The Star-Ledger-US PRESSWIRE
It's early, sure. But there's a lot to like about Florida's matchup with Louisville, Teddy Bridgewater included.
1. This is the Charlie Strong Bowl.
Louisville's success right now is all thanks to Charlie Strong. The former Florida defensive coordinator was the good soldier for so long for the Gators, and virtually no one wearing Orange and Blue in New Orleans will have any bad memories of Strong's time with Florida.
But Strong's greatest success came after earning two rings in Gainesville: He has done a superb job bringing the Cardinals back from the crater that Steve Kragthorpe left, taking the bones of a 4-8 team that won its games over Indiana State, Southern Miss, Arkansas State, and Syracuse and fashioning a spine for Louisville teams that have had three straight winning seasons. Winning the Big East — even if it's only by BCS tiebreaker — is a big accomplishment for Louisville, and for Strong.
2. But Charlie Strong might not be in it.
That accomplishment might just be a ticket out of Louisville, too. Here's what has happened to the coaches of the last six Big East BCS bowl representatives:
So if Strong stays, he'll be the second coach in seven years to remain in the Big East after taking a Big East team to a BCS bowl. Sure, Holgorsen couldn't stay, and Louisville isn't in the Big East for much longer, but it's rare for a coach to stick around once he realizes he has the best house in a neighborhood of fixer-uppers. And Strong may well have chances to hop to Auburn or Arkansas at some point in the next month.
3. Florida has used Louisville as a Homecoming doormat before. Twice.
Florida's only played Louisville twice, in 1980 and 1992. Both times, the Cardinals were the Gators' Homecoming hors d'oeuvres, and both times, the Cardinals lost by double digits, 13-0 in 1980 and 31-17 in 1992.
4. Teddy Bridgewater is a star.
Bridgewater's maybe the best of the quarterbacks to have come from the Class of 2011, which looks absolutely loaded at this point. (Also in it: Braxton Miller, Jeff Driskel, Max Wittek, and others.) And Bridgewater's coming off a phenomenal performance against Rutgers in a de facto Big East championship game (263 yards and two touchdowns with some incredible throws despite significant injuries); he might well be the best pure quarterback Florida's seen this year, which flabbergasts even me to write, considering that the Gators played against uncrowned Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, EJ Manuel, and Zach Mettenberger.
5. Florida has everything to lose.
Florida's spot in this Sugar Bowl reminds me a lot of Alabama's in the 2009 Sugar Bowl: After narrowly missing on a chance to be holding crystal at year's end, an SEC team gets back into the national conversation as an elite program and a chance to hammer home the "We're baaack" message against a heavy underdog.
Utah won that Sugar Bowl. And though I think Florida's less likely to come out flat than that Alabama team was, and less susceptible to Louisville, the parallels between Will Muschamp's Florida tenure and Nick Saban's reign at Alabama have been uncanny to this point.
6. Louisville has nothing to lose.
Louisville is playing for the pride every team plays for in a bowl, sure. But Louisville, which rarely plays an SEC team that isn't Kentucky, is also playing to prove that it belongs at a big table with the big boys, and the dozens of Florida players on the Louisville roster are playing to prove something to the Sunshine State's current behemoth. There are plenty of reasons to believe that the Cardinals are going to come out ready to play.
7. Revenge for the Elite Eight?
Remember Florida losing to Louisville in the Elite Eight? WE CAN GET THEM BACK BY BEATING THEM IN OUR SPORT.
8. Fond farewells?
I sincerely think this will be the last time we see Sharrif Floyd and Matt Elam in Florida uniforms, and that the same thing will be true for a slew of seniors. Those seniors have been through a ton during the pendulum swings of the last four years, and I would love to see them go out with wins.
9. There are former Gators on Louisville's roster.
Adrian Bushell, Gerald Christian, and Robert Clark all transferred from Florida to Louisville. Bushell's become a good player for the Cards' defense, ranking fourth on the team in solo tackles and first in passes broken up, but Christian and Clark are both on the sideline and waiting another year to play.
10. Brent Pease has a month to plan for this game.
Depending on how much credit you want to give Florida and Brent Pease, either the entire month of November or the better part of three weeks of practice was devoted to game-planning for Florida State. Pease is going to have longer to dream things up for a defense that isn't as good as Florida State's. I'm sure he's delighted tonight.
11. Can Jeff Driskel make the leap?
Florida's got a chance to be one of the top five teams in the 2013 preseason rankings, even if it's not going to be the No. 1 team barring a stunning series of returns by NFL-caliber players. But the key to Florida being great in 2013 going forward is Jeff Driskel becoming the best possible quarterback he can be. That means adding deep ball accuracy like the sort that A.J. McCarron and Aaron Murray showed Saturday in the SEC Championship Game, getting better at throwing the ball away so that Florida doesn't leave the ball on the field, and making smarter decisions as a runner to avoid injuries that will be difficult for Florida to sustain next year.
Like Pease, Driskel has a month of bowl practice to work on all that. I can't wait to see if he gets better.