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Florida vs. Charleston Southern, Sunday Takeaways: The fun is back, but there’s much to do

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Feleipe Franks can run an offense. Who knew?

Charleston Southern v Florida Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Programming note: I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to do a Sunday Rundown-style piece or this piece for much of today, which is part of why it’s late. (I also needed sleep.) But my thinking is that I’ll have this up early Sunday mornings and a far more exhaustive Monday Rundown up on Monday mornings going forward. Cool? Cool.

Easy like a Saturday night

The Florida Gators won a laugher on Saturday.

We haven’t been able to say that much in recent years.

In 2017, Florida won just one game — a Senior Day meeting with just-restarted-its-program UAB — by more than 14 points. In 2016, Florida had six such wins — including one over Georgia, which seems impossible today — but none in November. In 2015, Florida had four such wins — including, again, one over Georgia — but none after Halloween, and just one (hint: it was the one over Georgia) after losing Will Grier to his NCAA suspension.

And wins by 20-plus points have, obviously, been even rarer. Florida’s 53-6 win over the Buccaneers was its first by more than 40 since the first game of Jim McElwain’s time with the Gators in 2015; since that game against New Mexico State, Florida had gone undefeated against non-conference foes from outside the Power Five, but had not won by 35-plus points in any of those five games.

In 2008, Dan Mullen’s last year in Gainesville, Florida beat its two non-Power Five non-conference opponents, Hawai’i and The Citadel, by a combined 126-29 count.

This — last night — was more like that — 2008 — than anything we’ve seen since.

It was easy.

There was no obvious straining to score — Florida’s first touchdown looked like an inevitability as soon as Trevon Grimes caught the screen pass that produced it, with blocking clearing the way for Grimes to hit afterburners — and there were no real struggles on the field while the starters were in, save maybe the inability to truly road-grade Charleston Southern in the running game. (I’m not counting that as a “real struggle” because Florida got its yardage on the ground anyway, and dissected the Bucs through the air.) Charleston Southern’s one big play against Florida’s starters came on a missed tackle, but a forgivable and correctable one. Florida’s special teams apart from its specialists looked like threats to change the game in the Gators’ favor for a change — and the specialists themselves looked just fine.

Things just worked. And after years of Florida making offense look like a Herculean labor and making defense look like running into a burning building, the “relentless effort” that Mullen has preached about all offseason actually looked more effortless.

Yes, the team Florida lined up against isn’t good and didn’t play particularly well. But the Gators have rarely looked so at ease and so comfortable in recent years as they did last night.

It’s just one game, sure — but that was different.

Feleipe Franks just might be okay

Last night, I saw a statistic comparing the performances of the ballyhooed relative newcomer quarterbacks at national championship contenders Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia to that of those programs’ established starters. And Tua Tagovailoa, Trevor Lawrence, and Justin Fields marginally outplayed Jalen Hurts, Kelly Bryant, and Jake Fromm in the aggregate, at least according to those stats — something we’ll keep as evidence that the new guys might be really good.

But none of those QBs threw for five touchdowns last night. And Feleipe Franks did.

Franks completed 16 of 24 passes for 219 yards and five touchdowns against the Buccaneers, putting his name in Florida record books next to Chris Leak and Rex Grossman — and ahead of Tim Tebow. Those five touchdown passes were more than half of his nine scoring tosses a season ago, too.

And yet: It feels like fans are a little more reserved about praising Franks than they could be.

Largely, that has to do with last year, when Franks was less of a known quantity. We saw a kid with a big arm and prodigious size and thought he could be a monstrously successful quarterback; on the field, what we saw was a player sometimes scared of his own shadow, who was mostly ineffective as Florida’s field general.

There were fans whose opinions about Franks were so ossified that they spent this entire offseason talking themselves into Kyle Trask — a player whom Florida’s previous coaches never played ahead of Franks — as the future savior of Florida’s offense.

Today, those fans are eating crow.

But they had every right to be skeptical, because Franks simply didn’t show half of what he did last night over the entire span of last year. Last night’s Franks seemed comfortable and composed, able to stand in a pocket and make reads a year after seeming befuddled by the task; he ran quickly and decisively, a far cry from his memorably meandering runs in 2017. He threw with very good touch, and maybe his best throws were underneath and to the perimeter, a frankly (sorry) shocking development after watching him rifle passes and overthrow deep balls throughout last season.

It obviously bears repeating that Franks did this against wholly overmatched competition. But he wasn’t this good against UAB last year, you may recall: He did throw for two touchdowns, but he was 15 for 30 for just 152 yards in that game.

And Franks had only topped his 9.1 yards per attempt or his 66.7 percent completion rate from last night twice prior in his Florida career — against Vanderbilt and Missouri last year — and he did so while throwing as many passes in those games combined as he did against Charleston Southern. (He probably should’ve had more completions last night, too, because a few of those incompletions looked like drops.)

But those numbers are really good. Mississippi State didn’t manage to do both in a game in 2017, and did so just once in 2016 as Nick Fitzgerald burst onto the scene. Dak Prescott hit both thresholds just three times in his senior year under Mullen. Just two QBs in the country — Baker Mayfield and McKenzie Milton — hit both thresholds for the 2017 season. And Tebow — whose best year as a passer was actually his senior year, I think — managed to hit both marks not just for three of his four years as a Gator, but for his entire career, which should help remind you of how damn good he was.

If Franks can average nine yards per attempt while completing two-thirds of his passes under Mullen, I feel confident in saying that he can lead Florida to 10-win seasons under Mullen. Those are high bars that even wildly competent QBs don’t always reach.

My guess is that Franks, who is still young and learning and does not seem to possess Tebow’s accuracy, will not always meet those bars.

But now we know he can. And after worrying about what he can’t do for months and months, we fans now get to dream on what he can do under Mullen’s tutelage with evidence that he could be rather good instead of dwelling only on his failures under a deposed regime.

There is still plenty to work on and improve

Florida looked very good last night, and better than some ranked teams I saw play this weekend. But I watched enough other college football this weekend to tell you that Florida still doesn’t look like the class of anything.

Alabama would not have allowed the missed tackle that produced the Buccaneers’ big run. Auburn’s pass rush might have actually maimed London Johnson instead of just desecrating his jersey. The Florida passing game was not as efficient or as dangerous down the field as Ohio State’s, or Maryland’s, or West Virginia’s.

Some of what Florida did just looked bad without having to compare and contrast, too. Florida not being able to bully a smaller, less talented Charleston Southern defense up the middle early on is probably the most concerning thing about this team — if not that, it’s the abject failure in pass protection we saw as Gators reserves came in last night, which rendered the first appearance of Emory Jones in a regulation game a fire drill. Florida gave up a kick return that should not have happened before Dameon Pierce made the night’s most memorable hit on a later one.

There is stuff that is ripe for critique and improvement, and not much time to get it all right. Florida plays its SEC opener next Saturday — at home, yes, and against a Kentucky team that struggled with Central Michigan, sure, but it’s the SEC opener — and likely has to be operating near its best by the time of its trip to Starkville if it wants to seriously contend for anything other than a spot in the Outback or Citrus Bowl this fall.

And maybe this team isn’t ticketed for that sort of contention — probably, that would be fine for many, so long as it is occasionally thrilling like it was last night. A good offense and a winning record would go a long way toward wooing back a Gator Nation that has mostly viewed Florida football with skepticism and jaundice this decade.

But those fans who are the least satisfied by last night and Mullen himself likely share the opinion that Florida is far from where it wants to be, at the summit of college football. Those fans, and Mullen, will break down film this week in hopes that Florida will continue to improve. The players who looked hungry and eager to learn and grow and perform on Saturday night will either take to the task of improving, or they won’t.

This is just the beginning, though — and it feels like the beginning of something good, not the beginning of a trudge, and not the beginning of the end.