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Florida vs. Tennessee, Wednesday Takeaways: These Gators can beat bad teams soundly

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This, small as it may seem, is progress.

NCAA Football: Florida at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

Florida beat a bad Tennessee team by a lot. That’s good.

Florida’s wins this year are over Charleston Southern, Colorado State, and Tennessee.

Those teams are bad, bad, and bad.

Florida’s wins this year are by 47, 38, and 26 points.

And that, friends, is the sort of good thing that we have not seen from the Gators recently.

If Jim McElwain’s Florida program excelled at any one thing consistently, it was beating teams it was supposed to beat — but not by nearly as much as many would have liked.

Florida’s big win over Ole Miss in 2015 is remembered fondly by all Gators who saw (or attended) it, but it was the exception, not the rule: The Gators came into that game having prevailed in one-possession contests against East Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee — that Tennessee game requiring a massive comeback for Florida to win it — and would win just two games by more than 10 points for the rest of the year, rolling up a bad Missouri team in Will Grier’s final start and then smacking Georgia 27-3 thanks to Mark Richt starting Faton Bauta and whatever voodoo Treon Harris had over the Bulldogs. After that romp, Florida managed close wins over Vanderbilt (by two), South Carolina (by 10), and Florida Atlantic (by six ... in overtime) before getting drilled by Florida State, Alabama, and Michigan to end the year.

In all, Florida won four games in 2015 by more than 10 points, six by 10 or fewer, and five by a single possession.

2016 was the best of McElwain’s three years in regards to decisive wins. Florida struggled for longer than many would have liked against UMass and North Texas, but got those wins (and one over Kentucky) by lopsided margins to start the year, routed Missouri, and took two-possession wins over Georgia and South Carolina before once again being drilled by Florida State and Alabama. Florida had just two single-digit wins in 2016, over Vanderbilt and LSU, and while the Gators not putting distance between themselves and the Commodores was unimpressive, the LSU win was, especially given its context.

But in 2017, Florida went back to playing a ton of tight games — and this time, the Gators started winning them, then started losing them and couldn’t stop. Florida very plausibly could have lost to both Tennessee and Kentucky, and won those games by a combined seven points on improbable fourth-quarter touchdown passes; the Gators only got a two-possession win over Vandy because Malik Davis went for six instead of a knee on a late run.

Then LSU and Texas A&M took wins in The Swamp by a combined three points, and all the pressure in the world broke McElwain and the Gators, who would win just one more game. 2017 became a lost season mostly because Florida lost games a better team would have won and because of a fatal political mistake by McElwain — but if the Gators had been better, the theory goes, the close losses might have been wins and the close wins might have been blowouts.

This Florida team, under Dan Mullen, already appears to be improved enough to make the close wins into blowouts.

Florida has run it up on its three vanquished foes, cracking 30 points within a minute after halftime in all three games, and getting scoring on the margins from its suddenly extraordinary special teams. And Florida’s defense, young but improving, has shown itself to be capable of giving up big plays and capable of keeping scores low despite that: The Gators don’t have a clean sheet yet, but they’re only giving up 16 points per contest and haven’t allowed more than 21 in any game.

Would you believe Florida is in the top 25 nationally in scoring offense and defense? No?

Well, it isn’t — but that’s by one place, as the Gators are No. 26 in scoring offense and No. 19 in scoring defense.

Florida was in similar shape in September 2016, but only prior to its loss to Tennessee and the Gators’ defensive meltdown in that game — and Florida had scored 35+ points just once then, while this team has scored 47 thrice.

Florida has mostly played bad teams in September since Tennessee’s decline; it did not play an eventual 10-win team in September under McElwain, and only did so in three other games this decade. This year’s schedule is ultimately likely to look little different, unless Kentucky continues its remarkable season.

But the way Florida has thrashed those teams is different, and reminiscent of times when the Gators cruised through Septembers and into the thick of championship contention. I doubt that this team will get there, unless it makes substantial improvements over and above what we’ve already seen.

Still, you can squint and see a brighter future now, can’t you?

For now, Feleipe Franks keeps doing enough.

Florida’s starting quarterback had a standard performance under Mullen on Saturday: Single-digit completions, a couple of “WOW”-worthy throws — the touchdown strike to Tyrie Cleveland late was a genuinely great toss, and his running touch pass to Freddie Swain that Swain would take to the house was very good — and enough yardage to keep the sticks moving and little else.

But he’s impressed me more of late for what he hasn’t done. Franks isn’t forcing throws into coverage nearly as often. He’s not freezing when his first read is totally covered. He’s not looking only to run or only to pass when a play breaks down, and toggling from one to the other agonizingly slowly. And he’s throwing the ball away when discretion is the better part of valor.

These are not sexy things. A throwaway is never going to get applause, except of the sarcastic sort; most fans, especially Florida fans, are looking for long balls rather than checkdowns from their quarterback.

But these are mandatory things for establishing a baseline of competence that should never not be met. If Franks throws a pick or two against Tennessee, maybe that game doesn’t snowball on the Vols. If Franks stews after his 0-fer start against Colorado State, or makes seven throws like the one he had intercepted rather than one, maybe Florida finds itself in a competitive game. And if Franks dithers like he has as a runner, maybe he gets hurt or coughs up a fumble.

Franks was infamously raw when he arrived at Florida, with the outlook on him being bullish in the long-term but bearish as to his potential to play right away. Last year, in a first year that proved to be his coaches’ last, he looked like a player trying to adjust to everything at once, and overwhelmed by the task.

This year? He looks like a quarterback playing quarterback.

Whether that lasts — obviously, I hope it will, but I also increasingly think it will — depends on a lot of factors. Whether maintaining only this baseline of play gets Florida a few more wins this fall or several remains to be seen.

For now, Feleipe Franks is doing enough to be enough at QB for Florida to win.

And after a decade of ... uh, not that? I’m fine with that.

Florida’s defense shows the value of stars.

Yeah, it’s a pun. I mean recruiting stars and figurative stars. Get over it.

David Reese II — I guess David Reese No. 2 is just a David Reese I? — was back for the Gators on Saturday, and immediately got to work gumming up Tennessee’s running game by being sound in his fits. CeCe Jefferson, back after whatever his academic suspension was, was the tip of the spear on Florida’s penetration that caused Tennessee’s safety. Jabari Zuniga and Jachai Polite harassed Jarrett Guarantano (and Keller Chryst) all night; C.J. Henderson and Brad Stewart made huge plays leading to three turnovers.

These are among Florida’s best and most talented defensive players. Florida is better at defense when those players are available to play.

Only about half of the above — Polite, Reese, and Zuniga — were not four-star recruits. But all three of those players have arguably outplayed their rankings, and have developed well. The others were blue-chip players that have become starter-caliber players.

That’s how it usually works.

Many of the other players Florida recruited during McElwain’s tenure did not, whether five-star or three-star. Antonneous Clayton remains an enigma, and did not travel with the team; Jefferson, despite flashes, has arguably not been close to what he was envisioned to be. Vosean Joseph, Rayshad Jackson, Jeawon Taylor, Donovan Stiner, and any number of other three-star defenders seen as questionable takes at the time are still no better than mixed bags.

And, to be fair, it’s not just the defense where five- and three-star players have failed to become stars at Florida. Among the big names, Martez Ivey has seemingly risen to the level of solid, not special; Tyrie Cleveland is more a big-play threat than an every-down receiver; and Daquon Green, a fringe four-star, is still waiting on his first catch as a Gator. Meanwhile, offensive line and tight end units made up almost exclusively of three-star players generally look like it.

But on defense, Florida plays best when its good-to-great defensive ends are roaring around tackles, its lockdown corner — see you next year, Marco Wilson — is playing well on his island, and its most technically proficient linebacker is doing smart things as his defense’s quarterback and leader.

Good players make teams better, generally. This is simple.

Florida has some of those players on this defense, and is in the process of adding more, after taking a dip in talent from the excellent scouting and recruiting of the Will Muschamp years to those overseen by McElwain and Randy Shannon. Florida’s probably going to need more of them if this defense is going to make a leap from the range between average and good and the range between good and great. The team Florida plays this weekend having some great players — ones arguably better than any on Florida’s defense — is a fine indicator that the man running the show in Gainesville might be able to bring those players in and coach ‘em up.

But the way Florida dominated Tennessee — a team with fewer stars than the Gators have — with stars making plays like they should, is a reminder that talent typically shines through — and of how important it will ultimately be to maintain and improve the Gators’ talent level going forward.

Ideally, I’m going to run this Wednesday Takeaways piece weekly, after a Sunday Takeaway piece with just one top-line thought about the game we just watched — and this one is going to come after some rewatching and thinking, as less of a gut reaction.