LOUISVILLE TAKES ON FLORIDA AT THE DOME
Louisville will try to make a big statement in their first ever appearance in the Sugar Bowl while Florida, on the other hand, will attempt to prove why they may have deserved a spot in the BCS title game. The Gators, unlike the Cardinals, are very familiar with the bowl game in New Orleans, as the Gators will play in their ninth Sugar Bowl. The Gators, led by head coach Will Muschamp, finished third in the BCS behind Notre Dame and Alabama. Their only loss came to SEC East against Georgia, 17-9. Louisville looked as if they were knocking on the door of an undefeated season until back-to-back losses in November brought them back to earth.
How They Got Here
The second season under Muschamp gave Gator fans more hope for the future than the first. Those fans will more than gladly take the trip to New Orleans for the New Year. A year ago they were in a much less prestigious spot when they finished the regular season 6-6 and added a seventh win over Ohio State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. In year two, the Gators finished 12th in the SEC in total offense, but a great defensive unit made it seem not as bad. Passing the ball was still a challenge as they finished dead last in the conference in passing yards per game. The rushing attack held up their end of the bargain however. Led by Mike Gillislee, the rushing game was fourth in the SEC racking up just over 194 yards a contest. Gillislee became just the third player in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards. Add a stiff defense, the Gators were able to navigate (save one game) through the season with a one-dimensional offensive attack. Defensively, they were great, ranking fifth in the nation in yards allowed a game.
Led by sensation sophomore Teddy Bridgewater, the Cardinals soared onto the national scene by winning their first nine games. It was much improved from the year before in which Louisville finished the season 7-5. Offensively, Bridgewater led the way by tossing 25 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. He ranks as the 15th best passer with 3,452 passing yards during the season. The defense held their own for the most part, allowing more than 23 points a game. They were a little soft in their ground defense ranking 53rd in the country and will face their toughest test in the Mercedes Benz Superdome in early January.
What We've Learned
Both teams were in the mix for a shot at the BCS title game for most of the season. The two programs just aren't there, yet. Both have a lot to build off of for next year and could use a BCS bowl game win to help catapult them there. Both programs stand on stable ground as Florida settled in to the leadership of their head coach, and Louisville's head man Charlie Strong proved he's committed to building a consistent winner in the Bluegrass state when he turned down at least one other job offer following the regular season. Both were on the brink, but each had games they'd like to have back. In Florida's lone loss, the Gators turned the ball over six times. With that, the offense could only muster up nine points, which wasn't enough in the World's Largest Cocktail Party. In losses to Syracuse and Connecticut in consecutive weeks, the Cardinals yielded 68 points to the opposition. In their first loss of the year, they gave up 524 yards to the Orangemen who are far from explosive.
Matchups To Watch
Anything is possible week to week during the regular season. Everything is possible with more than a month-long break between contests. Florida will try to pound away with their bread and butter, the running game. On paper, Gillislee is primed for a big night under the lights. They'll no doubt test the front seven of the Cardinals defense early and often, hoping the size and athleticism of their SEC offensive line will be too much for Louisville's defense. Strong's defense is giving up just more than 150 rushing yards a game. To beat Florida you have to be able to stop the run. Just ask LSU. Louisville will try and force Florida to be one dimensional and make the Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel beat them through the air. An interception here and there could keep Louisville, a heavy underdog, in the game for longer than then Gators would like. If that happens Louisville could have a chance to pull of the upset.
When the Cardinals have the ball, Bridgewater will face his toughest defense yet. It's one that is littered with NFL prospects. The Gators created 29 turnovers in the regular season, 19 of those were interceptions. Bridgewater will have to be smart with the football if his team is going to win their first Sugar Bowl. Turnovers are normally the difference in games. This one is no exception. The lone game in which Florida failed to win the turnover battle was against Georgia. They lost. Bridgewater and his offense will have to do what Florida lives off of, and that is controlling the clock. Look for Louisville to try their best to use short, high efficiency passes to try and wear the Gator defense out. Speaking of efficiency, Florida's defense enters the Sugar Bowl ranked first in passer efficiency in the country, holding opposing quarterbacks to just a 91.5 rating per game.
Charlie Strong will be going up against his former team. Strong had three stints with the Gators and would like nothing more than to show the folks in Gainesville just what lost. Those folks surely don't forget Strong. He was defensive coordinator/assistant head coach/ interim head coach from 2002 to 2009. It was his defense that helped win the national title twice while he resided in Florida. When former Florida head coach Ron Zook was fired during the 2004 season, Strong took over on an interim basis. The University then hired Urban Myer. Strong later told the Orlando Sentinel he believed race and more specifically his interracial relationship played a major part in the reason he wasn't offered the job then. Did I mention Strong would love to get back at his former team?
Florida has been pretty tough in bowl games recently. They've won their last four and six of their last seven. The Gators are 2-0 all-time against Louisville. Though it may not be the most appealing of bowl matchups, there are enough ingredients to make something special in the Big Easy.
What They're Saying
"We're honored to play in New Orleans. New Orleans is a great place for a lot of Gators, it was their first national championship in 1996. I have a lot of respect for Louisville and the football team they have," - Florida head coach Will Muschamp.
"We're so excited here at the University of Louisville to be playing an opponent like the University of Florida. Our football team has done a great job. It's a resilient team, a team that we had two of our stumbles late in the season, but from the onset we played pretty well. And I'm just so happy for this program and so happy for this university." - Louisville Head Coach Charlie Strong
Photo courtesy of UF Communications