Florida’s offense has for years wandered aimlessly through the Desert of Mediocrity. And for most of Saturday, it continued to do so.
There were stalled drives, fumbles, an interception and penalties. These, in the Desert of Mediocrity, are the beetles and cactuses that have sustained the Gators. It’s what they’re used to, though not what they’re looking for.
But starved of points and thirsting for excitement, the team finally found its way out in Saturday’s fourth quarter. It found not the land of milk and honey, but an oasis in the midst of the heat and sand. And if it cultivates its newfound sustenance, it could turn into more than just a temporary reprieve from the blistering sun of failure.
OK, let’s end the metaphor there before it goes further off the tracks. The point is this: Florida’s offense found something Saturday night against the Volunteers. Something it hasn’t been able to find since Will Grier picked apart Ole Miss and was subsequently suspended for performance-enhancing drugs.
There were definitely some mistakes, and Tennessee’s defense isn’t stacked with All Americans, but even outside of the fourth quarter, there was plenty to be encouraged about.
That starts with true freshman wideout Kadarius Toney, who left no doubt that he’s the biggest playmaker the Gators have in space. He juked, jiggled and jived his way past defenders seemingly every time he touched the ball, the importance of which can’t be overstated for a team starved of playmakers.
There was also Brandon Powell, who scored UF’s first offensive touchdown of the season by avoiding or running through defenders. There was Cleveland, who, touchdown catch aside, was able to get open on short and intermediate routes to haul in four additional receptions. And there was, above all, Franks, who was effective even without his touchdown fling. He evaded rushers, made smart throws and showed calmness and poise, according to McElwain.
You may contend that one quarter, one play or one juke don’t prove anything. You’re right; those things don’t prove that Florida is going to win out, beat Alabama in the SEC Championship and win the College Football Playoff. Those things are extraordinarily unlikely.
But until Saturday, I considered them downright impossible. After the Michigan loss, I was convinced that Franks wasn’t the prospect he was hyped up to be in high school, and I thought Florida’s receivers weren’t the playmakers they were expected to be. After the win over Tennessee, I believe they are.
“But why?” you’re probably wondering. “If you’re saying you were wrong after the Michigan game -- that you judged them too quickly -- what makes you think one other single game is an accurate measurement of their potential?”
It’s a fair question, but the key is that last word: Potential. The loss to Michigan showed what Franks and company can do at their worst, without blocking and against a vaunted defense. Saturday’s win showed what they can do at their best: Make plays, whether that’s Cleveland’s game-winning touchdown on a 70-yard toss or Toney’s ankle breaking run after the catch.
If the offensive line can help establish the run game and continue to give Franks time to throw and the coaching staff can call plays competently, it seems that even with a defense that looks like a downgrade from last year’s, Florida should be able to do enough to win some games.
I never thought I’d write that sentence in my time as a UF student, but especially with the momentum established by Saturday’s game, the time for UF’s offense to return to the promised land is now. We’ll find out soon enough if they waste it.
Ethan Bauer is a sports writer. You can contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ebaueri.