SEC “What-Ifs?” No. 1: What if Feleipe Franks stuck with his LSU commitment?
On June 1, 2014, a quarterback from Crawfordville, Florida, who was preparing for his junior year at Wakulla High School announced that he had committed to the LSU Tigers.
That quarterback was Feleipe Franks, a coveted member of the 2016 recruiting class. Per the 247Sports composite rankings, Franks was a 4-star prospect, the No. 5 pro-style quarterback in the 2016 class and the No. 9 overall recruit from the state of Florida.
On Nov. 23, 2015, something changed. Franks decommitted from LSU. A week later, on Nov. 29, Franks committed to Florida. He eventually signed with the Gators as part of their 2016 recruiting class.
From there, we all know Franks’ story — redshirt in 2016, named the starter in 2017 before being benched. Of course, he regained the job and did this against Tennessee:
Best Finishes #10
Florida vs Tennessee 2017
The Gators and Vols were tied at 20 with 9 seconds left. Gator QB Feleipe Franks nailed a 63 yard pass to WR Tyrie Cleveland. pic.twitter.com/PixZNsI1Lv
— CFB Blitz (@BlitzCfb) August 15, 2019
That was one of the lone bright spots in the Gators’ 2017 season. It was also Jim McElwain’s final year as the team’s head coach. In 2018, Dan Mullen took over and Franks shined, throwing for 2,457 yards, 24 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. He also ran for 350 yards and 7 touchdowns.
So, what happened with Franks’ commitment to LSU? It’s not like the coach he committed to — Les Miles — was fired before he would have ended up on campus. Sure, Miles ended up being fired early in the 2016 season, but he was still there when Franks would have signed.
There certainly were rumors about Miles and how hot his seat was, so perhaps that spooked Franks a bit. (Miles certainly thinks that’s what happened.) Whatever the case, Franks ended up at Florida, and that changed the trajectories of both programs.
So, for today’s first big SEC “what-if” deep dive, let’s take a look at all the ways Franks’ flip impacted both schools.
What if Franks had gone to LSU?
If Franks had honored his commitment, there’s a strong case to be made that the Tigers never land Joe Burrow and don’t go on to win the 2019 title. First, let’s take a look at LSU’s quarterback room in 2015.
The Tigers had their starter in Brandon Harris, but they also had a transfer from Purdue waiting in the wings. We all remember Danny Etling, who played fairly well in 2016 and 2017 in an offense that was mainly built around RB Leonard Fournette and then Derrius Guice. There’s a good chance that, with Harris and Etling still in Baton Rouge in 2016, Franks would have redshirted, as he did in Florida.
The 2017 season is where things get interesting. Etling was still there, but Harris transferred. After throwing for only 2,123 yards, 11 touchdowns and 5 interceptions in 2016, Etling’s starting job would have probably been open for competition. Franks beat out Luke Del Rio and Malik Zaire in Gainesville in 2017. Could he have beaten out Etling? It’s certainly possible with the sort of arm strength he has.
The Tigers went 8-4 in 2016 and 9-4 in 2017. Those are both good records, but we all remember how much pressure coach Ed Orgeron was under entering the 2018 season.
In 2018 and 2019 (before a season-ending injury), Franks also won the starting job at Florida. It stands to reason that he would have done the same thing at LSU. Had he played in 2017 and returned as the likely starter in 2018, that is where the biggest “what-if” in recent LSU history would have taken place.
Franks had the arm talent to utilize LSU’s offensive weapons like Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and others, but the way Burrow brought the Tigers together was truly special this past season. What if that never happened?
Where does Joe Burrow go?
Needing to make a big move heading into the 2018 campaign, Coach O went to Big Ten country and convinced Ohio State backup Joe Burrow to head to Baton Rouge as a graduate transfer. He arrived on campus in the summer of 2018, having only a few weeks to get to know his new team. Still, even with an abbreviated preparation period, he threw for 2,894 yards, 16 touchdowns and 5 interceptions in 2018, leading the Tigers to a 10-3 record and a win over UCF in the Peach Bowl.
Of course, the 2019 season is where the magic happened, as Burrow threw a record 60 touchdown passes, led LSU to a perfect 15-0 record and a national championship and won the Heisman Trophy in runaway fashion.
If Franks were still around entering the 2018 season, it’s likely that Burrow would have gone elsewhere for his final 2 years of eligibility. The other 2 leading candidates for Burrow’s services were Nebraska (which the Burrow family is highly connected to) and Cincinnati (where former Buckeye assistant Luke Fickell was entering his second year as head coach).
Burrow’s father played defensive back for the Cornhuskers in the 1970s, so let’s assume Joe ended up there, too. He would have joined a program undergoing a major transition, as Scott Frost was preparing for his first year as Nebraska’s head coach. That year ended with the Huskers sporting a disappointing 4-8 record.
I’m as big of a Joe Burrow fan as anyone outside the state of Louisiana, but he’s not a miracle worker. He took a team from 9-4 to 10-3 to 15-0. Yes, that’s an outstanding impact (and he obviously had plenty of help), but asking him to go from 4-8 to competing for a Playoff spot is insane.
It’s safe to say we’d be talking about a different quarterback (probably Tua Tagovailoa) as the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft if Burrow had ended up in Lincoln.
What happens at Florida?
The Gators without Franks are tough to project. Not much probably changes during 2016 (when Franks redshirted) and 2017 (when they had Zaire and Del Rio), but 2018 is where things get interesting. It’s important to remember that the Gators also signed a quarterback named Kyle Trask as part of the 2016 recruiting class, and he enters 2020 as the presumed starter.
Would Trask have been handed the reins to the Florida offense in 2018? That seems unlikely, so it stands to reason that the Gators would have been active on the graduate transfer market. In fact, they were linked to Burrow during the offseason before the 2018 campaign.
Could a team with Burrow at quarterback, Lamical Perine at running back, Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain, Tyrie Cleveland and others at receiver, Kyle Pitts at tight end and Kadarius Toney as a dangerous all-around weapon have won the SEC East and challenged for a spot in the College Football Playoff?
Considering the defense the Gators have had the past couple of years, it certainly would have been a possibility, particularly in 2019. Oh, what could have been at Florida.
Who wins the 2019 title?
Let’s assume LSU doesn’t make the jump from a 10-win team to an undefeated championship-caliber without Burrow. What would the 2019 Playoff field have looked like? My best guess is the field would have looked like this:
- Ohio State
Based on how Oklahoma looked against LSU, I’d give Clemson the edge. I’d also take Ohio State over Oregon. Therefore, we’d get an Ohio State-Clemson matchup in the title game. Considering the Tigers beat the Buckeyes 29-23 in the semifinals, I’d say Clemson probably takes home the title instead of LSU.
That would have made 2 titles in a row for Dabo Swinney and Clemson and 3 of the past 4 championships. What a difference Feleipe Franks’ decision to flip to Florida (and Joe Burrow’s subsequent decision to head to Baton Rouge) made!