Sugar Bowl Preview: Louisville-Florida

It was just back in March that Florida and Louisville were hooking up for a big game. That was in basketball and Louisville won a thriller to go to the Final Four. Now we’re on Florida’s turf in football and the two schools get set to meet in the Sugar Bowl tonight. TheSportsNotebook reviews the paths each team trod to get here this season and then assesses the matchup.

Florida is in the second year under coach Wil Muschamp and there weren’t expectations of a big season. The Gators looked sloppy in the opener, a 27-14 win over Bowling Green where the win came in spite of fourteen penalties. Then a narrow win over Texas A&M on the road followed. In retrospect we know that Bowling Green made a bowl game and the freshman quarterback that A&M was breaking in was sort of good. We didn’t know that then, and there wasn’t a lot of reason to get excited in Gainesville.

The team’s identity began to really get established in easy wins over Tennessee and Kentucky. Florida was running the ball with Mike Gillislee, the passing game of Jeff Driskell was high-percentage, low-risk and just managed the game. The defense was the calling card, and that formula would lead them into the toughest stretch of the season.

Gillislee had big games in a home victory of LSU and a road triumph at Vanderbilt. It set up a battle with South Carolina, and the Florida defense forced early Gamecock turnovers and the game turned into a shocking 44-11 rout. Florida was in command of its national championship fate and looked destined for a rumble with Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Then the turnovers went against them, as they played their worst game of the year, a 17-9 loss to Georgia that ensured it would be the Dawgs, not the Gators, playing a de facto national semi-final in the SEC Championship.

Florida seemed out of it after that loss. They were uninspired in a win over Missouri. A home date with bowl-bound UL-Lafayette nearly turned into a nightmare, and it took a blocked punt at the end of regulation to escape with a 27-20 win. The offense didn’t even get untracked against Jacksonville State, in an unimpressive 23-20 win.

Then came a road date with Florida State and suddenly Florida found an interest in playing football again. They were undoubtedly motivated by the fact that if Notre Dame lost at USC that same weekend, it reopened the national title game back to Florida. The Gators got back to their identity—Gillislee had a big night on the ground, the defense forced five turnovers and Florida rolled to a win over their archrival.

Louisville tuned up in September with wins over Kentucky and Missouri State, with Teddy Bridgewater throwing the ball well and the running game providing some balance to the offense. Then came a thrilling 39-34 win over North Carolina, where the Cards nearly let a big lead slip away. The win looks even more impressive in light of UNC’s solid year—they would have won the ACC Coastal Division if not for probation, but an ensuing stretch of road wins over Florida International, Southern Miss, Pitt and then a home win over South Florida, all were less than impressive. Bridgewater was playing well, but not outstanding. The latter four wins in this sequence came by a combined 23 points.

The sophomore quarterback turned up the juice in a Friday night game at Cincinnati, as the part of the season when the best teams in the Big East would play, began. He threw for 416 yards in an overtime victory, then threw for 338 more in a blowout of Temple. He continued to play well in road games at Syracuse and UConn, but in both the Cardinal running game disappeared, and their ability to stop the run went with it. Louisville lost both games, but they got enough help to ensure that a season-ending Thursday night game in Rutgers would be for the Big East’s BCS bid.

Bridgewater played with his non-throwing hand broken, and played well. Louisville’s defense forced three turnovers and they rallied for a 20-17 win over the Scarlet Knights that got them the chance to play this game.

Two things stand out about Louisville, both good and bad. You never saw a game where they beat themselves. They’re very well-coached with Charlie Strong and they don’t give games away. That was enough to win a Big East where Cincinnati and Rutgers each had their own set of issues with self-destruction. But when you look at the persistent patter of Louisville get hammered on the ground, the matchup problem they have with Florida becomes apparent.

With a team like Florida, the concern is always what their motivational level is going to be. They had a shot at playing for the national championship into Thanksgiving weekend. How exciting is the prospect of playing Louisville? Unless basketball coach Billy Donovan can motivate the Gator football players into avenging the school for the NCAA Tournament loss I don’t see how it happens. And I hope it comes across online that I’m being facetious with that thought.

Furthermore, Florida showed an obvious pattern of disinterest after the Georgia loss seemed to remove them from the national championship picture. I think their overall defensive speed is going to cause Bridgewater too many problems, but the point spread of (-14) is heavy. Do you take a defensive-heavy team that doesn’t throw down the field and has a pattern of sluggishness, to win in a blowout?

On my Monday podcast with Greg DePalma at Prime Sports Network, I was sympathetic to Florida because of the talent level. After a couple days to think it over, I’ve had a change of heart, and I’ve also been less than impressed with the SEC’s play thus far. Georgia let Nebraska hang around and South Carolina should have lost to Michigan. Those are the teams Florida beat out in the SEC East. I think they’ll win tonight in New Orleans, but closer than the experts say.

Outright Winner: Florida
Pointspread Winner: Louisville (+14)
Totals Line: Under 47

Outright Winners: 15-13
Pointspread Winners: 11-16-1
Totals Line: 15-13
*Did not pick Rose Bowl, due to fan bias towards Wisconsin