How Louisville and Florida Met in the 2013 Allstate Sugar BowlWith sections of the Superdome crowd chanting “Charlie, Charlie, Charlie” at the end of the 79th Sugar Bowl, it was hard not to think of Louis Montgomery, the Boston College player who because of social conventions of the day couldn’t participate in the 1940 game.
The appreciative chant from red-clad fans was for Louisville’s Charlie Strong, the first African-American head coach in Sugar Bowl history. It was a thought-provoking moment, symbolic of the historic landmarks and surprise happenings that highlighted the 79th Sugar Bowl.
This could have been a hum-drum affair. What appeared at first glance to be a football game destined to be forgotten soon after the final seconds dissipated from the Superdome clock turned into a highly memorable experience, filled with unexpected, and singular occurrences.
First things first. A four-team playoff was put into gear for two years hence when the BCS contract ran its course. Then the Sugar Bowl was involved in one of the biggest changes in its unbroken lineage which stretched back to the middle of the Great Depression when the SEC and Big 12 announced their champions were going to meet in a “Challenge Bowl” after two more seasons.
If the champs of either league were involved in the playoffs, then “another deserving team would get the slot,” read the announcement.
The original blueprint was scatter-shooting since in the 14 years of the BCS format, either the SEC or Big 12 champion had been in the title game 11 times.
As it turned out, CEO Paul Hoolahan led a determined bid and the Sugar Bowl beat out the Cotton Bowl for the rights to host the game beginning in 2015, and that it would be the venue for four national semifinal games at least four times in the ensuing 12 seasons.
With that done, what seemed to be the future came into view with either SEC runner-up Georgia or Florida, the third-ranked team in the BCS but out of the SEC Championship Game, heading to New Orleans against Big 12 co-champion Oklahoma.
The match-up didn’t happen, and the Sugar Bowl had no choice in its opponents. It was forced obligated to pair Florida and Louisville because of BCS rules. The Gators because they were third in the final BCS standings, had to be taken instead of the Bulldogs or LSU. Also guaranteed spots in the BCS were Louisville, the Big East champ, and Northern Illinois, from the Mid-American Conference. The Huskies qualified for the BCS by finishing 16th and ahead of two BCS conference champions. Due to many factors, including a stronger history and an enthusiastic fan base, the Sugar Bowl opted for 22rd-ranked Louisville over NIU, which then went to the Orange Bowl.
It may have seemed like a bad deal from the standpoint of national interest at first glance, but it turned into a blessing from an artistic standpoint. But at the time the pairing was announced, no one outside of Kentucky was buying it. Florida opened as a 13-and-a-half point favorite – and many thought that was being kind.
ESPN’s NFL draft analyst Todd McShay picked the Gators to win by 17 points; college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said Louisville had no shot and predicted a Florida rout; Another analyst, David Pollack, said the Gators would win by 15 and it would feel like 30.
Coach Will Muschamp’s Florida squad featured one of the nation’s best defenses, one that kept the Gators in every game they took the field in.
This bunch allowed 282 total yards a game to rank fifth nationally, and 12.9 points per game to rank third nationally with the lowest yield of any Florida team in a half century. Florida was never more than 10 points behind in any of their 12 games, and won 11 of them. The Gators only defeat came at the hands of Georgia, 17-9, when the Gators turned the ball over four times.
Its weakness, which was the offense, was covered up by the smothering defense. What seemed to be a “as good as it needs to be offense” was aided by a big, strong defensive line and the nation’s No. 1 pass defense, both of which constantly put the offense in favorable field position and garnered an abundance of turnovers, 19 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries.
Still, that Gator defense was good enough to beat almost any team – and did, against such highly-ranked opponents as Texas A&M, LSU and South Carolina.
Louisville was coached by Strong, who had just turned down the chance to become head coach at tradition-laden Tennessee to stay with Louisville. Keeping him was a major coup because the Cardinals played in the lightly regarded Big East, a the league itself that was in a transitional phase and losing some of its strongest members in the process – including Louisville which it was planning to leave in two seasons for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
This seemingly was not a stable platform to showcase a team, though Strong and many of his players seemed determined to show the Big East was not just a doormat.
The Cardinals were supplied by 34 players from the state of Florida, where Strong had been an assistant for 15 years, and not only knew some of the Gators but helped recruit them.
His blueprint when he took over three seasons earlier was to cherry-pick some of the overflow of Sunshine State prospects. One that listened was a mobile true sophomore quarterback from Miami, Teddy Bridgewater.
Bridgewater passed for 2,452 yards and 25 touchdowns with a 70 percent completion rate in Louisville’s 10-2 season, and became the linchpin for the Cardinals’ 10-2 season.
Knowing of Bridgewater from their high school years, after studying film of his upcoming opponent, Gator All-American safety Matt Elam proclaimed Bridgewater the best quarterback the Gators had faced all season. He emphatically added, “Hands down.”
Recap by Sugar Bowl historian Marty Mulé, an award-winning sportswriter who covered college football and the Sugar Bowl for the New Orleans Times-Picayune for 33 years.