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Know the Noles: Independence Bowl Q&A with Tomahawk Nation

We got with SB Nation’s Florida State blog to learn a few things about Southern Miss’s bowl opponent

NCAA Football: UL Monroe at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

In advance of the Walk-On’s Independence Bowl featuring the Southern Miss Golden Eagles (8-4) and Florida State Seminoles (6-6), we reached out to Dylan Kidd from Tomahawk Nation to learn a little bit about FSU.

Underdog Dynasty: It goes without saying that FSU didn't exactly live up to expectations this year. How much of that is because of the injury to Deondre Francois? Are there other factors that led to 6-6? Would FSU have been a playoff contender if Francois played all season?

Tomahawk Nation: The Francois injury was certainly a blow, but it was far from the only cause of a disappointing 2017 season. The defense looked great to start the year against the Tide, but we quickly learned that the current crop of defensive coaches was in way over its collective head, as the ‘Noles repeatedly disappointed on that side of the ball despite an incredible talent level. The offensive line continued to be an issue and the receivers failed to develop. I think Francois could have been the difference between winning and losing several of the close games FSU played this year, but he wouldn’t have fixed the extensive underlying issues, and Florida State would not have been a playoff contender even if he had played the whole season. There’s also a question of the extent to which Fisher and his staff mailed the season in. Some people will have you believe he was all but gone to A&M by the middle of the season, and it definitely appears that his staff neglected their recruiting duties for most of the fall. Disappointing and frustrating though the year has been, we are proud of the way the team has rallied down the stretch and are excited for the future.

UDD: What key FSU players should Golden Eagle fans keep an eye on?

NCAA Football: Miami at Florida State
RB Cam Akers
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

TN: I think you’ll see a steady diet of freshman phenom running back Cam Akers. Acting offensive coordinator Randy Sanders rode him hard against ULM, and I expect him to do so again. James Blackman’s favorite target out wide is Auden Tate, who is 6’5”. The Seminoles also seem to have finally realized how electric DJ Matthews is in space, so you’ll see him some on offense, but mostly at punt returner. Tight end Ryan Izzo will also get some opportunities.

On defense, many of the guys you’ve heard of won’t be playing against USM, including Derwin James. I’d keep an eye on corners Levonta Taylor and freshman Stanford Samuels III, and the freshman safety duo of Cyrus Fagan and Hamsah Nasirildeen will see a lot of burn. Pass rusher Brian Burns really came on down the stretch and looked like the record-setting freshman he was a year ago. The defensive tackle duo of Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas remains fearsome and could pose problems for the Southern Miss running game.

UDD: How much of an effect will Jimbo Fisher's departure have on FSU's performance? How motivated will the Noles be?

TN: That’s the million dollar question, or however much you might want to wager on the game. I’d advise less than that amount because I don’t know one way or the other. They played pretty inspired football for interim Odell Haggins against ULM, but with several headliners sitting out and playing against USM in Shreveport, I’m not confident they’re going to show up and put on a top-level performance. Willie Taggart is already trying to flip the culture, taking practice tempo up a notch with a revolutionary addition called “music,” but he’s still not fully at the helm, and most of the guys actually coaching the team right now will not be next season. So maybe don’t bet this game unless you were really confident USM would cover the spread even if FSU’s good version showed up.

UDD: Speaking of Jimbo, how do FSU fans feel about his departure for Texas A&M? Are they thankful for the national championship and other big wins during his tenure, or are they burning him in effigy? Somewhere in between?

TN: I can’t speak for our fanbase as a whole, but I can tell you our staff believes it needed to happen. Jimbo had burned a lot of bridges with higher-ups at FSU, somewhat due to his demands, but even more so due to his personal interactions. He also doubled down in retaining a coaching staff that ultimately couldn’t get it done, and seemed unwilling to fire those who were loyal to him. The culture under Fisher became pretty toxic, and we had real questions about whether he could turn it around even if he stayed. Once it’s gone, it almost always seems to be gone. Brian Kelly is pretty much the only modern coach at a top program who had that kind of season and turned his program around. Plus, FSU gave Jimbo Fisher a pretty terrible 10-year, $40 million, fully guaranteed contract, and had no leverage over him whatsoever because it couldn’t afford to fire him. I’d say I simultaneously feel thankful for the championship, the level to which he raised the program, and the talent he left on the roster, glad that FSU gets a chance to re-set its culture and gets out from under a bad contract, and a little resentful that Fisher seems to have quit on FSU on the recruiting trail this past fall, putting Taggart in a tough place for the rest of the cycle. So yeah, let’s go “somewhere in between.”

UDD: There were rumors that Florida State was trying to get into the Gasparilla Bowl in St Petersburg against a Florida G5 team such as USF, Florida Atlantic, etc. Would FSU fans have preferred that over Shreveport?

NCAA Football: Florida State at Wake Forest
QB James Blackman
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

TN: Well, I would have liked that for the lawnmower race. That’s a pretty huge factor for me, to be honest. And I’m sure FSU’s main interest in that was selling its ticket allotment. From a football perspective, though? Hell no, if it’s FAU or USF. I do not want any part of them with this team. I think Kiffin’s Owls would have rolled this version of FSU, and I’m not confident the Seminoles would have fared much better against USF. FSU gets nothing out of playing those games, and I don’t think they should ever schedule Florida G5 schools, to be honest. They get no credit if they win, and it’s a boon for recruiting for the other schools if they lose. I’m still confident FSU would have handled FIU, though.

UDD: Lastly, what is your prediction for the outcome of the I-Bowl? This could be a score prediction or a pick against the spread (currently FSU -15.5).

TN: The prior disclaimer about having no idea whether FSU will show up still stands, but if I had to guess, I think we’ll see a slightly worse version of the team that played ULM. They’ll lean on Akers, and USM will be able to give them problems up front sometimes and get them into long yardage situations. FSU will not be able to execute those, for the most part, but they will hit a few long plays to Tate, Matthews, or Murray, and Akers will get loose once or twice. On defense, FSU will give the Golden Eagles problems on standard downs once they get off-script, but I expect USM to have plenty of shot plays drawn up for the ‘Noles, and they’ll probably hit a few. The under/over sits at 49 right now, and I still think I’d take the under. I think USM covers, but FSU does enough to win, something like 23-17.

The Independence Bowl will be played in Independence Stadium in Shreveport, LA on December 27 at 12:30 CT. The game will be on ESPN.