Feleipe Franks is playing for history this year in Gainesville, Florida, but more than history, he is playing for a place in the hearts of Florida Gator fans. He might not characterize his journey that way, but viewed from a distance, that is the poignant center of Franks’ story as Florida’s starting quarterback.
Go through the history of Florida quarterbacks since the start of the Steve Spurrier era. The stories of these quarterbacks are very different. There is room for Feleipe Franks to fall between various extremes.
Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow are the ultimate immortals who lifted the Gators to the mountaintop. Rex Grossman deserved the Heisman Trophy in 2001 but didn’t get it. He played well against Tennessee that year, but defensive coordinator Jon Hoke coached poorly, and Alex Brown got owned by the Vols’ offensive line. Nevertheless, Grossman brought the Gators many richly satisfying moments. He isn’t in the Wuerffel-Tebow pantheon, but he was a great UF quarterback.
Shane Matthews has a special place in Gator lore. He is the man who started it all, the first special Spurrier quarterback who gave birth to the golden age of Florida football. College sports fans cherish the young athletes who built a foundation for a treasured part of their lives. Matthews was that foundational figure for Florida football fans, much as the 1994 basketball team showed Gator Nation what was possible in college hoops, catching the attention of a man named Billy Donovan, who would come to Gainesville a few years later.
Wuerffel and Tebow live eternally on Mount Olympus. Grossman and Matthews will always be treasured with great passion as all-time-great Gators.
Then the stories become a lot more complicated.
Terry Dean’s biggest sin was that he wasn’t Shane Matthews or Danny Wuerffel. Sandwiched between the two, it was hard for Steve Spurrier — trying to cement Florida’s powerhouse status in the SEC — to accept Dean’s limitations and push him to become even greater. The Spurrier-Dean relationship was memorably fractured and scarred. Since Spurrier is the most important figure in the history of Florida football, the friction which defined his relationship with Dean inevitably affected the way many (though not all) Gator fans felt about Dean.
If you were to argue that Dean was the most complicated Florida quarterback of the last 30 years, many would agree with you.
If Dean was the most complicated Gator signal-caller of the past 30 years, Doug Johnson would probably rate as No. 2.
Florida did keep winning under Johnson. It beat Florida State and knocked the Seminoles out of the national title hunt in 1997 (“BEHIND THE DEFENSE!”). It won a BCS bowl — the Orange Bowl — in the 1998 season. It won the SEC East in 1999. Yet, after the Wuerffel years, those three seasons felt like a huge letdown… and in truth, they were.
Doug Johnson, who did play with the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL for a brief while, had the physical tools of a top quarterback, but he simply didn’t process the game the way great QBs do. This irritated Spurrier to no end, and it clearly wasted some of Florida’s best defenses, chiefly the 1998 group, which deserved so much better than what it got. Doug Johnson elicited the words “what might have been” in Gainesville, a frustrated litany of almosts and coulda-shoulda-wouldas.
The man who replaced Johnson in 2000 wrote a different story.
Yes, Rex Grossman played for portions of the 2000 season, but after a thoroughly ineffective first quarter in a pivotal SEC game against South Carolina, Spurrier called on Jesse Palmer — who had won in Knoxville against the Vols earlier in the year — to rescue the team. Palmer did just that, throwing for three touchdown passes and leading a 28-0 second-quarter surge which wiped away a 21-3 deficit created by two South Carolina touchdowns off blocked punt returns.
Florida won, 41-21, clinching the SEC East and setting the stage for the program’s first SEC championship since 1996 under Wuerffel.
Palmer did not have a lengthy Florida career, but in his year of truth as a Gator, the future college football commentator (whose greatest contribution to humanity was saving the life of Chris Fowler a few years ago during a Pinstripe Bowl broadcast at Yankee Stadium; Fowler had choked on a dry chicken sandwich, and Palmer successfully Heimliched the piece of poultry out of Fowler’s pipes) brought UF back to its rightful place atop the SEC.
Palmer was not an overwhelmingly great quarterback. He never dominated college football the way Grossman, his successor, did in 2001, but he stepped up when his coaches and teammates needed him most.
When considering where Feleipe Franks fits into the larger story of Florida quarterbacks, he is playing to be remembered in a vein similar to Palmer, and to avoid being remembered as a Johnson-like figure. The Johnson and Palmer comparisons aren’t exact and will never be easy fits with the example of Franks, nearly two decades later, but they represent larger portraits of careers and the paths they follow.
The mention of Doug Johnson’s name elicits a cringe or a wince in Florida football circles. His time under center was painful for Gator fans. Mentioning Palmer within a Florida football context would call forth many happy memories of a redemptive season and a year when Florida restored something which had been missing.
Isn’t this what Franks — under head coach Dan Mullen — is trying to chase down in 2019?
Franks has had his Johnsonian bad boy moments. He has lived through his own periods of considerable friction with the Florida fan base. Yet, at the end of the 2018 season — chiefly in the Peach Bowl win over Michigan — Franks showed that he was capable of evolving, that he could process the game at a higher level, the way Doug Johnson never quite achieved two decades earlier.
If Franks can turn the corner this year and give Florida an SEC East title — which would almost certainly mean a win over Georgia in Jacksonville — the way he has been thought of in Gainesville will give way to a distinctly different identity.
Yes, Feleipe Franks is playing for history, but more than that, he is playing so that he can be remembered in the right way and for the right reasons. It is a personal aspiration, but it is connected to team success.
Another powerful and complicated Florida quarterback story is about to be written in 2019.
We will see how happy the ending turns out to be.
Gators still hold strong in our weekly power rankings
This past week was another one of disappointing football for fans of Florida Football. In the NFL, all three teams lost. While the only winners of the week were Miami, Florida Atlantic, and USF. Two of these teams will crack my top 5, with one being left out.
Let’s see how the rest of the top 5 breaks down:
Florida Gators- The Gators hold onto the top spot, despite dropping last week’s game to LSU. The game was much closer than the scoreboard reads off. The Gators were in it until late into the fourth quarter before a Kyle Trask pick would result in the Tigers going up two scores.
Florida played one of their better games of the season in a hostile environment. They still have a lot in front of them and control their own destiny in the SEC East race.
UCF Knights- UCF got a much-needed BYE after dropping 2 of their last 3 games. The Knights are still the second-best team, as of right now because no one else has stepped up to take it from them. They will look to bounce back with an easy opponent at home against East Carolina. Then, they will hope for some upsets within the conference to get them back to the AAC Title game.
Miami Hurricanes- The got a big ACC win last Friday night. They were able to win at home and against a ranked Virginia team in a sloppy affair.
The Canes will have another winnable game this week against Georgia Tech. The question for this team still remains: can they get consistent offense?
Jarren Williams could be back at QB, despite N’Kosi Perry winning last week and almost completing a comeback against Virginia Tech. If the Canes can prevail against the Yellow Jackets then again at Pitt, they will head into the Florida State game with a lot more on the line.
Florida Atlantic- The Owls continued their winning streak last week, pushing it to four in a row. Since losing against a pair of top 20 teams, including a top 5, they have been playing some of the most consistent ball in the state. They have a huge game this week home against Marshall.
Catch us back at 🏠this Friday night‼️
— FAU Football (@FAU_Football) October 15, 2019
A win here puts the Owls in an excellent position in the Conference USA standings and sets up a big game in two weeks against Western Kentucky.
Jacksonville Jaguars- The only NFL team to appear are the Jags. Despite losing to the Saints for their second loss in a row, they make the list.
The Jags have lost both games by a touchdown, each showcasing they are in each game. And, QB Gardner Minshew is giving fans in North Florida something to get excited about this year.
With college teams like FSU getting blown out and USF at an ugly 3-3, the Jags are the right call.
They should bounce back against the winless Bengals. Jacksonville is still hanging around at 2-4 in the division, if they can win against the Bengals and Jets, they will play the Texans in London for a potential swing game in the division.
Confidence gained in Gators wild loss Saturday night
Losing stings, especially in a sport with only 12 precious regular-season games, 12 unique opportunities to prove one’s worth and make a statement of significance. The Florida Gators’ 42-28 loss to the LSU Tigers on Saturday night surely contained its frustrating components for Dan Mullen and his team.
This game didn’t have to end the way it did.
Without a pivotal holding penalty in a 28-28 tie in the third quarter, Florida might have remained in the hunt to the very end, possibly with an outright advantage. The Gators played the Tigers dead-even up to that point, matching LSU’s loaded offense every step of the way.
After roughly 40 minutes of thrillingly close combat, Florida finally made the mistakes which had been commonplace through the previous six weeks of the season, the mistakes which figured to be more prevalent on Saturday night, but had been pushed to the side by an improved Gator offense.
Where was THIS, many Gator fans surely wondered over those first 40 minutes Where was the Kyle Trask who got rid of the ball quickly and yet still managed to throw deep-intermediate passes for surgical 20-yard gains? That guy wasn’t on the field against Auburn, but he was against LSU.
Where were the wide receivers and tight ends before Saturday night in Baton Rouge? They also played their best game of the season on Saturday, finding seams in the LSU back seven and offering yet more evidence of Dan Mullen’s marvelous ability to scheme players open in the structure of his offense.
This offense was so good through two and a half quarters that the Gators began to offer legitimate reason that they could actually win outright as a double-digit underdog in Death Valley. It didn’t seem like wishful thinking. The offense kept proving itself with long touchdown marches. LSU’s defense remained toothless.
The holding penalty which changed the game was so influential because it wiped out a gain of nearly 30 yards by Florida. The UF offense was on the rampage yet again before the music finally stopped and the visitors’ momentum abruptly left Tiger Stadium, a hasty exit which ought to be a source of agony.
Florida didn’t play a complete 60-minute game. Only LSU did. Everyone in the Florida locker room will carry that wound, that failure, into the rest of the season.
Losing is not without consequence or pain. We can acknowledge this.
We can also acknowledge that some losses carry a pain which is more permanent than others. This loss won’t leave a permanent mark on the Gators. It sets the stage for next week’s important test at South Carolina, which upset Georgia on the road. It also leads to the biggest game the Gators will play this year, the Cocktail Party against Georgia in three weeks.
If part of the story of this LSU loss was that the Gators didn’t finish the game, the other part is that Florida gained a lot of belief that it can beat the Dawgs in Jacksonville when that moment arrives.
One day did a lot to change the way the SEC East is viewed.
Sure, it could be the case that Georgia was just “off” against South Carolina, but the Dawgs were 20-point favorites. South Carolina was playing with a quarterback who was No. 2 on the depth chart on opening day, and HE – Ryan Hilinski – got injured. The Gamecocks ultimately beat Georgia in Athens with their third-stringer relative to the start of the season.
Under no circumstances should Georgia lose that game. Given that the Bulldogs failed to trounce Notre Dame (a team which struggled to put away USC on Saturday), and played a sloppy first half at Tennessee a week ago, maybe Kirby Smart’s team isn’t as formidable as many people thought before the season, or even two weeks ago.
Maybe Georgia is not the colossus who towers over the rest of the SEC East.
Florida’s ability to not merely compete with LSU on the road (better than Georgia did at LSU last year, it should be noted), but to display a high-level offensive performance, offers proof that the Gators can truly play with Georgia on even terms.
This hardly guarantees that they will, but one has to admit that if Georgia seemed several tiers above Florida heading into Week 7, these teams seem to be on much more even footing heading into Week 8.
Yes, Florida lost, and the outcome is not free of consequence. The loss shrinks UF’s margins and forces the Gators to take care of business against South Carolina and Missouri. Yet, the quality of the offense and the performance of Kyle Trask in particular give Dan Mullen legitimate reason for optimism when the Gators meet Georgia.
The SEC East title seems more attainable, not less. If a loss can do that, it is clear that as long as the Gators keep improving, this season could still be as successful as the Gator Nation hoped back in late August.
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