The Future of James Franklin -- And the Tigers

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Yeah, it's been that kind of a season.
Yeah, it's been that kind of a season.
So this past weekend, the Missouri Tigers lost a football game. Again. It's become kind of rote this season; Tigers play SEC team, Tigers lose to SEC team. To say the program simply wasn't ready for the level of competition in the nation's toughest conference may be partially accurate, but also overly simplistic. There have been injuries, and some bad luck, and some questionable coaching decisions, and a thousand other things that have led to Mizzou's rather disappointing introduction to the Southeastern Conference

More than any other factor, though, has been the play of one man for the Tigers. James Franklin, the dynamic, dual-threat quarterback Missouri was counting on to do so much this year after a remarkably promising 2011 sophomore campaign, has not played very well this season. The expectations were sky high, but the results have been decidedly grounded. Franklin is still very much the leader of this Mizzou team, but I think it's fair to at least entertain the question of whether or not he's really the guy to lead them to higher levels of success. 

In Saturday's loss to Florida, the defense was borderline brilliant. In fact, they may not have even been borderline. They held the Gators largely in check, looking for all the world like they belonged in the SEC in the 14-7 loss. The problem? The Tiger offense was borderline offensive (and almost surely not borderline), with those seven points a season low. 

The worst? James Franklin throwing four, count 'em, four interceptions in a game the Tigers absolutely could have -- maybe even should have -- won. It's one thing to just not have the talent to beat a given team on a given day. That happens from time to time; see the Alabama-Missouri game earlier this year. But to give a game away, when the rest of your team has kept you in a position to take it, is something else entirely. 

Unfortunately, that's been a common occurrence for Mizzou this year. Their defense, after having been largely somewhat of an afterthought for much of their time in the Big XII, has emerged as one of the more dynamic, imposing units (tee-hee), in all of college football, but the offense has failed to hold up its end of the bargain. And at the center of those struggles has been Franklin himself. 

The problem is this: Franklin simply doesn't possess the skills, in my opinion, to be a 'traditional' pocket passer. Standing in, taking pressure, and throwing the ball are not Franklin's strong suits. He's capable of running some really outstanding plays in the QB power branch of the option play tree, but the guy is never going to be Drew Brees. Ever. 

Whether or not he can be accurate enough to be effective is another question entirely, and one I believed would be answered in the affirmative as recently as the beginning of this season. James Franklin will never have the big arm to make throws into tight windows of that kind of freakish accuracy that defines so many of the very best passers, but when you combine his ability to throw the football well enough with his undeniable playmaking skills on his feet, you have something resembling a poor man's Tim Tebow. This season, though, two things have gotten in the way of him continuing to play like it. 

The first has been the simple fact the Mizzou offensive line has been awful. They weren't a great unit coming in to the season, and injuries have knocked them down a further peg or two. (Or three.) Franklin doesn't have anywhere near the kind of time he had last season to make his reads and decisions, a function of both the weak O-line in front of him and the insane speed of the defensive fronts on the opposing side. 

Second, I still fail to see Gary Pinkel and David Yost's game plans taking proper advantage of what James Franklin really does well. Rather than going to some sort of Oregon-lite single wing formation version of the spread or some variation of it that would allow Franklin to utilize his legs just as much as his arm, the Tigers seem intent on trying to continue running the same version of the spread they've been running for the last half-decade. The problem being that while Franklin is no less talented, strictly speaking, than Chase Daniel or Blaine Gabbert, he doesn't have the same skillset, and just isn't suited to run the same system. Asking Franklin to stay in the pocket and throw only exposes him in a multitude of ways; he's exposed as a weak passer, and exposed to more pressure and more sacks than if he were moving, getting out and using his feet to make plays. 

Worse yet, Franklin now looks to be physically compromised. The ankle injury which forced him to the bench was clearly still an issue on Saturday against the Gators; he was almost completely immobile, exacerbating the problems I've already spoken of, plus the added issue of a balky ankle making it more difficult to properly throw the football. The end result? Those four interceptions that largely doomed Missouri to yet another SEC defeat. 

So where do the Tigers go from here? That's a tough question, and one without a truly satisfactory answer, so far as I can see. I'm not at all sure the coaching staff is willing or able to adjust the offense enough to cater to Franklin, either out of their own belief in the system, or fear of continually putting the player in the path of the biggest, fastest defensive players in college football (though I would argue at least he would be moving at the time instead of defenseless), and I don't really believe Franklin is ever going to be able to run this current version of the offense at a high level. Even without his current injury, I'm just not sure James Franklin will ever consistently be the player I think many of us expected him to be. 

The other half of this problematic equation, of course, is the question of what other options the Tigers have. Corbin Berkstresser has looked good here and there filling in for Franklin, but he's also looked pretty terrible himself at times. He's a more than capable backup, but asking him to start right now -- particularly behind such a weak line -- may not be a particularly desirable option either. Below him on the depth chart is Maty Mauk, the hyper-talented freshman with his own Next Big Thing label attached. Mauk has plenty of talent, but he's nowhere near ready, physically or in terms of maturity, to lead this team in the near future. 

All of this leaves the Tigers in an unenviable position. What seemed like such a promising season back in August, the program's first on the biggest and best stage college football has to offer, has become a slog to the finish line, and the near-term future is full of ominous grey clouds. James Franklin's personal future as the leader of this team is a question mark as well, at least in my mind. He still commands the respect and devotion of his teammates, but if the wins aren't coming, it's only a matter of time before the guy with the ball in his hands on every play is going to have to answer for it. 
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