Faced with the biggest crisis of his young tenure as Florida coach, what is the next move for Jim McElwain? How does he get his Gators off the deck after Arkansas crushed them?
Florida currently is alone in first in the weaker-than-flypaper SEC East. But the hold on that spot is about as tenuous as it gets. With two league games remaining, the Gators have to find a new starting quarterback, find life for an offense that struggled before face-planting in Fayetteville and somehow replace numerous injured players, including one of the the best linebacker duos in the country.
First up is a visit from resurgent South Carolina, unbeaten in three games since inserting freshman quarterback Jake Bentley into the lineup and coached by former UF coach Will Muschamp. Muschamp publicly says there are no hard feelings toward the Gators, that getting fired two years ago was part of the business. Uhh, sure it was. And if you believe that, Coach Boom should try and sell you some of that beachfront property he owned with Jimbo Fisher in the Panhandle. Muschamp wants this one – his first trip back to the campus since getting canned – in the worst way possible. The pre-game speech will be one for the ages.
A week later is a trip to LSU for the makeup of the postponed game from October 8. Suffice it to say that as physical as Arkansas was, LSU is even more so.
Finally, the Gators travel to Florida State, which, after getting knocked out of the national championship and ACC title pictures, has one thing left to play for – beating its archrival.
The last thing Florida needs to do is curl up into a ball, end a once-promising season with a string of uninspired losses, then blame it on not having enough good players. We’ve seen that movie – it was last year. Fans, media, observers bought it then. They won’t again.
So what will McElwain do? What is the formula for success?
1. Start Austin Appleby at quarterback.
With Luke Del Rio out indefinitely with an injured shoulder, the plan should be to start Appleby at quarterback and have one of the true freshmen – either Feleipe Franks or Kyle Trask – up and ready to play. Frankly, Appleby is the only option to start. Appleby is in his 20s, played three years of football in the Big Ten and has started twice this season.
He wasn’t great in the loss to Tennessee or the win over Vanderbilt, but he wasn’t nearly as bad as some would have you believe. He is 44-of-72 (61 percent) for 470 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. His three deep throws in the first half against the Vols, two to Antonio Callaway and one to Tyrie Cleveland, were among the best throws by a Florida quarterback all season. He is a big guy with a strong arm.
Beyond that, the coaches have to decide which freshman to play as the backup. Since practices are closed, outsiders have no idea which of the two is further along and most ready to play, so naming which one would be a wild guess. So, let’s take a wild guess: I say Franks.
Everything you hear is that Trask, a much less-heralded recruit, is the future. The 6-foot-4 Trask is a strong-armed dropback quarterback with a beautiful throwing motion. But he didn’t play in big games in high school because he was his school’s backup. The 6-6 Franks, who is a bit bigger and more athletic, took Crawfordville (Fla.) Wakulla to a state championship game. While doubling as the team’s kicker, he just missed a long field goal on the final play that would have won the game. Point is, he’s been under the gun.
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