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No. 17 Virginia Tech’s 2018 football season is set to begin on Monday night with a trip to No. 19 Florida State. This is a difficult opener for both teams. The Hokies and the Seminoles will both play a lot of young players on Monday, and Florida State’s coaching staff will be coaching its first game in Tallahassee.
Willie Taggart takes over for Jimbo Fisher, and Florida State has always been the dream job for the 42-year old from Bradenton, FL. He’s had a good career reviving programs at Western Kentucky (his alma mater) and South Florida before going 7-5 in his one season at Oregon a year ago. He takes over a program that has plenty of talent and athleticism, but seemed lost last year under Jimbo Fisher.
Taggart brings the “Gulf Coast Offense” to Tallahassee. It’s an offense that is not regarded as being particularly complicated, but instead relies on tempo to be effective. Taggart describes his offense as “lethal simplicity” and his past stops have shown that to be pretty accurate. Look for a lot of split backfield sets from Florida State’s offense, with a running back flanking either side of the quarterback. That allows the Seminoles to attack both sides of the defense with the read option, depending on how the defense is aligned.
We’ll have a better X’s and O’s breakdown of Florida State’s offense by Brandon Patterson, available to TSL Pass subscribers, later in the day. For now, here is our game preview and predictions.
Big Play Backs: Advantage FSU
I’ve said in the offseason that the biggest thing that concerns me about this game is the difference in the running backs. I’ll use regular stats and advanced stats to back up my point.
Florida State used two running backs last season, and they’ll both be back this year. Cam Akers (5-11, 210, So.) will start, but Jacques Patrick (6-3, 234, Sr.) will get a lot of work as well.
Akers YPC: 5.3
Patrick YPC: 5.5
Here’s how that compares to Virginia Tech’s top three returning running backs…
Deshawn McClease YPC: 4.9
Steven Peoples: 3.8
Jalen Holston: 3.2
That’s a big difference, despite the struggles of Florida State’s offensive line last year.
The advanced stats tell the same story. “Highlight yards per opportunity” is a metric that determines how many yards a running back picks up on average without the help of his offensive line. Here’s how the two backfields compare, first with Florida State…
Akers and Patrick did a good job picking up yards on their own last season. Virginia Tech’s running backs did not…
Virginia Tech’s numbers will get better this year. They almost have to by default. Even Jordan Ellis of UVA, who isn’t a particularly good back in my opinion, averaged 3.6 highlight yards per opportunity.
Let’s look compare the backfields in one final way…total number of long gains. This includes quarterback runs, and overall it’s a very accurate indicator of the effectiveness of both backfields.
20+ yard runs: FSU 19, VT 7
30+ yard runs: FSU 11, VT 3
40+ yard runs: FSU 7, VT 1
50+ yard runs: FSU 4, VT 0
Linebacker is a major question mark for both teams heading into this game, and I’m sure both sides will make their share of mistakes. I think the biggest key to this game could be what happens when a linebacker blows his gap assignment. I’m worried that when a Virginia Tech linebacker misses a gap, Cam Akers or Khalan Laborn (5-11, 205, r-Fr.) will generate a run of 40+ yards, but when a Florida State linebacker screws up, a Hokie running back will only pick up 15-20 yards.
I believe college football has turned into a game of big plays, and the numbers indicate that Florida State’s running backs are much better at generating big plays than Virginia Tech’s backs.
Florida State Linebackers: A Weakness
Speaking of Florida State’s linebackers, ask most FSU gurus about their weakness, and they would probably all say linebacker. The Seminoles aren’t exactly prototypical at these three positions.
Sam: DeCalon Brooks (5-11, 211, r-Fr.) OR Adonis Thomas (6-4, 233, r-Jr.)
Mike: Dontavious Jackson (6-3, 228, Jr.)
Star: Jaiden Woodbey (6-3, 215, Fr.)
When Brooks and Woodbey are in the game together, the Seminoles will be pretty small and inexperienced at linebacker. The lack of size at Star is no big deal, as that position is similar to Virginia Tech’s whip spot. It’s a hybrid safety/linebacker position that is asked to line up over the slot receiver on the wide side of the field.
Woodbey is a talented player who was ranked as high as No. 29 and as low as No. 70 in the national recruiting ratings. He is very likely to develop into a very good player for the Seminoles. However, this will be his first college game, and I’m guessing that Justin Fuente will give him a lot to think about in the form of misdirection and RPOs (Run-Pass Options). I think he’ll need some help from starting free safety Stanford Samuels III (6-2, 183), himself only a true sophomore.
The Sam spot is a short-side linebacker position most comparable to Virginia Tech’s Backer spot. 5-11, 211 is very small for that position, and DeCalon Brooks was actually considered to be a safety by some people when he was coming out of high school. He’s small and he’s undersized, though he could split reps with Adonis Thomas. Still, what does that say about Thomas if he can’t beat out an undersized freshman? Thomas originally signed with Alabama out of high school, but went the JUCO route before signing with Florida State.
It’s certain that the Seminoles have plenty of speed and athleticism at all of the linebacker positions, but speed and athleticism don’t always equate to being good players. I expect the Virginia Tech coaching staff to challenge these linebackers with misdirection, motion, RPOs, etc., and I believe the Hokies will have chances to break big plays against this group. Whether or not Tech’s skill position players can turn those opportunities into big plays is the major question mark.
Florida State Receivers: More Youth
Much has been made of the youth the Hokies will have at most positions, including receiver. Well, it’s not as if the Seminoles are trotting out a group of experienced talent on the outside.
Florida State lists three wide receiver positions on their roster. Here’s the official depth chart at all three spots…
Three of those top eight receivers are true freshmen. Two more are redshirt-freshmen. One is a true sophomore. Only two players return with significant experience…
Nyquan Murray (5-11, 192, Sr.): 40 catches, 604 yards, 4 TDs, 54.8% catch rate
Keith Gavin (6-3, 213, Jr.): 28 catches, 289 yards, 0 TDs, 57.1% catch rate
The youth that Florida State has at wide receiver should make Virginia Tech fans feel better about the Hokies’ youth in the secondary. I expect we’ll see the Seminoles try to challenge Khalil Ladler with their slot receivers (Murray, Matthews and Helton). I don’t think they’ll consistently move the football through the air against Tech, but again, big plays worry me. That was the (only) Achilles heel of the Virginia Tech defense last season.
A Familiar Offensive Line
Despite the success of Florida State’s running backs last year, the offensive line is considered the weak spot of the offense. That’s because they allowed 32 sacks a year ago. That’s a positively Virginia Tech-like number, at least before last season. Here are Tech’s “sacks allowed” numbers from 2013-17. Keep in mind that a coaching staff change took place between 2015 and 2016.
There was no real difference in pass protection in Justin Fuente’s first season, but things took a big step forward in his second year, and would have been even better were it not for Yosuah Nijman’s injury against Miami.
Sometimes it takes a year for a coaching staff to have a positive effect in some areas of the game. We might see the Florida State offensive line take a big jump forward this year with new offensive line coach Greg Frey, or it might take a year.
Here are the projected starters up front for the Seminoles…
LT Jauan Williams (6-7, 295, r-So.): 0 games, 0 starts. Williams redshirted in 2016, and missed all of 2017 with an injury. Both teams will be starting a left tackle who will be playing his first collegiate game (Silas Dzansi for the Hokies).
LG Derrick Kelly II (6-5, 320, r-Sr.): 24 games, 19 starts. Kelly started at both left tackle and left guard last season.
C Alec Eberle (6-4, 295, r-Sr.): 36 games, 32 starts. Virginia Tech did not offer the Mechanicsville, VA native. He has started 32 consecutive games for the Seminoles.
RG Mike Arnold (6-5, 328, r-So.): 4 games, 0 starts. Arnold originally committed to Virginia Tech out of high school, but signed with the Seminoles after a year of prep school. He has very limited experience at the college level.
RT Landon Dickerson (6-6, 308, r-So.): 11 games, 11 starts. Dickerson grew up a Tech fan, coming to multiple games over the years because his grandparents lived just outside of Blacksburg, and in fact his grandfather played for the Hokies. He started seven games as a true freshman before getting hurt, and four games as a true sophomore before being injured and taking a medical redshirt.
If this turns out to be the same Florida State offensive line as last year, then I expect the Hokies to play pretty well up front. If this line has improved from last year, then expect the Seminoles to be quite a bit better offensively.
Deondre Francois (6-1, 215, r-Jr.) returns from injury as Florida State’s starting quarterback. As a redshirt freshman two seasons ago, he was named ACC Rookie of the Year. Here were his numbers…
Passing: 235-of-400 (58.8%) for 3,350 yards, 20 TDs, 7 INTs
Rushing: 108 carries, 198 yards, 1.8 ypc, 5 TDs
Francois is a better runner than those stats indicate, as Florida State allowed 36 sacks that year. In fact, here are his rushing numbers without sacks included…
Highlight yards/Opp.: 7.5
His running ability concerns me, especially with Virginia Tech’s inability to stop mobile quarterbacks in recent seasons. That and the big play ability of Florida State’s running backs are my two biggest concerns.
Francois is a good player, and he has experience. Virginia Tech needs to get after him early and make him uncomfortable. He spent his entire freshman season getting flattened (there’s a YouTube video called “Deondre Francois Punishment Reel” that you can watch, but I won’t link it here because it features a song with offensive lyrics), and he was lost for the season in last year’s opener against Alabama. He could be rusty, and he’s new to Willie Taggart’s offense. The Hokies need to put on the pressure if possible.
Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente has plenty of familiarity with Willie Taggart’s offense. He faced Taggart three times while at Memphis, and he also has experience against Taggart as an assistant. Here are the results of the three meetings between Fuente at Memphis and Taggart at South Florida…
2013: 23-10 Memphis. This was Taggart’s first year at South Florida, and the Bulls went just 2-10. This was Fuente’s second year at Memphis, and the Tigers went just 3-9.
2014: 31-20 Memphis. The Bulls went 4-8 in Taggart’s second season, while Memphis went 10-3 in Fuente’s third season.
2015: 24-17 Memphis. Both teams were good in 2015, with Memphis going 9-4 and USF going 8-5.
Fuente had the advantage over Taggart by one year, meaning he had one more season to stock his program full of his own players. That means you have to take that 3-0 record with a grain of salt, though I will point out that all three games were lower scoring than you might expect in a battle between coaches with offensive backgrounds.
Virginia Tech should also know something about what to expect from the Seminoles defensively. Harlon Barnett joined the Florida State staff in the offseason as defensive coordinator, and he spent the previous 11 seasons as a defensive back coach and co-defensive coordinator at Michigan State, where he worked under then-defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. He was also Narduzzi’s defensive backs coach at Cincinnati when Narduzzi was defensive coordinator for the Bearcats. Justin Fuente and his offensive coaches have gotten a good look at Narduzzi’s defense over the last two years, so they will have a pretty good idea about what the Seminoles are going to do.
Considering the players on both teams have never played against each other, and the Florida State staff is in its first year in Tallahassee, there will be more familiarity in this game than one might expect. Tech knows what Florida State will do offensively and defensively, for the most part. This will be a game of execution.
Virginia Tech- FSU Predictions
Though there is plenty of familiarity between the coaching staffs, I don’t think this is an easy game to predict. The generic thing to do is pick Florida State because they are at home, but overall I think this is a pretty even matchup. I also think that it will be a game where some unexpected things happen. I don’t know if we’ll see a big play on special teams, from a fake or a blocked kick, or we’ll see a pass deflected by a defensive back and still caught and run it for a touchdown by a receiver…but for some reason I think we’ll see a crazy thing or two happen in this one.
You can’t predict things like that though, so I’ll stick to basic analysis. I like how these teams match up at virtually every position, with the lone exception of tailback. Both sets of backs will be presented with an opportunity to make big plays in this game. A season’s worth of stats from last year tells us that Florida State’s running backs will make those plays, and Virginia Tech’s will not.
Just based on that, I see a 150-160 play football game that will be dead even for all but two or three of them. Those two or three will be the difference.
Chris’s Prediction: Florida State 30, Virginia Tech 24
Will Stewart’s Take: I have almost no idea what will happen in this game.
When it’s all over, we’ll say, “Of course that’s what happened.” Either Florida State will hit some explosive plays — more than the Hokies — for the win, or the ‘Noles will struggle with Willie Taggart’s offense, perhaps putting the ball on the ground a few times, and the Hokies will squeak out a big win on the road.
Recruiting rankings will tell you Florida State is generally a more talented, deeper team than Virginia Tech, but at this point in the season, depth isn’t as big an issue as it is in October and November, when injuries start to pile up. For example, two key players for the Hokies are Ricky Walker and Josh Jackson, and as far as we know, both are completely healthy. That might not be the case later in the season, and injuries to either one, or both, would be a big loss. But that’s not the case here.
Depth might be a factor with a fast-paced game, however. Last year against WVU, we saw the Mountaineers offensive pace — the ‘Eers ran 89 plays — wear the Hokies down. Tech’s defensive line was completely gassed at the end. If this game is tight late, and Florida State has the ball, the Hokies could have trouble stopping them, due to simple fatigue.
With FSU’s big-play advantage, it might take a couple of Seminole turnovers or big special teams plays to turn the tide in Virginia Tech’s direction. A pick-six or a special teams score might be necessary for the Hokies to pull out the win.
There’s not a whole lot of analysis I can bring to this game other than that, because so much is unknown about both teams and how they will play in the opener and react to this big spotlight. In the end, I figure the safe pick is that Florida State’s home-field advantage and overall talent level, particularly at running back, will make the difference. Vegas has the Seminoles favored by approximately seven points, and I figure that’s about right. FSU might even win by two scores, but I don’t think a bigger gap than that is likely.
Will’s Prediction : Florida State 34, Virginia Tech 24