NEW ORLEANS (CBSMiami/AP) – If Northern Illinois hadn’t blown up the Bowl Championship Series this year, the Florida Gators would be preparing for a Sugar Bowl matchup against the Oklahoma Sooners.
Instead, the Gators will tangle with the Big East champion Louisville Cardinals. But, don’t believe for a second the Gators are overlooking the Cardinals. Gators Senior Omar Hunter said a victory in the Sugar Bowl could be a game changer for the program.
Until this season, the Gators had not been to a BCS bowl since Tim Tebow left school after the 2009 season. This year, the only thing that stopped the Gators from playing for at least the SEC championship and possibly a national championship is a loss to the Georgia Bulldogs.
“Being able to get this program back to a BCS game and possibly winning the game is big for our program,” Hunter said. “Being able to say that you brought Florida back to the top before you left is going to be special for these seniors.”
Florida’s seniors on defense are all too familiar with Cardinals head coach Charlie Strong, as many were recruited to Florida by Strong, who served as UF’s defensive coordinator from 2003-2009.
“I played for his defense and I know how he talked to us and got us ready for games and I know their defense is going to be ready,” Hunter said. “Coach Charlie Strong is a great coach. He’s going to give everything he has to those guys and those guys are going to come out ready.”
Strong said he may get a little sentimental when he walks onto the Superdome field and sees some of the players he recruited on the other sideline and hears the Florida band play the fight songs with which he became so familiar over the years.
Yet the importance of the game for Strong has more to do with matching his team against an opponent from the Southeastern Conference, home to national title winners the past six years, than the fact he used to coach in the Swamp.
“It’s going to be key for our program because we have a chance to go play a Southeastern Conference opponent, an opponent that’s one game away from playing for a national championship,” Strong said. “If you look at the Southeastern Conference, look at the national championships over the last few years, it speaks for itself. … Our team, they’re really excited about it.”
What Florida may not quite be ready for is Miamian Teddy Bridgewater. The Cardinals quarterback has grown into a superb quarterback in only his second season at Louisville. Bridgewater threw for 3,452 yards, 25 touchdowns, and just 7 interceptions, completing 69 percent of his passes.
“Our game plan is all about Teddy. So Teddy’s healthy now,” Strong said. “I’m not saying he’s 100 percent, but he’s going to be better than he was in the Rutgers game.”
Bridgewater led an offense that scored an average of 31 points this season, and Florida’s defense is assuming the quarterback is healthy. But the Gators aren’t exactly lacking confidence in their ability to slow him down. The Gators rank first nationally in pass defense efficiency, fifth in total defense and third in scoring defense, allowing an average of 12.9 points.
With its defense playing so well, Florida was able to win this season with a ball-control offense that did not ask too much of quarterback Jeff Driskel, who completed about 65 percent of his passes for 1,471 yards and 11 TDs.
The Gators largely rode running back Mike Gillislee, who rushed 1,104 yards and 10 TDs, and who is a threat to break off long runs.
“You look at the big plays he’s had in the open field, he can do a lot of things,” Louisville defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. “One thing we cannot allow him to do is cut back on us. If he does, he’s probably going to take it to the distance.”
(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)