Bowl Picks: Bridging the gap
By Queen Carioca
Come in and have a seat. Close the tent flap behind you as once again I glance into my crystal ball.
Check out my prophecy for tonight’s Sugar Bowl:
ALLSTATE SUGAR BOWL
LOUISVILLE (11-2) vs FLORIDA (11-1): After a dubious 7-6 season in Will Muschamp’s first season in Gainesville, the Gators had a lot to prove heading into 2012. In week 2, UF outlasted eventual Heisman winner Johnny Manziel (in his first college start) 20-17 in College Station. In late October, Florida lost The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party to a Georgia team led by Aaron Murray, a rising NFL prospect who is one of the nation’s most efficient passers. Despite tangling with two of the most formidable signal callers in the nation already, Muschamp has called Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater the best the Gators will face this year. Bridgewater, the Big East Offensive Player of the Year in 2012, has indeed turned out to be as good as advertised. The sophomore sensation was a coveted 5-star recruit out of Northwestern High School in Miami where he spent three seasons as the anchor of coach Billy Rolle’s program.
The question is: Does Muschamp really believe his claim, or is it just a healthy heaping of coach speak? A compelling case can be made for the former. In 2010 Bridgewater hit the ground running for Charlie Strong, winning Big East rookie of the Year honors. This season, he has taken the next step, directing the Cards to their first BCS berth since a Jan. 2nd, 2007 Orange Bowl win over Wake Forest. Bridgewater has been brilliant this year – tossing 25 TDs against just 7 interceptions and picking the perfect spots to add the “dual” part to “dual-threat” (he rushed for a much-needed 74 yards in UL’s hard-fought 27-25 win at South Florida). But Bridgewater isn’t a "running quarterback" – he’s simply a quarterback who uses is arm AND his legs to make plays when the situation dictates. Sometimes that means throwing on rhythm with great accuracy, sometimes it means calling on his athleticism to bounce off script when the pocket collapses. to put it another way, he’s less Steve McNair than he is Steve Young. All told, Bridgewater completed nearly 69% of his throws and finished the regular season as the most efficient passer in the Big East (though he’s since been passed by Cincy’s Brendon Kay) and the 8th most efficient in the entire nation.
That’s what he DID do. What the rising sophomore DIDN’T do was help his team avert a pair of major calamities down the stretch. Despite being banged up most of the year, Bridgewater bailed the Cardinals out in come-from-behind wins over Southern Miss, Pitt, USF and Cincy but ultimately the numbers caught up with them. After a 9-0 start that saw the Cards crest at no. 9 in the BCS standings, UL dropped two of its final three games. Yes, Bridgewater put forth his best statistical effort in the Cardinals first loss – a 45-26 thrashing at Syracuse - but 2/3 of his 424 yards came after UL had already fallen behind 31-10 in the second quarter. A week later at Papa John's Stadium, Bridgewater (who missed a portion of the game) couldn’t help the Cards get on track against a Connecticut team that came to play. Louisville trailed the Huskies 10-0 after three quarters before clawing back only to lose in triple-OT following a costly Bridgewater interception.
As is usually the case in big games, ball security could once again be the key in the matchup with Florida as well. The Louisville offense has only suffered a dozen turnovers in 2012 – but will that hold up in the postseason? In Bridgewater’s only other bowl appearance - a Belk Bowl loss to NC State last year - he simply wasn’t his ball-conscious self, throwing 3 picks. This time out, Bridgewater will be facing a Gators unit that ranks no. 1 nationally in Pass Efficiency Defense after allowing a paltry 5 TD tosses while picking off 19 passes. Overall, Florida is 3rd in the country in Scoring Defense (13/game) and the Gators haven’t allowed more than 26 points in a span of 15 contests. Like UL, Florida is a team that has climbed the ranks by developing a knack in the takeaway game. UF ranks 5th nationally in turnover margin, with 29 takeaways but only 12 turnovers lost – half of which came in the loss to Georgia.
Offensively, these aren't your Grandpa's Gators. If only they were. No Spurrier passing game or Meyer tempo to speak of here. In point of fact, Florida has struggled mightily to move the football, ranking 12th in the SEC (339/game) in total offense. More specifically, Muschamp's squad has suffered from an outright inability to throw the football (144/game). Instead, they’ve handled sophomore signal caller Jeff Driskel (11 TD, 3 Int.) cautiously, putting the ball in the air just 22 times per game as a team while leaning on the talents of senior RB Mike Gillislee (1,104 yards & 10 TDs) – the program’s first 1,000-yard runner in eight years.
Having served as UF’s D-Coordinator from 2002-2009, Charlie Strong knows both these programs well and he even helped recruit and coach some of Muschamp’s more tenured defensive players. The Cards will make the most of their limited trips deep into Florida territory (UL leads the nation in red zone scoring at 96%) against that stout UF defense, but those trips won't be plentiful enough to get the job done. In the end, Louisville's chances will rest on a middling rush defense that's been gashed too many times this year (196+ yards allowed rushing 5 times) and on Bridgewater’s ball security against an athletic congregation of Gators. Yes, that’s what it’s called. A congregation. I looked it up. Florida 28, Louisville 20
Check back later for more bowl picks!