Playing with Thin Margins

After five games, the 2-3 Florida State Seminoles are four plays away from being undefeated and one play from being 1-4. Like it or not, the margins are now ultra-thin in college football. Florida State, while certainly not at their peak anymore, is both extremely distant from and close to that kind of success.

After five games, the 2-3 Florida State Seminoles are four plays away from being undefeated and one play from being 1-4. Like it or not, the margins are now ultra-thin in college football. Even dominant teams at the height of their power like USC have had trouble with those margins, all too often losing to teams that seemingly have no business sharing the field with them. Florida State, while certainly not at that level anymore, is both extremely distant from and close to that kind of success.

In all honesty, Saturday's loss was more surprising than the loss to South Florida a week prior. Unlike USF, Boston College did not have a more physical team or comparable athletes to what Florida State is able to put on the field. Boston College is a team that, quite frankly, FSU had no business losing to this year. But again, the margins are very thin, and FSU has simply been out of sync just enough to lose.

Defensive Problems Continue

The most striking thing about seeing this team up close was how small they are on defense, especially in the front seven. There are some young players with big frames, but the fact is that this is a small defense, which is causing some of the problems so far this year. And although the offense deserves some blame for not putting up many points, the last two losses have been largely on the defense. Some disturbing defensive stats and trends on the year:

* FSU has allowed over 5 yards per rush (excluding sacks) in each of the first five games.
* Against FSU, Boston College had four touchdown drives longer than the Eagles' total offensive output against Clemson.
* The defense has given up at least two plays of over 40 yards in four of the first five games ("only" one against Jacksonville State).
Against the four FBS (D-1A) teams, FSU has a paltry 5 sacks.
* In the losses to USF and Boston College, the defense gave up scoring drives of 99, 73, 79, 88, 65, and 80 yards. Talk about getting whipped…

The truth is that it's very hard to win when teams are, as Bobby Bowden remarked in his BC post-game, running it down your throat. This couldn't be more concerning as Georgia Tech, who really likes to run it down their opponents' throats, looms this week. The preseason loss of Justin Mincey, who did not return as expected against Boston College, has turned out to be a devastating loss for the small Seminole front seven, which desperately needs a difference-maker. Great defenses are built from the inside-out, and Florida State has deficiencies at DT, the smallest middle linebacker I can remember at FSU, and has had very poor safety play so far this year.

All that aside, the Seminole defense was still one dropped interception away from sealing the game against BC—a drop that might have been a pick six (this is the second dropped probable pick-six in as many weeks). One wonders how the defense might play if Mincey returns and they can get a little momentum. And speaking of momentum …

The Wrong Momentum

Football is a game of momentum swings; a major component of winning teams is that they are consistently able to establish positive momentum, which allows them to play with confidence—effectively making them "faster." Football games are won with the big plays that shift or create momentum—a big hit, a long touchdown, a spectacular catch, a big special teams play, or a turnover. These plays create the atmosphere of confidence, the comfort zone needed for "automaticity," confidently executing without conscious thought. In contrast, when a team has negative momentum, players tend to overthink their assignments and try to make plays rather than just playing naturally and making plays.

Many pundits have criticized Florida State for coming out "flat" the last couple weeks and playing without passion. After watching the ‘Noles in person on Saturday (my first opportunity to see them in person this year), I disagree with this assessment. This team is not coming out flat, and there is plenty of passion on the sideline and on the field. The problem is not a lack of passion but an abundance of uncertainty. Put simply, this is not a confident football team; it's a fragile team, with most of the players trying desperately to make plays, fighting to step up and be leaders and playmakers.

After the game, Jimbo Fisher openly mused about how to get things back in rhythm, observing (rightly) that this offense has still not been stopped by anyone other than themselves. "It's not because they don't want to or [don't] care. We've got to coach ‘em better and get them to see it and relax and play. And you know, that's the hardest thing: [when] you want success some times, you force. Then all of a sudden, it'll happen and you'll look at each other and say, ‘What was so hard?'"

When a team has positive momentum, everything looks easy and flows together—the way things worked in the ‘Noles rout of BYU. But without the comfort zone produced by positive momentum, it's like running in quicksand, with every action taking inordinate effort. Fisher explains, "You're wanting to play and do so well that sometimes you don't allow yourself—sometimes you're your own worst enemy. And you can't do that. You have to just let the game play. If you force the game, the game's bigger than all of us."

Right now, Florida State has five players on offense who are just going out and playing, clearly in a comfort zone: QB Christian Ponder, G Rodney Hudson, WR Richard Goodman, C Ryan McMahon, and TE Caz Piurowski. Only one player on defense (CB Patrick Robinson) appears to have been playing with the same kind of comfort level at this point; unfortunately he was injured midway through the second quarter against the Eagles. The challenge for these players and the coaches is to lead other players to the same comfort zone.

Multiple Personalities and Chain of Command Issues

Received football wisdom says that teams take on the character of their head coach. In the light of that wisdom, the players' desperation and uncertainty is entirely explainable. Florida State's chain of command is simply unclear. Who is really running things? Is it lame-duck coach Bobby Bowden, who hasn't really been involved in day-to-day operations with the players in years? Is it Executive Head Coach Chuck Amato, who is fiercely loyal to Bowden and (as Executive Head) has been delegated the authority to run the day-to-day operations? Or is it Head-Coach-in-Waiting Jimbo Fisher, who is the public face of the program, the coach many recruits came to play for, and the man who will take over as soon as Bowden steps down? What about Defensive Coordinator and Associate Head Coach Mickey Andrews? The old saying about too many chiefs and not enough Seminoles applies here (seriously, how many coaches does a team need with "head coach" in their title?).

But in talking to team insiders, the real problem is that the staff itself is fragmented. Though certainly not to the level of ridiculous recent rumors (no, Chuck Amato did not disrupt a Jimbo Fisher speech in the locker room; no, Bobby Bowden didn't skip his pre-game speech; and no, Chuck Amato did not attack Jimbo Fisher on the team plane), establishing which direction the team will take is a legitimate problem. Are things to be done Fisher's way, since he's the HCIW? Or should Amato have more authority until Bowden leaves, since he's Bowden's right hand man and knows how Bowden wants things done? Some have accused Amato of "sabotage," but again, this is simply untrue. Instead, what I was told is that the concerns are more benign—it simply boils down to Amato's loyalty to Bowden and desire to make sure that Bowden is still the head coach, while Jimbo (understandably) wants to lay as much groundwork for when he takes over as possible, though still not wanting to upstage Bowden.

Much like having two quarterbacks can divide a team, even a small lack of clarity as pertains to chain of command among the coaching staff can have dramatic effects on the team's confidence and unity. In other words, which coach's personality is the team supposed to assimilate? If received football wisdom is correct, it makes sense that this team, with its confused hierarchy and multiple head coaches, is bipolar. One could say that the FSU football program has "multiple personality disorder" at this point.

It is unfortunate, but that is the reality that comes with a head-coach-in-waiting scheme in which neither the outgoing head coach (due to his hands-off leadership) nor the HCIW (due to unclear chain of command and entrenched old leadership) has full authority. This, in turn, is the cause of the recent push among the FSU administration to clarify the chain of command, giving Jimbo Fisher clear authority as the acting head coach, and inasmuch as it adequately establishes who is in charge, it could have a more immediate impact than just with recruiting.

Looking Forward

With what we've seen from the Seminoles so far this season, it's hard to be confident about any game moving forward. That said, if some way can be found to establish a little confidence and rhythm on offense, just a little bit of success and momentum could propel this team to a hot streak that looks more like the BYU game than the last two. It's simply hard to know whether that will happen.

Were I on the coaching staff, I would make one change in the effort to build positive momentum and confidence. I would, as I suggested a couple weeks ago, move to an up-tempo, no-huddle offense. Christian Ponder can clearly handle it, the offensive line is well enough conditioned to do it, and it maximizes the potential number of possessions for the offense, giving more opportunity to score and establish rhythm and momentum. In addition, when players are "thinking too much," a good way to break them out of it is to reduce the time in which they can think—force automaticity by increasing the tempo.

In addition, this team is well enough conditioned that the additional confidence gained by wearing out one's opponent (or even the anticipation of doing so) could be an additional trigger towards playing with the kind of confidence needed for success. I think this could also have potential benefit for the defense, as there would be less pressure on them to prevent a score on any given possession (since variability has been reduced), and any benefit in offensive momentum would presumably apply across the ball.

If this change is made, the defense will still give up some points (their weakness against the run isn't going anywhere anytime soon), but if the offense can get into a rhythm and put pressure on opposing offenses to keep pace, this team is equipped to win shootouts. After stringing a couple of wins together, the defense could gain by the contagious confidence born of winning. It really is a short trip from where the ‘Noles are now to being a very good football team. Unfortunately, it is also all too easy to remain in mediocrity, and there is no automatic win left on the schedule.

The "what if" game is a dangerous one to play, but one wonders what would have happened had FSU managed to beat Miami in that first game. Would the ‘Noles be undefeated and rolling? The amazing thing is that this is the same team—no better and no worse—than the one that really should have beaten the ‘Canes that night and dominated BYU two weeks later. They just need to relocate the confidence that was so shattered when the ball hit the turf with one second remaining against the Hurricanes.

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