Louisville is a clear underdog in the Sugar Bowl, but the Cardinals can already claim one major victory over an SEC team this postseason.
Charlie Strong’s decision to stay with the school also sets up an intriguing reunion Wednesday in New Orleans.
The former Florida defensive coordinator leads No. 22 Louisville against the fourth-ranked Gators, who are looking for their fifth straight win in a BCS bowl.
Strong’s success at Louisville (10-2) made him one of the hot names in this year’s coaching carousel, but he turned down an offer from Tennessee to stay with the Cardinals, who are moving from the Big East to the ACC in 2014.
“You look at those jobs, but I have a great job here,” said Strong, who shared the Big East coach of the year award with Rutgers’ Kyle Flood. “The stability of this program is always going to be solid and they’re going to do everything to make this one of the best programs in the country.”
Strong helped Florida (11-1) remain among the nation’s best programs in recent years. He’s had four different stints on the Gators’ staff, most significantly running their defense from 2003-09 - a stretch that included a pair of BCS titles.
“It’s a program of excellence and I really enjoyed my time there,” he said. “I watch that program every week.
“I’m just happy for this program to get to a BCS bowl game,” Strong said about Louisville. “I don’t really know if it really matters who we play. I love the University of Florida but I’m just so happy for our players.”
Louisville took a circuitous path to this game, starting 9-0 before dropping back-to-back contests to Syracuse and Connecticut. The Cardinals then fell behind 14-3 at halftime at Rutgers in the regular-season finale Nov. 29, but they recovered to win 20-17 to earn a share of the Big East title and the conference’s BCS bid.
A month off could get Big East offensive player of the year Teddy Bridgewater back to full health. The sophomore quarterback completed 69.0 percent of his passes for 3,452 yards and 25 touchdowns, but he didn’t start and couldn’t take snaps under center against Rutgers due to a broken wrist and a sore ankle.
That didn’t stop the Florida native from coming off the bench and going 20 of 28 for 263 yards and a pair of TDs to rally the Cardinals.
“That was a gutsy performance,” Gators coach Will Muschamp said. “His efficiency as far as completion percentage is off the charts. So he’s a guy that gets the ball in the right spots and is obviously very accurate with the football and he’s a winner.”
Muschamp’s defense, though, could provide a challenge unlike anything Bridgewater has seen. Led by first-team All-America safety Matt Elam, the Gators rank third nationally in points allowed (12.9 per game), and they’ve given up five passing touchdowns while making 19 interceptions.
Their opponents completed 51.2 percent of their passes for just 186.0 yards per game. Florida held eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel to a season-low 173 passing yards in beating Texas A&M in September.
All-SEC running back Mike Gillislee is another huge reason the Gators are back in a BCS bowl after going 7-6 in Muschamp’s first season in Gainesville last year. With Florida’s passing attack often quiet, Gillislee piled up 1,104 yards and 10 touchdowns to power one of the SEC’s top ground games.
“We have played very good defense throughout the year,” Muschamp said. “Offensively, we have done some nice things. We have to be more consistent in getting the ball down the field vertically, but been real pleased with this team.”
While Louisville beat Wake Forest in the 2007 Orange Bowl in its only previous BCS appearance, Florida has been a mainstay on college football’s biggest stage. This is the Gators’ seventh BCS bid - only Ohio State and Oklahoma have more - and they routed Big East champion Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl three years ago to improve to 5-1 in BCS games.
They would have had a chance for an SEC championship and a spot in the BCS title game had they not lost to Georgia 17-9 in Jacksonville on Oct. 27. The Bulldogs fell to Alabama in the SEC title game, which gave the Gators the conference’s second BCS spot even though they finished second in the SEC East.
Muschamp thinks his team may have deserved even better.
“We have a really tough football team,” the coach said after a 37-26 win at Florida State on Nov. 24. “We should be playing for the national championship.”
Gillislee had 24 carries for 140 yards and two touchdowns against the Seminoles. A heavy dose of the senior may again be in store considering the Cardinals allowed an average of 174.6 rushing yards in Big East play to rank seventh in the eight-team league.
Florida hasn’t asked too much of sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel, who has averaged 19.6 pass attempts for 133.7 yards. He has limited his mistakes, throwing only three interceptions along with 11 TDs.
The Gators won both previous meetings with Louisville in 1980 and 1992, both in Gainesville.