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Luke Del Rio’s injury brings Florida, Jim McElwain to the crossroads

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Is winning Saturday’s game more important than preparing for more important Saturdays?

NCAA Football: Florida Spring Game Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Florida fans of a certain age — ones who remember a time before Steve Spurrier being the Gators’ head coach, which I literally can’t — and ones who are aware of history beyond their own time may recall that Richard Nixon once told reporters, bitterly, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

On Saturday, Florida fans won’t have Luke Del Rio to kick around anymore. But as with Nixon — who told the press that in 1962, after a failed bid to become California’s governor, and a half-decade before he was elected president — there’s a chance that Del Rio could come back to put the lie to those words.

The primary task for Jim McElwain, Doug Nussmeier, and every other decision-maker on Florida’s coaching staff this week is to decide whether they should angle the Gators toward that possibility, or a far more uncertain future.

Two things have seemed unequivocally true about the Gators’ coaches beliefs about their quarterbacks in 2016:

  1. McElwain, Nussmeier, and the rest have started and stuck with Del Rio because they believe him to be the quarterback who gives Florida the best chance to win football games right now.
  2. Those same coaches are committed to finding the best chances at winning football games right now, rather than sacrificing some chance of winning now and pouring some foundation for a possibly brighter future.

I’m not sure how else to interpret what we’ve seen: Florida sticking with Del Rio not only after Austin Appleby’s underwhelming cameo, but through three games in which he was limited by injuries and threw six interceptions and two touchdowns, and not playing freshmen Feleipe Franks or Kyle Trask at any point.

Florida’s coaches have either shown that they don’t believe that Appleby, Franks, or Trask is better today than even an injured an limited Del Rio, or that their actions run counter to their beliefs. And given how stupid the latter possibility would reveal Florida’s coaches to be — imagine Florida starting Luke Del Rio, whose best game this season was a torching of Kentucky, despite thinking other players were better — I have to think that the former is the truth.

And, really: Starting the best quarterback available makes obvious sense. Florida’s coaches should probably want to win the games immediately before them — the only ones they can prepare for with any degree of certainty about personnel, scheme and so forth — every week, and Florida should probably be able to game-plan winning strategies rather than ones designed to make a team appear competitive every week.

Certainly, Florida’s defense has been good enough for the two years of McElwain’s tenure to be able to devise winning game plans that require only a modicum of offense; certainly, it is the expectation of Florida fans that the mighty Gators should be contenders to win every game they play, whether that has any basis in fact or not.

But starting the best quarterback today may not always be the best decision for the long-term prospects of a football program. And Florida must consider that this week.

The Gators still have goals to pursue in 2016. They could win the SEC by winning out, as unlikely as that seems, and there is still enough uncertainty at the top of the rankings to consider the even more distant possibility that a two-loss Florida team coming off consective wins away from home over LSU, Florida State, and Alabama.

Alabama, Clemson, Michigan, and Washington haven’t won their conference titles yet, it’s fair to note — and it’s still possible that the Crimson Tide, Tigers, and Wolverines won’t even play for them. This is college football. The bizarre can be banal.

And given that the much more achievable goal of winning the SEC East — something that requires either Florida sweeping both South Carolina and LSU or the Gators winning one of those two games and Kentucky defeating Tennessee — is also on the table, I think it would have been perfectly logical for Florida to start a healthy Del Rio against the Gamecocks. Poor as his play has been, Florida’s coaches clearly believe he has a better chance of producing a winning level of play than any other option.

Florida doesn’t have a healthy Del Rio, though, and has ruled out the injured version that it still allowed to ride out a terrible performance at Arkansas over Appleby, Franks, and Trask. And the choice before them now — Appleby or Franks/Trask — presents what seems like the clearest possible opposition of motivations for the Gators.

Appleby starting and playing throughout is, I think, the most likely scenario for this weekend. It’s logical — Appleby was Florida’s backup earlier this year, and has far more experience both in his college career and with this team — and defensible as a foundation-laying move, because there is value in both keeping a redshirt year intact for Franks and/or Trask and allowing them to play their first snaps in live action in lower-leverage situations than a must-win.

If Florida assesses intact years of eligibilty for both Franks and Trask as more valuable than the experience of playing this weekend or this year, Appleby makes sense as the stopgap, just like Del Rio did and does. If Florida assesses keeping Franks and Trask in competition — as twins in eligibility and experience, rather than as players demarcated as 1A and 1B options for 2017, and set on paths to starter and transferring backup in 2018, by a tipped hand in 2016 — as more valuable than that experience, it ought to start Appleby.

But Florida can’t assess these things in a vacuum. And context suggests this is going to be seen as a binary choice: Winning now or preparing for later.

Appleby’s out of eligibility after this fall, and whatever long-term benefits there are to playing him now are found in his role as a shield for Franks and Trask. If Appleby plays brilliantly, or if he gets hurt or gets shaken — Tebow forbid — by virtue of playing on Saturday, that benefit or detriment to Florida expires about two months from now. (Appleby obviously stands to individually profit from or be diminished by his play, of course — but Florida’s coaches can’t consider just the individual benefits of giving a player a start.)

Florida fans are starved for good quarterback play, after spending the entire decade of the 2010s wanting for a successful successor to Tim Tebow. They — we — have clung to flashes of brilliance, hung on promises of competence, and, increasingly, hoped for something other than woe. Things have gotten so dire that the days of believing in Charlie Weis as the coordinator who would unlock John Brantley’s potential, believing in Jeff Driskel’s growth — before the 2013 or 2014 seasons, you pick — as the key to him delivering on his hype, believing in Treon Harris as a panacea for what ailed a Driskel-led offense, and, finally and most breathtakingly, believing in Joshua Grady as a panacea for what ailed a Harris-led offense, have all become the halcyon moments of yesteryear.

Now, Gators fans pine for the return of Will Grier — who, taking him at his word, made the mistake of not consulting Florida coaches about taking the steroid-like Ligandrol, maintains a real or faux naïvete about why a coach might not want a player who did that to his teammates around, and spins a self-pitying yarn (“I never thought McElwain appreciated anything I did”) to explain why his accomplishments should outweigh his errors.

And that’s if you take Grier’s word — told to a columnist who once decried Antonio Morrison being frivolously arrested for barking at a police dog as part of an “enabling” culture at Florida, yet now seems really, truly, fully devoted to boosting Grier and crucifying McElwain for not keeping a confirmed drug cheat — as the fullest truth. Too many trusted sources have told me too many things for me to do that.

Yet Grier was, undeniably, a flash of brilliance who promised no less than competence, and whose woe was only a result of his self-inflicted off-the-field errors. Even arguing correctly that his positive contributions were limited those five quarters from the end of a miraculous win over Tennessee and a demolition of Mississippi still doesn’t sway Florida fans who want a good quarterback above all else.

And that’s what and who this choice, of Del Rio or Appleby vs. Franks or Trask, is really about, as much as it is Florida’s future as a program.

Trotting Del Rio out on Saturday would have been inviting boos to cascade on Senior Day — from a crowd that will assuredly underwhelm, given the growing fear that Florida might, gulp, lose to a team coached by Will Muschamp, and Del Rio’s injury staving that off is a blessing in disguise. Starting Appleby would at least be something new for the home crowd — he played only sparingly before them against North Texas — even if it seems likely to produce more of the same quality of play Del Rio provided.

But starting Franks or Trask could very well energize the Florida fan base.

Many, many Gators fans seem to me to be far more willing to pin their hopes on a future that might be better than a dismal present than to attempt to grind out wins on the margins in hopes of earning the opportunity to be smithereened by Alabama in Atlanta in December.

Many, many Gators fans — generally well-informed, as a whole, despite the presence of pernicious elements predisposed to pessimism, and a lunatic fringe to rival that of any big-league program’s flock — understand that the granitic defense that has been taken for granted for so many years might not actually be there to fall back on in 2017, as a slew of starters depart for the NFL, leaving lesser-regarded, largely untested backups behind.

Many, many Gators fans would be much more excited about 2017 — and its ridiculous home schedule — after a flash of brilliance from Franks or Trask down the stretch in 2016. And many of the recruits who grew up as Florida fans — a dwindling number, given how hard it has often been to root for the Gators since 2010 — might well be excited by that, too.

The window for responsibly starting Franks or Trask probably opens and shuts this week. Starting unprepared quarterbacks at LSU, something Florida did in 2011 and 2015, has not worked out; thrusting a true freshman into the malestrom that will be Death Valley for this hotly awaited Florida-LSU would be nearly malpractice. The same goes for debuting Franks or Trask at Doak Campbell Stadium, or in an SEC Championship Game. If any part of keeping Franks and Trask away from the field until now has been about keeping them free of the keloids that defenders can slash into both mind and body, it makes little sense to suddenly risk them now.

But while the window for starting them probably reopens for a bowl game, Florida could — and maybe should — get a lot more out of burning a redshirt by doing so before a game that, uh, actually matters. There will be pressure on Florida’s starter on Saturday, sure — but he’ll play in a far more forgiving environment than any other one the Gators will inhabit in the near future.

With a showdown with Michigan in Cowboys Stadium looming as another high-pressure situation to begin 2017, it’s probable that at least one of Franks and Trask is going headfirst into the fire, whether that happens now or later.

The fans that have supported Florida since 2010 almost certainly — I mean, I guess you could have started in 2010? — lived through the most wonderful nows that the Gators have ever authored. Urban Meyer brought Florida to dizzying heights, ones that set fans’ base camp even higher than Spurrier’s first expeditions of summit-seekers did in the 1990s.

Now, though, we look at those years as then. And we wonder if we will ever see them again. And we want a flash of brilliance, a spark of hope.

Why not try breathing that into existence right now?