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Florida vs. FSU, Tuesday Takeaways: On the Gators’ lead over the Seminoles, and a surprising Feleipe Franks stat

The Gators appear to have a leg up on the Seminoles, and Feleipe Franks is having a better season that we say.

NCAA Football: Florida at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

Delayed takeaways from Florida’s Saturday stomping of FSU...

Florida is much better — and better off — than FSU

This is the sort of thing that gets you in trouble, as a person writing about sports: A declarative proclamation that sounds like a final judgment and doesn’t hedge with nods to nuance and context.

But damn, did it look like Florida has all but lapped FSU on Saturday.

Florida scored 41 points, and would almost certainly have had 47 — its most ever in Tallahassee — had Dan Mullen opted for nearly automatic Evan McPherson field goals instead of going for it twice (and failing twice) on fourth down in the red zone. It could have had 50-plus points had those zero-point possessions turned into touchdowns.

Florida State scored 14 points, and that took a miraculous one-handed catch from Cam Akers and some nifty scrambling from Deondre Francois while down 20 points.

The Gators never trailed, and outscored the Seminoles in every quarter. Florida had 536 yards of total offense, not far from double FSU’s 293, and Florida had 100 more passing yards and 143 more rushing yards than the Seminoles. Feleipe Franks averaged over nine yards per pass attempt; Francois averaged inches more than four yards per throw.

This was a blowout, a domination, a rout, a smithereening. It was as emphatic as any win in the series this decade by Florida State, too — and you should consider that FSU’s only two 25-point wins this decade a) pitted a national champion against what was then the worst Florida team in decades and b) only reached a 25-point margin almost exclusively because Dalvin Cook ran for approximately 300 yards in the fourth quarter of a game that saw Florida’s offense fail to score ... and still come within 50 yards of FSU’s offensive output.

Florida, meanwhile, beat Florida State by 27 or more points four times in five years in the 2000s — and Saturday’s win means that Mullen has called plays for Florida in four 27-point wins over Florida State, including three in Tallahassee.

That is sure to instill confidence in Florida’s fan base that Mullen is a great fit for this job. But it was the way Florida State played on Saturday that did more to convince me that Mullen is going to pilot Florida back to prominence and national title contention — because Willie Taggart’s team seemed almost completely overwhelmed.

Francois was a faint shadow of the future NFL player he appeared to be early in his career under Jimbo Fisher, hurling deep balls and only seeming to be fully in control of his offense when it could hurry up after rare early-drive successes. How much of that can be blamed on FSU’s horrific offensive line — which gave up five sacks and could have easily given up 10 had Francois not done some nifty pocket management and triggered early on many throws — is up for debate, but that line did neither Francois nor Akers many favors.

Tamorrion Terry is going to be a very good player for the Seminoles for years to come, but he was the only remotely scary receiver on the field, and his damage came on deep balls. Akers is nimble and clever with the ball in his hands, but he is not the second coming of Cook he was touted to be, and he finished with 37 yards on 13 carries; Jacques Patrick, who left with an injury, managed more yards (52) on fewer carries (10) in his finale against Florida. And Florida State frequently failed to extend drives, converting more fourth downs (two of three) than third downs (one of 14) and falling to last nationally in third down conversion rate a result.

Or, well, tied for last. Gotta give almighty Rice its due.

The Florida State defense that had been legitimately good for much of the year also appeared overwhelmed by the task of stopping this Florida offense.

FSU gummed up the Florida running game for a quarter, to the degree that Franks had the Gators’ only runs of more than four yards in the first quarter, but Lamical Perine’s 74-yard touchdown run came early in the second quarter, and Florida would roll up its 282 yards by getting about five and a half yards per carry. Worse still, FSU could not consistently pressure Franks, leading to him having arguably his best day as a Gator, and a secondary rife with blue-chip players got aerated by the Gators’ Trevon Grimes and Van Jefferson, who combined for 210 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches despite not technically counting toward Florida’s blue-chip ratio in any recruiting class.

And those deficiencies in the primary two phases of the game were more than enough to outweigh a surprisingly excellent game for FSU on special teams, where Logan Tyler essentially neutralized the Florida return games and frequently flipped fields by averaging 50 yards on nine punts and D.J. Matthews cannily drew a fair catch interference penalty by calling for a fair catch and then drifting into Florida long snapper Ryan Farr’s path instead of making an attempt to field the ball.

But Keyshawn Helton’s lone kick return led to a drive starting at the Florida State 9 after a penalty, and it was penalties that salted FSU wounds time and again. The 10 infractions on the Seminoles only cost 60 yards in total — Florida’s seven flags resulted in 49 penalty yards against the Gators — but virtually all of them were significant.

  • On the game’s first play, Terry was flagged for offensive pass interference, setting up first and 22 and beginning a sequence in the first quarter that repeatedly saw FSU buried deep in its own end and Florida trudging toward points from great field position.
  • On Florida’s second offensive drive, a face mask penalty gave Florida first and goal.
  • The aforementioned hold turned Helton’s bad kick return into an even worse decision, and led to Tyler having to uncork a 56-yard punt to flip the field. (Florida scored on the Perine run on the next play anyway.)
  • An illegal shift wiped out an Akers catch-and-run touchdown that could have sliced Florida’s 10-0 lead to 10-7.
  • A false start made a third and six a third and 10. (No, I don’t know how that math works, but that’s what ESPN’s play-by-play says.)
  • An offsides penalty gave Florida third and goal from the FSU 6 instead of the 11.
  • An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty (clearly given after mutual scrapping because Stanford Samuels threw a punch) on third and seven from the FSU 10 gave Florida first and goal; the Gators would score two plays later.
  • An illegal formation penalty at the Florida 25 in the fourth quarter made sure the Seminoles wouldn’t run a single snap from the Florida 25 or closer in the period.

You will note that those were not just eight penalties, but eight different penalties, ranging from procedural missteps to stupid unsportsmanlike conduct. That was in keeping with what looked like a young team trying to figure out how to play, something FSU has looked like often under Willie Taggart this year — and something most brutally and beautifully pointed out by Chauncey Gardner-Johnson telling FSU’s sideline to run another player onto the field late in the game.

And, yeah, I have written about how Taggart has had slow starts throughout his coaching career. And in a vacuum — or at Western Kentucky, or at South Florida, or maybe even at Oregon — Taggart could get away with starting slow.

Florida State is not a vacuum, or Western Kentucky, or South Florida, or Oregon. Florida State is a program where five wins — which could have easily been two — is unacceptable to almost every fan, and an anchor for the program to drag along going forward. Taggart is reputedly a fantastic recruiter, and has the nation’s No. 14 class at the moment, but he’ll be playing defense against Alabama for five-star commit Akeem Dent down the stretch of this recruiting cycle, and FSU currently has just one offensive lineman committed, with much of the fan base holding out hope for reinforcements from the JUCO ranks.

And who knows if a good recruiting class helps all that much next year? No QB — Francois or James Blackman or incoming top-100 recruit Sam Howell — is going to be a star behind the FSU line as currently constructed, Taggart will not get the luxury of bowl practices next month, and the Seminoles open up 2019 with Boise State and travel to Clemson and Florida next fall. FSU might be making coaching changes, too — it should, anyway — and is probably not in contention to land any of the biggest names available at offensive or defensive coordinator, even though Taggart has a reasonably cheap contract that should allow for some bigger-ticket lieutenants.

And all of this uncertainty and frustration for FSU comes as Florida is once again ascendant, poised to compete at the top levels of the SEC and nationally, even though Mullen is still working with a roster of Jim McElwain recruits, who were mostly less highly-regarded than the Jimbo Fisher recruits Taggart inherited. If Mullen — whose recruiting was excellent for Mississippi State, but has only hovered around par or one-over for Florida — can nullify any talent disparity in favor of FSU or open up a lead for Florida, one wonders just how far ahead of Taggart’s Seminoles the Gators could get.

After all: Just one year into their new coaches’ tenures, it would seem that the Gators are leaps and bounds better on the field, and poised to lap the Seminoles off of it.

Feleipe Franks has been better than we concede

Two weeks ago, Franks threw for 274 yards and three touchdowns against Idaho.

Cool game, right? Even if it was just a big game against an overmatched foe?

Well, last week, Franks threw for 254 yards and three touchdowns against Florida State. In Doak Campbell Stadium. With Florida needing him to be good, given that the Gators didn’t get untracked on the ground until the second half.

Cool game, for sure — even if it was just a big game against an overmatched foe.

Playing as close to his Wakulla County stomping grounds as he will ever get as a collegian, Franks was as good as he has ever been for Florida, keeping his risky throws to a minimum and making the big plays that he has not always made. Franks started slow, to be sure — he went 2-for-4 for 10 yards on Florida’s first two offensive drives — but he revved things up after that start, going 4-for-4 for 61 yards (including a 39-yarder to Jefferson) on the Gators’ third drive and bombing a 54-yarder to Grimes to set up a field goal in the second quarter.

In the second half, Franks was even better. His throw to Grimes for his second touchdown of the day might have been his best as a Gator, an utter laser unleashed while stepping up in the pocket that got to Grimes at the exact right spot and moment for six. And on the next drive, he fired a strike to Kadarius Toney in a tiny window for a key third-down completion and lofted a perfect pass to a wide-open Jefferson for another score.

And that was just Franks as a thrower. As a runner, he topped 50 yards before sacks and racked up 25 yards on the ground with sacks included for the seventh time this year, continuing to make his unorthodox style — I compared Franks running to the lumbering of a hippopotamus on Saturday, and someone corrected me by comparing him to a giraffe; both comparisons being made in the first place is the point — an effective one.

For an offense that still showcases the QB in the running game like it did when the same coach last was in Gainesville, and had one of the best running QBs ever in the backfield, it is crucial that Franks is at least adequate as a runner. He has been, and has been especially good near the goal line, despite a failure there on Saturday, tallying six touchdowns on the ground.

Add his 23 through the air after his trio against the Seminoles, and Franks has been responsible for 29 touchdowns through 12 games this year. That seemed high to me — and it got me wondering how he ranks among Florida QBs in terms of touchdowns responsible for in a season, historically.

The answer is shocking.

Tim Tebow, naturally, tops the list, with a staggering 55 — 32 passing, 23 more rushing — in his Heisman campaign in 2007, and 42 more (30 and 12) in 2008. Danny Wuerffel had 41 (39 passing, two rushing) in his own Heisman campaign in 1996.

But no other Florida QB has topped 40, with Rex Grossman coming closest by throwing for 34 and rushing for five in his Heisman-worthy 2001 campaign, and only Tebow (2007-09), Wuerffel (1995-96), Grossman (2001), Chris Leak (2004), and Shane Matthews (1991) have accounted for 30.

Franks needs one more touchdown in Florida’s bowl to join that elite company by posting the ninth season with 30 or more TDs by a Gators quarterback ever — and if he accounts for three, the only QBs to account for more touchdowns in a season in program history than Franks did this fall will be two guys who won Heisman Trophies and national titles and a third who should have won the former and could have won the latter.

And yet Franks is not even a month removed from a benching in all but name, and — no matter what happens in that bowl — Florida fans will still be convincing themselves that Franks is a) bad and b) susceptible to losing his job come the spring. (I revealed that 30 TDs stat in a group chat earlier, and erstwhile Alligator Army writer Trevor Sikkema, an avowed Franks skeptic and #TraskForce general, quipped “Wow, guess Florida’s had a lot of bad quarterbacks.”)

And you know what? I think those fans will have a point, to a point. Franks still isn’t a polished thrower, and I am not sure he can become one. He can be agonizingly slow to make reads. He is still learning the Mullen offense, and may not ultimately be as good a fit for it as Emory Jones — or Jalon Jones, who arrives this winter.

But Franks is already so much better and so much more effective than he was a year ago that I would be entirely unsurprised by him keeping the job, and the night-and-day differences between that Franks and this one make me think that either a) the coaching of Mullen and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson has made an enormous difference for Franks or b) the Mullen offense is so potent that even a “bad” quarterback can put up big numbers running it.

Either one of those things being true would be great for Florida. Both of them being true, as is also possible, would be even better.

Either way, though: Franks has done more than most would have fathomed was possible this fall, and regardless of whether that changes our overall judgments of him as a player, I think it should probably be factored into our judgments of this season.

Maybe Franks is still limiting Florida’s offense, which will take off after he is supplanted as the Gators’ starting quarterback.

But if that is true, given all the stats he has piled up and the record he has led Florida to this season? Watch out for the future.