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FSU football hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt. But it’s getting there.

“We made another step in the right direction,” Willie Taggart said. There’s a long way to go still, but they’re getting somewhere.
Florida State head coach Willie Taggart and his players celebrate their 31-13 defeat of North Carolina State in an NCAA college football game in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser) [MARK WALLHEISER  |  AP]
Florida State head coach Willie Taggart and his players celebrate their 31-13 defeat of North Carolina State in an NCAA college football game in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser) [MARK WALLHEISER | AP]
Published Sep. 29, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — On the surface, Florida State isn’t much different now than it was this time last year.

The Seminoles have the same record (3-2) as they did a year ago. And just like last year, that mediocre record could easily be a game or two worse.

Yet FSU looks and feels different after Saturday’s 31-13 win over North Carolina State.

Not different enough to think these Seminoles belong in the Top 25. Not different enough to think they can realistically challenge Clemson in two weeks. And not different enough to erase the long-term doubts surrounding Willie Taggart’s future at his dream job.

But different enough to think this program enters its open date making steady progress in a way that seemed unlikely three weeks ago.

“We made another step in the right direction,” Taggart said Saturday night.

The biggest step since the Louisiana-Monroe debacle has come from a defense that has gotten better every game since then.

FSU’s yards per play allowed has dipped from 5.8 against Virginia to 5.5 against Louisville to 4.6 against NC State. That improvement, not surprisingly, coincides with the addition of former USF coach Jim Leavitt to Taggart’s staff as a defensive analyst.

Beyond the stats, FSU is making the types of plays that win games. Last week, it was safety Cyrus Fagan intercepting a fourth-quarter pass to thwart a would-be scoring drive. Saturday, it was running back Cam Akers bursting 41 yards for a touchdown on fourth and 1 in the fourth quarter to help put the game away.

Perhaps FSU’s biggest sign of growth has been in a run defense that was gashed in the first two games. The Seminoles allowed the top backs for Boise State and Louisiana-Monroe to rush for 142 and 126 yards. Since then, no single player has topped 61 yards.

“One thing we talked about was being good at something,” Taggart said. “First couple ballgames we couldn’t say we were good at anything. I think in the last three ballgames we can say we’re pretty good at stopping the run now. We found something to be good at and we need to continue to build off.”

Taggart is right about that. His ’Noles need to continue building because they’re still miles away from where this program should be in a bad ACC.

The eight sacks FSU allowed Saturday night are believed to be the most in program history. The Seminoles rank No. 117 in the country in penalty yards per game; Saturday, they were flagged twice for lining up illegally on punts. Even with an elite running back (Akers), FSU is averaging fewer than 3.4 yards per rush (No. 111 nationally).

RELATED: Matt Baker’s takeaways from Florida State-N.C. State

FSU’s first conference winning streak since November 2016 should invite skepticism because of the competition. Louisville is one month into new coach Scott Satterfield’s years-long rebuilding process. NC State is adjusting to life without an NFL-caliber quarterback. A 6-6 finish seems as likely as an eight-win season.

And Taggart’s Seminoles have supposedly had turning points before —the fourth-quarter comeback at Louisville last year and the home win over then-ranked Boston College in November. Neither victory looked impressive by December.

There are too many concerns and caveats to start buying in to these Seminoles yet. Taggart and his program haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt to assume that Saturday’s 18-point triumph changes FSU’s trajectory in a way last year’s wins over Louisville and Boston College didn’t.

But the Seminoles are is steadily improving. They’re starting, as Taggart likes to say, to do something.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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