Sugar Bowl features top-notch coaching battle

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Hats off to Will Muschamp.

There were some Gators ready to run the former Texas assistant out of Gainesville after last year’s 7-6 finish. With a year under his belt and more time for players to master his system, Florida has flourished in Season 2. The Gators’ defense is perhaps the SEC’s best and has played lights out the second half of the season. Florida holds the most impressive resume in the Top 10 and is headed back to the BCS for its efforts in a competitive SEC this season.

Much has been made over this season’s BCS matchups, a series of potential lopsided affairs after Alabama-Notre Dame and Oregon-Kansas State. The question we all ask as viewers is: Will Florida’s game against Louisville be worth watching?

Vegas doesn’t think so.

Florida opened as a two-touchdown favorite, and unless the Cardinals come out clicking on all cylinders offensively, one would think the Gators cover without a problem. But that’s where Charlie Strong and Teddy Bridgewater, the Big East’s top quarterback, come in.

Louisville, the ACC’s newest member, flexes a 10-2 record led by one of the top under-the-radar passers in the country. A 6-foot-3 sophomore out of Miami, Bridgewater has made plays all season for the Cardinals (25 TD passes, 3,452 yards) and has helped push Strong to the forefront of top coaches. These two are the reason the big game in New Orleans will be competitive.

In three seasons, Strong, a 52-year-old defensive minded coach with SEC ties, has directed Louisville to a 24-14 record and two Big East titles. Before coming to Louisville, the Arkansas native spent seven years at Florida in a defensive role and three years at South Carolina prior to that. In 1999, he became the first African American coordinator in the SEC on Lou Holtz’s staff.

He would have been a good fit at Tennessee or Auburn, and a win over Florida in the Sugar would be huge for Louisville and the ACC.

It won’t be easy going up against a stout defense however. Florida has shut down each of the four athletic quarterbacks (Johnny Manziel, Connor Shaw, James Franklin and E.J. Manuel) it has faced this season and has a month to scheme against Bridgewater, who is nursing a broken wrist and sprained ankle. Despite the injuries, he completed 20-of-28 passes for 263 yards and two scores in the season finale at Rutgers that clinched a BCS berth for the Cardinals.

“I look at college football and I know there’s some athletic quarterbacks out there but I think wherever the best one is, I think Teddy should be linked there with them,” Strong said.

The problem for Louisville is not being able to simulate Florida’s strength and speed leading up to Jan. 2. The Cardinals haven’t faced anyone close to Florida’s caliber this season and are out-manned at nearly every position up front and at the skill spots. Strong and Co. hope the Gator offense doesn’t have a repeat performance of the 394-yard bludgeoning at Florida State and struggles like it has much of the season. During that rivalry win in Tallahassee, Jeff Driskel passed with efficiency and Mike Gillislee compiled 140 of his team-high 1,104 rushing yards.

Muschamp likes the toughness of his team and that’s what should ultimately decide this year’s Sugar Bowl. The SEC is 7-4 in the Sugar since 2000 with losses to Miami, West Virginia, Utah and Ohio State. In 2010, Florida humiliated Brian Kelly’s then-unbeaten Cincinnati Bearcats, 51-24, in what was Tim Tebow’s final game.

Photo Credit: John Reed-US PRESSWIRE

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