Florida vs. Louisville: Sugar Bowl Breakdown
Florida (11-1) vs. Louisville (10-2)
Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater knows which fictional character the Cardinals need to emulate to beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl. "Games like these," Bridgewater said, "we're going to try to put an 'S' on our chests and a cape on our back." More specifically, the sophomore from Miami must be faster than a Matt Elam, more powerful than a Sharrif Floyd and able to leap Jon Bostics in a single bound for Louisville to have a chance against a team that went 11-1 and beat four teams (Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina and Florida State) that finished the regular season with a combined record of 41-8.
Against the Gators, the Cardinals face a talent deficit at almost every position except quarterback. Bridgewater is the player most likely to serve as an equalizer. Of course, Florida has beaten some pretty good quarterbacks already -- including Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. "[Bridgewater] is just another guy," Florida defensive tackle Floyd said. "He is not his whole team. He needs his O-line. He needs his receivers. So we will use our game plan and do what we need to do."
So which will Bridgewater be in New Orleans? Will he be Superman, or will Florida's defense render him just another mild-mannered quarterback?
1. Playing down: The Gators have played to the level of their competition all season -- much to the chagrin of coach Will Muschamp. Louisville isn't as good as quite a few of the teams the Gators have already beaten, but the Gators have a habit of allowing their opponents to stay close. Remember, this is the same team that got pushed to the limit at home by Missouri and then almost lost to Louisiana-Lafayette at home the following week. Had Northern Illinois not crashed the BCS, the Gators probably would have been playing Oklahoma in this game. Florida players probably would have had an easier time getting motivated to face the Sooners. The Gators must avoid sleeping on the Cardinals, who, with the exception of a late two-game slide, were just as good as Florida at playing exactly to the level of the competition and winning close. In a six-game stretch from Sept. 15-Oct. 26, Louisville won all six of its games by an average of 5.1 points.
2. Safety school: While Florida safety Elam gets all the All-America accolades, don't forget that Louisville has two excellent safeties. Sophomore Calvin Pryor has 94 tackles and four forced fumbles, while junior Hakeem Smith has 66 tackles. Pryor, Smith and the rest of the Louisville secondary will have to force turnovers, because when Florida wins the turnover competition, Florida wins the game. The Gators were plus-20 in turnover margin in their 11 wins. They were minus-three in their loss to Georgia. Florida doesn't take to the air often -- quarterback Jeff Driskel has thrown only 216 times this season -- but the passing game is the weakest link on Florida's team. If the Cardinals can wreak havoc on the rare occasions when Florida does put the ball in the air, they'll have a shot.
3. Healthy hogs: Though Florida guard James Wilson revealed during bowl preparation that he has played in almost constant pain for his entire career, this is actually the healthiest Florida's offensive line has been since early in the season. And when the line is healthy, Florida can pound opponents in the run game. Against LSU, Florida State and Vanderbilt -- teams that combined for 29 regular-season wins -- the Gators barely had to throw the ball to win. If this group is feeling good, expect some big holes for Florida tailback Mike Gillislee.
Can Louisville move the ball on Florida's defense? Louisville averages 298.6 passing yards per game. Florida allows an average of 186.4 passing yards per game. The Gators' defensive line combo of Floyd and end Dominique Easley doesn't give opposing quarterbacks much time to throw. Bridgewater's superior mobility should allow him to escape pressure and get the ball down the field toward receivers Damian Copeland and Eli Rogers. But if the Gators get to Bridgewater frequently, forget it. The Cardinals will have little hope.
Louisville coach Charlie Strong: Strong, who was Florida's defensive coordinator before he took the Louisville job prior to the 2010 season, helped recruit many of the players on Florida's roster. He knows them well, and that knowledge should have helped Louisville prepare for the Gators. That certainly isn't the most important factor -- the fact that Strong is an excellent defensive strategist means more -- but it adds a layer of intrigue.
1: Florida ranks first in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Opposing quarterbacks have a 91.5 rating against the Gators.
If Florida is motivated, the Gators should handle the Cardinals easily. But if Florida doesn't take Louisville seriously and starts slow, this will be a close game in the fourth quarter.
Florida 24, Louisville 16