Sugar Bowl: Florida vs. Louisville preview

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The Matchup: #3 Florida (11-1) vs. #21 Louisville (10-2)

When: Wednesday, January 2nd

Where: New Orleans, LA

Game Time: 8:30 PM ET

TV: ESPN

What you need to know about Louisville: The Cardinals clinched a share of the Big East Championship and ultimately got the BCS bowl bid due to the highest BCS ranking in the Big East.

Louisville was tied with Cincinnati for the highest scoring offense in the Big East at 31 points per game, and they finished third in total offense. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater leads an explosive Cardinals’ offense. Several programs offered Bridgewater as an athlete or a wide receiver exiting high school, thinking he wasn’t good enough to play quarterback in college.  But he’s shut the mouths of the naysayers with his stellar accuracy, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. He’s thrown for 3,451 yards and 25 touchdowns compared to just seven interceptions. Five different receivers caught more than 30 passes from Bridgewater this season, with DeVante Parker leading the way. The Cardinals finished 24th in the country in passing offense, averaging nearly 300 yards per game in the air.

UL features two running backs in Jeremy Wright and Senorise Perry. Wright got the most carries with 186 for 740 yards and nine touchdowns, while Perry got 50 less carries but nearly as many yards with 705 with 11 touchdowns. Perry averaged 5.2 yards per carry, too.

Louisville’s offense revolves around Bridgewater to get the ball downfield to his receivers, and that actually plays into Florida’s strengths with their stingy secondary. The Cardinals must be able establish a running game against Florida’s defense to consistently move the ball.

Charlie Strong is known as a defensive coach, but Louisville didn’t have the best defense in the Big East. In fact, the Cardinals had the seventh best rushing defense out of eight teams, allowing opponents over 150 yards on the ground per game. That can’t make the Cardinals feel too good going against a very run-heavy offense in Florida, who will try to exert their will with the most physical running game they’ve seen all season. Defensive tackle Jamaine Brooks leads the Cardinals in tackles for loss with 6.5 and sacks with 4.5, and he’s a player to keep an eye on.

What you need to know about Florida: Florida loves to win ugly and continually plays to the level of their competition – see LSU, FSU, Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Lafayette. If you saw an 11-win season for Florida in 2012, I’ll be the first to tell you that you’re lying. It’s been quite the journey from 7-6 to 11-1 in only one season. The Gators aren’t winning with a sexy offense or a passing game like previous years, but they arguably have the best defense in the country and one of the top power running games and top special teams units in the country.

Florida finished 75th in scoring offense, but the passing game ranks just 118th out of 124 teams. Quarterback Jeff Driskel hasn’t been asked to do much – take care of the football and help the Gators win games with his legs. In fact, he’s stayed calm and collected under big-time pressure situations this season. Driskel has thrown for just 1,471 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he’s only thrown three interceptions. Those types of numbers won’t get anyone excited, but it’s all part of Will Muschamp’s plan to win.

Running back Mike Gillislee is the biggest reason Florida has had the success they’ve had on offense. He’s carried 235 times for 1,104 yards and 10 touchdowns. Gilly had 35 more carries than the next closest running back in the SEC. He’s been a true workhorse.

Florida’s most potent weapon in the passing game is tight end Jordan Reed. Only one receiver caught over 30 passes in Quinton Dunbar, but Reed led the team with 44 catches for 552 yards and three touchdowns. He’s a mismatch for any linebacker in coverage.

Florida’s strength of the team is on the defensive side of the football. All-American Matt Elam and tackle Shariff Floyd have led a resurging Gator defense. After forcing just 14 total turnovers in ’11, the Gators forced 29 this season, and it’s a credit to Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Florida doesn’t have that one dynamic pass rusher, but it’s been a collective effort with physical defensive linemen, experienced linebackers and the most talented secondary in the country. Florida’s corners are bigger than normal (6-1), and they play physical and one-on-one throughout the game. They match up with Louisville’s passing game rather well.

The often most overlooked aspect of any team is special teams. And Florida takes pride in their suffocating special teams. Punter Kyle Christy and kicker Caleb Sturgis are two of the MVPs in 2012. Field position has been Muschamp’s MO since the start, and Florida has excelled in nearly every facet of special teams this season.

By the numbers:

Category Florida Louisville
Scoring Offense 26.8 ppg 31.3 ppg
Total Offense 338 ypg 425.7 ypg
Rush Offense 194.08 ypg 127.08 ypg
Pass Offense 143.9 ypg 298.6 ypg
Scoring Defense 12.9 ppg 23.8 ppg
Total Defense 282.2 ypg 344.8 ypg
Rush Defense 96.58 ypg 151.08 ypg
Pass Defense 186 ypg 193.8 ypg
Turnover Margin +17 +9
INTs 19 9
Sacks By 25 19
Sacks Against 36 25

Who has the edge? Louisville’s offensive strength – the passing game – plays right into the hands of the Florida defense. Bridgewater and company have thrown the ball all around the yard all season on every opponent. However, Florida is #1 in the country in pass efficiency defense. The Gators force teams into third and long situations, and they lead the SEC only allowing teams to covert 28.32 percent of the time. Florida leads the SEC with 19 interceptions.

Florida also has the edge on offense, too, going against Louisville’s run defense. The Cardinals are ranked 53rd in the country in run defense, and Florida will run it 75 to 80 percent of the time. The Gators physically wear down their opponents in the second half – they did it all year. Muschamp won’t throw the ball much because he doesn’t have to.

While on paper, many wouldn’t give Louisville a chance, but Florida has had a way of keeping their opponents in nearly every game this season. I expect the Cardinals to hang around, but I like Florida to physically wear them down in the second half by playing their new brand of SEC football.

Photo Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

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