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Hot seats and angry fans: Why there’s ‘real work’ to be done at FSU and Miami

Let’s get one thing straight right off the top: Miami and Florida State are not the championship programs we all remember from decades past. Or in the case of Florida State, from eight years ago.

These are two programs that have more recently finished with losing records in the same season (2019) than as AP top-10 teams (2000).

But watching Miami lose at home to Michigan State 38-17 and Florida State fall at Wake Forest 35-14 last Saturday still felt jarring. Florida State is 0-3 for the first time since 1976; Miami is 1-2 after starting the season ranked No. 14. Only one other team (Georgia Tech) from the ACC has a losing record, reinforcing the sad state of affairs for two of college football’s most iconic programs, especially compared to in-state rival Florida, which nearly upset No. 1 Alabama.

Florida State and Miami stand in radically different positions as programs. The Seminoles entered the season coming off of three straight losing years and are in the middle of a massive rebuild, so expectations were not nearly as high as they were in Miami.

But both teams have been plagued by the same on-field issues, ranking in the bottom four in the ACC in scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense, total defense, third-down conversions, penalties and turnover margin. Florida State is also the only ACC school that does not have one player with at least 100 yards receiving on the season. Pitt and Virginia each have five. With Diaz now in charge of the defense again, Miami has one of the worst tackling teams in the country.

Why have things gone so wrong so far in 2021? Let’s take a closer look.

Florida State

Expectations were tempered headed into the season, especially with the high degree of schedule difficulty, but no one expected an 0-3 start, including a loss to FCS Jacksonville State, a team Florida State beat 41-24 last year. Every week since, it seems as if the Seminoles hit a new rock bottom. Is rock bottom losing to an FCS team for the first time in school history, or following it with the worst start since 1976 in a blowout loss to Wake Forest?

What has made it tougher to comprehend is the way Florida State has played and lost. Too many penalties. Too many missed assignments. Too many blown coverages. No playmakers on offense. No stability at quarterback. Below-average play on the offensive line, exacerbated with injuries that have forced the Seminoles to play three different starting lineups in three games. It all goes back to the same issues that have plagued three straight coaching staffs.

Jimbo Fisher had a hard time fixing those issues in his final season. So did Fisher’s successor, Willie Taggart. Now it is up to Mike Norvell to figure it out, and the clock is running.

“There’s nobody that expects more than I expect,” Norvell told ESPN on Tuesday. “Nobody wants to be 0-3. But it’s my job to set the foundation of this program so we won’t have to experience this again. We have to learn the lessons now. As we get success and build upon the positives, that’s when our program is going to take that step, but I’m not going to seek a shortcut in the process and lower the standards in any way because we have to do this right.”

Administrators have been preaching patience since Norvell arrived in December 2019, understanding he inherited a mess of a situation that was going to take some time to turn around. Multiple sources indicated that remains the case despite the 0-3 start. Plus, Florida State is currently not in a financial situation to pay another hefty buyout, after giving Willie Taggart $20 million to leave after just 21 games. There is also the sense this season should be considered Year 1, because of the pandemic’s impact on last season.

Still, Florida State did go 3-6 in 2020 and struggled to fight through adversity when things went wrong in games. Norvell has made this one of his biggest priorities. Florida State showed glimpses in overtime against Notre Dame and last season’s upset win against North Carolina, but the effort, intensity and focus is consistently missing every week.

“We are not a finished product,” Norvell said. “We’ve got to demand that consistency from our players. It showed up in the first game, guys responding the right way. The last couple of weeks, we’ve let circumstances distract us in moments of what we needed to do and that’s something that we have to grow through and get corrected. But it’s something that doesn’t necessarily happen overnight, and we’re continuing to work on that.”

Asked to pinpoint why there has been a lack of consistency, Norvell said, “There’s times that you see things show up on film that we are not seeing in practice and with all the right intentions, in the moment, guys feel like they have to do something different, whether it’s make a play or to try to do something for a another result.

“It’s cost us at times and that’s where, when guys see it on film, they don’t have much of a response in the why. And that’s where we have to continue to try to create that game-like intensity during practice, so that you build your own self-confidence and the things that they’re being asked to do, and how they can apply that in the moment.”

There have been questions about this season’s playcalling on offense and defense. Even Jacksonville State coaches questioned the way the Seminoles lined up on the game’s final two plays, including the winning score. Florida State had six turnovers against Wake Forest, seven penalties and only one third-down conversion. Earlier this week, offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham said the Seminoles were surprised at the different defensive alignment the Demon Deacons used and did not do a good job responding or blocking Wake Forest up front.

But Norvell reiterated he believes in his current staff and lineup.

“You always evaluate all aspects of the program. We’re working to make sure that the results that we see on the field are to the standard of how we want to operate,” Norvell said. “We’re going to continue to work as coaches and players to make sure that we’re doing all of our part to help Florida State get back to where it needs to be.”

Part of the solution could be recruiting. Florida State currently has the No. 8 class for 2022, including a commitment from top quarterback prospect A.J. Duffy and cornerback Travis Hunter, the No. 3 overall player in the ESPN 300. Both have affirmed their commitment to Florida State in recent days.

There also is the belief a fourth coach over a six-year span will only set the program back further and threaten to break apart the class of commitments. So, unless something drastic changes between now and then, Norvell continues to have the support to get the job done.

“I’m not just a coach that’s trying to inspire when it’s easy,” Norvell said. “My job is to develop and, work through the process of failure sometimes. We’ve experienced failure in games, we’ve experienced tough moments. But it’s not deterring from what the ultimate objective is, and that’s for the improvement of this program.

“That’s what we’re going to fight for.”

Miami

Miami is in a much different situation than the Seminoles. The Hurricanes are in Year 3 under Diaz and returned a veteran team after going 8-3 in 2020. Though they opened the season against Alabama, it seemed reasonable to believe the trajectory of the program was headed upward with the return of quarterback D’Eriq King and 18 other starters.

Diaz also made changes to his defensive staff in the offseason, including taking over as defensive coordinator, the job he held at Miami from 2016 to ’18 under former head coach Mark Richt.

Opening against Alabama is never an easy task, but Miami looked out of it from the start, trailing 27-3 at halftime before losing 44-13. In the next game against Appalachian State at home, Miami needed a fourth-quarter comeback to win. Diaz admitted there was a hangover effect from the loss to Alabama that impacted players more than he anticipated. By the end of Miami’s loss to Michigan State, the fan base was in full meltdown mode.

Diaz acknowledges the team has not played up to its potential.

“We’re at a point now where we’ve got to be able to refocus our season, refocus our goals, be honest with ourselves, hold ourselves accountable for the things that we’ve not done well and move on together,” Diaz told ESPN on Tuesday.

Last season, King drew widespread praise for helping unite the locker room and improve the program’s previous issues at quarterback. Despite his return, along with leading rusher Cam’Ron Harris and leading receiver Mike Harley, the offense has failed to generate any rhythm. Miami has turned the ball over seven times in three games, a year after having 12 total turnovers. Explosive plays continue to be missing from the offense, as Miami ranks No. 12 in passing yards per attempt.

“We had a chance to take a double-digit lead midway through the first half in both these home games, where you really feel like you’re moving the ball and kind of in control of the game and started really fast on defense,” Diaz said. “And then, for whatever reason, we make a mistake, and that does appear to be affecting our confidence. Then we don’t seem to be the same outfit the rest of the way.”

Diaz said the Hurricanes have to play with more physicality, on offense and defense. But when your best players are the ones making crucial mistakes, it is even tougher to swallow. Diaz said everything would be reevaluated, and the work began at practice Tuesday, when the players did drills they often do during spring practice and “ratcheted up the physicality.”

Bottom line: Miami should be better than this.

At 1-2, the Hurricanes haven’t even opened ACC play yet, which is why no one inside the athletic department is ready to make any judgments about Diaz and his future just yet. Athletic director Blake James, who declined comment, is typically methodical in his approach.

But what has happened so far certainly has everyone’s attention, including the school’s board of trustees. Miami officials and coaches know searing criticism comes with the job, acknowledging they have a fan base unafraid to voice their displeasure when the losses mount. Any player on social media has been bombarded with negativity over the past three weeks.

“I’m able to insulate myself from that because I don’t read these types of things during the course of the season, but I’m not stupid,” Diaz said. “I coach at the University of Miami. I understand the tradition and the pride of this place. I understand the standard.”

Asked whether he was worried about his job security, Diaz said, “Worry solves nothing. You don’t come in Sunday and start to worry. You come in Sunday and say, ‘OK, here are the four things that we’ve got to get this team operating better in these situations.’ The work allows you to not even worry about anything because the work is real.”

But much of what happens at Miami hinges on these next several games. Diaz downgraded King to doubtful for Saturday’s game against Central Connecticut. It would be a good time to let him rest — the next contest is a Thursday night home matchup against Virginia, featuring one of the most explosive offenses in the ACC in a crucial conference game. After Virginia, there is an open date before another big Coastal Division test at No. 21 North Carolina, a team that ran all over Miami in a 62-26 loss last year to end the regular season.

If Miami is unable to answer those challenges, the critics will only grow louder and the pressure to make a change will be even higher.

“We’ve got confidence that we can get these things fixed,” Diaz said. “We’ve been very specific in the parts of our game that we’ve got to improve. The good news is that we’re not asking someone to do something that they can’t do. Our league schedule starts off with a bang, but this has been an important week for us to get us back on track.”

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