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Florida Gators

Gators struggle early-survive Saturday in Nashville

Matt Zemek

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Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Gators can’t say they weren’t warned.

A young team with an unproven quarterback had just scored the biggest victory of its season against a top-10 opponent. The misery of early September had been washed away by a series of steadily better and more encouraging performances. The Gators grew and developed, just as any fan would hope for in a transitional season under a first-year head coach. No one expected all the pieces to perfectly fit together, but Florida gradually assembled the puzzle and solved several of its biggest problems.

The next step for a team which evolves from chaos into continuity: Maintaining that evolutionary process instead of stopping to rest and think it has it all figured out. Weeks 1 through 6 of the college football season brought the Gators to a much better place, but with a month and a half left in the journey, Florida needed to realize the race — entering its daunting middle stages — was only beginning to take on added textures and tones.

Every challenge surrounding a young football team was neatly crystallized — or not-so-neatly, as it were — in Saturday’s game against the Vanderbilt Commodores.

The Florida team which had begun to figure out how it wanted to play; the Florida team which had begun to establish and cement the template for the rest of the season; the Florida team which had begun to breathe in the intoxicating aroma of success, and all the temptations that go with prosperity, had to develop tunnel vision and not rest on recent achievements. Playing a late-morning game in a half-filled stadium against a reeling Vanderbilt side, Florida had to shove complacency and human nature into a dungeon, lock the door, and move on.

That proved to be a huge challenge… and not unexpectedly, either.

Believing you are better than you actually are — in that first moment when a team tastes considerable success — is not an easy thing to confront. Young teams and imperfect teams inevitably have to go through the process of playing a game (or many games) in the face of that complacency before they learn how to master and subdue that inclination.

This game against Vanderbilt was a maiden voyage for the 2018 iteration of the Gators. Without question, this experience will do UF a lot of good in 2019, but the more immediate question emerged as Florida sleepwalked through most of the first half in Nashville: Could this 2018 team, warts and all, find the clarity to dig its way out of trouble?

The answer: Yes… and in the way which has defined the Gators in their upward climb this season.

The central characteristic of the Vanderbilt team which limped into Week 7 is that it had been punched in the mouth, outworked and outplayed by two SEC opponents… and Tennessee State. Vanderbilt had conclusively shown that it could not handle a street fight.

In the first half, Vanderbilt threw and landed the punches, en route to a 21-3 lead.

Would the Gators get off the canvas?

Would they immediately show they could take several body blows?

The eruption of tempers among various players and coaches from both teams late in the first half could have cut in either direction. It could have become an indication of how unfocused and unprepared this team was… or it could have become the application of smelling salts the Gators needed.

Safe to say, they woke the heck up.

The Florida offensive line, which has to flex its muscles in order to minimize and guard against Feleipe Franks’ limitations as a passer, began to roll up its sleeves. The concept of physically dominating an opponent is not hard to grasp, but doing it is the hard part, especially after a first half which sent frustrations past the boiling point.

Florida was tested — physically, emotionally, and situationally — on Saturday in Nashville. The Gators were far from perfect, just as they have been all season… and will continue to be.

That is what they are: very flawed, and unlikely to become a great team by the end of November.

What they also are, however, is a team that is winning more than most people expected at the start of this season, especially after the Kentucky game.

Four wins in a row in the SEC is nothing to disregard.

These Gators don’t play beautiful football… but what they lack in aesthetics is more than made up for in the intangible realm.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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Florida Gators

Gators QB Feleipe Franks playing for his place in history

Matt Zemek

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Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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Florida Gators

Gators land Georgia transfer Brenton Cox

Abbey Radeka

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

UF football is finishing up Week 2 of Gator Camp with a new addition to their roster. It was confirmed Friday that former Georgia edge rusher Brenton Cox will playing in Gainesville this fall.

The transfer was confirmed on Twitter by Gator beat reporter, Thomas Goldkamp.

Earlier this month, the former 5-star recruit put his name into the NCAA transfer portal, after spending just one season with the Bulldogs. In his freshman season, Cox played in 13 games and ended the season with 20 tackles, two tackles for a loss, a sack, and three pass breakups. He also got the start in the Allstate Sugar Bowl against Texas where he made a career high, six stops.

Sources have informed Swamp247 that Cox visited Florida’s campus on Thursday, and enrolled at UF later that day. He reportedly began practice after officially enrolling. Cox is listed at 6-foot-4, 247-pounds, and will wear No. 6 for the Gators.

Originally from Stockbridge, GA, Cox was listed as a five-star recruit by ESPN.com, No. 11 in ESPN’s top 300, No. 5 DE nationally, No. 3 prospect in Georgia.

But, its not a done deal that he’ll be making an impact for Florida this season. Before he can officially see the field as a Gator, he’ll need to be granted an NCAA waiver, if not he will have to sit out a year at the school of his choice due to NCAA transfer rules. Unless he’s granted the waiver, he will only be able to practice with the team during fall camp and throughout the season.

With all of Florida’s transfers from the program this summer, Cox will bring some much needed support on the defensive side of the ball. After Brian Edwards announced his departure last month, Florida has had nine players now leave their program through transfer or through dismissal for disciplinary reasons this off season. It also means that the Gators currently only have one defensive back on their roster with significant playing time, previously.

Another potential addition to the Florida roster is former LSU cornerback, Kelvin Joseph. The former 4-star 2018 recruit announced his decision to enter the transfer portal last month, and visited UF shortly after.

It’s believed that Florida is likely going to be where he lands, but nothing official has been announced so far.

These additions are a bright spot in what has been a disaster of an off-season for Dan Mullen and his staff. This could be the catalyst they need as they enter into the season where they’ll face off against Miami in just over two weeks.

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