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Florida redshirt junior quarterback Feleipe Franks helped the Gators cap last year's 10-win season with a 41-15 rout of Michigan in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. / University of Florida photo

FLORIDA

› Last season: 10-3 (5-3 SEC)

› 2019 opener: Aug. 24 vs. Miami in Orlando (7 p.m.; ESPN)

› Fun fact: Since the SEC split into divisional play and adopted an eight-game league schedule in 1992, Florida is the only program to win at least three SEC games in all 27 seasons.

› Coming Thursday: Georgia

Late in the third quarter of last November's game against visiting South Carolina, the maiden voyage of Florida under coach Dan Mullen had fizzled.

The Gators were coming off double-digit losses to Georgia and Missouri that had turned a top-10 ranking into a scramble for a decent bowl game, and now they were trailing the Gamecocks 31-14 before a irritable crowd at the Swamp. Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks had been booed and benched during the 38-17 home setback to Mizzou, and he was hearing the boos again.

Franks responded with a touchdown pass late in the third quarter and a 1-yard rushing score with four minutes remaining that proved to be the difference in a 35-31 triumph. He actually shushed the Swamp crowd after his rushing score, but what nobody knew at the time was that the rally against the Gamecocks ignited a 162-43 scoring differential to close the season.

Florida followed its 17-0 run against South Carolina with a 63-10 drubbing of Idaho, a 41-14 blowout of rival Florida State in Tallahassee and a surprising 41-15 rout of Michigan in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

"It was a long season, but I wanted to keep going," Franks said last week at SEC Media Days. "If I could play football all year long, I would. I think that's what makes it so special, because you have this big gap where all this anticipation builds up, but I would have loved to have kept going.

"If we can keep that going, we could have a really special year."

The Gators wound up tied with Georgia at No. 7 in the final Associated Press poll, with their 10-3 record shattering even the most optimistic of expectations for Mullen's debut year. Florida won back-to-back SEC East titles under predecessor Jim McElwain during the 2015-16 seasons but collapsed to a 4-7 mark in 2017.

Franks was a consensus top-100 national prospect in the 2016 recruiting class who was inconsistent during his first two years in Gainesville and for some of last season as well, but the 6-foot-6, 245-pound redshirt junior from Crawfordville, Florida, was a stabilizing force late in the year.

"As the year went on, he understood what his abilities were, and he decided to use all of his talents," Mullen said. "I think a light came on that, 'Hey, I'm 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds and pretty athletic, and 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.'

"When he bought into using all of his skill set to play and not trying to limit himself or not trying to worry really about what everybody else thought, he was going to be a better player, and he did that. I think he started to block out all of the outside noise."

That Franks simply went wire-to-wire as Florida's starting quarterback marked a first for the program since 2010, and he wound up throwing for 2,457 yards with 24 touchdowns and six interceptions. Franks also rushed for 350 yards and seven scores.

The Gators have the potential for a stout offense this season with the return of running backs Lamical Perine (826 yards last season, 6.2 per carry) and Dameon Pierce (424, 6.1), and with a veteran receiving corps headed by Tyrie Cleveland, Trevon Grimes, Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain. There is also Kadarius Toney, who has been effective as a rusher and a receiver.

Florida's biggest challenge overall will be replacing four starters on the offensive line.

"Those guys up front have worked extremely hard," Franks said. "They have spots to fill that need to be filled, because we only have one guy returning this year, but they keep on grinding. I have trust that no matter how many people leave each year, we're going to have guys who are ready to step up and play."

The Gators open preseason camp Friday due to their season opener against Miami in Orlando getting moved up to Aug. 24. That contest was adjusted as a kickoff to celebrate college football's 150-year anniversary.

Florida will challenge the Hurricanes and other foes this season with a quarterback who is coming off the best statistical year for the program since Tim Tebow was a senior in 2009.

"Once Feleipe was able to block out all the outside noise and really look at his skill set and what he does well, he was able to improve," Mullen said, "and I think that helped build his confidence and improved his performance on the field. He took huge strides this spring as well of doing that, not just understanding himself but how to use his skill set and developing a better understanding of making plays within the offensive system."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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