ATLANTA — Midway through the second quarter, anyone that had watched Florida tussle with Michigan in the past four years could be forgiven for thinking that Saturday’s Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl script looked familiar.
The Gators were losing, Michigan had moved the ball better and Florida couldn’t finish its chances, settling for two short field goals on their only long drives.
When Michigan blocked a Tommy Townsend punt deep in Florida territory, the Gator defense stiffened to force a field goal, but Gator fans might well have thought that the game had an air of inevitable failure about as gloomy as the Atlanta air outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
That’s when something strange and marvelous happened on the way to Florida’s 41-15 victory.
Feleipe Franks put the Gators on his back.
Florida flipped the script.
Franks led the Gators on an eight play, 75-yard touchdown drive to take the lead — one Florida never relinquished — late in the second quarter. The drive was basically all Franks: He busted out a 30-yard run on the second play of the possession and added a vital 15-yard scramble on second and 19 in Michigan territory after a Devin Gil sack.
Then, with coordinator Don Brown’s Michigan defense spread out and no Devin Bush in the middle to clean things up, Franks changed the play at the line of scrimmage and called his own number. He rumbled for a 20-yard touchdown on a perfectly executed quarterback draw.
5️⃣ vs. 5️⃣ in the box made this one easy for Feleipe Franks
— SI College Football (@si_ncaafb) December 29, 2018
“He called that play,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said after the game, deflecting praise for his playcalling. “That was all Feleipe.”
What a difference a year makes.
Franks finished with 74 yards rushing, mostly on that drive. He also led Florida to touchdowns on two of its three third-quarter possessions, as the Gators stretched a narrow three-point halftime lead into an insurmountable 17-point margin.
On the second of those drives, Franks threw a frozen rope under duress to Josh Hammond, who had created just enough space among three Michigan defenders. The 30-yard gain helped Florida convert a third and 8; Jordan Scarlett scored on a smartly designed option five plays later to turn Mercedes-Benz Stadium into The Swamp north.
Franks’ passing numbers weren’t gaudy (13-for-23 for 173 yards), but he avoided the costly mistakes that plagued him throughout his freshman season. And when Florida needed drives to take pressure off its sensational defense, he led them.
Whether it was the throw to Hammond, a perfectly thrown zone corner route to Van Jefferson early in the game on Florida’s first field goal drive, or by taking on contact and using his legs, Franks was more than a game manager Saturday in Atlanta. He was a leader and a difference-maker.
His coach glowed afterwards discussing his young quarterback’s development.
“He’s a young guy,” Mullen said. “The steps he’s taken, it shows he can improve. He didn’t worry about anything. Didn’t worry about the outside stuff, good or bad. Whether someone thinks he played good or bad is irrelevant. He watches film. He knows and can go and judge for himself. He knows how to get better and he really did that — matured, understood the offense, what we were doing, and we trusted him to make good plays and get a win for us.”
After Franks and Florida had vanquished Michigan, the final demon remaining from 2017, the much-scrutinized, sometimes reviled and now revered Franks was greeted immediately on the field by Megan Mullen, the coach’s wife. The two shared an embrace and Franks, with tears in his eyes, made his way to the stage to accept a trophy as the Peach Bowl’s Offensive MVP.
Special moment here between Franks and Mullen family. pic.twitter.com/6l3qLszA9A
— Neil W. Blackmon (@nwblackmon) December 29, 2018
Franks said the tears started just as the game was ending, a moment of reflection for a quarterback who, along with a program, has come so far in twelve months, from a 4-7 finish in 2017 to a 10-3 mark this season.
“Coming off a season like last season to where we’re at now, winning a New Year’s 6 bowl, I was overwhelmed,” Franks said. “I was just filled with emotion and just thinking about how much I think I’ve improved from last season under Coach Mullen and (quarterbacks coach) Brian Johnson, and how much the team’s improved from last season. I’ve always wanted to be in the middle of confetti falling down on me, winning championships. Coach Mullen’s bringing that back to Florida.”
The Gators aren’t champions yet. But one year after the program’s culture was in ruin and its talent questioned, a 10-win season and a New Year’s 6 bowl victory is a splendid start.
C’yontai Lewis, the fifth-year senior from Tuscaloosa, Ala., who has seen his fair share of quarterbacks struggle in Gainesville, says the difference in Franks under Mullen is something to be proud of, but only the beginning.
“He’s just getting started,” Lewis said. “It’s enough to make you wish you had more eligibility. The way he’s grown up, become accountable, the time he puts in, the way he practices, the way he communicates. It’s a credit to Coach Mullen but mostly I’m proud of (Franks). He’s been through so much, and this day is special for him, it’s special for the program.”
Mullen agreed, saying this was one of the most special seasons he’d been a part of as a coach.
“In Year 1, to come here and know where we were this time a year ago and where we are today, it’s special to me,” Mullen said. “These guys didn’t have to buy in. They didn’t have to believe. They didn’t have to buy in. I told them, I didn’t recruit you and you didn’t come here to play for me. But you did come here to be a Gator and there’s a certain standard that’s expected if you’re going to do that. So, it’s special that this team bought in and believed that and will finish as a top-10 team.”
Maybe most of all it’s special for Feleipe Franks, who ends his sophomore season a 10-game winner as a starting quarterback and a New Year’s 6 bowl game MVP.
Maybe for Franks and the Gators, it’s just the beginning.