Sometimes, the hardest role is being the act to follow.
That was James Franklin’s first problem. Before he became the starting quarterback at Missouri for his sophomore season, the Tigers had just witnessed their three greatest quarterbacks in history: Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert. One is Missouri’s career total yard record holder, another had Mizzou on the cusp of BCS berths, and the other became the number one overall pick in the NFL Draft.
When Franklin stepped in, the expectations for a quarterback at the University of Missouri were higher than ever. And he was ready to meet them.
In 2011, Franklin threw for 2.865 yards and 21 touchdowns while completing 63% of his passes. He rumbled his way to 981 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns. To put the rushing in perspective, the 15 touchdowns were three short of Brad Smith’s single season school record of 18. Smith also never threw for more than 17 touchdowns in a season in his collegiate career.
Franklin led that team to an 8-5 record and an Insight Bowl blowout of North Carolina. While the numbers certainly backed him up, Missouri’s next move would bring the doubters again: could he hang in the SEC?
After all, this wasn’t the offensive bonanza of the Big 12 anymore. It wasn’t the infamous “old man football” that former Tiger Sheldon Richardson proclaimed. This was SEC football, where hits crash and roars bellow throughout stadiums. And Missouri was too damn finesse to handle anything like that.
We all know what type of season ensued. Mizzou, battered by injuries, limped to a 5-7 record. Franklin became the face of this failure of a first year in the premier conference in college football.
But while Franklin’s face was occupied, his body was being battered. He missed three games that season while trying to will his way through others. That effort, while certainly courageous, affected him on the field and ultimately led to the lowest point of his college career.
After sitting out part or all of the two games before, Franklin started against the Florida Gators on November 3, 2012 in Gainesville. Mizzou entered the Swamp in pursuit of their first marquee conference win over a 7th ranked Florida team. The Tigers outgained and outpossessed the Gators, but lost 14-7 due to their quarterback throwing a career high four interceptions.
Let the bashing begin.
Mizzou fans let out their anguish with Franklin, particularly on Twitter. This was a shot to prove something, and their quarterback single-handedly blew that chance. For the rest of the season, it became a popular topic to question if he should remain the starter for Missouri while he’s here.
But the criticism of his play wasn’t enough. Word had gotten out that Franklin, a devout Christian, refused to take any sort of pain medication due to his faith. Fans began to question his toughness and how much he really wanted to be out on the field. While the season ended and Franklin recovered, expectations certainly weren’t high coming into the 2013 campaign.
That changed pretty quickly, and James Franklin had a large part in that transformation. Through the first five games, he threw for 1,407 yards and 13 touchdowns, while rushing for 278 yards and 2 touchdowns. With those numbers, some were saying how the senior could possibly garner some Heisman consideration. He was playing at his highest level going into one of the biggest games in program history: a meeting with the Georgia Bulldogs, the team who painfully introduced Mizzou to the SEC a year earlier, between the hedges.
After three quarters, the Tigers had a lead in hand. Georgia was making their push, and as he scrambled out of the pocket, Franklin got knocked out of the game. Missouri would get the momentous victory, but after an offseason full of recovery, it was time for Franklin to recover again.
This time around though, the replacement was catching some eyes. Redshirt freshman Maty Mauk took the reins of the offense, and unleashed some big play ability. While inefficient, Mauk showed some of the talent that made him a four star recruit, as Mizzou went 3-1 in its next four games.
And here we are now. The only way this team can get a shot at the SEC title is to win its next two games. There’s no room for error anymore, and whoever is at the helm needs to be ready to step up.
That’s where Tiger fans have had some disagreement. Some think Mauk should be starting today, even though Franklin has been medically cleared and ruled good to go. Nevermind the senior’s stellar play from earlier in the season; this team was still winning with Mauk.
The decision was made, and today, Franklin returns to his starting spot. While it’s obvious these two games will help define what this season means for this team, there’s an element that hasn’t been discussed: Franklin’s legacy at Mizzou.
Everyone always remembers how you finished. After everything he’s gone through with criticism and injuries, he now has the chance to go out with a potential conference title, something Smith, Daniel, and Gabbert couldn’t accomplish. He’ll step into a raucous stadium in Oxford tonight, and then square off against the most electrifying player in college football, Johnny Manziel, for his final home game. Oh, then he’d probably have to play this team called Alabama for the SEC crown.
Fair or unfair, this stretch will likely determine how Franklin is remembered in Columbia, MO. He has full weaponry around him, a great offensive line protecting him, and a chip from the Rock M on his shoulder. The opportunity awaits, and at the end of it, what will he be? The act that followed?
Or the act that changed it all?