GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida defense did its job Saturday and tried its best to cover up for the mistakes of the offense. Ultimately, those self-inflicted errors were too much to overcome. Ultimately, the quarterback play was too lacking to give the Gators a real chance.
Heard this story before?
Yeah, Florida’s 38-22 loss to Florida State in its season finale at The Swamp was an all-too-fitting bow tied upon this season, an all-too-complete encapsulation of what has undermined this program for far too long now.
CeCe Jefferson and Taven Bryan were a demolition crew on the defensive line for Florida. Safety Chauncey Gardner Jr. continued his late-season resurgence with some jarring hits to break up seeming completions. The Gators allowed only 216 yards.
It didn’t matter, though.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks was stripped for a fumble that Florida State returned for a 16-yard touchdown on the Gators’ second offensive series. He closed the first quarter with an interception that gave the Seminoles the ball at the Gators’ 20-yard line, setting up a 3-play touchdown drive. And late in the second quarter, Franks stared down receiver Josh Hammond as soon he received the snap, never looked elsewhere and not surprisingly was picked off by Levonta Taylor for the second time, this one returned 18 yards for another defensive touchdown.
Just like that it was 24-7 Seminoles and already more of a deficit than Florida would be able to overcome.
Franks did engineer one very nice touchdown drive late in the first half, going 6 for 9 for 61 yards and an on-the-money 4-yard end zone strike to Brandon Powell.
But the flashes were too few to cover up for the flaws, as has mostly been the case this season for Franks.
On multiple occasions Saturday, he left open receivers (not to mention many social media commentators) frustrated or confused by his decision making, and he punctuated the performance with yet another pick in the fourth quarter. That one was mercifully not returned for another touchdown only because Florida State linebacker Matthew Thomas showboated on his way into the end zone and fell down at the 1 yard line while managing to also tack on an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for good measure.
The Seminoles would eventually find their way in for another touchdown nonetheless.
In the end, Franks finished 18-of-39 passing for 184 yards, 2 touchdowns, 3 interceptions and the fumble (after tacking on another TD pass to Powell late in the fourth quarter).
In the end, even this beleaguered Florida State team, which also came in at 4-6 with its own erratic young QB, found little obstacle in the Gators. After winning by 25 and 18 points the last two years, the Seminoles maintained the status quo and picked up their fifth-straight win overall against their in-state rivals. It’s now the longest streak for FSU over Florida in a series that dates back to 1958.
The Gators are a mess the next coach has to clean up, and now it’s clear that next coach won’t be Chip Kelly as he picked UCLA over Florida.
Step 1) Find another head coach who can manage to turn 4-star wide receivers and running backs into something better than an offense perennially, inexplicably ranking in the 100s nationally. It really shouldn’t be that hard, contingent on …
Step 2) Find a quarterback.
Sure, the defense had a down year overall, but it won’t matter how quickly that unit returns to previous standards if the same issues on offense aren’t fixed in the meantime.
Again, to reiterate some version of the same sentiment that has been expressed here pretty much every week this season, Franks is a nice guy. He consistently faces the media after tough losses and handles himself respectably. He mostly says the right things, would be the last to deflect any blame from himself to a teammate or coach, etc. He’s easy to root for, has endured plenty of adversity beyond his control this year, and yes, he has a big arm.
But it’s been the same show every Saturday all season. There has been no progress, no improvement on identifying open receivers and not staring down his primary read. No sense that he’s grown any more comfortable in the pocket. Sure, he looked a little better last week against UAB, but he had to back it up against a Power 5 opponent this week to provide any foundation to build on for next season.
Is it possible that a new coaching staff and a better offensive system could get more out of Franks’ raw abilities, could put him more at ease at the line of scrimmage and find a way to elevate his game? Sure, it’s always possible for a motivated QB with arm strength and a good attitude, but in no way can the Gators bank on that. He’s a long-shot to settle in as the Florida’s QB of the future at this point.
The Gators have to hope that touted recruit Matt Corral maintains his pledge and proves ready to compete for the starting job as a freshman. Or they have to hope that after a season lost to injury, Kyle Trask is ready to turn heads as a redshirt sophomore and seize his first opportunity. Or that Jake Allen emerges as a darkhorse redshirt freshman. Or that Malik Zaire decides to petition the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility (for his broken ankle in 2015 at Notre Dame) and returns. Or that yet another graduate transfer can try to provide a stopgap.
Whichever option it is, the Gators have to prepare to go a different direction at QB next year.
Florida didn’t have another scholarship quarterback available Saturday, and Franks took some hard hits and came up ailing a couple times while staying in the game. He admitted his left shoulder and his ribs were pretty sore. That couldn’t have helped, but this is not about one game.
Florida has to hope a total reset can lead to a long-overdue offensive renaissance.
That would have been an easy sell if the Gators had been able to hire Kelly. Some fans were mixed on how Kelly would have fit at Florida (seemingly more voicing that sentiment after the fact than while he was still a viable candidate), but he would have certainly provided an upgrade to this moribund offense.
There are very few sure things when it comes to coaching hires in general, but Florida has to hope athletic director Scott Stricklin can land a similarly transformative offensive coach.
Because this much is certain — whoever is hired is inheriting an offensive mess.