UF's closing statement
Published: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 12:13 a.m.
NEW ORLEANS — The last time Florida played in the Sugar Bowl, the national media descended on the Big Easy in droves, giving the game almost a national championship feel.
News conferences were overflowing. Media shuttles were packed. ESPN cameras and talking heads were lurking all over the city. The television lights were blinding.
The media came from all over because the storylines were too good, too intriguing to ignore.
There was the Urban Meyer flip-flop. He resigned on Dec. 26. A day later, shortly before the Gators arrived in New Orleans, he reversed his decision amid questions about his health.
There was the fact the legendary quarterback Tim Tebow was playing in his last college game.
Then there was 12-0 Cincinnati trying to make a national statement shortly after being jilted by coach Brian Kelly, who had darted off to Notre Dame (and will be playing for a national championship next week).
The hype was overflowing.
The atmosphere is totally different three years later.
Based on the sparse attendance at news conferences and the lack of those ESPN cameras, the national media doesn't think very much of tonight's game between 11-1 Florida and 10-2 Louisville. The Charlie Strong storyline apparently isn't a strong enough hook.
The national media may not care, but these two teams certainly do. In a big way.
“It's a statement game for us,” Louisville wide receiver Damian Copeland said. “It's a big stage and we're ready for the challenge. It's a big game for this program. And with a victory, who knows?”
Playing in only the school's second BCS bowl game and representing a conference (Big East) that is viewed nationally as inferior to the powerful SEC, the Cardinals are seeking respect tonight.
“It's a statement game,” Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said. “We've been considered the Big Least. The Big East gets no respect. This is a chance to earn it.
“Games like these, we're going to put an ‘S' on our chests and a cape on our back.”
Florida's motivation is a little different — but just as strong. After going 7-6 in 2011, the Gators have put together a rather remarkable turnaround season in coach Will Muschamp's second year. They seem determined to finish it the appropriate way, with a victory tonight that would carry UF's considerable momentum into the offseason and next season.
A UF victory likely would lead to a strong starting point in the polls (possibly in the top two) going into the 2013 season.
“This is a very big game because of everything we went through last season and with all the wins this season,” UF offensive guard Jon Halapio said. “We just want to cap it off with a good, solid win against a good team.
“This is a real big game for us because it's like our Super Bowl. This is our last game. This is our championship game. We wanted to be in Miami (for the BCS Championship Game). This is it, our last go-around until next year and we want to end on a good note and carry that momentum into the offseason and into next season.”
Moving forward, it's also a crucial game for Strong, the former Florida defensive coordinator who has the Cardinals in a BCS bowl game in only his third season. He's trying to raise Louisville to a new level in college football.
“My success started at Florida,” Strong said. “I was part of two national championship teams and worked for so many outstanding coaches. Those coaches gave me opportunities and built tremendous programs with tradition.
“That same tradition is what we are trying to establish at Louisville as the program continues to get better each year. We are really excited about the direction this program is headed in. This game is a measuring stick for our program.”
An upset win tonight could be a program-changing event for Strong and the Cardinals.
“Going forward, this is the biggest game Louisville can potentially play for years,” offensive tackle Alex Krupper said. “This is a big-time SEC opponent and that's the best conference in the nation. Everyone knows that. So, to be able to play one of those teams is a huge opportunity.
“When Coach Strong came in (in 2010), we won a bowl game that year and started rolling the ball in the right direction. Last year, we built on that. This year we took another big step.”
While Strong is building at Louisville, Muschamp is rebuilding at Florida, where the Gators went through a dip (15-11 combined in 2010-11) following their last appearance in the Sugar Bowl.
Based on this year's 11-1 season, the process is well under way, with tonight's game serving as another important potential rebuilding block.
“It's absolutely critical,” Muschamp said. “We're trying to become just the sixth team in Florida history to reach 12 wins, which is huge considering how successful this program has been. It's also an opportunity to finish the season ranked in the top five, possibly No. 2.
“These things are important to our program as we continue to move forward. This is a one-game season. There's a lot of motivation to play well in this game. We have a special team, and they deserve a special night.”