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Sugar Bowl Primer: Florida vs. Louisville

By Chip Patterson | College Football/Basketball Writer

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Florida Gators (11-1 overall, 7-1 SEC)

The Gators picked up the BCS at-large bid thanks to their No. 3 ranking in the final standings after an impressive 11-1 finish in just the second year under head coach Will Muschamp. After finishing the regular season 6-6 in Muschamp's debut, the Gators put together the program's biggest one-year turnaround in 32 years. Florida is led by its defense, which ranks No. 5 nationally in total defense (282.6 yards per game) and No. 3 in scoring defense (12.9 points per game). Offensively, Florida has relied heavily on a ground attack led by Mike Gillislee (1,104 yards, 10 touchdowns). As a team, the Gators ranked No. 3 in the SEC in rushing offense, averaging 92.1 yards per game and totaling 21 rushing touchdowns on the season. Quarterback Jeff Driskel battled injuries through the season, but was efficient in throwing 11 touchdown passes and just three interceptions.

At their best: The Gators' defense forced four turnovers, including two fumbles that resulted in touchdowns, in a 44-11 dismantling of South Carolina on Oct. 20 in Gainesville. The game, a top-10 matchup and pivotal SEC East showdown, showed much of the nation why Florida had crept up so high in the standings without a dominating offensive performances. Despite the large point margin, Florida was actually outgained by South Carolina 191-183. Turning 183 total yards of offense into 44 points was a magic trick by Driskel and the Gators defense, and that bruising brand of mistake-free football is what Florida fans are hoping to see in New Orleans on Wednesday.

At their worst: The very next week after that impressive win, Florida's mistake-free football fell apart and the Gators suffered their most costly loss under Muschamp. The offense was outgained again, but this time it turned the ball over six times to the eventual SEC East champs in a 17-9 loss to Georgia in Jacksonville. Tight end Jordan Reed had the ball in his hands at the five-yard line with just over two minutes remaining when Jarvis Jones forced a fumble that sealed the win for the Bulldogs. A win in that game likely sends Florida to the SEC Championship Game undefeated against Alabama, playing for a spot in the BCS title game. A Sugar Bowl win will be a nice consolation, but similar to the Gators' trip after the 2010 season -- facing Cincinnati in New Orleans after an Alabama loss in Tim Tebow's senior season -- this game has a distinct case of the "what ifs" for Gators fans.

Headliner: Any number of names from the Florida defense could be listed here, but the one to keep an eye on is junior safety Matt Elam. Elam ranks No. 2 on the team with 65 tackles and leads the team in interceptions (4), but it has been his knack for game-changing plays that earned him First Team All-American honors in 2012. He has been one of the most athletic and dangerous defenders in the SEC all season, and with NFL Draft rumors afoot this could be our last chance to watch him play college football.

Louisville Cardinals (10-2 overall, 5-2 Big East)

Louisville recorded the best start in program history (9-0) before falling in back-to-back games to Syracuse and Connecticut and needing a tough 20-17 win at Rutgers in the regular season finale to earn a share of the Big East title and clinch the league's automatic bid to the BCS. Talented sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has developed into a star, earning Big East Offensive Player of the Year honors after leading a balanced Cardinals' attack that averaged 31 points and 425.7 yards per game on the season. After missing the postseason three straight years under Steve Kragthorpe, Louisville is 3 for 3 under head coach Charlie Strong. Strong was reportedly considered a top candidate for multiple BCS conference jobs, but decided to stay at Louisville and agreed to a new multi-year contract extension.

At their best: Louisville developed the habit of comebacks early in the season, erasing multiple double-digit deficits in a 34-31 overtime win against Cincinnati, the eventual co-Big East Champion. The offense overcame a sluggish start to finish with 524 yards and wide receiverDeVante Parker caught two touchdown passes from Bridgewater in the fourth quarter during the comeback.

At their worst: After starting the season 9-0, the Cardinals jumped up into the top 10 of the BCS standings. While they were not being considered a national title favorite, the fame may have shaken the teams focus for a couple of weeks in November. The Cardinals' pass defense, which ranked among the best in the Big East on the season, completely broke down against Ryan Nassib and Syracuse in a 45-26 loss on Nov. 10. The Cardinals then looked sluggish coming off a bye week in a 23-20 triple overtime loss to Connecticut at home on Nov. 24. Bridgewater had one of his toughest games of the season against the Huskies, completing just 30 of 53 passes while getting sacked four times and throwing the game-sealing interception. Luckily, the star quarterback bounced back against the Scarlet Knights.

Headliner: The Big East has not had a quarterback dominate the league like Bridgewater since Pat White led West Virginia to a conference title in 2007 -- the last time a quarterback won Big East Offensive Player of the Year Honors. Bridgewater finished the season with 3,452 passing yards and 25 touchdown passes to just seven interceptions. His importance to the team runs deeper than stats, as made obvious by the aforementioned Cincinnati game and his heroic efforts against Rutgers in the regular season finale. Battling an ankle injury and a broken left wrist, Bridgewater led the Cardinals on two second half touchdowns drives to clinch the program's first BCS bid since the Bobby Petrino era.

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What: Allstate Sugar Bowl

When: Wednesday, Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. ESPN

Weird: Not as much weird as notable is Strong's long history with Florida. Not only did the Cardinals head coach spend seven seasons as the Gators' defensive coordinator from 2003-09, but he also started his coaching career in Gainesville as a graduate assistant (1983-84), outside linebackers coach (1988-89), defensive ends coach (1991-93), and led the defensive tackles while serving as assistant head coach in 1994. Strong also brought three Florida assistants to Louisville when he was hired in 2009.

Line: Florida -14

Prediction: While Louisville will enter the game inspired and ready to give Florida its best shot, I do not think the Gators defense will allow more than one touchdown. From there it becomes an issue of whether or not Driskel and the Florida offense can take care of the ball. If they do not, Louisville may be able to steal some points and keep it interesting. If the Gators do not turn the ball over, it will only be a matter of time before Gillislee and the rushing attack wear down the Cardinals and find the end zone.

Florida 24, Louisville 13

For all of the dates, times, ticket and viewing info for all 35 games; check out the Bowl Schedule page

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