GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida football team made it to Tampa this season, but a week too soon.
The Gators wanted to be in Raymond James Stadium for the national championship game, not the Outback Bowl.
UF coach Jim McElwain has had unprecedented success in his first two years in terms of SEC East titles, but playing for it all is the ultimate prize.
McElwain has preached about “15 opportunities” since he came to Gainesville. The College Football Playoff final is the standard he’s set.
How’s how Florida can make it there in 2017.
1) Feleipe Franks emerges at QB
It’s no secret that poor quarterback play has held Florida back for years. When McElwain had Will Grier under center last season, the offense was productive and the Gators were in the Playoff discussion. To get back in contention, they need a quarterback who possesses all the traits required to be a quality player at the position: accuracy, arm strength, football IQ, leadership skills and toughness. Florida hoped Luke Del Rio could provide that, but he struggled throwing the football in his last four games as the starter.
The Gators are expected to go in a different direction next season, with Franks being the most likely candidate to win the job. The Elite 11 finalist was the nation’s No. 5 pro-style quarterback and No. 54 overall recruit in the 247Sports composite rankings. He redshirted this season to develop his raw skill set and gain an understanding of the offense. Franks has the strongest arm on the team and is more prepared at this stage than fellow freshman Kyle Trask. Franks also has cut down on turnovers, according to teammates. If Franks can start fulfilling his potential in 2017, that’s the first step toward the playoff.
2) Jim McElwain beats FSU
The 2017 schedule sets up nicely for the Gators. They open the season against a Michigan team that loses a lot from 2016, especially on the defensive side of the ball. It’s certainly a winnable game for McElwain, but also one that the Gators can afford to lose and still have the season they want. Florida plays four of its toughest games at home, including the LSU matchup that was moved to Gainesville. UF should be favored against Tennessee, Texas A&M and the Tigers. The SEC East likely will come down to the Florida-Georgia game in Jacksonville, Fla., but the Gators have won three straight against the Bulldogs.
UF must come out of conference play with a one-loss SEC record or a loss to Michigan in the season opener. The Gators won’t make the Playoff with two losses, and it’s unlikely that they’ll run the table prior to their regular-season finale. Moreover, Florida simply can’t lose a fifth consecutive game to rival Florida State. UF gets the Seminoles at home without Dalvin Cook, and a win over FSU would put the Gators in the playoff hunt. If Florida loses to FSU, however, McElwain will become the first coach in school history not to beat the Seminoles in his first three years at UF.
3) Alabama has a down year
Even if the Gators defeat Florida State and finish the season 11-1, there’s still that big elephant in the room. Florida isn’t making it to the Playoff without getting past the Alabama Crimson Tide, or avoiding them. The latter probably won’t happen. The Tide return a ton of talent next season and their SEC schedule is not very difficult. They open the season with FSU and go on the road against Auburn and Texas A&M, but LSU, Ole Miss and Tennessee are all home games for them. Nick Saban has missed the conference title game only three times in last nine years, and 2017 doesn’t look like it will be the fourth.
But if Alabama doesn’t make it to Atlanta and the Gators win the East again, that would be their easiest path to the Playoff. Playing Auburn or LSU is a much better scenario for Florida. Should the Gators end up facing Alabama for the third straight season, a lot of factors (injuries, turnovers, officiating) will need to be in their favor to upset the Tide. If Franks does emerge and UF shows the ability to beat teams such as Michigan and Florida State, perhaps the Gators can be more competitive against Alabama than they have been. But Florida probably will need some good fortune to win the SEC, either by avoiding the Tide or catching them when they’re vulnerable.