First and 10: The 'new' Feleipe? Same ol' Alabama? SEC's biggest storylines in 2019
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
This isn’t some media or fan fueled narrative that took hold this offseason and went viral. This is directly from the mouth of the one person who should know better than anyone.
Dan Mullen says Feleipe Franks is going to have a big season.
Let me put that another way: Florida’s second-year coach says he expects his maligned and misunderstood quarterback to not only play well – but well enough for the Gators to be playing games that matter in November.
“He’s ready,” Mullen told me this spring, “to have a big year.”
Yeah, well, I’m going to have to see it to buy it.
Franks sold it in July at SEC Media Days. He looked the part and carried himself like an elite quarterback.
He spoke with confidence and was never overwhelmed. His teammates raved about his progress this spring, and how he’s loved in the locker room and he’s everything you want from your starting quarterback.
But like most things in Franks’ enigmatic career, the smart move in assessing this offseason of hype is to wait until it’s 3rd-and-9 and he has to make a play. Only then can we truly see just how far Franks has come this offseason.
It’s not one situational play or specific throw. It’s consistency and accuracy and knowledge.
It’s toughness and moxie, and leadership and game management. It’s the ability to move on from a bad play, and not let it rattle around in your head. It’s getting better with every single throw.
You know, the very things Florida hasn’t had from the position since 2009.
“I understand the history of the quarterback at this school,” Franks said. “Those expectations motivate me.”
The obvious question in this offseason of hype: Why does Mullen think this year will be different?
To be fair, it hasn’t all been bad for Franks. If you were to draw up a quarterback for NFL scouts, he’s exactly what the league wants.
He’s big (6-5, 235 pounds), has crazy arm strength and he’s tough. He’s willing to stand in the pocket and take a hit.
For every time Franks misses reads and progressions and struggles with concepts of the passing game, there are other moments where it all clicks and he makes the right read and right throw and there are quarterbacks starting in the NFL who can’t make similar plays (fast-forward to the 2:40 mark).
Or as one NFL scout told me: “He’s the classic guy who thinks his arm can bail him out of any situation. When you think that way, you don’t prepare as hard. You don’t know every answer to anything you could possibly see because you think you have the cheat code with your arm.”
2. The big jump
Franks has two big things in his favor heading into the season opener Saturday vs. rival Miami:
1. He’s still relatively young in his development (see: He can still change bad habits).
2. He has Dan Mullen coaching him – and coaching him for the second consecutive season.
The second year, in the same system with the same teacher – a teacher that has proven he can develop quarterbacks – more times than not translates into a significant jump in production.
If that happens, Franks will have the “big year” Mullen has talked about.
It’s no secret Franks wasn’t helped in 2 years with the previous Florida staff. He was young and raw and was put in difficult situations without many answers.
For whatever reason, it didn’t click with former Gators coach Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. One Gators staffer told me Franks was a “beaten down” quarterback when they arrived.
No confidence, bad mechanics, no leadership qualities you expect from the most important position on the team.
Whatever you think if Franks’ first season under Mullen – a season in which he was benched in early November – understand this: He had better numbers in 2018 than any Florida quarterback since a guy named Tebow.
He had 31 touchdowns (24 pass, 7 rush), and became a legitimate threat in the quarterback run game. Last season was the heavy lifting for the Florida staff, breaking down and completely rebuilding Franks’ game.
This season is refining it.
Franks’ accuracy (58 percent of his passes completed) is at least 10 percent from where it should be (68-72 percent), and his average per attempt (7.6 yards) is far too low for an offense that wants to stretch the field with an elite group of receivers. Mullen says it’s all attainable.
3. The new Feleipe, The Epilogue
The biggest concern with Franks since he arrived on campus (no matter the staff) has been his inability to move on from a bad play.
Bad things linger, seep into the next play and series and quarter – and the next thing you know, Franks can’t get out of it until Monday’s practice. A few SEC coaches I spoke to believe Mullen has been so effusive in his praise of Franks because he’s trying to build an impenetrable psyche.
He talked all offseason about Franks’ development and how much better he will play.
He brought Franks to SEC Media Days, even though he knew the majority of the questions he’d face would be about his uneven play and Gator fans’ love/hate relationship with him. Franks never buckled.
At one point during SEC Media Days, when Mullen was meeting with a few national reporters, I asked him if Franks’ benching was a seminal moment that led to his significantly better play in the last month of the season.
Mullen’s response: “I never benched him.”
I’m not waiting for the first NFL throw of 2019 or the first touchdown to declare Franks a different player. I’m waiting for the first mistake, the first sign of adversity, to see how Franks responds.
The old Franks would let it consume him.
Time will tell how the new Franks will respond.
4. The Crimson excuse
I know this is going to shock you, but Nick Saban and the Alabama players are once again making excuses for losing the last game of the season.
Happened in 2008 (Utah), 2013 (Oklahoma), 2014 (Ohio State), 2016 (Clemson) and 2018 (Clemson). Stop me when you’ve heard this excuse before: “we had too many guys looking at the NFL, we weren’t focused on the game.”
That falls in line with “we didn’t care about the useless bowl game” (2008, 2013), “we hurt ourselves with too many turnovers” (2014), and “we were banged up from a brutal conference schedule” (2016, 2018).
I’m willing to buy all of those excuses, but at the end of the day, whose fault is it? The highest-paid coach in college football, that’s who.
At some point, after you’ve complained over and over about players losing interest and zeroing in on the NFL between the end of championship week and the BCS National Championship Game or the College Football Playoff, you’d expect that problem on the horizon and might try something different.
Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me five times, why are you paying me $8 million a year again?
A sign of hope for those poor, misunderstood souls in Tuscaloosa: Saban’s teams almost always come back from an excuse-filled offseason with a championship run.
In the 4 excuse offseasons before this one, Alabama followed a summer of “we beat ourselves” with a national title (in 2009, 2015 and 2017). The only time it didn’t happen was 2013, when Alabama followed the loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl with a CFP semifinal loss to Ohio State.
In 2010 – which was arguably Saban’s most talented team – the Tide lost 3 games and followed that up with the 2011 BCS national title.
5. The Weekly Five
One pick against the spread, and four more picks vs. season win totals:
Miami vs. Florida (-7)
Alabama (11): over.
Georgia (11): under.
LSU (9): over.
Texas A&M (7.5): over.
6. The tape is your résumé
Each week an NFL scout breaks down an SEC player. This week: Georgia QB Jake Fromm.
Scout’s take: “He’s one of those guys that’s easy to fall in love with. He manages the game perfectly, he has a high football IQ and he’s a great teammate. He’s everything you want. Is he the No.1 overall like some are saying? I can’t see it. I still see a couple of significant problems – one that can be fixed and one that really isn’t going to change.
“I don’t think he has enough velocity on the ball in those intermediate throws, especially on the wide hash to the sideline throws. He doesn’t drive the ball enough for my liking. You’re stuck with that arm strength. The other problem is how he reacts to pressure. You hear people say all quarterbacks struggle against pressure. No, they don’t. Some guys move in the pocket, buy time, make throws. Others can extend plays and make accurate throws. He struggles right now against pressure, and in 3rd-down situations.
“Another problem is he has been protected by the best offensive line in the nation the last 2 years. That line this year will be even better. What happens when he gets here and he doesn’t have that dominating line? Will those issues on 3rd down become exacerbated?
“He’s a surefire 1st-rounder, but wait and see how his game gets picked apart in the four months between the end of the season and the draft.”
7. Powered up
We’re 2 weeks from the first full weekend of SEC games. The Power Poll (and one key thing) to begin the season:
1. Alabama: The next great Alabama defensive lineman: DT D.J. Dale
2. Georgia: A ton of inexperience at wide receiver looms.
3. LSU: Can new OC Joe Brady turn LSU into a true spread passing offense?
4. Florida: Offseason problems away from the field have marred positive momentum from 2018.
5. Texas A&M: Can Kellen Mond become elite in second season under Jimbo Fisher?
6. Auburn: How much good (and how little bad) can Auburn get from new QBs Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix?
7. Missouri: Tigers have improved every season under Barry Odom, and could be the surprise team in East division.
8. Kentucky: Season of regression might be inevitable after last year’s magical run.
9. South Carolina: Time for QB Jake Bentley to play to the level of his 1st-round talent.
10. Mississippi State: Favorable schedule to begin the season could translate to a 5-1 start.
11. Tennessee: Vols got more physical in the final month of 2018. Can it carry over to 2019?
12. Vanderbilt: Who cares who plays quarterback? He better get some help from a brand new offensive line.
13. Arkansas: The ugly on offense can’t last another season, can it?
14. Ole Miss: Rebels might just be worse defensively in 2019, after giving up 41 points per SEC game in 2018.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Mississippi State and Ole Miss had disappointing seasons last year. Of the two coaches, who gets fired first?
Jimmy: I’ll go with Matt Luke at Ole Miss. He’s in a brutal situation, taking over after the fiasco that was the final months of Hugh Freeze in Oxford. He got the job because it was A.) the easiest hire, B.) the safest hire, and C.) the easiest hire to eventually fire.
It was the smart hire. If he succeeds, you have an alum who will never leave and could build something special long term. If he doesn’t succeed, you blame it on the mess he inherited and try to find the next guy who can recruit and develop players.
Joe Moorhead has been given plenty of grief for the MSU pass offense, but the reality is Nick Fitzgerald never really developed as a thrower under Dan Mullen and Moorhead.
Give Moorhead a chance to get his quarterback in his system (Penn State transfer Tommy Stevens is a good start), and then see what happens with the pass offense.
9. Numbers game
.900: Remember this heading into LSU’s Week 2 game at Texas on Sept. 7: LSU’s winning percentage in the past decade vs. Power 5 nonconference games to begin the season is .900.
The Tigers are 9-1 in those 10 games, with wins over Syracuse (twice), Washington (twice), Miami, Oregon, Wisconsin, TCU and North Carolina by an average of 12.6 points. The only loss was by 2 points to Wisconsin.
10. Quote board
“Why did I choose Missouri? I want to play in the NFL. This was the best place for me to help me reach my goals. I saw what (Missouri offensive coordinator Derek) Dooley did with Drew Lock to help him get ready. That can be me.” – Missouri QB Kelly Bryant.