- Feleipe Franks and Malik Zaire both looked pretty rough at the controls of Florida's shorthanded offense, leaving Jim McElwain with two weeks to fix some big problems.
After nearly a full decade of short-lived quarterbacks and struggles to move the ball, Florida finally looked positioned to make some noise on offense entering fall camp. Former starter Luke Del Rio had recovered from a shoulder injury, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks looked ready to compete, and then in June the SEC revised its graduate transfer rules in order to permit former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire to enroll in Gainesville. In short, it looked like an embarrassment of riches—relatively speaking—for a team that’s struggled under center in recent seasons.
On Saturday, though, the Gators appeared as if they might be a play away from their third-string quarterback entering the game after they cycled through their starter (Franks, who won the job last week) to Zaire, who entered the game in the third quarter with the Gators trailing by six. Zaire couldn’t do much better than Franks from a purely statistical standpoint: He finished 9-of-17 for 106 yards, and Florida failed to score a point in the second half en route to a 33–17 loss.
The Gators finished with just 192 yards of total offense, their fewest since logging 180 total yards against Alabama in the 2015 SEC Championship Game. In fact, in the 10 seasons from ’07 to ’16, the Gators finished with fewer than 200 yards of offense only six times. Saturday’s performance against Michigan wasn’t just bad; it might be the offensive low point of head coach Jim McElwain’s tenure. And while Florida was without lead running back Jordan Scarlett and top receiver Antonio Callaway, two of the 10 players suspended for the season opener, the offense is doomed even at full strength if it can’t settle on a leader under center.
Franks looked mediocre as he was playing (his final stat line when he was pulled after a third-quarter fumble: 5-of-9 for 75 yards), but in retrospect his day doesn’t look so bad considering what came next. Zaire’s 6.2 yards per attempt fell short of Franks’s 8.3, and he was sacked four times in the final 15 minutes, including on the first and last plays of the quarter. Neither quarterback threw a touchdown pass, and each lost a fumble—Zaire’s came on a strip-sack in the end zone that delivered the Wolverines a clinching touchdown.
The Gators’ running backs who were slated to play behind Scarlett this season weren’t much help as the passing game stalled; as a group, they accounted for just 29 yards. Of course, some credit is due to Michigan’s defense, which didn’t allow a point after giving up a field goal on Florida’s first drive. (The rest of the Gators’ scoring came thanks to back-to-back pick-sixes by Wolverines starter Wilton Speight.) It will likely be midseason before that unit gets a rest test against a talented opponent, but defensive coordinator Don Brown appears to have reloaded effectively after losing several starters off last year’s unit that finished second nationally in yards per game.
By the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game, it seemed almost puzzling that Florida didn’t turn to its third quarterback of the day, Del Rio. A season ago before injuring his shoulder, he went 5–1 as the Gators’ starter, and although he was far from perfect—throwing eight touchdowns and as many interceptions in 2016—Florida remained within a touchdown for much of the game and needed a spark it never got with Zaire and Franks.
Going forward, the Gators’ offense seems as unsettled as it was entering fall camp, even once those top playmakers return. They won’t be the only SEC East team facing uncertainty under center, though; Georgia’s Jacob Eason was injured in the first quarter of his game Saturday evening, Tennessee will be breaking in a new signal-caller on Monday, and the job at Kentucky is hardly set in stone after a seven-point win over Southern Miss. Defense is always the path to an SEC title, and a little offense can go a long way in the conference. Florida doesn’t need a quarterback who can throw for 300 yards and five touchdowns a game; it merely requires one of its three candidates to take care of the ball and present enough of an aerial threat that the running game can also get its footing. The talent looks to be there, and next week’s home opener against Northern Colorado could well be a chance for one of the three quarterbacks to hit his stride. Otherwise, an inauspicious start could turn into a long year.