If Florida’s backup tailbacks employ the kind of change of direction the Gators coach Jim McElwain showed Wednesday, perhaps Florida still has a chance against Michigan on Saturday. Fresh off the announcement that two more players—including top tailback Jordan Scarlett—would be suspended indefinitely, McElwain pulled the old HEY LOOK OVER THERE and offered up a piece of news guaranteed to change the conversation.
Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks will start at quarterback for the Gators, ending a three-way competition in which none of the signal-callers truly distanced himself. Franks will take his first collegiate snap against pressure-mad coordinator Don Brown’s defense, which itself will be breaking in 10 new starters. Ten, coincidentally, is the number of players Florida has suspended for the game.
"Sometimes adversity can bring a group closer together,” McElwain told reporters Wednesday. “We’ve got a pretty tight group right now."
McElwain poked fun last week at Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s delay in producing a roster for his 2017 squad. "We haven't gotten into Michigan prep at all,” McElwain quipped to reporters. “When you guys get their roster let me know who we're playing." Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh finally revealed that roster Wednesday.
Perhaps McElwain should have waited until a minute before the Gators kick off against the Wolverines on Saturday in Arlington, Texas, to release his roster, because it seems to shrink by the day. Wednesday, Florida announced that Scarlett and receiver Rick Wells would be suspended indefinitely from all team activities. The players are connected to the same debit card scam that got seven other Florida players suspended for this game. Meanwhile, freshman receiver James Robinson will miss the game after he was cited for marijuana possession last week*. Freshman linebacker Ventrell Miller, the player cited along with Robinson, was already suspended this week because of the debit card matter.
*Shockingly, a player who was cited for marijuana possessionduring his official visitto Ohio State got cited again before he even played a college down. It’s almost as if past performance does occasionally predict future results.
The suspended headliners are Scarlett, who led Florida with 889 yards on 179 carries last season, and junior receiver Antonio Callaway, who has led Florida in receiving yards in both his seasons on campus. Those two might have been a great help to Franks, the 6-foot-5, 227-pounder from Crawfordville, Fla.
The past few weeks of quarterback drama were not a mind game on McElwain’s part to get under the skin of the notoriously cagey Harbaugh. He doesn’t have a clear idea of who was best in a group that included Franks, former starter Luke Del Rio and Notre Dame grad transfer Malik Zaire. McElwain said the other two would be ready to play, and the guess is that Del Rio would spell Franks if there’s trouble. Callaway would have offered a nice safety blanket, but the Gators still have options at receiver in Tyrie Cleveland, Brandon Powell and Dre Massey, who was set to be a big part of the offense last season before he wrecked his knee on the opening kickoff. The dropoff at tailback is larger. Lamical Perine likely will start, and Scarlett’s absence means freshman Malik Davis could be in line to carry the ball.
This should help a Michigan defense with plenty of talent but not much experience. The Wolverines have players who got snaps last season—defensive end Rashan Gary, for example, would have started almost anywhere else but rotated in on Michigan’s loaded ’16 defense—but most are adjusting to new, expanded roles. They’ll get to do that with Florida’s most explosive playmakers absent.
Even before the suspensions, this game should have been called the Lack of Context Bowl. With Florida unsettled at quarterback through most of camp and Michigan playing so many new starters, the result already wasn’t going to tell us much. Now it might not tell us anything. Consider the questions brought about by the following scenarios…
Michigan pounds Florida: Was Florida bad because key players were suspended? Or is Florida just bad? Or perhaps Michigan, with mostly Jim Harbaugh recruits playing now, is not going to drop off at all and should compete for the Big Ten and national titles.
Michigan squeaks by Florida: Is Florida’s defense better than we thought after losing its coordinator (new Temple coach Geoff Collins) and a load of NFL talent? Do the Wolverines still need more seasoning? Are they both bad?
Florida squeaks by Michigan: Is Franks the quarterback the Gators have been looking for since Tim Tebow left? (Or maybe since Will Grier got suspended?) Are the Wolverines going to drop in the Big Ten, or did they just lose to a team that can win a third consecutive SEC East title?
Florida pounds Michigan: This seems the least likely result, and it would produce only one major question: How are the Wolverines ever going to beat Ohio State if they can’t beat a Florida team with key players suspended?
We’ll absolutely have hot takes following the game, but most will probably be wrong. We won’t know much about these two teams until after they’ve played a few games because so much is up in the air. That would have been the case before all the Florida suspensions, but it’s especially true now.