SALT LAKE CITY — In the aftermath of the Florida Gators’ 24-11 loss at No. 14 Utah, Willie Taggart was trending on the platform formally known as Twitter.
As in, Billy Napier is the Gators’ Willie Taggart.
Taggart’s Florida State tenure lasted 21 disastrous games (9 wins, 12 losses). For Seminoles fans, the lasting memories are head-scratching penalties, ugly losses and chaos on and off the field. Not too different than what Florida fans are feeling after watching Thursday night’s opener, a game that wasn’t as close as the final score suggested.
Is there any validity to the comparison? Let’s dive in.
Record through 14 games
Napier managed to make a bowl in his first season and had a depleted roster in a 27-point loss to Oregon State. Taggart did not make a bowl in his first year. Both had close calls against bad teams (Florida’s narrow win over USF last year, FSU’s overtime win over Louisiana Monroe).
Taggart ended his FSU career with eight losses by at least three scores. Only two of Napier’s defeats have been that bad so far; the Gators rallied to make last year’s Tennessee game and Thursday night’s contest tighter than the performance indicated.
Record against ranked teams
Napier’s lone win over a ranked opponent was his debut, a 29-26 triumph over a No. 7 Utah team that won the Pac-12. Taggart’s was a 22-21 win over No. 22 Boston College (which ended the year 7-5).
Wins over rivals
Napier became the first Florida coach ever to lose to its three primary rivals (FSU, Georgia and Tennessee) in the same year. He also lost to LSU. Taggart was blown out twice by Clemson and once by Florida. He also squandered a 20-point second half lead to Miami and lost by 17 at home to a mediocre Hurricanes team in his final game.
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Neither one has signed a top-10 class. Taggart’s first haul was the highest-ranked of the bunch (No. 11 overall in the 247Sports composite), but his second was, at the time, FSU’s worst of the modern recruiting era (19th).
Napier has signed more blue-chip prospects (25) than Taggart did (22). Napier’s 2023 class also had the highest average ranking per recruit. The biggest difference: Florida’s unsigned ‘24 class sits third nationally and includes a pair of five-star recruits.
Taggart became the second Power Five coach in a decade to fail to sign a high school quarterback in back-to-back classes after missing out on players like Sam Howell (now the starter for the Washington Commanders) and John Rhys Plumlee (UCF’s starter). Taggart did, however, bring in Louisville transfer Jordan Travis, who has blossomed into a star.
Napier has signed one prep quarterback in two years (backup Max Brown) after losing blue-chip prospect Jaden Rashada over an eight-figure name, image and likeness dispute this offseason. Rashada threw two touchdown passes in his Arizona State debut Thursday night (a 24-21 win over Southern Utah). The Gators have a non-binding oral commitment from DJ Lagway, one of the nation’s top quarterbacks.
Recency bias forces us to look at Florida’s three false start penalties and two illegal formations at Utah. Napier called them “surprising” and “frustrating.” They were unforced errors, but Florida still only had 45 penalty yards Thursday. That would have been the fifth-best total in Taggart’s 21 games at FSU. The Seminoles also had at least three false starts in 11 of those contests.
The Gators were 56th in penalty yards per game last season (51.2) and 94th in penalties (6.8). Taggart’s Seminoles averaged more infractions than any team in the nation in both of his seasons.
The Taggart era aggravated FSU fans because the ‘Noles simply looked like a mess on and off the field. They twice lined up illegally on punts against North Carolina State, had 10 men on offense late against Florida, blew an 18-point lead at home to Boise State and infamously had a player line up backwards against Louisiana Monroe.
Napier’s Gators had not looked that bad until Thursday, when they were flagged for having two players wearing the same jersey number on a punt return — a penalty that gave Utah a first down and led to a score — and, judging by the telecast, appeared to have only eight players during a late Utes field goal attempt.
Thursday night’s gaffes and the backwards FSU player both happened in Game 14.
It’s fair to say that neither Napier nor Taggart inherited great situations. Napier’s roster was mediocre, and FSU’s culture was a mess. It’s also fair to say that both have underachieved. Napier had the nation’s No. 57 scoring offense with a top-five pick at quarterback (Anthony Richardson), while FSU wasted two years of uber-talented running back Cam Akers. Both suffered key personnel losses, and both turned to mediocre Wisconsin quarterbacks (Graham Mertz and Alex Hornibrook) to try to turn things around.
One notable difference is the buyout. Taggart was owed around $18 million (though some was offset by what he made at Florida Atlantic). Napier’s buyout would be closer to $32 million.
The other key is something then-athletic director David Coburn said after firing Taggart: His 21st game was “eerily similar” to his first game. We’ll see how much improvement, if any, Napier’s program makes over the coming weeks.
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