DESTIN — As Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher spoke about his team Wednesday during the SEC’s spring meetings, the wreckage he left behind in his previous job was still smoldering 140 miles east.
The 7-6 flop in Fisher’s final season at Florida State in 2017 turned into a 5-7 failure in Willie Taggart’s first season in 2018. One subpar recruiting class led to another. The Seminoles’ short-term future is more likely to resemble its immediate past than the national-champion highs Fisher led them to five years ago.
Fisher doesn’t see it that way.
“I think (Florida State is) in great shape,” Fisher said.
Except there’s little great about the shape Florida State is in. Attendance is down. Its academic progress rate is the worst among the teams in the Power Five conferences: ACC, SEC, Big 10, Big 12 and Pac-12. Its budget faces a multimillion-dollar deficit. Its record over the past two years, 12-13, is its worst since 1975-76, and even a soft schedule might yield only seven or eight wins next season.
So, no, Florida State isn’t in great shape. The only question is how much blame Fisher deserves for the decline.
The answer: a lot.
Fisher will disagree because of the talent Taggart inherited. Fisher’s last four recruiting classes in his 2010-17 tenure were ranked in the top six nationally. He lured one of the most talented running backs in the nation, Cam Akers, and landed Marvin Wilson, who has the potential to become one of the ACC’s top defensive linemen next season.
“They had draft picks, first-round picks,” Fisher said. “They’ve got good players this year. I see they’re picked to go to another good bowl game.”
The Seminoles didn’t make a bowl game at all last season, ending an NCAA record run of 36 in a row, and they didn’t make it to a good bowl in Fisher’s final year, either. Beating Southern Miss in the Independence Bowl doesn’t count.
It’s clear in hindsight that Florida State having to rally to make that Independence Bowl — it had to win its last three games to be bowl eligible at 6-6 — wasn’t a fluke caused by quarterback Deondre Francois’ season-ending injury in a Week 1 loss to Alabama, the snowball effect of that loss or the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which cost the Seminoles their bye week and a game that wasn’t rescheduled.
Fisher’s Seminoles were rotting.
The offensive line lagged at the end of the Fisher era as recruiting misses, misevaluations and injuries piled up. Running back Dalvin Cook was able to cover up some of the glaring holes, but the mediocrity was still there. It finally, disastrously, caught up to Florida State last season, when Taggart’s Seminoles had one of the worst offensive lines in the sport.
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Florida State’s effort lagged so much in a 2016 home loss to North Carolina that the Seminoles had to sign promises vowing their full effort, preparation and trust. Is it any wonder that Taggart said Florida State didn’t handle adversity well last year?
The intangible troubles mushroomed under Taggart, leading to six losses by at least 19 points. But that wasn’t new, either. Florida State got blown out at least once (often by less talented teams) in each of Fisher’s final four seasons, including a 32-point rout at Boston College in 2017.
None of this absolves Taggart of his responsibility for Florida State’s struggles last year. Florida coach Dan Mullen took over an unstable situation in Gainesville last year and turned it into a trip to the Peach Bowl.
But it does explain the hole Taggart is trying to escape, even if Fisher doesn’t see it that way.
“I loved my time at Florida State,” said Fisher, who was an assistant for three years before taking over for Bobby Bowden. “It was an outstanding place.”
Now Fisher is focused on his new place, the one that’s paying him $75 million over 10 years. Even if a brutal schedule (games against Clemson, Alabama, Georgia and LSU) keeps his Aggies out of the College Football Playoff mix next season, Texas A&M has top-15 potential.
“I think it’s going to lay the groundwork where we can go in the future,” Fisher said, “which I think is sky high.”
His old program still has sky-high potential, too. But for now, the program he left behind remains stuck near rock bottom.
Contact Matt Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.