Willie Taggart’s short-lived tenure at Florida State came to an abrupt end on Sunday when the school fired him after just 21 games on the job.
With the way the Seminoles, now 4-5 after an uninspired loss to Miami, were performing on the field, it felt like things were trending this way. But to be let go with three games remaining in just his second season on the job shows in plain view how decision-makers in Tallahassee viewed the trajectory of Taggart’s football program. Under Taggart, the Seminoles looked disjointed, unorganized and undisciplined from the get-go — and it wasn’t getting better.
For a program that is expected to consistently perform at a high level, that wasn’t going to cut it — even with a $17 million price tag to pay off Taggart’s contract.
Taggart’s dismissal is an unanticipated turn of events for a school that, after Jimbo Fisher’s departure for Texas A&M, spent big bucks — Taggart’s contract: six years, $30 million — to lure him away from Oregon and back to his home state. But it disintegrated quickly, and now Florida State is left looking for another head coach.
Florida State isn’t the only school that may have buyer’s remorse from the 2018 coaching carousel. Let’s check in on some other programs scuffling under their second-year head coaches.
Arizona: Kevin Sumlin
Contract: Five years, $14.5 million
Record: 9-12 (6-9 Pac-12)
Kevin Sumlin seemed to have found a soft landing after getting pushed aside by Texas A&M, but his time at Arizona has not gone well. The Wildcats went 5-7 in 2018 with a banged-up Khalil Tate taking a step back under Sumlin’s tutelage.
The Wildcats missed out on a bowl by blowing a 40-21 fourth-quarter lead to rival Arizona State in the season finale. And the bad taste from that loss quickly resurfaced with a 45-38 loss to Hawaii to open the 2019 season. From there, Arizona won four straight, but that didn’t last. The Wildcats have now lost four straight following Saturday’s 56-38 home defeat at the hands of Oregon State. Sumlin fired defensive coordinator Marcel Yates last week, but the Beavers were still able to gash the Wildcats for 572 yards.
Now 4-5 with No. 7 Oregon, No. 8 Utah and ASU still on the schedule, the 2019 season is trending toward an ugly conclusion.
Arkansas: Chad Morris
Contract: Six years, $21 million
Record: 4-17 (0-14 SEC)
Arkansas opted for the offensive stylings of Chad Morris after letting go of Bret Bielema and his smash-mouth tendencies. Nearly two years later, the Razorbacks have not won a single SEC game with Morris running the show. Saturday’s 54-24 loss to Mississippi State made it 17 straight SEC losses for the program dating to the final days Bielema’s tenure.
Morris, who had just a 14-22 record in three seasons at SMU, went 2-10 with losses to the likes of Colorado State and North Texas in 2018. The 2019 season has yielded a loss to lowly San Jose State, plus an average margin of defeat of 29 points in the month of October.
Things could hit rock bottom next weekend when Western Kentucky — led by former Arkansas QB Ty Storey — visits Fayetteville. Storey left the program as Morris (whose buyout is $10 million, by the way) scoured the grad-transfer market for what he thought would be an upgrade. The collective play of Nick Starkel (ex-Texas A&M) and Ben Hicks (ex-SMU) might suggest otherwise.
Mississippi State: Joe Moorhead
Contract: $3.2 million annually through 2022
Record: 12-10 (6-8 SEC)
When Joe Moorhead was announced as Mississippi State’s hire to succeed the Florida-bound Dan Mullen, it felt like an intriguing yet unorthodox fit. Moorhead was coveted for his work revitalizing Penn State’s offense, but the Pittsburgh native who predominantly coached in the Northeast was in for a transition when he arrived in Starkville.
Since then, Moorhead’s tenure has featured mixed results. The 2018 Bulldogs had one of the most talented defenses in the country, but Moorhead couldn’t get a rhythm going with run-first QB Nick Fitzgerald, who put up huge numbers under Mullen despite his uneven accuracy. That season ended at a disappointing 8-5, and now the 2019 Bulldogs will need to scratch and claw to reach a bowl game. Currently 4-5 with Alabama next on the schedule, the Bulldogs will have to take care of Abilene Christian and rival Ole Miss to be eligible for the postseason. MSU hasn’t missed a bowl game since 2009.
Nebraska: Scott Frost
Contract: Seven years, $35 million
Record: 8-13 (5-10 Big Ten)
Let’s just say this hasn’t gone as planned. Scott Frost, following his undefeated season at UCF, has talked a big game about getting his alma mater back to its once-winning ways. But as his second season leading the charge in Lincoln nears another underwhelming end, the hope that filled the hearts of Husker fans has largely subsided.
Nebraska lost Saturday to a Purdue team that was down to its third-string quarterback. It was the team’s third straight defeat and now a bowl game is looking unlikely. At 4-5 overall (2-4 Big Ten), the Huskers have No. 16 Wisconsin and No. 18 Iowa remaining on the schedule. The Huskers should be favored at Maryland on Nov. 23, but an upset is needed to avoid a third-straight season without a bowl.
Tennessee: Jeremy Pruitt
Contract: Six years, $22.8 million
Record: 9-12 (4-9 SEC)
It has been a bumpy road, but Jeremy Pruitt may have Tennessee headed on a positive track. After a disastrous 1-4 start to 2019 that included a loss to Georgia State, the Vols have won three of their last four games. And a bowl game may be in the cards. Now 4-5, Tennessee has road trips to Kentucky and Missouri before rounding out the regular season against Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium. Win two of those, and UT will be back in a bowl game following a two-year drought.
UCLA: Chip Kelly
Contract: Five years, $23.3 million
Record: 7-14 (7-8 Pac-12)
Chip Kelly’s self-proclaimed “Baby Bruins” are growing up. Kelly went 3-9 in his first year and got off to a 1-5 start to open 2019. But the current three-game winning streak seems to indicate that things are looking up for Kelly’s program. UCLA has a bye in Week 11, but could find itself in a bowl game with another upset. A trip to No. 8 Utah is next on the schedule, but very winnable games against USC and Cal round out the schedule. A bowl game in Year 2 would certainly be a win for Kelly, especially with how dire things looked a month ago.
Don’t discount Georgia’s CFP chances yet
You could sense some relief embedded in the joyous embrace Georgia coach Kirby Smart shared with his quarterback Jake Fromm in the seconds after the Bulldogs’ 24-17 win over Florida. Sure, Georgia was thrilled to have a third straight victory over its archrival and move to 8-1 on the season, but it was easy to see how the celebration was about more than that.
Fromm entered Saturday’s game on the heels of two dreadful games in October. His three interceptions directly contributed to Georgia’s 20-17 double-overtime loss to South Carolina on Oct. 12 and he threw for just 35 yards against Kentucky on Oct. 19. Yeah, that game was in an absolute monsoon, but take away a 22-yard pass in that win over the Wildcats and Fromm had eight completions for 13 yards.
Saturday, Fromm was great. And he went downfield when Georgia needed to put the Gators away in the final 15 minutes.
The first strike came when Fromm found Lawrence Cager behind the Florida defense for a 52-yard fourth-quarter touchdown that turned out to be the game-winning score. Cager, a graduate transfer from Miami, missed the Kentucky game and wasn’t fully healthy on Saturday. But he had seven catches for 132 yards and that touchdown despite not playing in most of the offensive snaps.
The second long pass came when Georgia needed a first down to end the game. Facing a third-and-7 with 2:45 left, it would have quite predictable for the Bulldogs and first-year offensive coordinator James Coley to run a draw or not risk an incomplete pass. Instead, Fromm threw over the top to tight end Eli Wolf, who made a great catch for a 22-yard gain to seal the win.
“When Jake has time he’s really efficient,” Kirby Smart said after the game, making sure to point out the job that his offensive line did throughout the game.
Six Georgia players had receptions of at least 17 yards. Fromm finished the game 20-of-30 passing for 279 yards and two touchdowns. His yards per completion was the highest it’s been since a win over Arkansas State on Sep. 14. The two touchdowns were his first multiple TD game in nearly a month.
When Georgia’s offense makes plays down the field it’s easy to see how the Bulldogs are the College Football Playoff contender we thought they could be entering the season. But it hasn’t happened often enough this season to know if Saturday’s performance was a flash in the pan or a sign of things to come.
The formula for Georgia’s playoff hopes is pretty simple. If the Bulldogs win out — a schedule that includes a game against Auburn on Nov. 16 and an SEC championship game against either LSU or Alabama — Georgia is the SEC champion and one of the four teams in the playoff.
Simple in this case isn’t easy, of course. Auburn is a top-12 team and the SEC West champion will likely enter the title game at No. 1 in the playoff rankings. The task is doable if Fromm and Georgia offense are what they were on Saturday. It’ll be impossible if Saturday was nothing more than a highlight of the season.
Looking ahead at the G5 race after App State, SMU losses
With SMU and Appalachian State both losing for the first time, the race to represent the Group of Five in a New Year’s Six bowl is down to two conferences: the American and Mountain West. Apologies to C-USA, the MAC and Sun Belt.
The highest-ranked team from the G5 conferences is guaranteed a spot in one of the CFP-affiliated bowl games, and that spot is reserved for a conference champion. The race will have further clarity when the selection committee unveils its first rankings of 2019 on Tuesday night, but that doesn’t mean we can’t paint the picture for you ahead of time.
App State needed to go undefeated to give the Sun Belt a chance, but the Mountaineers were upset by Georgia Southern on Thursday night. Conference USA’s leader, 7-1 Louisiana Tech, will be held back by strength of schedule (combined FBS record: 20-40). The two best records in the MAC belong to Central Michigan (6-4) and Toledo (5-3), so it’s out, too.
The Mountain West has two contenders sitting at 7-1: No. 21 Boise State and No. 24 San Diego State. Boise is unbeaten in conference play, has a win over Florida State and a road loss to BYU. San Diego State has a win over UCLA but lost a conference game to Utah State. If both Boise and SDSU go into the Mountain West title game at 11-1, a New Year’s Six bowl spot could be on the line.
But that depends on the AAC — a conference with much more depth that delivered excitement in the spotlight on Saturday night.
The AAC has four teams with just one loss: No. 17 Cincinnati, No. 19 Memphis, No. 23 SMU and No. 25 Navy. While Cincy leads the AAC East, Memphis, SMU and Navy are duking it out in the West. Memphis, however, has wins over both SMU and Navy. Navy has won five straight since losing to Memphis, but has a trip to No. 15 Notre Dame on Nov. 16 and the annual game against Army on Dec. 14.
There are two AAC games that should be especially important — SMU at Navy (Nov. 25) and Cincinnati at Memphis (Nov. 29) — but there’s still a long way to go. Here’s a look ahead for the AAC contenders.
No. 17 Cincinnati (7-1, 4-0 AAC)
Only loss: Sept. 7 at Ohio State, 42-0
Best win: Oct. 4 vs. UCF, 27-24
Remaining schedule: vs. UConn, at South Florida, vs. Temple, at No. 19 Memphis
No. 19 Memphis (8-1, 4-1)
Only loss: Oct. 12 at Temple, 30-28
Best win: Nov. 2 vs. No. 15 SMU, 54-48
Remaining schedule: at Houston, at South Florida, vs. No. 17 Cincinnati
No. 23 SMU (8-1, 4-1)
Only loss: Nov. 2 at Memphis, 54-48
Best win: Sept. 21 at TCU, 41-38
Remaining schedule: East Carolina, at Navy, vs. Tulane
No. 25 Navy (7-1, 5-1)
Only loss: Sept. 26 at Memphis, 35-23
Best win: Oct. 5 vs. Air Force, 34-25
Remaining schedule: at No. 15 Notre Dame, vs. No. 23 SMU, at Houston, vs. Army
Northwestern’s really, really bad season
Is Northwestern’s 2019 actually worse than Rutgers?
The Scarlet Knights have gotten a ton of attention for the dumpster fire that is their 2019 season. The 10 points Rutgers scored in a 38-10 loss at Illinois on Saturday was the most it’s had in a Big Ten game this season.
Northwestern hasn’t been much better. The Wildcats dropped to 1-7 Saturday with an abysmal 34-3 loss to Indiana. It’s the Wildcats’ sixth straight loss. And in those games — all Big Ten contests — the Wildcats have scored more than 10 points just once. The exception was a 24-15 loss to Wisconsin.
We all expected Rutgers to be terrible in 2019. But Northwestern had legitimate bowl expectations entering the season. Instead, the Wildcats have scored 48 points in the seven games they have played against opponents not named UNLV.
The offensive statistics match that futility too. Northwestern QBs are a combined 116-of-246 passing for 994 yards with two touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Running back Drake Anderson, at 99 carries for 447 yards, is averaging more yards per carry than Northwestern QBs are averaging per passing attempt.
Saturday’s game was the first for Clemson transfer and former five-star recruit Hunter Johnson since that Wisconsin loss. Johnson missed Northwestern’s games throughout the month of October because of a knee injury and his mother’s breast cancer diagnosis.
Johnson didn’t provide the Northwestern offense with a much-needed spark in his return. He was just 7-of-17 passing for 65 yards. And he ended up having to leave the game in the third quarter after he was injured while getting taken to the ground after throwing a pass.
“We obviously have to play better at that position, so we’re trying to give both guys the amount of reps they need to try to get into a groove,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game via the Daily Northwestern. “I hope he had fun. He came here to play and he’s been battling through a lot, and he probably had fun until the play when he got hit. He’s a great young man, and there’s a bright future ahead for him.”
The future Northwestern fans are looking for involves the 2020 season and beyond as 2019 is now a lost cause. With Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois on the schedule over the next four games there’s a non-zero chance that Northwestern will finish the season at 2-10. In case you were wondering, Rutgers already has two wins.
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