TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — With its steaks of bowl appearances and winning seasons intact, Florida State can now officially move on to the Willie Taggart era.
Taggart was named the program’s 11th head coach on Dec. 6, five days after Jimbo Fisher resigned to go to Texas A&M. Taggart observed practices leading up to the Seminoles’ preparations for the Independence Bowl and was on the sidelines for Wednesday’s 42-13 victory over Southern Mississippi .
With Florida State closing the books on a disappointing 7-6 season, it’s now Taggart’s program.
“I can’t wait to really put my stamp on it and get rolling. But more importantly, I can’t wait to continue to get to know these guys,” Taggart said last week. “Once we get to know each other and the talent, the things they can do on the football field will take care of itself.”
Taggart has provided a couple clues on how different things will be under his watch during some of the bowl practices. Coaches screaming at players were replaced by music, which gave practices more of a relaxed feel. He also has been more accommodating than Fisher on uniform combinations. The Seminoles wore garnet jerseys and pants for the first time in two years.
Those changes might appeal to players, but fans are more concerned about what Taggart can do to turn around a program that has failed to live up to expectations the past two seasons.
Since winning 33 of 34 games between 2013 and ’15, including a national championship in 2013, Florida State is 21-12, including 10-10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Many thought this was going to be the season when Florida State would return to the College Football Playoff. It was ranked third in The Associated Press preseason poll but lost quarterback Deondre Francois in the opener against Alabama, did not play for close to three weeks due to Hurricane Irma, and was 3-6 at one point before winning out. That allowed the Seminoles to make a 36th consecutive bowl appearance and avoid their first losing season since 1976.
This season marked the first time since 2011 FSU did not won 10 or more games or qualified for one of the New Year’s Six bowl games.
Defensive line coach Odell Haggins, who served as the interim coach for the final two games, said he hopes the team benefits from the adversity it experienced this season.
“To see these men grow and have life lessons, that’s what this game should be about,” said Haggins, who will be a part of Taggart’s staff. “I know everyone’s saying wins and losses but when it’s all said and done, the life lessons are going to make everything better.”
The biggest question leading up to next season’s opener against Virginia Tech will be about the quarterback position. James Blackman started the final 12 games after Francois was injured.
Blackman was the first true freshman to start at QB for Florida State since 1985. He struggled at times but over the final four games completed 63.1 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions.
“What happens in the future, happens in the future. I want to learn from my mistakes and get better,” said Blackman, who set an Independence Bowl record with four TD passes.
Francois was considered one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks when he was recruited in 2015. He might be able to take part in some of the spring practices but Taggart has talked to the sophomore about not rushing back too quickly.
The rest of the offense will return most of the skill position players and only has one departure on the offensive line. Running back Cam Akers set a program record for most rushing yards by a freshman (1,024) and had five touchdowns in the final four games.
Tight end Ryan Izzo, running back Jacques Patrick and wide receiver Auden Tate are weighing their NFL draft options.
The biggest concerns will be on defense as eight starters are either graduating or leaving early for the draft. Sophomore defensive end Brian Burns, who led the team in tackles for loss and was second in sacks, will be the top returning player.
Safety Derwin James and defensive end Josh Sweat have already declared for the draft and did not play in the bowl game. Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden is likely to also declare.
Haggins could be the only member of Fisher’s staff to be retained. Taggart still has to name six of his 10 fulltime assistants, including defensive coordinator.
AP Sports Writer David Brandt contributed to this story.
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