Editor's note: Brian Edwards went 4-0 on New Year's Day to improve to 65-40 (62%) for the season. Brian is No. 1 on VI in winning percentage and #2 in overall money. Don't miss out on his selection for tonight's Sugar Bowl!
After a pair of disappointing seasons for Florida football, Year 2 of the Will Muschamp Era was a crucial one. As a Gator fan and alum, we always have sky-high expectations, but back-to-back clunker campaigns had humbled the goals for 2012 to some extent.
Put differently, if I could have staked claim to a 9-3 record in August, I would’ve taken it with very little hesitation. But the Gators exceeded expectations and then some in rolling to an 11-1 straight-up record with the only loss coming to Georgia by a 17-9 count in Jacksonville.
No team in America can display as many quality wins as Florida can. The Gators went on the road and won by double-digit margins against Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Also, they beat Texas A&M in College Station.
UF also won in convincing fashion over arch-rival Florida St. at Doak Campbell Stadium. It wasn’t always sexy. Certainly there were games when Muschamp reigned in offensive coordinator Brent Pease and made games ugly with conservative play-calling and a reliance on one of the nation’s premier defenses.
The 2012 Gators announced themselves as contenders by beating LSU at its own game. They played defense and wore down the Tigers with a steady between-the-tackles ground game led by senior running back Mike Gillislee. The result was a 14-6 win. Two weeks later, UF pounded a South Carolina squad that finished 11-2 by a 44-11 count.
The only blemish came against UGA when UF committed an uncharacteristic six turnovers. Still, if Southern Cal had upset Notre Dame in the regular-season finale, Florida would be facing Alabama in the BCS Championship Game.
Instead, Muschamp’s bunch will face Louisville, the Big East champion, on Jan. 2 at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Most books are listing Florida (11-1 straight up, 7-5 against the spread) as a 14-point favorite with a total of 47. Gamblers can U of L to win outright for a plus-450 payout (risk $100 to win $450).
Florida has been a double-digit favorite five times this year, limping to an abysmal 1-4 spread record. Under Muschamp, UF is 4-6 as a double-digit ‘chalk.’
The Gators are ranked third in the nation in scoring defense, giving up only 12.9 points per game. They are a unit that’s fifth overall in total defense and is led by All-American junior safety Matt Elam, who had a team-high four interceptions and had a crucial forced fumble in the win over LSU.
The defensive line is filled with future NFL players like Dominique Easley, Omar Hunter and Sharrif Floyd. Unfortunately for UF, it will be without starting linebacker Jelani Jenkins, who broke his foot against FSU.
Florida doesn’t get a lot of big plays out of the passing game, but it runs the ball for nearly 200 yards per game. Gillislee rushed for 1,104 yards and 10 touchdowns with a 4.7 yards-per-carry average.
UF sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel is also a threat with his scrambling. Driskel ran for 404 yards and four TDs. To his credit, Driskel has taken care of the football with the exception of the UGA game. He has completed 64.7 percent of his throws for 1,465 yards with an 11/3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Outside of Driskel and Gillislee, UF has two main weapons that need touches. Jordan Reed, a junior tight end, has a team-high 44 receptions for 552 yards and three TDs. Trey Burton has a package of plays from out of the Wildcat formation and he is also used at FB, RB, TE and WR. Burton has produced 367 all-purpose yards with two rushing TDs and one TD catch.
Louisville (10-2 SU, 5-7 ATS) raced out to a 9-0 record, only to drop two straight before winning the conference title thanks to a 20-17 win at Rutgers in the regular-season finale. The Cardinals won outright as three-point underdogs.
Teddy Bridgewater overcame a broken bone in his non-throwing wrist and a sprained ankle to play out of shotgun-only formations against the Scarlet Knights. The results were outstanding, as Bridgewater connected on 20-of-28 passes for 263 yards and two third-quarter scoring strikes in a 16-second span.
RU had led U of L by a 14-3 score at intermission.
Charlie Strong’s team suffered its first loss at the Carrier Dome on Nov. 10 when Syracuse smashed the Cards in a 45-26 win as a one-point home underdog. Bridgewater threw for 426 yards and three TDs but it wasn’t nearly enough against the Orange, who led 38-13 early in the third quarter.
Following an open date, U of L was in a classic look-ahead situation at home against UConn with the showdown vs. Rutgers looming the next Thursday. The Huskies took advantage and won a 23-20 decision over Louisville in overtime as 10-point underdogs. Bridgewater suffered the wrist injury in the third quarter and missed several series, only to return and help get the game to OT.
For the season, Bridgewater is completing 69 percent of his passes for 3,452 yards and a 25/7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He doesn’t scramble much, but the Miami Jackson High School product is athletic, elusive and dangerous looking downfield when he escapes the pocket.
Louisville is ranked 50th in America in scoring offense with a 31.0 points-per-game average. The Cards are 36th in scoring defense, surrendering 23.8 PPG.
During Charlie Strong’s three-year tenure, Louisville has thrived in 14 underdog situations, compiling a 10-4 spread record with five outright victories. The Cardinals are 4-0 versus the number as double-digit underdogs.
The ‘over’ is 6-5 overall for the Cards, although they saw back-to-back ‘unders’ their last two times out. The ‘under’ is 7-4 overall for UF, cashing in three straight before the win over the ‘Noles saw the ‘over’ emerge.
Florida has won four consecutive bowl games (both SU and ATS) with the victims including Ohio St., Penn St., Cincinnati and Oklahoma. The win over the Bearcats came in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.
The Gators enjoyed their finest moment in school history at this venue on Jan. 2 of 1997. On that night, Florida blasted FSU 52-20 to win the school's first of three national championships. This is UF's ninth Sugar Bowl appearance and it will be looking to improve on its 3-5 record.
These schools haven’t met since 1992 when Howard Schnellenberger brought U of L into The Swamp. I was there that afternoon as the Gators captured a 31-17 win as 14-point home favorites.
In tonight’s rematch at the Superdome in the Big Easy, we have the same spread. Louisville is hoping for a different result.
ESPN will provide television coverage at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.