After one year, Willie Taggart left Oregon to accept the coaching job at Florida State.
Normally, a Florida State coaching search would be of passing interest for me. Certainly it wouldn’t be worth writing a column about.
But these aren’t normal circumstances because Taggart was also closely associated with the open Florida job. It isn’t too big of a stretch to believe that if Taggart was willing to leave Oregon for Florida State that he would have been willing to make the same move had he been offered the Florida position.
The Gators didn’t pass over Taggart because of money, as he will make less than Mullen. Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin also indicated it was very difficult for him to raid Mississippi State for Mullen because he had previously worked for the Bulldogs. Thus, it appears that Stricklin passed on Taggart for Mullen.
Taggart eventually ending up at FSU means that there’s nowhere for Stricklin to hide. If Taggart dominates on the recruiting trail and dominates Florida on the field, it’s Stricklin’s fault. If Mullen regains the past glory he experienced on Urban Meyer’s staff, then Stricklin is the hero.
Taggart has a reputation as an outstanding recruiter and program builder. This is because he has taken over three programs that have combined to go 7-29 in the year prior to his arrival. That is used to excuse his 47-50 overall record.
To be sure, Taggart has been put in some challenging situations. But he’s a former QB who has held the positions of wide receiver coach, running back coach, QB coach and offensive coordinator. You would expect with that resume that he has had a profound effect on the offenses of teams that he has taken over.
You would be wrong. The above chart shows the offensive and defensive ranks against FBS opponents the year before Taggart arrived and his first year at the school. The offenses at Oregon and Western Kentucky basically remained unchanged while the offense at South Florida actually got worse.
The place where Taggart has shown significant improvement is on defense. The improvements at Western Kentucky and South Florida were modest, while there was significant improvement at Oregon. Former USF coach Jim Leavitt was the defensive coordinator at Oregon, and I think it’s a fair question to ask whether he had something to do with that improvement given his success at USF and the lack of track record at Taggart’s previous stops.
For comparison, Mullen took over Mississippi State in 2009 and immediately improved the offense.
The Bulldogs defense got worse in year 1, but over Mullen’s time at Mississippi State both his offenses and defenses were better than former coach Sylvester Croom’s. It’s hard to make the comparison for two of Taggart’s stops because Western Kentucky converted from FCS to FBS two years before he took over and he was only at Oregon for one year.
If we make the comparison at USF from 2009-2012 vs. Taggart’s regime from 2013-2016 against FBS teams, the Bulls’ offensive ranking improved from 87 to 73 in points per game and 77 to 67 in yards per play. However, the defensive rankings regressed from 40 to 60 in points per game and 35 to 65 in yards per play.
The offensive improvement is based solely on 2015 and 2016, which coincided with Taggart taking over play-calling duties and switching to the “Gulf Coast” offense. It also coincided with the ascension of QB Quinton Flowers, who was really good immediately.
Credit needs to be given to Taggart for making adjustments, as that has been sorely lacking in Gainesville the past three years. But it will be interesting to see whether Taggart’s offense is truly more productive than others, or whether he had the right player in the right system at the right time.
But let’s be honest, on-field performance is not why Taggart got the Florida State job or was considered for the Florida job. He was immediately mentioned for both because he has extensive Florida ties and is seen as an elite recruiter.
After looking at the stats deeper though, I’m not sure that’s a fair assessment. Sure, when Taggart left Oregon, he was sitting on the fifth ranked class in the nation for 2018. But that was a class with more than 20 recruits in the class already. It was going to fall as Alabama (14 total commits), Clemson (12), Michigan (16), Texas A&M (14), Florida (13), USC (11) and Florida State (11) started filling out their classes.
More likely Taggart was going to end up with a top-15 class, which is nothing to turn your nose up at Oregon. Chip Kelly averaged a ranking of 17 during his four years at Oregon. But it’s not that much better than Mark Helfrich, the previous coach at Oregon.
And that is the trend that is seen for Taggart when looking at the regimes before him at South Florida and Oregon or after him at Western Kentucky (because of the FCS to FBS conversion, it didn’t make sense to look at the years before).
Bobby Petrino took over for Taggart in 2013 at Western Kentucky and then bailed after one year. The job was then taken over by Jeff Brohm for the next three years. Petrino and Brohm recruited almost identically nationally. The conference recruiting ranking is misleading because Western Kentucky moved from the Sun Belt Conference (9 or 10 teams in Taggart’s tenure) to Conference USA (14 teams).
Taggart recruited slightly worse than Jim Leavitt and Skip Holtz in his time at USF, though he did do a little bit better in conference. And had Taggart stayed at Oregon, he likely would have recruited better than Helfrich long-term, but as discussed above, likely not too much better.
So that begs the question: Where is the recruiting dynamo I was told was the reason that Florida was interested in Taggart?
Perhaps more concerning for Florida State fans is what Taggart did with equal levels of talent at both Western Kentucky and USF. Based on the ESPN football power index (FPI), Petrino and Brohm were almost 40 slots better on average than Taggart. Leavitt and Holtz were over 20 slots better. Western Kentucky actually won Conference USA twice under Brohm.
So what about when we look at these kinds of numbers for Mullen? It’s a much different story.
Mullen improved the national recruiting ranking by 16 slots. He didn’t improve the conference recruiting rank at all, but that has a lot to do with the SEC more than it does with Mullen. The SEC also expanded to include Missouri and Texas A&M during his tenure.
But not only did Mullen recruit better, he also performed better on the field. He improved the ESPN FPI rank by 43 slots and Mississippi State’s conference finish by almost three full slots.
There really shouldn’t be any debate here. Mullen improved Mississippi State significantly both in recruiting and on the field. There is limited evidence that Taggart did either.
But still we get comments from the national media like this.
From a recruiting standpoint, Willie Taggart at FSU is not great news for … Dan Mullen.
— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) December 5, 2017
I actually think Taggart will recruit fine at Florida State. That program will reward someone who goes out and hits the trail hard. And Taggart will bring an energy that probably wasn’t always there with Jimbo Fisher, who managed to bring in top-5 classes regularly. But the idea that Dan Mullen should be afraid of Taggart on the recruiting trail is laughable.
You can only make judgments based on track records, and Mullen’s is far and away more impressive than Taggart’s. Mullen’s track record is elite compared to Taggart as an assistant. And while it seems like Mullen should be 55, he’s only 4 years older than the 41-year-old Taggart.
Certainly Taggart could defy his statistical record and prove me wrong and turn into an elite coach. And Mullen could be a complete flop who isn’t ready for the crucible in Gainesville.
But Florida passed on Taggart for a reason, and these are some of those reasons. I think it was a sound decision, and I think we’ll see that proven out over the next few years.
It’s rare that we get the opportunity to observe a “what-if” so closely like this. The resources, facilities and location make Florida State an accurate proxy for how Taggart would have done in Gainesville.
It will be fascinating to watch, and it adds a new layer to the Florida/Florida State rivalry.