New Orleans, LA – The 79th annual Sugar Bowl will kick off Wednesday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome when the Louisville Cardinals take on the Florida Gators.
Louisville got off to a red-hot start to the season with wins in each of its first eight games, highlighted by a 45-35 road triumph over Pittsburgh on Oct. 13 and a 34-31 overtime victory versus Cincinnati on Oct 26. Despite dropping back-to-back November games to Syracuse (45-26) and UConn (23-20 in OT), the Cardinals were able to clinch their third Big East title in the regular-season finale with a 20-17 road win over Rutgers. This is the fifth 10-win season for the Cardinals, who have made one previous appearance in a BCS bowl game, beating Wake Forest in the 2007 Orange Bowl, 24-14.
"We're really excited to be here and represent the Big East Conference at the Sugar Bowl," head coach Charlie Strong said. "If you look at our season, it's a tribute to our players and the resiliency they've had all season long. We started three years ago building a foundation for this team and we're really excited about the direction it's headed. We know we're playing an excellent team in the University of Florida, but we're happy and we're excited. It's great for the University of Louisville, the city of Louisville, and for our administration."
Florida's outstanding season included wins over nationally-ranked foes Texas A&M (20-17), LSU (14-6), South Carolina (44-11), and Florida State (37-26). It faced a treacherous road in the SEC, meaning its lone loss to Eastern Division rival Georgia (17-9) on Oct. 27 prevented it from participating in the conference championship game. Still, the Gators boasted the strongest at-large resume in the country, which allowed them to qualify for their seventh BCS bowl appearance, their first since the 2010 Sugar Bowl, which they won 51-24 over Cincinnati.
"We have a special team and they deserve a special night," head coach Will Muschamp said. "You're talking about being the sixth team in (UF) history -- which has a pretty good tradition -- (with a chance at) 12 wins, which is huge. It's an opportunity to be ranked in the top five or three in the country. We understand those things are very important to our program as we continue to move forward."
Florida has defeated Louisville in both previous meetings between the programs, claiming home matchups in 1980 and 1992.
Louisville's offensive attack, which scores 31.0 ppg, is heavily reliant on the passing game, which racks up more than 298.6 ypg (24th in the nation).
Spearheading the offense is the Cardinals' star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who has emerged as one of the country's best signal-callers in his sophomore season. The Big East Player of the Year is completing an outstanding 69 percent of his pass attempts for 3,452 yards, throwing for 25 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. His 161.6 passing efficiency is tops in the Big East and eighth in the nation.
Bridgewater spreads the ball out to several receivers, with five players grabbing at least 30 receptions. Damian Copeland (597 yards) leads the corps with 48 receptions, while DeVante Parker made the most of his 38 receptions, piling up 712 yards (18.7 ypc) and nine touchdowns, which was enough to earn him First Team All-Big East honors.
Louisville is more than just a passing team. In fact, it has a near perfect split between passing (424) and rushing (426) attempts. Sharing duties in the backfield is Jeremy Wright (740 yards) and Senorise Perry (705 yards), who have combined for 20 touchdowns.
While the Cardinals haven't been great on defense, they've been plenty good enough to win in the Big East, allowing teams to score 23.8 ppg on 344.8 ypg.
Cornerback Adrian Bushell (59 tackles) was named First Team All-Big East after recording an interception and three fumble recoveries. Preston Brown (96 tackles, INT) and Calvin Pryor (94 tackles, two INTs) also had fine seasons.
While Louisville is reliant on the aerial attack, Florida has found its success on offense (26.8 ppg) behind a great ground game that racks up 194.5 ypg.
Mike Gillislee put together a fantastic season at running back, gaining 1,104 rushing yards, 146 receiving yards, and 11 total touchdowns en route to being named to the All-SEC First Team.
Jeff Driskel hasn't done much damage through the air (1,471 yards), but he's completing nearly 65 percent of his passes and has tossed 11 touchdowns to just three interceptions. He's also a big factor with his legs, rushing for another 409 yards and four scores.
Driskel's favorite target in the passing game is First Team All-SEC tight end Jordan Reed, who caught 44 balls for 552 yards and three touchdown. Quinton Dunbar (306 yards, four TDs) and Frankie Hammond (273 yards, three TDs) have also had their moments.
Although an efficient offense has certainly helped, the primary reason for the Gators' outstanding year was their stout defense. In a conference full of great defensive units, Florida was able to stand out by ranking fifth in the country in yards allowed per game (283.4) and third in points allowed (12.9).
Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd (41 tackles, 11 TFL) and safety Matt Elam (65 tackles, 10 TFL, four INTs) were given First-Team all-SEC honors, while cornerback Marcus Roberson (two INTs, 12 pass breakups) was anointed to the Second-Team. Not to be lost in the shuffle is Josh Evans (79 tackles, two INTs) and Jon Bostic (62 tackles, three sacks, two INTs), two players that brought invaluable senior leadership to the squad.
Louisville comes into this matchup as a clear underdog, but Strong knows that once his team hits the field, all that matters is what shows up during the game.
"When you think about teams that are the favorites or the underdogs, at the end of the day, you still have to go and play the game," he said. "With us, it's all about fundamentals and technique. We're going to practice each and every day, so let's take care of that business. We're going to go play this game, but if we're not prepared and we're not locked it and we're not focuses, it doesn't really matter."