Russell Athletic Bowl Preview and Prediction: Louisville vs. Miami

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The U of L and “The U” face off in Orlando

The U of L and “The U” face off in Orlando

Since joining the bowl party in 1990, the Russell Athletic Bowl has been known as the Blockbuster Bowl, CarQuest Bowl, MicronPC Bowl, Visit Florida Tangerine Bowl, Mazda Tangerine Bowl and, most recently, Champs Sports Bowl. The location of the game was Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami Gardens from 1990-2000 before moving to Orlando in 2001.

By any name, in any city, this year’s Russell Athletic Bowl is a great matchup — although Louisville (11–1, 7–1 American) and Miami (9–3, 5–3 ACC) enter this contest with decidedly different outlooks on life.

The Cardinals entered the season with expectations of an undefeated season. But a 38–35 loss to UCF under the lights on Friday night back on Oct. 18 ended the U of L’s quest at a shot at the BCS national championship crystal. Rather than a trip to Pasadena — or, more realistically, rather than complaining about being left out of the big game and settling for a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, where UCF is slotted — the Cards are going to Disney World.

Meanwhile, the Hurricanes are excited to be going anywhere after a two-year self-imposed bowl ban as a result of NCAA violations from the Nevin Shapiro scandal. Miami has not played in a bowl game since losing to rival Notre Dame, 33–17, in the Sun Bowl on New Year’s Eve in 2010. That game was coached by interim Jeff Soufland, who had replaced recently fired Randy Shannon. The U has not won a bowl game since squeaking by Nevada, 21–20, at the MPC Computers Bowl on New Year’s Eve in 2006. Ironically, that was Shannon’s first game as coach after replacing the recently fired Larry Coker.

This will be the 12th all-time meeting between Louisville and Miami. As expected, the Hurricanes have a 9–1–1 series edge. But the Cardinals won the most recent showdown, 31–7, at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in 2006. Miami carries a 2–1 record in the Russell Athletic Bowl, having won in South Florida in 1996 and 1998, but lost in Orlando in 2009. This will be Louisville’s first appearance in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

Louisville vs. Miami

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 28 at 6:45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Louisville -3.5

Three Things to Watch

Two NFL-caliber Quarterbacks
It’s not Sunday yet, but NFL fans will soon be watching Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Miami’s Stephen Morris on RedZone Channel. Both have prototypical size, next-level arm talent and a solid track record of success. As a result, the Cardinals enter with the 18th-ranked passing offense in the nation (302.9 ypg) and the Hurricanes with the 29th-ranked passing offense in the country (274.3 ypg).

Bridgewater (6’3”, 196) entered the season with as much hype as any quarterback this side of Johnny Football, after his coming out party upset win over Florida in last year’s Sugar Bowl. The junior had a solid season by most reasonable standards, completing 70.2 percent of his passes for 3,523 yards, 28 TDs and only four INTs. But Bridgewater did not lead the U of L to an undefeated record and was not invited to New York as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy — his two lofty goals heading into the season.

Although less-heralded, Morris (6’2”, 218) has had a strong senior season, completing 58.7 percent of his passes for 2,868 yards, 21 TDs and 12 INTs. Eight of those picks came in just three games, with four in a 27–23 win at North Carolina, two in a 45–30 win over Georgia Tech and two in a 41–14 loss at Florida State. Morris also delivered a signature win, taking down in-state rival Florida, 21–16, on Sept. 7 to set the tone for the 2013 season.

Sunshine State Speed
The Citrus Bowl seems as good a place as any to hold a track meet. And there is guaranteed to be speed on the field in Orlando. A whopping 39 Louisville players hail from the state of Florida, including 23 from the Miami area — most notably Bridgewater, who played at powerhouse Miami Northwestern High School as the successor to former Miami quarterback Jacory Harris. Obviously, the Hurricanes are loaded with 57 players from the Sunshine State.

Of the many notable athletes who will be playing this bowl game in front of home state fans, the headliners are Miami’s first-team All-ACC linebacker Denzel Perryman, second-team All-ACC wideout Allen Hurns and safety Deon Bush, along with Louisville’s first-team All-AAC cornerback Charles Gaines and first-team All-AAC safety Calvin Pryor. Although they play in different conferences at schools separated by 1,100 miles, many of the Cardinals and Hurricanes grew up together and have some of the same names and numbers in their iPhones.

Head Coaches With Upside
Will this be the final game on the sideline for U of L coach Charlie Strong? Gambling website Bovada had the 53-year-old Strong as the opening line favorite (2-to-1) to take the vacant University of Texas job. What about 44-year-old Miami coach Al Golden? He has been a hot candidate for just about every job opening east of USC. Although both men claim to be happy where they are, there is little doubt that Strong and Golden are two of the hottest commodities in the college coaching game today. Strong has a 36–15 record at Louisville with a 2–1 record in bowls. Golden is 22–14 at Miami and making his first bowl appearance, despite winning (then declining) the ACC Coastal Division title last season.

Key Player: Marcus Smith, DE, Louisville
The AAC Defensive Player of the Year will be overshadowed pregame by the pretty-boy, future-millionaire quarterbacks and hot-shot, rumor-mill head coaches. But once the whistle blows, a stacked Miami offensive line — led by guards Brandon Linder and Jon Feliciano, and tackle Seantrel Henderson — will need to contain Smith, who is a splash play waiting to happen. The 6’3”, 252-pounder from Columbus, Ga., posted 16.5 tackles for a loss of 104 yards this season, including 12.5 sacks for 95 lost yards. Smith also had three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a blocked kick. He’s not the fastest or the flashiest, but Smith could be the difference in the game.

Final Analysis
This year’s Russell Athletic Bowl has it all — with a pair of future NFL quarterbacks, two of the hottest coaches in the game, childhood and regional rivalries being rekindled, and motivation coming from both sides of the spectrum. The question is whether or not Louisville will be disappointed by a non-BCS bowl and pack it in? And whether or not Miami will be “happy to be here” rather than hungry to win? The most likely scenario, however, is that bowl the U of L and “The U” bring their A-games. After all, the leadership at the top — Strong-Bridgewater and Golden-Morris — is as strong as just about any coach-QB pairing in the country outside of Saban-McCarron or Fisher-Winston. Expect a blur of a game with speed and big plays galore. Like going to Disney World.

Prediction: Louisville 38, Miami 35

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