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Sunday December 2, 2012Gators Thrilled to be Back in Sugar Bowl; Will See Familiar Face on Opposite Sideline

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Gators are going to the Allstate Sugar Bowl and will face one of their former defensive coordinators on Jan. 2 in New Orleans.

However, it's not Oklahoma and head coach Bob Stoops as most projected entering the weekend.

Instead, the No. 4-ranked Gators (11-1) will face Louisville and Charlie Strong, who started his coaching career at Florida as a graduate assistant in 1983 and served as Florida's defensive coordinator before taking over the Cardinals in 2010.

Strong helped the Gators win two national titles (2006 and 2008) and led the Cardinals to a 10-2 record in his third season.

"We're honored to play in New Orleans,'' Gators coach Will Muschamp said Sunday night. "New Orleans is a great place with a lot of Gators."

This is the first meeting between the schools since 1992 and only the third all-time. The Gators won both previous games.

And the presence of Strong adds another unique storyline to the game.

Strong has served as a Florida assistant coach during four different stints and was at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on the Gators' sideline the last time Florida played in the Sugar Bowl, a 51-24 win over Cincinnati at the end of the 2009 season.

That was Strong's final game as UF's defensive coordinator before taking over the Louisville program.

"He does it the right way,'' Muschamp said. "Just got a lot of respect for him, one of the good guys in this profession."

The Gators finished No. 3 in the BCS rankings, thus automatically earning a BCS bowl bid as one of the top four teams. In Muschamp's second season, Florida improved by five wins in the regular season, the program's biggest one-year leap in 32 years.

Meanwhile, Louisville finished No. 21 in the BCS rankings and tied for the Big East title. The Cardinals opened the season 9-0 before losses to Syracuse and Connecticut.

Louisville rebounded to close the regular season with a win over Rutgers and earn the Big East's BCS bid.

Strong remains close to the Florida program and coached several current Gators, including defensive tackle Omar Hunter, defensive end Lerentee McCray, linebacker Jon Bostic and safety Josh Evans.

"It seems like it was yesterday we were in the Sugar Bowl playing Cincinnati,'' Strong said. "It's a program of excellence. I really enjoyed my time there. I watch this program every week.''

While the BCS bowl puzzle played out as many expected Sunday night when the pairings were officially announced, Northern Illinois jumped into the picture after beating Kent State in the Mid-American Conference Championship Game.

The addition of NIU in the BCS bowls created controversy among the national media due to teams such as Georgia and Oklahoma being left out of the mix.

Muschamp would like to have seen more SEC teams in too, but most importantly, he is glad the Gators are back in a BCS Bowl for the first time in three years.

While the Gators narrowly missed out on a spot in the BCS National Championship Game because of a loss to Georgia in October, Muschamp isn't concerned about a letdown from his team.

"Our guys were really jacked up after we beat Florida State,'' Muschamp said. "We knew we would be in a BCS game. We have great motivation for this game regardless of the circumstances."

The Gators will play in a bowl for the 22nd consecutive season, the longest streak in the SEC and second nationally. Florida has won a school-record four consecutive bowl games.

While Strong has quickly rebuilt Louisville, he knows the kind of talent Florida has will be difficult to match. It should help that Louisville has 34 Floridians on its roster, including Miami native and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

"This is a team that was one game away from playing for a national title,'' Strong said of the Gators. "We're nowhere near that right now. We're taking small steps here. We have laid a foundation."

Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan welcomed the Gators back to the game for the ninth time. This is Louisville's first time playing in the Sugar Bowl and only the school's second BCS bowl.

He also appreciates the connections the schools have.

"The Sugar Bowl Committee has worked hard over the years to present outstanding matchups that produce thrilling games,'' Hoolahan said. "In Will Muschamp and Charlie Strong, we have two of the country’s top young coaches and we know both will have their teams ready to play on January 2nd. 

"We have little doubt that this game will produce another memorable chapter in the great history of the Sugar Bowl.”

The Gators are 3-5 in the Sugar Bowl, their most notable win a 52-20 victory over Florida State in the 1997 game that gave the Gators their first national title (1996 season).

Florida was the Sugar Bowls first at-large pick, selected to replace SEC Champion Alabama, the Bowl’s anchor team, when the Crimson Tide earned a spot in the national title game against Notre Dame by defeating Georgia in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday night.

For more information about the Allstate Sugar Bowl please log on to its website www.allstatesugarbowl.org or follow @SugarBowlNola on Twitter.

 

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