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Sugar Bowl Preview and Prediction: Florida vs. Louisville


Florida and Louisville haven’t played each other during the lifetime of many of the players on the field in New Orleans, but familiar faces will be all over the place.

The Gators and Cardinals, who last met in a 31-17 Florida win in 1992, are full of Sunshine State-born players. Florida’s roster, of course, is awash with home-state players (66 total). Under former Gators assistant Charlie Strong, though, Louisville ramped up its strategy of aggressively recruiting Florida with 34 players from the state on its roster, including the Cardinals top player in Miami native Teddy Bridgewater.

Though this isn’t necessarily a recruiting battle by proxy -- the Cardinals rarely compete for the same prospects as Florida and tend to delve more into the Miami area -- this could be an important statement for Louisville.

“If you just break down that state, you can go get 25 players within that state,” Strong said. “What’s different for us here [in Kentucky] is you don’t have the state where you can go and get 25 players. You would like to go find those types of players, but you have to go outside of this state.”

And the familiarity with the former Florida high school stars is just the start: Strong was an assistant at Florida for three stints under four coaches, including a defensive coordinator/co-coordinator for the 2006 and ’08 title teams. He also recruited or coached many of Florida’s upperclassmen and took with him to Louisville two former Gators assistants (running backs coach Kenny Carter and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford).

While the shared background of the rosters and coaching staffs is an intriguing storyline, Louisville will have to try to find a way to crack a stout Florida defense.

Bridgewater may be a Heisman-contending quarterback in 2013, but he’ll open the calendar year against the nation’s No. 1 pass efficiency defense. Through the season, the Gators were able to neutralize Florida State’s E.J. Manuel, Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Texas A&M’s Heisman-winner Johnny Manziel.

Sugar Bowl - Florida (11-1) vs. Louisville (10-2)

Date and time: Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. Eastern
Network: ESPN
Location: New Orleans, La.

When Florida has the ball:

The Gators’ primary strength is a power run game led by Mike Gillislee. When Florida gets its run game and blocking going, watch out. Against Tennessee, LSU and Florida State this season, Gillislee and the line took charge in the second half with long, methodical drives. This could be a problem for a Louisville defense that finished seventh in the Big East in stopping the run. Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel has showed potential as a run-pass threat, but the Gators offense has struggled for two years in the pass game. Driskel threw for fewer than 100 yards in a game four times this season, but Florida won all four of those games. Many of the problems in the pass game can be traced to a lackluster receiving corps and break downs in pass protection. Florida allowed three sacks per game.

Louisville, however, is coming off one of its best defensive performances of the season, and it came against a Rutgers team similarly built around a stout run game but with a shaky quarterback. In the regular season finale, Louisville held Rutgers to 54 rushing yards and forced three turnovers. Florida also has one of the best special teams units in the country with a Groza finalist (Caleb Sturgis) and Ray Guy finalist (Kyle Christy).

When Louisville has the ball:

Bridgewater can be one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, and as he proved late in the season, one of the toughest. Bridgewater battled through wrist and ankle injuries to pass for 263 yards against Rutgers, displaying pinpoint accuracy late despite being hobbled. Bridgewater threw 16 touchdown passes to four interceptions in the final six games of the season. DeVante Parker emerged as his go-to receiver downfield, but five Cardinals topped 30 catches. The problem for the Louisville offense, though, has been putting too much on Bridgewater’s shoulders, especially after a season-ending injury to running back Senorise Perry.

The Cardinals struggled when they couldn’t find balance. Achieving that goal will be tough against Florida, which ranked in the top 10 nationally in rush defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense and scoring defense. Safety Matt Elam (four interceptions, 10 tackles for a loss) can cause problems all over the field. If there’s a weakness in the bowl game for the Gators defense it will be the absence of starting linebacker Jelani Jenkins with a broken foot. As with many of the SEC’s top defenses, the Gators have a stout defensive line that will present problems for a Louisville line that starts three sophomores.

Final analysis:

Louisville lost two of its last three, including a defeat to bowl no-show Connecticut. Bridgewater limped to the finish line with injuries, so the layoff may do the Cardinals quarterback good. Florida had its flaws, but the Gators still managed to go 11-1. The Florida defense may be overwhelming even for a healthy Bridgewater. The Gators’ offense isn’t all that great, but neither is the Cardinals’ defense. The edge goes to Florida on both sides of the ball and in special teams.

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Prediction: Florida 28, Louisville 14

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