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Florida vs. Miami, Sunday Morning Post: So that was weird

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Both teams deserved to lose. Both teams deserved to win. What a perfect Week Zero welcome for college football!

NCAA Football: Florida at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

A win is a win is a win. It is not a loss. It is preferable to a loss.

And it’s always better when we’re not resorting to that sort of truism-based truth regarding the Florida Gators — but, well, can you imagine this morning had Florida managed to lose that game to the Miami Hurricanes on Saturday night?

Florida’s 24-20 win ranks up with the wildest and weirdest of my time as both a Florida fan and a chronicler of the team, and Dan Mullen beginning his post-game press conference by exhaling and saying, verbatim, “That was a, that’s, that was exhausting” was perfect. This wasn’t a long game, not by the standards of ESPN primetime contests, but it was a four-hour roller-coaster ride that paced out its thrills and felt at its end like it had lasted four weeks or four years.

But the trick is that you don’t really learn much from going on a roller-coaster ride. So take any of these takeaways I’m purporting to give you with at least a grain of salt, if not a shaker.

Florida is probably capable of better football than it played

You know how we had all these high hopes of a second-year leap for Florida under Mullen, given the long history of leaps in coaches’ second years and the way Mullen’s quarterbacks and offenses have improved over time?

We didn’t see that leap against Miami. We saw Feleipe Franks make some of the same mistakes he made pre-Mullen, saw tackling shoddy enough to embarrass some high school defenses, saw flags fly for crucial penalties — brain-dead and less so — late in the game, and saw four turnovers committed but Miami only unquestionably forcing one.

If you’re unhappy with how shambolic this team looked, or how the process and the results left you with some cognitive dissonance? I get it. But I can’t be unhappy with leaving a game with Miami fans exasperated by losing to Florida in a game they thought their team could and should have won: I went to the 2013 edition of this rivalry, in which the script was similar but Florida lost, and this close win feels worlds better than that loss did.

And Florida won without its best stuff, just to be clear. This was at best a B- or C+ effort when factoring in the whole team, and it was good enough for a win over a rival at a neutral site in a Week Zero game that should have been a Week One game, with the change sprung on this team mere months before it was to take place.

ESPN got what it wanted, mostly

This game has already inspired one national columnist to suggest throwing Week Zero games on the pyre, and while I get the sentiment, it’s not something that is going to stop ESPN (or CBS, or any rights-holder that wants to pony up for college football) from pulling this trick with future marquee season-opening matchups.

And I bet that ESPN got exactly what it hoped for from last night’s game: A presumably massive rating, an entertaining (if sloppy) game that kept TVs on through the fourth quarter, and a meaningful result to kick off the 2019 college football season that the Mouse House’s sports brand is going to run itself ragged promoting as the sport’s 150th year.

It really doesn’t matter to ESPN that the day’s nightcap, an incredible high-scoring affair between Arizona and Hawai’i that ended with Arizona’s Khalil Tate coming up a yard short of what would have been one of the best touchdowns ever, was this first Saturday’s best game: There are far fewer Arizona and Hawai’i fans than Florida and Miami fans, and far fewer unaffiliated fans staying up to watch a West Coast game between Pac-12 and Mountain West middleweights than tuned in to see two prominent Sunshine State programs. But it would’ve mattered if that was the day’s only game, because it would have been a thrilling piece of content ESPN could only air highlights of.

ESPN is going to try this again and again with teams it can coerce into exchanging a week of prep time and/or a home game for guaranteed payments and exposure, and there are way too many programs that will jump at the offer to be that sort of show pony for this trend to be smothered in its crib. I hope Florida has had its fill of Week Zero fare, but I wouldn’t be shocked to be back in this situation a few years from now.

We can’t trust Feleipe Franks yet

Neither his gorgeous strike to Josh Hammond to set up a touchdown run up the middle nor the run itself was the most important moment of Feleipe Franks’s night.

No, that was either the fumble in the red zone on an exchange with Lamical Perine, or the first pick, or the second pick, or the bold “I DO THIS! STOP PLAYIN’ WITH ME!” he delivered to an ESPN camera on the sideline after that first go-ahead touchdown drive of the second half.

All of those things can fit into a narrative of him being the “same old” Franks who looked frightened at times in his freshman season, and stifled for long stretches of the 2018 campaign. Franks may never get to truly beloved status with most Florida fans both because of that spotty play and the swagger with which he carries himself — and it doesn’t appear either of those two aspects of his game is going anywhere:

Franks is going to be disappointing to many or most Florida fans because we hold talented quarterbacks to an impossible standard thanks to two Heisman winners and a guy who got robbed of one, and also because he has the physical talent to be as good as those players if he can fully figure out football mentally. And you can guess why Franks’s confidence chafes plenty — you’re probably going to be at least partly right.

But I think one of the disconnects between Gator Nation and Mullen’s coaching staff this fall is going to be the level of trust between both entities and Franks.

Florida fans can’t trust Franks because they’ve seen Bad Feleipe too many times in too many situations to not fear him rearing his ugly head. But Mullen can trust him — and has to — because his other options inspire even less conficdence. And Mullen did trust him on Saturday night, which Franks rewarded with that one really excellent quick-strike drive ... and two fourth-quarter picks.

Franks is going to start the next Florida game. And the next one, and the one after that, and all the rest of the ones he’s healthy for. We’ll probably see Emory Jones more against Eastern Whoever — what, like you know which of the two cupcakes Florida plays this year comes first? — in two weeks, either in packages or mop-up duties, and we might see enough of him for people to rally around him.

This is Feleipe Franks’s team, though. There’s no better option, no one else Mullen can trust as much, no wunderkind in the wings. And fans aren’t going to trust these Gators because of it.

Mullen should extend some trust to his playmakers

Mullen cited the touchdown after the first pick as a reward for his trust in Franks in his presser, but also noted that keeping him in the game after a blunder like that might not have happened last year.

So if Mullen can apply that much faith and trust to Franks, why didn’t Kadarius Toney get more touches? Why didn’t Malik Davis and Dameon Pierce continue to spell Lamical Perine? Why didn’t Florida make any of its slew of great passing targets a singular fixture?

Toney seemed to vanish after a dancing six-yard loss. Davis was nowhere to be seen after a fumble, and Pierce seemed to ride the pine after inexplicably cutting away from what seemed like a hole.

Florida’s non-Hammond other wideouts barely got targeted — Perine was Florida’s leading receiver by catches — and the deep ball made its only showings on Franks’s first pick and his long strike.

This was a weird, gunshy gameplan from Mullen, who didn’t attack Miami the way he did, say, Mississippi State last year, in a game in which he clearly knew he wasn’t getting what he wanted from his running game and also couldn’t trust his line to give Franks plenty of time. And it is going to erase a fair bit of the goodwill fans had given him since Florida’s furious finish to 2019.

I don’t think he forgot how to be brilliant in one offseason, though, and I expect the play-calling to get better as he learns this team’s contours better.

Yet I didn’t think I’d be dubious about Mullen’s play-calling after this game.

Florida’s defensive line is either really good or ravenous

Spoiler alert: Florida will not record 10 sacks again this season. That colossal number, apparently the most by an SEC team in 11 years, was tallied because of the utter failure by Miami to block Jonathan Greenard (a monster in his Florida debut) and Jabari Zuniga, and also because Miami had a freshman quarterback trying to extend plays.

Better QBs alone might make for a more difficult task for those rushers who were able to get Williams off his spot, time and again. Better tackles certainly will.

But on this night, Florida’s defensive line was the dominant unit in the game — and so dominant that it arguably changed the outcome of the game. If what we saw reflects Florida’s prowess as much or more than Miami’s weakness, the Gators have a badass unit to rely on this fall.

If Miami’s weakness only magnified how good Florida will be at bringing pressure, though, it’s a good bet that the baseline for the line going forward is a high floor.

The Sunday Morning Post is a post that runs on Sunday mornings, prior to a second viewing of Florida’s Saturday football game.