Florida Football Friday Final: Gators to be tested as Feleipe Franks returns to The Swamp
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No. 6 Florida Gators football is making final preparations for a key game as it looks to continue its strong 2020 regular season as it welcomes the Arkansas Razorbacks to town on Saturday night. Though Arkansas looked to be an easy addition to Florida’s schedule when the SEC expanded its conference-only slates to 10 games amid the COVID-19 pandemic shakeup, the Razorbacks have been mighty impressive.
A major reason why Arkansas has seen somewhat of a rejuvenation so far in 2020 is Feleipe Franks, the former Florida quarterback who hopped over to the SEC West as a graduate transfer after being injured midway through the 2019 season. More on that in a bit.
Though the Gators are actually 9-2 all-time against the Hogs, their last meeting was a disaster with Arkansas dominating Florida 31-10 back in 2016. That came in a similar situation with UF ranked among the top teams in the nation and Arky in the midst of a surprisingly successful campaign.
Let’s take a look at what you need to know entering this weekend’s game.
1. This is the Pitts: The status of the Gators’ best player is completely up in the air as junior tight end Kyle Pitts (concussion) continues to be listed as questionable by head coach Dan Mullen. With 414 yards receiving and eight touchdowns through five games, Pitts is not only Florida’s top pass catcher but the leader for the John Mackey Award, given annually to the nation’s best tight end. He was knocked out of the Georgia game after taking a dirty helmet-to-helmet hit from Lewis Cine and never returned. Without any specifics available, the expectation is that Pitts is simply waiting to be cleared from the concussion protocol. That is certainly possible ahead of kickoff — and it’s not like Pitts needs to go through the motions in practice in order to play — but not having an update on his status this late in the week makes it seem unlikely he will play.
Should he be out, redshirt junior Kemore Gamble (76 yards, touchdown) and sophomore Keon Zipperer (53 yards) — both former four-star prospects — will take Pitts’ snaps. Though neither has seen extensive action yet this season, they’re averaging 16.1 yards per reception and would serve as admirable fill-ins. Perhaps redshirt senior quarterback Kyle Trask will not have the same level of trust in those two as he does Pitts — see that jump ball touchdown he threw in the end zone last week — but both are big targets capable of helping the Gators move the chains.
“I’m extremely confident in those guys,” said offensive coordinator Brian Johnson. “They came in and played really well and made plays [against Georgia]. … There’s no doubt in my mind that those guys will be ready to play. Coach [Tim] Brewster is one of the best tight end coaches in all of America, and those guys practice really hard and they showed when they got out on the field they were able to make some plays.”
2. Quarterback battle renews: When Franks dislocated his ankle last September, it felt as if it would be his last game in orange and blue — and that’s even before Trask led that comeback against Kentucky. Franks was a victim of circumstance during his time at Florida as he was forced into the starting role before he was ready. Once his development actually took off under Mullen, it appeared as if some of those struggles were in his past. Still, when Trask got his highly anticipated opportunity and made the most of it in 2019, there was no way the Gators could turn back to Franks even if he wanted to stay. And when Franks transferred to play for the Hogs, it was clear the programs would avoid one another this season.
So much for that. The quarterback battle between Trask and Franks that lasted three training camps will now play out in public as the former teammates go head-to-head on Saturday. Trask is in the midst of a run that has him (according to the odds) fourth among Heisman Trophy favorites (1,815 yards, 22 touchdowns, three interceptions), while Franks (1,428 yards, 14 touchdowns, three interceptions) is not doing so bad himself. In fact, Franks is one of the main reasons Arkansas is 3-3 with respectable losses to Auburn (30-28) and Texas A&M (42-31).
Mullen, Franks and his former Florida teammates have all expressed love and appreciation for each other over the course of the week. Mullen in particular praised Franks’ competitiveness. That said, the Gators defense is excited to get another shot at Franks, against whom many of the players practiced for years. Franks is ready for the challenge, too.
3. No coach, no problem? Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman will miss Saturday’s game as he continues to battle COVID-19. While Franks deserves a lot of credit for the Hogs’ improvement this season, the program has also seen renewed life due in large part to Pittman’s leadership and enthusiasm. So there’s no doubt that Arkansas will be missing that Saturday. However, the other element Pittman brought to the table that has been somewhat-underrated is his coaching staff, namely defensive coordinator Barry Odom.
It is Odom, the former Missouri coach, who will be standing in for Pittman on Saturday. Not only has Odom started to build a strong defense for Arkansas, he’s also had a lot of success head-to-head against Florida. During his time at Mizzou, Odom only compiled a 13-19 record in SEC but saw two of those wins come against UF. His Tigers outscored the Gators 83-33 from 2017-18, and Florida only triumphed 23-6 over Mizzou in their last meeting with Odom at the helm. So not only does Odom have experience leading an underdog in the SEC, he has specific experience beating UF (2-2). The drop off of not having Pittman will not be as big as some expect.
4. Is the defense actually improved? Look, there’s no question Florida’s defense has stepped up, especially on third down where it’s held its last two opponents to 5 of 28 on third down (.179). It also allowed an average of 22.5 points in those games after giving up 32.3 per game over its first three. Oh, and in terms of yardage, UF held its last two opponents to 262.5 yards down from 495.0 yards against its first three combatants. But how much of that is about the Gators improving, and how much of it is the defense facing a couple truly mediocre (at best) quarterbacks in Georgia’s Stetson Bennett IV and Mizzou’s Connor Bazelak? That’s what we’re going to learn Saturday when Franks returns to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Our against-the-spread pick will come in the OnlyGators.com Gameday Preview on Saturday morning, but when you consider that Florida is favored by 18 points, possibly without its best playmaker and going up against Franks when there should be questions about whether its defense can be trusted, you probably have an idea which way we’re leaning.
5. What about the second half? Despite the Gators outscoring opponents by nearly two touchdowns per game this season, they actually only hold an 81-72 edge in second-half scoring. Saturday against Georgia was a concern in particular as Florida went an entire half without a touchdown, though of course, UGA does have one of the best defenses in the nation. Mullen and Johnson both said this week that the Gators’ second-half struggles — for lack of a better term — did not concern them. Mullen even admitted to playing a bit too conservative at times. We’ll find out whether this is even an issue against Arkansas, but if Florida does not have a big lead entering the second half, its recent issues in this area could come back to haunt it.