Gators are Sugar Bowl bound
Published: Sunday, December 2, 2012 at 5:19 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 2, 2012 at 5:19 p.m.
Florida will not be playing for a championship in January, but the Gators will be part of one of the more intriguing storylines during the BCS bowl season.
The No. 4 Gators (11-1) on Sunday received their expected invitation to play in the Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, where they will face No. 22 Louisville (10-2) and former Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, who spent 16 of his 29 years in coaching at UF.
"I have a lot of respect for Louisville and the football team they have, and of course, Charlie Strong, who was a huge part of two national championships here at the University of Florida in '06 and '08," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "He's an outstanding defensive coordinator and a good friend.
"In this profession, you see guys and their resumes and what they do on the field. Everywhere he's been, they've been really good on defense. They play hard, they play fast and physical. I have a lot of respect for him. He's one of the good guys in this profession."
The Gators know Strong, and he certainly knows them. In fact, he helped recruit many of the upperclassmen who played a big role in this turnaround season for Florida.
"You think about those guys there," Strong said. "Lerentee McCray, he's been there forever. Omar Hunter, all those players. Frankie Hammond at wide receiver and Caleb Sturgis. I thought my man was gone, but he's still kicking there.
"I just can't give you a number (of how many players he helped recruit there). Just looking at a lot of those players, I'm familiar with them. When I left, they were young. Now they're in the fourth or fifth year. There's a large amount of them."
Strong started his coaching career at UF in 1983 as a graduate assistant. He was the Gators' linebackers coach from 1991-94 under Steve Spurrier before joining Lou Holtz' staff at Notre Dame.
Strong returned to UF in 2002 as defensive coordinator under Ron Zook. He was retained by Urban Meyer when Meyer replaced Zook in 2005 and was part of two national championship teams (2006 and 2008) under Meyer before being named the head coach at Louisville a week after the Gators lost to Alabama in the 2009 SEC Championship Game.
Strong has a 24-14 record at Louisville. His team is 10-2 this season and tied for the Big East title.
Now, he's going to see how his team stacks up against what has been one of the elite programs in college football.
"There is not much that needs to be said (to the Louisville players about UF)," Strong said. "The respect is already there. There's not much I need to say. A lot of our players (34) are from the state of Florida and they know how good the program is there.
"It's a program that's been consistent year in and year out. I really enjoyed my time there and have many memories.
"This is a (UF) team that was one win away from playing for the national title. We're nowhere near that right now. (UF) is an outstanding football team and we'll see where we are."
The early line for the game lists Florida as a 16.5-point favorite.
After defeating Rutgers on Thursday to earn a share of the Big East title, it appeared the Cardinals' likely destination was the Orange Bowl. But Northern Illinois changed that by defeating Kent State in the Mid-American Conference title game and moving from No. 21 to No. 15 in the final BCS Standings, earning a slot in a BCS bowl and bumping Oklahoma out of the Sugar Bowl.
Now, Northern Illinois will play Florida State in the Orange, while the Gators have a date with a longtime friend, Strong, in New Orleans.
The Gators finished third in the final BCS Standings behind Notre Dame and Alabama. UF defeated four teams ranked in the top 12 in the final standings, but the Gators' strong resume was not enough to overcome a loss to Georgia in which they turned the ball over six times.
"It is what it is, the (BCS) system," Muschamp said. "We had our opportunity in Jacksonville and didn't quite get it done to get into the national championship game.
"We're going to the Sugar Bowl to represent our conference. That's a huge honor in itself. We have great motivation for this game, regardless of the circumstances."
Another big part of the UF-Strong storyline could be this: Will Strong be around to coach the Cardinals in the bowl game? He's considered a hot coaching prospect and with his ties to the SEC, Strong's name has been linked to three coaching vacancies in the league — Auburn, Tennessee and Arkansas.
Strong on Sunday denied a report he's talked with Auburn about its opening and did not talk about other possible job opportunities on a bowl teleconference Sunday night.
For the Gators, this will be their ninth appearance in the Sugar Bowl, where they have quite a history.
UF's first major bowl game came in the 1966 Sugar Bowl. The Gators were led by junior quarterback Steve Spurrier. UF fell to Missouri 20-18.
Following the 1996 season, the Gators won the national championship in the Sugar, throttling Florida State 52-20 a little more than a month after being upset by the Seminoles in Tallahassee.
The last time the Gators played in the Sugar Bowl, they routed Cincinnati 51-24 in Tim Tebow's final game at Florida at the end of the 2009 season. It was also Strong's final game with the Gators. He became Louisville's head coach on Dec. 9, 2010, but remained on the UF staff through the bowl game.
"It seems like yesterday we were playing in the Sugar Bowl against Cincinnati," Strong said. "Will has done an outstanding job. Will is a really good friend of mine. When he took over, I said, ‘If there is anything I can do I'd be more than willing to help.' He's done a great job. You look at that (UF) defense, I'm so familiar with the guys there."
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