There was optimism under a cloud of uncertainty surrounding the Florida Gators prior to the 2018 college football season.
Fans were energized with Dan Mullen’s hiring as the next head coach in Gainesville.
But there was also lingering questions from the Jim McElwain era, where the program lost three games in a row that led to his departure in a 2017 season that ultimately finished 4-7.
Mainly, could quarterback Feleipe Franks turn the corner from offensive liability to strength?
And despite his previous time in Gainesville on Urban Meyer’s staff and experience as an Southeastern Conference head coach at Mississippi State, Mullen’s rebuild was expected to take a little time.
Well, Mullen, his staff and UF players flipped the script right away. The Gators went 10-3, capped with a Peach Bowl victory over Michigan.
Entering 2019, there’s more buzz around the Gators with the hope of fighting rival Georgia for the SEC East division title and taking the next step of the rebuild to become a College Football Playoff contender.
Oh, and Franks turned into one of the conference’s best quarterbacks not named Tua Tagovailoa.
In 2018, Franks completed 58.3 of his passes for 2,457 yards and 24 touchdowns against six interceptions.
In 2017, Franks was intercepted eight times, while only throwing nine touchdown passes for 1,438 yards.
His turnaround was a key to UF’s 10-win season, which included four in a row to close out the year.
“As the year went on, he understood what his abilities were, and he decided to use all of his talents,” Mullen said at this year’s SEC Media Days. “I think a light came on that I’m 6-foot-6, 245-pounds and pretty athletic. If they’re going to completely empty the middle of the field and I can run into the end zone from 20 yards away untouched, I can do that.”
The quick rebuild for Mullen was a historic one. He became just the third coach in college football’s 150-year history — after Stanford’s Clark Shaughnessy in 1940 and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn in 2013 — to win 10 games the year after that team won five games or fewer the previous season.
Now the Gators look to take the next step with Franks under center, though it won’t fall all on his shoulders. The Gators possess one of the best receiving corps in the nation, and running back Lamical Perine is expected to produce even bigger numbers this season as a more featured back.
Former Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas star Trevon Grimes, who transferred from Ohio State in December 2017, is one of four talented receiving targets for Franks.
Van Jefferson was the team’s leading receiver and is back this season, too.
“He’s a guy that has great maturity to understand and say, ‘OK, here’s the parts of my game that I need to improve’ — as all of our guys do have great aspirations of going on and playing professional football, but he has maturity to understand,” Mullen said.
“Here’s parts of my game I can continue to work on and put myself in position to be completely prepared when I get an opportunity to go to the next level, and he’s done that all spring and has had a tremendous spring and really adapted well into the program, into what we do, and how we run the program. And it’s really great. Our program is about hard work. And that’s something he believes in, so I think it’s a great fit for him to be in a program that really has the same values that he has.”
But UF’s success also depends on how quickly the offensive line comes together. It’s a line replacing four players with more than 140 combined starts.
There’s also some concern at linebacker, but that unit has a leader with experience in David Reese II. The back end of the defense is strong as the Gators touts themselves as Defensive Back University — and this year is no different.
C.J. Henderson and Marco Wilson form a dynamic punch at cornerback.
Overall, the Gators are talented across the board and are looking for even bigger things in 2019.