By BRETT MARTEL
NEW ORLEANS — Florida seniors Jon Bostic and Omar Hunter are done dwelling on what might have been if not for their lone loss to Georgia.
After finishing third in the BCS standings, one spot too low to play for a national title in Miami, the Gators asserted they remain highly motivated heading into today’s Sugar Bowl against two-touchdown underdog Louisville.
Hunter even suggested a victory for fourth-ranked Florida (11-1) over No. 22 Louisville (10-2) would be a “program changer,” because Florida has not been to a BCS bowl game since Tim Tebow left after the 2009 season.
Last year, the Gators nearly missed out on the postseason, finishing the regular season 6-6 before posting a 24-17 victory over Ohio State in the Gator Bowl. This season, only a 17-9 loss to Georgia on Oct. 27 got in their way.
“Being able to get this program back to a BCS game and possibly winning the game is big for our program,” Hunter said. “Being able to say that you brought Florida back to the top before you left is going to be special for these seniors.”
The Gators are hesitant to buy into the idea they’ll just roll over the champions of the Big East without much resistance.
One reason is their familiarity with Louisville coach Charlie Strong, who was Florida’s defensive coordinator from 2003-09, a period that included national championships in the 2006 and 2008 seasons.
“I played for his defense and I know how he talked to us and got us ready for games and I know their defense is going to be ready,” Hunter said. “Coach Charlie Strong is a great coach. He’s going to give everything he has to those guys and those guys are going to come out ready.”
Strong has sought to motivate his players by playing up their underdog status.
“Nobody really gives us a chance,” Louisville defensive end Marcus Smith said. “We kind of take that to heart and want to show everybody what we can do.”
Cardinals safety Calvin Pryor said he believes Louisville will “shock the world.”
“I have confidence in my team and the guys who I play with and I feel like this is a big statement game for us,” Pryor said. “I feel like we’re going to make big things happen on Wednesday.”
Strong said he may get a little sentimental when he walks onto the Superdome field and sees some of the players he recruited on the other sideline and hears the Florida band play the fight songs with which he became so familiar over the years.
Yet the importance of the game for Strong has more to do with matching his team against an opponent from the Southeastern Conference, home to national title winners the past six years, than the fact he used to coach in the Swamp.
“It’s going to be key for our program because we have a chance to go play a Southeastern Conference opponent, an opponent that’s one game away from playing for a national championship,” Strong said. “If you look at the Southeastern Conference, look at the national championships over the last few years, it speaks for itself. … Our team, they’re really excited about it.”
Strong had a chance to rejoin the SEC as Tennessee’s head coach, but chose instead to remain at Louisville, an indication of how far he believes he can take Cardinals football, particularly if he keeps prolific sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater around the next couple seasons.
Bridgewater, an exceptional passer and scrambler, ranked eighth in the nation in pass efficiency, throwing for 3,452 yards and 25 TDs. Although he was worn down up by the end of the season, he was tough enough to overcome a broken wrist and sore ankle, and played a crucial part-time role in a 20-17 victory over Rutgers in late November that punched Louisville’s BCS ticket.
He’s now had a little over a month to rest, and is doing better, though Strong was coy about how much better.
“Our game plan is all about Teddy. So Teddy’s healthy now,” Strong said. “I’m not saying he’s 100 percent, but he’s going to be better than he was in the Rutgers game.”
Bridgewater led an offense that scored an average of 31 points this season, and Florida’s defense is assuming the quarterback is healthy. But the Gators aren’t exactly lacking confidence in their ability to slow him down. The Gators rank first nationally in pass defense efficiency, fifth in total defense and third in scoring defense, allowing an average of 12.9 points.
With its defense playing so well, Florida was able to win this season with a ball-control offense that did not ask too much of quarterback Jeff Driskel, who completed about 65 percent of his passes for 1,471 yards and 11 TDs.
The Gators largely rode running back Mike Gillislee, who rushed 1,104 yards and 10 TDs, and who is a threat to break off long runs.
“You look at the big plays he’s had in the open field, he can do a lot of things,” Louisville defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. “One thing we cannot allow him to do is cut back on us. If he does, he’s probably going to take it to the distance.”
No. 4 Florida (11-1) vs. No. 22 Louisville (10-2), 3:30 p.m. HST (ESPN)
At: The Superdome in New Orleans
Line: Florida by 14.
Series record: Florida leads 2-0.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Florida missed out on playing for the national title because of its loss to Georgia, but still could finish in the top three in the nation with a convincing victory. Louisville is making its first appearance in the Sugar Bowl and second in a BCS bowl, and could provide coach Charlie Strong with a significant boost in recruiting momentum by upsetting the Gators of the Southeastern Conference.
Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater against Florida’s highly rated defense. Bridgewater ranks eighth in the nation in pass efficiency and averages 287.7 yards passing. Florida’s defense ranks fifth nationally in yards allowed, third in scoring defense and first in pass defense efficiency.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Florida: RB Mike Gillislee is the star of Florida’s offense. He has rushed for 1,104 yards and 10 TDs this season. He also is a threat on short passes, having caught 15 for 146 yards and a score.
Louisville: WR DeVante Parker has 712 yards and nine TDs receiving. RB Jeremy Wright leads the Cardinals with 186 carries for 740 yards.
FACTS & FIGURES
The Gators, making their 40th bowl appearance and ninth in the Sugar Bowl, have won a school-record four straight bowls, a streak that dates to their Jan. 8, 2009, BCS title victory over Oklahoma. … Florida is competing in its eighth straight bowl overall. … The Gators have been to six previous BCS bowls, winning five, and with another victory in the Sugar Bowl would have more BCS bowl victories than any program in the nation. … The 2012 Gators are the fifth Florida team to win 11 regular-season games. … Louisville coach Charlie Strong was Florida’s defense coordinator from 2003-09, which spanned the Gators’ past two national titles in the 2006 and 2008 seasons. … Louisville is appearing in its second BCS Bowl. The first came after the 2006 season, when the Cardinals beat Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl to finish 12-1. … Louisville seeks to reach the 11-win mark for the fourth time in school history. … Louisville’s only previous meetings with Florida came in Gainesville in 1980, a 13-0 loss, and 1992, a 31-17 defeat. … Louisville is the Big East champion, clinching its spot in a BCS bowl with a 20-17 victory over Rutgers on Nov. 29. … Louisville has scored an average of 31 points per game, while Florida has given up an average of 12.9 points.