As Will Muschamp once said, it’s great to see all these people (on Rocky Top) out here getting disappointed. I love it.
The Gators’ most recent trip up to Knoxville certainly had that effect. Tennessee was looking for its first signature win under new head coach Jeremy Pruitt against a Florida team that has owned this series since the 1970’s. Instead, they gave their most hated rival a signature win of their own: a 47-21 smackdown on the road that serves as the highest point total the Gators have ever achieved inside the once hallowed grounds of Neyland Stadium.
Don’t be fooled by the score. This Florida team still has a long way to go. And Dan Mullen knows it.
The only thing this rout of the Vols proved was that the Gators are now at a level that they can take advantage of opponents’ gifts and win easily. Which, no, you shouldn’t discount, because the really bad teams (i.e. 2017 Florida) would be more inclined to display their own ineptitude and try to hand the game back over to the other team, and then we get the kind of fight to the death with hand towels we got last year between these two teams where the win is exhilarating for one team but neither fan base leaves feeling particularly good about their team’s outlook. Other than one botched handoff between Feleipe Franks and LaMical Perine, Florida played a clean game and let the Vols beat themselves. And seriously, because that’s to be commended, because that’s more than you can say about last year’s team.
What this win doesn’t prove is that Florida is any better than a team that can win comfortably when its opponent beats itself. And that leaves quite a large range of possibilities.
Don’t get me wrong. There were players who put together some impressive film, such as Adam Shuler, David Reese, Brad Stewart, VoSean Joseph and James Houston IV. But Dan Mullen is going to have plenty to nitpick about in the film room.
So let’s go to the film ourselves.
For one thing, Florida was completely fooled on the instantly famous fourth and one in the second quarter.
The defense sells out to stop the run, leaving a wide open Austin Pope on the bottom left of your screen. QB Jarrett Guarantano sees him and this play appears to carry disastrous consequences for Florida.
Pope is literally all alone. There’s nobody within a ten yard radius of him. Guarantano underthrows this ball a little bit, which forces Pope to have to slow down considerably to make the catch. But he’s so far open that it doesn’t seem to matter. I’ll save you the suspense: Pope catches the ball and heads for the end zone.
The last chance Florida has to stop this play from being a touchdown is CJ Henderson, who abandons his assignment and sprints all the way across the field to try to catch Pope at the five yard line.
Hendo would smoke Pope in a footrace, and thus has him caught at the five as planned.
Hendo goes low to try to slap Pope’s legs together and bring him down. Which he does. Henderson’s sliding body beneath Pope’s remaining route to the end zone now serves as an additional stumbling block.
Pope fails to clear Hendo’s sliding body and kicks him in the back, tripping himself up. But down 23-3, you might as well go for it, right? So Pope, who is now on his way down, turns his fall into a dive for the pylon and extends for the goal line.
Except that he somehow loses his grip on the football. Hendo made a tremendous effort to stop the touchdown, but he didn’t actually poke the ball free. In his excitement, Pope actually lets go of the pigskin.
Which bounces through the end zone.
And Tennessee fans probably feel like their internal organs have been ripped out right in front of them.
So, to recap: the defense sold out to stop the run, but when Jarrett Guarantano pulled the ball back, he had a completely uncovered Austin Pope across the field. Of course, that play is famous for the way it ended, with CJ Henderson chasing him down and ripping the ball away. Which: yes, that’s tremendous hustle from the man we affectionately call Hendo, and he deserves all the credit in the world for because that was a hell of a play. But I’m willing to bet that a similar play isn’t going to end so well for Florida next time around.
A receiver for a more respectable team is going to do one of the following things: A) protect that football and muscle his way down to the one yard line, B) juke past Henderson and score, C) be naturally faster than Pope and beat Henderson to the pylon, or D) simply take his winnings and step out of bounds at the five yard line. Consider this: even with all that had gone wrong for the Vols up to that point, a touchdown on that drive would have made the score 23-10, and that would have brought the game to a point where Feleipe Franks would have had to throw the football more.
Speaking of which, Feleipe Franks. An objective critique of him has to start with the positives. He was fine, overall, completing 9 of 18 passes for 172 yards, but his stats came mostly from two plays: a 38 yard touchdown strike to Tyrie Cleveland on a 50/50 ball for the second most damaging hookup the two have enjoyed against Tennessee and a 65 yard touchdown to Freddie Swain that was more Swain picking up blocks and finding a seam after he made the catch than Franks throwing it to him. The best thing Franks did was protect the football, playing interception free for the first time in three games against FBS opponents. And though it sounds reductive to praise him for not screwing up, it really isn’t. He played smart and deserves credit for that.
But now let’s look at those two touchdowns he threw. First, the Swain touchdown.
Taking the shotgun snap from his own 35, Franks doesn’t see anything at first.
Franks took the snap at 10:57, and the clock reads 10:54. So that means Franks has been sitting in the pocket for three seconds without being harassed. Cap tip to the offensive line here; they’ve been criticized heavily by coaches and fans alike, but this play is unquestionably a win for them. However, Franks doesn’t see anything, which means his receivers have failed to get open.
I usually prefer screengrabs of the live telecast with the scoreboard on it to give y’all an idea of how much time has elapsed since the snap. But I’m switching to an overhead replay angle here to illustrate the next few frames better. Franks senses the pocket breaking down- that’s an improvement from last year- and starts to roll out to extend the play. Meanwhile, Freddie Swain senses that his QB is in trouble, and having completed his initially designed route, breaks out into a simple corner pattern.
He’s open, and Franks sees him. Now, Franks just has to lead him to the sideline- but not too much so he can stay comfortably in bounds- and he’s got an easy 20 yard gain.
God damn, does Franks make this close: cornerback Trevon Flowers nearly got a hand on it and could have picked it off if this ball were two inches lower. So Franks certainly could work on his margin for error on throws like this.
But as it was, the throw gets the job done. Franks completes a pass to Swain at the midfield stripe for 15 yards through the air plus whatever Swain could add onto it.
Now let’s turn upfield and see what we’ve got. Hmmm, I wonder what will happen if Swain put his foot in the ground and cuts it back inside.
Result: by cutting back, Swain lures Vol cornerback Baylen Buchanan right into Gator tight end Moral Stephens. So that’s the end of him.
Once Stephens takes care of Buchanan, Swain wheels past him and looks up.
Suddenly, there’s a clear path to the checkerboards that adorn the end zones in Neyland Stadium (insert joke about how that’s because nobody in Knoxville knows how to spell their school’s name) for Swain.
All he has to do now is run as fast as he can.
Which he does. There are three defenders with a chance to stop him, but none have a favorable angle.
Swain then caps his memorable jog through Rocky Top with a dive for the pylon. And unlike his counterpart Austin Pope, he hangs on for the touchdown.
Recap: Franks was in trouble, and rolled out to buy himself some time. He then found Swain breaking toward the sideline and hit him right in stride for what should have been a 20 yard gain. And to beat the blowback I’m anticipating, Franks did nothing wrong here; he extended a play and made a solid throw for 20 yards and a first down. So he objectively deserves credit for that. What he doesn’t objectively deserve credit for is the 65 yard touchdown pass that the stats show, because Swain then took advantage of Tennessee’s inability to tackle him and glided the remaining 45 yards down the sideline for the score. The thing is, that same play will never result in a touchdown against any team even considering making a run at bowl eligibility. A decent defense will be in better position to tackle Swain on the spot, and a really good defense will still have him covered six seconds after the snap. Not to mention be able to get in Franks’ face within six seconds of him taking the snap. So Franks made a good play against a bad defense, but the point is that the window for Franks to make the play he did isn’t going to be there against better teams, and that’s something he has to prepare for.
Franks’ last touchdown pass of the night was a downright iffy decision that wound up working out. Let’s break it down.
Franks looks around for a couple of seconds, but now is staring deep down the right sideline, where Tyrie Cleveland is running a straight fly pattern.
He then gestures to Cleveland with his left hand, which confirms that he’s going to throw the ball to him.
Ordinarily, staring at one receiver for a few seconds, gesturing to him as if to say “get open” and then firing a laser at him is a hat trick of no-nos that is destined to end badly. But this is all made worse by the fact that Tyrie Cleveland isn’t open. At all.
Here’s a freeze frame of the overhead view one step later. Look at the coverage. It’s very good. You were not deceived by a misleading angle in the prior screengrab: Cleveland really is not open. Franks has thrown a ball he probably should not have, and now it’s up to Cleveland to bail his quarterback out the way the great receivers do.
Cleveland recognizes that the ball is the air, stops running his route and transitions into ball-hawking mode. The ball is at about the ten yard line (slightly higher and to the right of the epicenter of your screen), and Cleveland plants his feet and prepares to jump. Meanwhile, cornerback Theo Jackson is just now starting to turn his body around, while Cleveland is a frame away from beginning his launch.
Jackson still hasn’t turned himself around as Cleveland has left the ground and opened his hands up to accept the football. That was great coverage by Jackson, but bad ball skills.
It won’t make quite the virulently shareable meme that Jauan Jennings beating Jalen Tabor two years ago did, but Jackson has been absolutely roasted here. It’s a matchup of excellent ball skills vs. terrible ball skills. Who do you think wins that matchup?
You guessed right. It’s Cleveland. And now he gets to spike the ball on the famous checkerboards, stomp on a few of the squares and taunt the Tennessee fans in that corner of the end zone while Jackson is reduced to a position that the Vols are quite familiar with assuming against Florida.
Recap: Franks locked onto Cleveland, who I’m presuming was his first target, and stared him down the whole way on his simple go route. Cleveland never got any separation, and Franks fired a bullet toward him anyway. Had cornerback Theo Jackson turned around (he didn’t) or a safety recognized that Franks was staring Cleveland down the whole time (he didn’t), that ball is likely batted away if not outright picked off. But Cleveland’s ball skills took over, as he went up to highpoint the football and come down with it for the score. And the synopsis of this touchdown is similar to the first one: it looks good in the box score, but against a better defense, the same decision will not.
None of this is to say that Florida hasn’t turned a corner. They might have. A lopsided win on the road might be just the kind of thing to psychologically boost this team forward and play better. This team did plenty of things wrong against Tennessee, but Mullen now gets to make corrections and improvements for a team that just hammered a big rival on the road. Maybe Feleipe Franks will turn a corner after this game. He’s not a Heisman contender and never going to be, but maybe he’ll be positively encouraged enough from the outcome of this game that he can quarterback this team to a solid season. And make no mistake, even with the inflated stats, this was a nice showing for Franks.
All I’m saying is, don’t make more out of this win than it really was. This win is not an indication that Florida is ready to compete with Georgia for the East, or even for a spot in the Top 25. Florida now has a much tougher road test against a Mississippi State team next week that has to be assumed to be furious with both the way they played this Saturday against Kentucky and the way that Dan Mullen left the program. It’s possible that the Bulldogs will be totally deflated and play dead, and if they do, great, but banking on that is extremely dangerous, especially in a venue that has historically been a house of horrors for the Gators.
All Florida can do now is put its collective nose down, and keep getting better. In all seriousness, Florida is already better than it was last year in one major way: they’re now good enough to allow inferior opponents to beat themselves and hand over the victory. Now comes the time to take the next step: going out and taking the victory for themselves against an opponent that won’t just give it to them. And if they do, we might start to see the Gators go out and take some victories rather than being given them.