 247Sports list in 2019 but are not ranked inside top-25 this year.

The good news for the Seminoles is that they are pursuing a $60 million, 122,000-square-foot football-only complex that was originally scheduled to open in July 2021. However, that plan was announced while Taggart was still the coach, and it has since been put on hold for Norvell to have a say. There are no indications on how those negotiations have progressed or when the new facility will be completed.

A football-only facility was one of the biggest goals for Fisher during the end of his tenure. The Seminoles' lack of progress in that area was one of the biggest reasons his relationship with the Florida State athletic department and boosters flamed out, and why he eventually left for Texas A&M (No. 3 ranked facilities on the 247Sports list).

Fisher saw Clemson’s program expanding and knew Florida State needed to keep pace, otherwise, Clemson would begin to overtake everyone. He could not have been more spot on.

It is unknown if the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the new facility’s completion, but this kind of addition would be a major step in the right direction towards closing the gap with Clemson.

Unless Norvell wants to significantly modify the original plan, the new facility will be next to the Albert J. Dunlap Athletic Training Complex and practice fields. It will include a new team locker room, a weight room connected to the indoor field, training and hydrotherapy areas, meeting rooms and a recruiting lounge.

Why is all of this so important? Because the best facilities attract the most talented players in the country. The more elite talent teams can recruit, the better positioned they’ll be to compete for championships.

Assistant coaches' salaries

Another important part of Clemson’s sustained success over the past decade has been its ability to not only develop elite assistant coaches but also retain them long term.

Take Clemson’s, Brent Venables. He has been Swinney’s defensive coordinator since 2012 and has been widely regarded as one of the best assistant coaches in the sport for years. He is making approximately $2.2 million this year.

Official data hasn’t been released on who the highest-paid assistant coaches in college football are this season, but Venables' salary last year was the second-highest in the country among assistant coaches behind only LSU’s Dave Aranda, who is now the head coach at Baylor.

It is remarkable how long Swinney has kept Venables, considering he’s seemingly always on the list of potential future head coaches.

Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliot’s salary isn’t far behind Venables at $1.6 million this year. That would have ranked seventh among all assistant coaches last season. Elliot has been on Clemson’s staff since 2011.

Conversely, Norvell’s two coordinators make significantly less with OC Kenny Dillingham making $625K and DC Adam Fuller making $800K.

Of course, it makes sense that Florida State’s first-year coordinators make nowhere near the same amount of money that Clemson’s highly experienced coordinators do, but salaries for assistant coaches have become quite important in modern college football. Head coaches all over the country are pushing their administrations to pay their assistants more.

This topic was another frequent battle Fisher had with the Florida State administration. Interestingly enough, according to USA Today’s assistant coach salary database for 2019, Clemson ranked second in total assistant salaries, with Texas A&M fourth. Florida State ranked 17th.

The more assistant coaches are being paid, the higher their buyouts are, which makes it more difficult for them to leave for jobs at different schools. Naturally, the more they’re paid, the less inclined they’ll feel to leave for a promotion.

That partly explains why Venables has turned down multiple head coaching offers in the past and why former Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott just left for the South Florida job in 2019 after spending 11 seasons on the Clemson staff.

The other important thing to keep in mind is assistant coaches do a ton of recruiting throughout the year. In fact, they are oftentimes primarily responsible for recruiting players that play the position/s of their expertise.

If highly coveted recruits can be assured of great assistant coaching stability, which is more likely when the coaches are being paid more, the greater chance a team has of landing elite players.

It’s too soon to tell whether Dillingham and Fuller will turn into great assistant coaches at Florida State, but if they begin to turn the program around in the next couple of years, the Seminoles would be wise to raise their salaries a bit. If the Seminoles have success under Norvell, other programs will likely show interest in his coordinators for head coaching jobs.

Speaking of stability…

Head coaches need time to build programs

Patience cannot be stressed enough and it’s something that’s becoming increasingly thin across college football programs nowadays. We’re in an era of expecting instant gratification.

When Clemson hired Swinney back in 2009, the early results were not great. He finished his first two seasons 15-15. Since then, he has never won fewer than 10 games in a season, but even that being said, he did not win a national championship until his eighth season.

Even Nick Saban at Alabama won only seven games in his first year in 2007 before winning his first national title there three years later.

Florida State, on the other hand, did not even give Taggart two full seasons before moving on from him. Fisher may have turned the Seminoles from 7-6 in their final year under Bowden to 10-4 in his first year in 2010, but that kind of quick turnaround isn’t always realistic.

Further, Taggart early on found himself battling the same cultural and administrative issues that plagued Fisher. According to those close to Taggart, he clashed with the administration on finances, including constraints on when he could hire his coaching staff and their salaries. The result was a disorganized 2018 staff that often argued over their roles.

It’s also worth noting Taggart’s players-first coaching style was seemingly the complete opposite of Fisher’s detail-driven, authoritarian methods. That’s why patience matters when changing leadership. It takes time for coaches to earn the players’ trust. Cultures don’t change overnight.

It’s unclear how much Taggart’s issues with the administration led to his quick firing, but it’s hard to look at the situation Taggart inherited and argue he was given a fair chance to succeed at Florida State. Frankly, he inherited a complete mess. Fans will disagree on how much of that was Fisher’s fault.

Former players often cited a ubiquitous attitude of entitlement within the locker room after the 2013 national title. Also, the team’s academic performance was declining so much that by Taggart’s first season, Florida State football‘s academic progress rate was the worst of any Power 5 institution and the fifth-worst in the FBS. Not to mention several off-field incidents that cast a dark cloud over the program.

With so little time to change the program’s toxic culture, Taggart was set up to fail, but that didn’t stop him from succeeding early on the recruiting trail. Taggart had a chance to sign two top-15 classes in his first two seasons, which would have put the Seminoles on the right track in its rebuild. He didn’t just suddenly become a bad coach overnight.

Swinney’s first two seasons at Clemson are pretty comparable to Taggart’s brief stint at Florida State. Imagine if Clemson had fired Swinney after 2010. Where would the Tigers be now? Probably nowhere near as good as they are now.

Time matters. Patience matters.

That’s how culture and stability is built within a program. It’s much easier to have quick success when hiring a head coach from within because they are already familiar with the program and can simply build on what’s already in place. That’s a luxury Fisher had when he took over for Bowden.

Hiring outside coaches like Taggart and Norvell usually take more time for success to transpire. Even though Norvell’s first season in Tallahassee is off to a rocky start, Florida State cannot afford to make the same mistake that it did with Taggart.

Norvell proved at Memphis he’s a very good coach. There’s a reason he was one of the top names on the coaching carousel last offseason.

He needs time to change the culture and build the program back up to where it was during the peak Fisher years.

Stability at head coach is also critical to attracting high-level recruits. If recruits feel a coach’s job is in danger, they are far less likely to be interested in playing at said school.

Recruiting

Notice how all of the above categories tie back to recruiting. That’s because recruiting is the single most important ingredient for success in college football today.

A lot of people do not believe that, but that data over the past decade supports that notion. Here is every FBS national championship team since 2010 and the four recruiting class rankings that comprised those teams, per 247Sports:

YEARTEAM4-YEAR RANKING4-YEAR AVERAGE
2019LSU5, 15, 7, 27.25
2018CLEMSON7, 16, 11, 910.75
2017ALABAMA1, 1, 1, 11
2016CLEMSON11, 9, 16, 1512.75
2015ALABAMA1, 1, 1, 11
2014OHIO STATE3, 2, 5, 64
2013FLORIDA STATE11, 4, 2, 86.25
2012ALABAMA1, 1, 4, 32.25
2011ALABAMA1, 4, 3, 32.75
2010AUBURN6, 23, 21, 915.25

The four-year recruiting class average ranking of all those teams combined is sixth.

Clemson’s average recruiting ranking over the last four years is ninth, while Florida State’s is 14th. If those numbers are adjusted to include former recruiting rankings of only players currently on the roster, Clemson ranks fourth in overall team talent while Florida State ranks 16th.

With the 16th most talented team in the country in terms of recruiting over the past four years, it’s baffling that Florida State will have three losing seasons in a row. Then again, that can be attributed to having three different head coaches since 2017. It is much harder to develop players, even the most talented ones, when the coaching staff is constantly changing.

Also notice that only three national champions in that time span ranked outside the top-10 average in their previous four recruiting cycles (2010 Auburn, 2016 Clemson, 2018 Clemson). The common denominator with those three teams: all three of them had generational talents at quarterback.

Auburn’s 2010 national title team had Cam Newton, Clemson’s 2016 team had Deshaun Watson and its 2018 team had Trevor Lawrence, who is one of the best quarterback prospects ever. To sum all that up, in order to win a national championship nowadays, you must consistently sign top-10 classes and/or sign a generational talent at quarterback.

Florida State had both of those things in 2013 with the sixth-best recruiting class on average over the previous four years and Winston at quarterback.

The scary part for the Seminoles is that Clemson’s recruiting is only getting better, and the Tigers are also becoming a quarterback factory.

Since its most recent national title, Clemson has signed classes that rank 10th (2019) and third (2020) nationally. The Tigers currently have the fifth-ranked 2021 recruiting class in the country.

There is wide gap in the quarterback play between Florida State and Clemson since Winston’s departure from the Seminoles too.

In that time span, Clemson’s primary quarterbacks have been Watson (4-star, No. 2 QB in 2014) and Lawrence (5-star, No. 1 QB in 2018). When Lawrence presumably leaves for the NFL after this season, the Tigers will still be in great hands with DJ Uiagalelei (5-star, No. 2 QB in 2020).

The Seminoles' primary quarterbacks, on the other hand, have been Francois (4-star, No. 3 QB in 2015) and James Blackman (3-star, No. 16 QB in 2017).

Francois showed exciting potential as a freshman in 2016 and might have become a star if not for the knee injury in 2017. After the knee injury though, he became a problem in the locker room and ran into several off-field issues.

According to several of Fisher’s former assistants, he stopped showing up to team activities after his injury, including the Seminoles’ game against Delaware State. A month after Fisher’s departure, police responded to an alleged domestic violence incident involving Francois and his girlfriend. Nobody was charged, and the case was dropped after the responding officer concluded there was not enough probable cause to make an arrest for battery.

Three months later, police stormed into Francois’ apartment after an anonymous tip that suggested Francois had accounting ledgers, firearms and more than two pounds of marijuana in his home. However, police found less than an ounce of marijuana, and Francois was cited for misdemeanor possession.

When Taggart arrived in 2018, he named Francois the starting quarterback but his off-field issues eventually reached a boiling point in 2019 and the second-year coach dismissed him from the team.

Furthermore, after Blackman announced his intent to transfer last week, he became the last of every high school quarterback Fisher signed from 2013 through 2017 to leave the program before completing his eligibility.

YEARQUARTERBACKREASON FOR LEAVING
2013John FranklinTransferred
2014JJ CosentinoNever started, left program with 1 year eligibility remaining
2015Deondre Francois, De’Andre JohnsonBoth dismissed
2016Malik HenryDismissed
2017Bailey Hockman, James BlackmanBoth transferred

Taggart also did not sign a quarterback in the 2018 cycle, partly because the new December early signing date made it nearly impossible to find a quality uncommitted quarterback. An even bigger problem ensued in the 2019 cycle though when stud quarterback Sam Howell flipped from Florida State to UNC. Howell, now a sophomore at UNC, has quickly blossomed into one of the most prolific passers in college football.

At this point, Florida State’s quarterback of the future seems to be either Louisville transfer Jordan Travis (3-star, No. 25 QB in 2018) or Chubba Purdy (4-star, No. 7 QB in 2020). Both have flashed plenty of upside for the Seminoles in 2020 and could become very good college quarterbacks, but they aren’t the same elite prospects that Clemson has started the past handful of years.

It’s also still somewhat of a mystery how good of a recruiter Norvell is. Taggart proved in his one season at Oregon and two seasons at Florida State that recruiting is clearly one of his strengths. That was obvious when nine players de-committed from Florida State after Fisher left, and Taggart quickly signed 14 players afterward to land the No. 11 class in the nation.

Norvell dramatically improved Memphis' recruiting during his four years there, signing an average class that ranked 67th, a full nine slots better than what his predecessor Justin Fuente did in four years, signing the 76th-ranked class on average.

Obviously, Norvell will sign much better classes at Florida State than he did at Memphis. He’s off to a solid start considering how Florida State’s last four seasons have gone.

Norvell signed the No. 22 class last year after Taggart was fired and he currently has the No. 21 ranked class in his first full recruiting cycle at Florida State.

That’s a good start for a rebuilding program, but can he eventually sign top-10 classes annually? If not, he will somehow have to find a generational talent at quarterback for the Seminoles to catch up with Clemson.

So much has changed since that night in 2014. So much so that Clemson is listed as a 35-point favorite this Saturday, which is the largest margin an opponent has ever been favored over Florida State, and nearly 10 points more than the previous high.

It goes without saying, the Seminoles have dug themselves into a deep hole, and they have a long, long way to go before returning back to where they were six years ago.

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