NEW ORLEANS — Since they arrived here Thursday afternoon, the Gators have been bombarded with questions leading up to Wednesday night’s Sugar Bowl against Louisville.
How did they go from 6-6 to 11-1?
Was Matt Elam’s strip of LSU’s Odell Beckman Jr. their biggest play?
Have they seen anything weird on Bourbon Street?
But perhaps the most common theme has focused on whether the Gators are focused for this game.
It’s been asked dozens of ways and the answer remains the same.
Even the kicker is on board.
“I don’t think anyone’s mind is on anything else. I think we’re an accountable football team,” senior Caleb Sturgis said. “We’ve got a good group of seniors and great underclassmen who take things very seriously. When you’re accountable and doing the right things, you’re going to have a good game.”
At his final press conference Tuesday, Gators coach Will Muschamp was asked about the perception that the Gators might not be taking the game as serious, still disappointed at not playing for a national title.
Muschamp offered up the kind of answer those who cover Muschamp regularly could see coming a mile away.
“I think that’s hogwash,” he said. “I don’t see that at all. I’ve seen our football team and how they’ve practiced and been physical. We’ve practiced the right way and been on time for everything.”
This is a team that has looked like it’s on a business trip all week.
The players have spent much of their free time at the team hotel’s entertainment room or in meetings. The biggest news to break from Florida’s camp was minutes after the team arrived and Muschamp announced that offensive lineman Matt Patchan and defensive back Pop Saunders are leaving the program.
Compared to Sugar Bowls past, that’s about as exciting as watching PBS on New Year’s Eve.
“We’re here to win,” safety Josh Evans said. “We want to go out and do what we came here for.”
Muschamp doesn’t expect a letdown. Not from this team. He sees a team that is as focused as it has been all season.
“Every game is important if you’re a competitor,” he said. “I don’t care what you’re doing. If you’re going to go play in the parking lot, it’s important. That’s the way our football team approaches the game.”
Meanwhile, Louisville coach Charlie Strong voiced the same tone at Tuesday’s press conference. The former Gators defensive coordinator has the Cardinals in a BCS bowl for only the second time in school history.
The matchup against the No. 3-ranked Gators is Louisville’s biggest test of the season.
“It will show us exactly where we are as a program,” Strong said. “It’s going to be a measuring stick and show us how far behind we are and how much further we need to go.”
With all the questions out of the way, let’s take a look at 10 things to watch in the 79th edition of the Sugar Bowl:
FLORIDA’S MISSION STATEMENT
As noted above, the Gators appear a team on a mission in New Orleans. Not even the most diehard Gator fans predicted Florida to go 11-1 and be a loss to Georgia away from playing for a national title in Muschamp’s second season.
The Gators want to finish what they started. They have been physical in practice this week and are a heavy favorite to knock off the Cardinals. If they do, they will be only the sixth team in school history to finish with 12 wins.
THE TEDDY WATCH
Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has received more media attention than any player on either team since the teams arrived here.
Bridgewater is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback and one of the most accurate passers in the country. He can run, too. Strong said Tuesday that Bridgewater isn’t 100 percent but close enough that it should matter come kickoff.
The Gators have faced several dual-threat quarterbacks this season and neutralized their effectiveness, including Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. The final test is stopping Bridgewater, who hasn’t faced a defense as talented or productive as Florida’s.
Perhaps the most distinct advantage for the Gators is their offensive line against Louisville’s defensive line. Florida averages more than 310 pounds on the offensive line while Louisville’s defensive line checks in at around 30 pounds lighter per man.
Muschamp calls the SEC a line-of-scrimmage league and that grinder of a schedule should help the Gators. At last check, no one calls the Big East a line-of-scrimmage league.
GILLY’S SWAN SONG
Gators senior running back Mike Gillislee played a crucial role in Florida’s comeback season. He became the first UF back to rush for 1,000 yards in eight years and his blue-collar approach won over coaches and teammates.
If the offensive line does its job against Louisville’s undersized defense, Gillislee could finish his career with a big game. He won’t be wide-eyed playing in the Superdome. As a true freshman, he rushed for a team-high 78 yards in Florida’s 51-24 win over Cincinnati three years ago.
WIN TURNOVER TITLE
Both teams do a good job of protecting the football. Florida finished plus-17 in turnover margin and Louisville committed only 12 turnovers, the same amount as the Gators.
The Cardinals did not commit more than two turnovers in any single game, a huge factor in their 10-2 season. Half of Florida’s season turnovers came in one game when the committed six in the loss to Georgia.
DRISKEL’S BOWL DEBUT
Florida sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel is playing in his first bowl game. Driskel was a steady manager of the offense and contributed some timely plays when he had to.
With a month between the regular-season finale and the Sugar Bowl, offensive coordinator Brent Pease said Driskel has shown improvement in bowl practices.
That could mean a few more opportunities for Driskel to air it out. Regardless, with a full season as an SEC starter under his belt, don’t look for Driskel to be affected by the big stage the Sugar Bowl offers.
Sophomore defensive back Loucheiz Purifoy has developed into a playmaker on defense and is now returning kickoffs. He is expected to share that role with Andre Debose on Wednesday.
Don’t be surprised if Purifoy lines up at receiver for a few plays, too. He started at receiver against Florida State and Muschamp said the coaching staff is confident in Purifoy being able to contribute in some capacity on offense and defense next season.
Louisville has 34 players on its roster from Florida and Strong helped recruit several current Gators, including middle linebacker Jon Bostic. While at Florida, Strong moved Bostic from safety to linebacker in what turned out to be a wise move.
While Strong is familiar with many of Florida’s players and SEC battle schemes, Muschamp doesn’t expect Strong’s background with the Gators to have much of a factor. He was last at Florida three years ago and a lot has changed.
It’s not often that the coin flip is mentioned in our preview. And this may be the only time in history it will happen.
But anytime Muhammad Ali is in the house, it’s a special night. Ali and former Louisville/NFL linebacker Tom Jackson will represent the Cardinals during the pre-game coin flip.
The Gators will be represented by two of the greatest players in program history, Danny Wuerffel and Emmitt Smith. That’s a lot of star power and should help create a festive atmosphere.
Muschamp pointed out Tuesday that in bowl games some of the fundamentals are often lacking because of the time off. Teams are not quite as crisp.
He has noticed a drop off in tackling in the games he has watched on TV. Poor tackling usually results in big plays.
So does more freewheeling play calling, which is often on display in bowl games. With players like Bridgewater, Driskel and Gillislee on the field, don’t be surprised to see a boost in offense.