The Florida Gators were almost wholly uncompetitive in their 33-17 loss to the Michigan Wolverines in the 2017 AdvoCare Classic on Saturday. And yet: Despite being physically dominated on both sides of the ball, the Gators were within 10 points until a final Malik Zaire fumble ended the game.
The not-as-close-as-it-looked loss was a dispiriting one. But it’s one we can learn from — and one the Gators must learn from, if they are to rebound from their first 0-1 start since 1989.
Feleipe Franks has to be the QB, and for good
Look: I get Florida inserting Malik Zaire after Franks tried to do too much and fumbled on the hoof in the third quarter, and I get Florida keeping Zaire in the game into the fourth quarter while scratching out slightly more offense thanks partly to the threat of his feet, and I even get Florida leaving Zaire in after his fumble.
But Florida can’t play Zaire — or Luke Del Rio — from this point forward, so long as all its options are healthy. QB1 must now be Feleipe Franks’s job, and this Florida team must be his team, and there can’t be any going back.
Based only on this game, there was plenty more to like from Franks than Zaire: Franks made the few truly good throws either of the two made, and he actually had a longer run than Zaire did. His arm is live, his stature makes seeing the field possible — something that Zaire, who looked to be the spitting mirror image of Treon Harris, may have struggled with — and his potential for improvement will not be stunted meaningfully against Northern Colorado or Kentucky or any of the teams Florida sees between now and October.
It made sense to remove him, if you think about it: He fumbled at a time when he absolutely could not fumble without putting Florida in hot water, and Zaire forced Michigan to defend something different, even if Michigan did defend it well. Keeping Franks benched is a harder sell, but I can accept the argument that he might’ve been shell-shocked by Michigan’s assault had he stayed in, and the argument that Zaire made better cannon fodder, for want of better, kinder, more humane words.
But I believe we have seen enough of Zaire in his action as both a Notre Dame and Florida quarterback to know his ceiling — and I suspect that Florida cannot win big with him at that ceiling, not this year, not while breaking in a defense that very much reeked of both the new coordinator and new player smells in AT&T Stadium. The same goes for Del Rio, who is as good a pocket passer as Zaire is an artful dodger — that is to say, passable at best — and whose distance from the sideline to the huddle on this Saturday could perhaps have been measured in light years.
Franks could be better. He could be worse, too — but he could be better. And Florida’s coaches must, must, must recognize that they need to be better, as soon as they can, lest they risk the sort of revolt a disenchanted fan base that has not seen 0-1 since childhood could muster if September remains a struggle.
Taking the long view, there might be multiple roads to better. In the short-term, the only one who should have the keys to the Gators caravan is Feleipe Franks.
Florida’s offensive line might be awful
Michigan impressed me thoroughly in this game. The Wolverines were patient, poised, and clever, especially on offense. On defense, though, Don Brown’s charges looked so much stronger than their counterparts in blue that it hardly mattered that they were smarter, too.
Michigan’s defensive line eviscerated Florida’s running game, allowing 11 yards on 27 carries, including sacks. Franks had the day’s longest run on a third-down scramble; Florida’s top two running backs, Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson, combined for 21 yards on 12 carries. That line sacked Franks and Zaire five times, too, and gave them so little time to throw that it’s a wonder they completed even 14 of their 26 passes — Florida pass-catchers doing unbelievable things accounted for probably four of those completions, at minimum.
And beyond the line, Michigan was fine — linebackers stayed home, and played disciplined ball after a first-play penalty; defensive backs batted away well-thrown balls — but it wouldn’t really have mattered if Michigan had been putrid. There was little time for Franks or Zaire to find receivers, and there were few third and shorts on offer after being stoppered on the first two downs.
That has plenty to do with Michigan — but it may have more to do with an offensive line talked up by its teammates and minders and analysts as a possible strength of this team, one punctured like Swiss cheese and flattened like roadkill for all four quarters of this contest. The Gators couldn’t pull. They couldn’t double-team. They couldn’t run-block at any point, and couldn’t pass block as the game wore on. If Franks and Zaire, nimble in different ways, weren’t behind the line, it might have been a performance poor enough to get a passer hurt.
And there is no easy way to make that line better. Florida’s personnel on hand is mature, and talented — it was supposedly Mike Summers, the outgoing offensive line coach, whose mismanagement of that talent was the problem. Now Summers is gone, replaced by the well-liked but still-green Brad Davis, and Florida’s line may be worse, instead of better, and there aren’t reserves who could credibly outperform the starters on the roster.
If the line doesn’t respond in practice this week or in live action next Saturday, there will be a long, lamentable season ahead for Florida’s offense.
The Gators defense is young, dumb — and talented
As mentioned above, Michigan did good work against Florida’s defense. It stayed balanced throughout the game, rebounded from Wilton Speight’s two pick-sixes, and generally had answers for the questions Florida posed.
But, honestly? Michigan should’ve scored 40-plus points.
The Wolverines ran 39 plays in Florida territory. 39! And they gleaned just 26 points from their offense. Even giving them four more points for what looked like a valid touchdown that was negated and replaced by a field goal early and six more for two missed field goals doesn’t get the Wolverines to as many points as they ran plays on the Gators’ side of the 50.
Florida allowed just one red zone touchdown on three trips. The only other offensive touchdown it allowed came on freshman Shawn Davis’s first play in uniform, moments after Nick Washington went down with an injury. Michigan went just 6-for-18 on third down — though a couple of third-and-longs got converted — and the big plays Michigan made because Florida allowed them came largely on the sorts of things young players screw up all the time: An unnecessary tug by Chauncey Gardner, the Davis bust, blown run fits against a disciplined offensive line.
Michigan looked well-coached on both sides of the ball. Florida’s defense, unlike the Gators’ offense, matched it more often than not.