Gators’ steady rise makes Georgia game a lot more intriguing

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Florida coach Dan Mullen argues a call during the game against South Carolina in the first half last week in Columbia, SC. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)

By Gene Frenette, GateHouse Florida

JACKSONVILLE — The first month of the 2019 season, nobody could really envision this scenario.

It just didn’t seem realistic. The mere idea that seventh-ranked Florida could have a higher AP poll standing than No. 10 Georgia, or that their November 2 matchup at TIAA Bank Field might be viewed reasonably close to a tossup game, seemed preposterous.

Naturally, Georgia would be a notch above the Gators because Kirby Smart’s team was already a national title contender the past two seasons, and Florida had just begun its rebuild with Dan Mullen. Everyone pretty much accepted UF needed more time to catch up to its biggest rival.

And for a good part of 2019, that perception was accurate. Especially after the way mistake-prone Florida barely survived a 24-20 season opener against Miami, then later needed a 35-yard missed field goal in the final minute by Kentucky’s Chance Poore to avoid a Wildcats’ upset.

Meanwhile, Georgia had been mostly its dominant self through a 5-0 start until South Carolina pulled off one of the biggest shockers two weeks ago, stunning the ’Dogs 20-17 in double overtime in Athens. Four turnovers by normally reliable quarterback Jake Fromm doomed Georgia, bringing into question whether Smart’s team being pegged an overwhelming SEC East favorite or a near-lock to reach the College Football Playoff still applied.

The answer for now is no. Georgia continued to look vulnerable in Saturday’s 21-0 home win over Kentucky, a game that was scoreless in the third quarter and played in tough conditions due to Hurricane Nestor’s impact. Still, it’s getting harder to automatically pencil the ’Dogs into the SEC Championship game.

But nothing makes the Florida-Georgia showdown more intriguing than it looked a month ago than the Gators being so stubbornly resilient. Somehow, they keep finding ways to pull out games despite continually putting themselves in danger of losing them.

No amount of adversity seems to unravel Florida. For the sixth time in Mullen’s 21-game tenure, and third time this season, the Gators prevailed 38-27 against South Carolina despite trailing in the fourth quarter. Not only that, any stress beyond trailing on the scoreboard doesn’t seem to faze them either.

They lose starting quarterback Feleipe Franks to a season-ending ankle injury at Kentucky, trailing 21-10 when Kyle Trask replaces him. All Florida does is score the last 19 points with a quarterback who had attempted 22 career passes. Despite Trask’s inexperience, he now has 14 TD passes and only four interceptions, more evidence that Mullen is a QB whisperer.

Florida wins because it has a habit of playing good situational football. On the road against then No. 5 LSU, the Gators’ two best pass-rushers, Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, miss a good chunk of that game with injuries and UF is somehow leading the Tigers 28-21 in the third quarter.

Now Florida ended up losing 42-28 – the turning point coming on a poor Trask decision to throw a ball on third-and-1 into end zone traffic, resulting in a costly interception. But the fact the Gators (7-1, 4-1 in SEC) had a chance to win at Death Valley reinforces the notion that Mullen’s team keeps ascending as the season moves forward.

“You’re heading into November in control of your own destiny and what’s going to happen,” Mullen said after the South Carolina victory. “That’s where we want to be and where we’re expected to be at Florida.”

His biggest impact during his short time in Gainesville is defined by a toughness standard he set that didn’t exist under predecessors Jim McElwain or Will Muschamp. Those coaches were a combined 14-14 in one-possession games.

Nothing in particular about Florida dazzles anybody, although the receiver corps is as deep as any in the country. The Gators have some nice pieces with their pass-rushers and a secondary featuring C.J. Henderson and Marco Wilson.

But UF isn’t stringing together top-3 recruiting classes like Georgia or Alabama. The Gators have evolved into a second-tier national player because Mullen has made them better than the sum of the team’s parts.

Is Florida CFP material? Probably not, but you can’t dismiss that as a possibility the way all of us would have a month ago when nobody looked at the Gators as a legit top-10 team.

What UF has become under Mullen is sneaky good. The Gators have moments where their performance is a head-scratcher for two or three quarters, then they somehow flip a switch. You never know what to expect from that offensive line or when Todd Grantham’s defense might struggle to stop a potent running attack like, say, Georgia’s (236.9 yards per game).

But what Mullen’s team does — besides bring a more explosive element to an offense that was tough to watch for so long — is come up big when it matters. Five of their 18 takeaways happened with opponents in UF’s red zone, tops in the country.

The Gators tend to let other teams self-destruct instead of beating themselves. UF is penalized only 5.38 times per game, 12th-best among Power 5 teams.

Now if Florida is able to win an SEC Eastern division that was assumed to be Georgia’s property, what might Mullen do when he starts scoring big on the recruiting trail?

The good news for Jacksonville is the 2019 Florida-Georgia matchup, featuring top-10 teams for only the seventh time in history (each team has won three times), is essentially a CFP elimination game.

It’s just not the mismatch college football pundits envisioned when the season began. Georgia doesn’t have the same aura of near invincibility. Florida is closing the gap.

And if their showdown evolves into a tight game in the fourth quarter, betting against Mullen might be a bad idea.

gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540

35 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for posting this article by Gene Frenette, I really enjoyed it. It’s filled with our ”reality” in Hogtown. And that reality is, like the author alluded to, transforming into ”what Florida should be.”
    Go Gators! Just win baby! Beat U.G.A.!

  2. The Gators won’t be “second tier” after they beat the Dawgs a week from today. Here’s a tip of the hat to the other former poster named Joe. He repeatedly told us how Fromm wasn’t as good as everyone thought. Joe said Fromm couldn’t win games with his arm. Well, I used to think Joe was misguided, that GA just hadn’t needed Fromm to win a game with his arm. But now the evidence continues to mount to the point that it’s obvious Joe was right. Joe, my bad Gator, you were spot on! Next Saturday, GA will need Fromm to win the game with his arm, and he won’t get it done. Gators 31 – 21. Go Gators!!!

    • Joe, Fromm is not up there with Burrow and Tua as a passer, but he’s been an effective QB when his receivers get separation from DBs. Kyle Trask is better than Fromm, but I can’t say that about Feleipe Franks.

      The problem Fromm’s run into this season is inexperienced and possibly poorly coached receivers that can’t get away from their coverage, which means he has to throw into very tight windows and Fromm is not that accurate. He also appears to have no TE he has confidence throwing to as not a single completion has gone to an UGA TE.

      As affects the Gators, particularly if they get their star DEs are back healthy, is that Fromm may have a very difficult afternoon passing. With a healthy DL, the Gators have been hard to run on this season and if UGA can’t run the ball effectively, their O is stymied.

      The UGA D has been pretty good this season. So, we should expect a low scoring game, like vs. Auburn, with the Gators prevailing IF they don’t turn the ball over.

      • If I remember correctly, there were a couple articles on here ranking SEC quarterbacks before the season started. I think one article was from the media at SEC Media days and the other was by Dooley. Again, this is from my memory, which isn’t very good, but both had Tua #1, and Fromm #2. Dooley had Franks #3 while the media had him further down about 5th or 6th, which is bad. Maybe the media was wrong about Fromm, and maybe Dooley was a homer ranking Franks so high. I think both Fromm and Franks are terrific quarterbacks. While the preseason rankings might not be perfect, I think they were in the ball park. I remember how everyone was singing praises of Franks from the end of last season through the off-season about how much he has improved last year and should take another step forward this year. Unfortunately for him, he got injured and it didn’t get played out. I respect your opinion StL about Franks but I respectfully think you are being a bit too hard on the kid.

      • I do think Trask has more potential than Fromm and is quite possibly even better at this stage of their respective developments in some areas, though probably weaker in others. The problem is that Fromm has had much more playing time to bring his native skills to fruition while you might say that Trask has had very little in comparison. Were they equal in this factor, I would say that Trask would clearly be the superior college quarterback at this time — reserving judgement, of course, for the next level. One reason, I think, that Trask is looking so good right now is a combination of now getting that actual experience and superior coaching. With more, he should clearly come into his own.

        Franks is not limited by native skill level or the mechanics of the position, and has clearly improved enormously with proper coaching over the last 12 months. I would take nothing away from him for that reason alone. I submit again that his only continuing liability is not really his fault — rather it has to do with the God given biological limitations on his processing time, which shows up in his reads and reactions. Can that be corrected? I really don’t know for sure if it can be fully, but I think it can be refined and improved. There’s no doubt a place at the next level for him based on what he does bring to the table, and he may surprise everybody.

        On another unrelated note, while I find it difficult to “like” either Notre Dame or Michigan, the latter’s victory last night will no doubt elevate them ahead of Florida until such time as Ohio State exposes them once again. Similarly, in the minds of the of the love struck sports media elite, Notre Dame will not move down much for being “game” while being crushed. At least until Florida decisively beats Georgia next week, at which time somebody will be forced to notice.

        What? Smarmy and sarcastic, irrelevant comments no longer allowed here anymore? Don’t take away my only two spiritual gifts! 🤪

        • Let’s hope the Gators, with one loss, won’t be ranked behind Michigan with two (although Pat may put them there on HIS initial AP ballot today until he gets some feedback from his fellow AP voters.) I mean kicking the stuffing out of holy ND tops EVERYTHING the Gators have done to date. Right???

          • In the words of a former First Sergeant, a rabid Notre Dame fan he, “Florida wouldn’t make a pimple on Notre Dame’s butt”. I quickly disabused him of that by telling him that in the first place, Notre Dame didn’t need anymore pimples on it’s butt; and in the second place, those weren’t pimples, they were chanker sores that come from having unprotected sex with leprechans.

  3. I was very pleased when UF hired Dan Mullen to fill Coach Mac’s shoes – I was rooting for Coach Mullen as my recommended choice to become our new HC. He has proven his worth, and he has been turning the mediocre Gator football team into something much better. If you were to ask Coach Mullen, he would turn the subject around to be about this Gator football team. He would give this team and its players all the credit. If you were to ask any of the players, they would give their coaches and teammates all the credit. This is true humility – when it is about “us” rather than about “me”. This is about becoming men with strong values, determination and discipline – about no longer being boys. This is a transformation, and it is working – GO GATORS, BEAT THEM DAWGS SILLY”!!!

  4. While the term “second tier” may have ruffled a few scales among us Gators, I would opine that this article was pretty well balanced and quite accurate. As far as the game in Jax, I think we will win this one but it is that time of the season to wait and actually play the game first. Same goes for Mizzou, Vandy, and FSU. Absent any more injuries to the Defense or serious dumb attacks, assuming that we’ve got blocking and tackling down pat by now and remember that sense of urgency matters, this could really turn out to be a magical season. We’ve certainly got the QB for it to be — we’ve waited for him to show up for a long time, and damned if he wasn’t here all along.

  5. Sly, the ONLY reason I’m so hard on Franks now is that he will heal, there will be a QB competition next spring or summer and there is a clear misconception in the media that he is good enough to win it. He will not win that QB competition vs. Trask, now that the latter is a known asset and there will be a QB controversy in Hogtown next summer.

    Mark my words here, Franks will lose the competition and leave town after spring or summer practice, via the transfer portal, for the same reason he shushed his own fans last season when he stopped screwing up and made a couple of plays. He’s a hot dog and a bad sport.

    The media will then subject us all to a “race debate” because “everyone knew before the injury that Franks was more talented and more experienced than Trask.” So, Trask winning that competition must have been motivated by “something other” than competence at playing QB.

    Gator fans shouldn’t have to go through that grief. Gator players shouldn’t have to chose sides. And CDM and his staff shouldn’t have to be subjected to the same type of innuendo that colors the Colin Kaepernick NFL debate to this day.

    I hope I’m wrong about this.

    • StL, we’ve long since been a meritocracy in this country, and in sports as in much of everything else these days, it’s all about the predetermined narrative.

      But I’ll say this, if I’m wrong about the biologic stuff and if this sparks Franks to become a holy terror on the field, given what Trask is showing us it’s going to be a lot of fun watching the quarterback competition next spring!

        • Not that there’s anything wrong with identity politics, mind you. For years I felt certain I was a lesbian trapped in a man’s body, for instance. Lately though, since there is no Constitutional prohibition against it, I identify more as an aardvark.

    • StL – You have determined that Trask is far superior than Franks. Furthermore, you likely have determined that Jones is better too. Be that as it may, I would give Franks the benefit of doubt of winning the job back next year. He is an experienced and capable quarterback arguable better many starting quarterbacks in the SEC. Whether he wins the job back or not, I am rooting for him to stay on the team rather than transfer because we need the depth. These days, it seems that it is rare for any starting quarterback at the beginning of the season for any team to not get injured. Every spring, if the coaches are fair, there should be an open competition. Mullen has had success in first two years at UF and if very popular. With his stock rising, I doubt he would cave in to political or media pressure to pick someone other than the best quarterback on the team to be his starter. It is his job on the line and I doubt he would pick anyone in his judgement who is not the best on the team to be his starter.

      You have repeatedly brought up Franks shushing his own fans in a negative tone. I don’t think he was shushing all Gator fans. He was only shushing those who booed and criticized him. To be honest, I feel those fans deserve to be shushed. If they can dish it out, they better be able to take what comes back.

  6. Wow! Great conversation on here! Two things: first, I think Dooley is fair and balanced, it’s just that some focus on the negative in his articles as I’ve done with Frenette, and second I’m sticking with Joe in claiming Fromm has yet to win a game with his arm, while Kyle Trask has.

    • I only focus on Dooley when he delights so in poking a finger in Gator eyes, and when he refers to Gator fans as “internet trolls” and “haters”. Other than that, I’m sure he qualifies as a great guy and nationally acclaimed sports writer who can turn a phrase better than just about anybody.

      • Yeah, “trolls” and “haters” is a little harsh, but there were some who expressed some excessively harsh dislike for Mac. After all, he won two East titles: one with an FCS WR at QB, and one with an injury-prone journeyman and transfer backup at the helm. I know the East was weaker then, but Muschamp couldn’t get it done with the same players. With Grier at QB, Mac could given Bama a run.

        That’s all history, but the point is that Pat tries to temper expectations and chastise the “Gidiots”, the kind of fans who’d call for CDM’S head should he only win 8 games next season. It’s not likely, but if it happened, you know there would be a few vocal “haters”.

        • As far as Mac’s two SEC East titles, Joe, I think it was StL who said that’s like winning a prize for being the tallest midget.

          It may not have been StL since I’m always mis-attributing to him quotes that at least sound like something he would say, so no reason to stop now. 🙄

          • I know, but somebody had to win, and I’m still claiming those titles. I’m also claiming the two NC’s Urban won, despite the fact that some fans say they weren’t worth it. Besides, I’m vertically challenged myself, and those midgets boost my self esteem. Except for using the word “midget”, I think I’m reasonably PC here.