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2010 Sugar Bowl Preview

#3 Cincinnati Bearcats (12-0, Big East Champions) versus #5 Florida Gators (12-1, SEC At-Large)

January 1st, 2010 - FOX - 8:30 PM EST in New Orleans, Louisiana

 

It may not be the ‘Granddaddy of Them All’ but the Sugar Bowl is as close as it gets. The 2nd oldest bowl game in the country celebrated its 75th anniversary last year and is one of the most prestigious games every year. Played first on New Year’s Day in 1935, the Sugar Bowl spent its first 40 years in Tulane Stadium before moving to the Louisiana Superdome in 1976.

The Sugar Bowl has also been known throughout its history as one of the bowl games that could decide the National Championship. At least a dozen teams have capped off championship seasons with Sugar Bowl victories, the most recent being LSU after the 2007 season.

The Sugar Bowl has also become synonymous with the Southeastern Conference. Every Sugar Bowl since 2001 has featured an SEC team and only nine times has the conference failed to place a team in New Orleans. That tradition continues this year with the Florida Gators, who will face the Big East Champion Cincinnati Bearcats.



YEAR IN REVIEW

#3 Cincinnati (12-0) Cincinnati will be making their first appearance in the Sugar Bowl and their 2 nd BCS appearance overall. The Bearcats are the second BCS conference team to finish the regular season undefeated and not play for the National Championship, the first of which was Auburn in 2004. The only previous BCS appearance was a 20-7 loss in last year’s Orange Bowl to Virginia Tech and was the school’s first major bowl appearance in its history.

Cincinnati’s head coach was Brian Kelly, who put together a 34-6 record during his three year tenure in charge of the Bearcats. However, Kelly became Notre Dame’s head coach after the regular season ended and he will not be a part of the Sugar Bowl. That’s a major concern for the Bearcats, who will now be led by offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn for the bowl game. Vocal about their displeasure at the loss of their coach, can the Bearcats overcome the distraction and play well?

The Bearcats were unranked entering the season but that changed extremely quickly as they blew Rutgers out on Labor Day before a national audience. Soon thereafter, a big road win at Oregon State established them as contenders and they began to bury all opposition with relative ease. In their first eight games, no one came within eight points of them! However, the final third of their season was fraught with danger as their previously stout defense began to unravel, allowing opponents to score an average of 36.5 points per game! The good news was that their exceptional offense bailed them out and closed out their unbeaten season with a riveting 45-44 victory at Pittsburgh on the season’s final day to clinch the conference in a de-facto Big East Championship Game.

The Bearcats were a machine on offense this season, finishing sixth nationally at 39.8 points per game. This was built largely on the strength of their 6 th ranked passing offense which amazingly only allowed 11 sacks despite attempting 427 passes. No one had an answer for their quick strike attack all season. Meanwhile, their rushing offense was only ranked 65 th in the country despite an impressive 5.1 yards per carry average. That should emphasize how much more important throwing the ball is in their offense. One ‘X’ factor heading into this game: Brian Kelly called all of their plays this year and you have to wonder if Quinn will be able to replicate the Midas touch that Kelly displayed dealing with two successful quarterbacks and timely play choices.

Cincinnati’s defense surprised everyone this year. Heading into the season, the Bearcats had to replace ten starters and the uncertainty surrounding this unit led most observers to exclude the Bearcats from championship consideration. However, they were nothing short of excellent during the first eight games, holding opponents to 12.8 points per game! Unfortunately, they dropped precipitously from the national leaders as their collapse during the final four games produced a 20.8 seaon average that only finished 24th nationally. Their final total included a 55 th ranking against the run and a 49th ranking against the pass. In short, the Bearcat defense fell into near-ruin in the final third of the year and has to improve during the month off before the Sugar Bowl to give Cincinnati a shot at victory.

 

#5 Florida (12-1) Florida has an illustrious history in recent years at the highest level. The Gators have won two of the last three National Championships and have become one of the truly elite programs in the country. This is Florida’s 6 th Sugar Bowl appearance (they have a 2-3 record) and their 6 th appearance in the BCS. The Gators’ record in those games is 4-1, with their only loss coming in the 2001 Sugar Bowl, their only other visit to New Orleans under the BCS umbrella.

Urban Meyer is the head coach of the Gators and he is finishing his 5th season in charge. During his tenure, the Gators are 56-10, are three time SEC East winners, two time SEC Champions and two time National Champions. Meyer previously coached at both Bowling Green and Utah, leading the Utes to an undefeated 2004 season, and his career record overall is 95-18. Meyer has also been impressive in the postseason as his teams have produced a stellar 5-1 record that is highlighted by a 3-0 record in BCS bowls. He is without a doubt one of the country’s best head coaches.

Florida’s season really began back in January when 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow announced that he would return for his senior season, leading numerous other talented Gators to stay as well for one more run at a championship. The Gators jumped out to an early 4-0 record but their offense was underwhelming at best and they fended off two upset bids at midseason to move to 6-0. From there, however, the Gators regained their more dominant offensive form and ended their regular season with a 37-10 stomping of archrival Florida State. However, things went awry in the SEC Championship Game as Alabama dominated the line of scrimmage en route to a 32-13 decision, ending Florida’s bid for the school’s first undefeated season.

The Gator offense fell short of most people’s expectations this year as they never found a proper replacement for gamebreaking wideouts Louis Murphy and Percy Harvin. That said, Florida was still quite solid, finishing with the country’s 13th highest scoring offense at 34.7 points per game. However, when you take away Florida’s showing against three non-BCS conference opponents, that number drops precipitously to 27.1 points per game, so the Gators really ran the score up against some weaklings. Regardless, this was the nation’s 9th ranked rushing attack and the country’s 58th ranked passing game. While the Gators aren’t as prolific as they have been the last two years, most other teams in the country would kill to have a unit that is productive as the one in Gainesville. This is still an excellent offense and Tebow is one of the best quarterbacks in America.

But the real backbone of this team is their incredible defense. The Gators were third in the country in scoring defense at a paltry 11.5 points per game and that came against a schedule that featured six offenses ranked in the top 3rd of the nation! They were absolutely dominant against the pass thanks to an extremely talented secondary and finished 3rd nationally while allowing the 2nd fewest touchdowns through the air. Florida was only slightly more mortal on the ground, finishing 14th in the country but that number was swung in a major way by Alabama’s dominant ground attack in the SEC Championship. Take away that one poor game and the Gators would be ranked in the top 10 in every major statistical category. This will be the best defense Cincinnati has faced all year by a mile.

 

 

KEY MATCHUP: CINCINNATI’S #6 PASS OFFENSE vs. FLORIDA’S #3 PASS DEFENSE

There is no secrecy on Cincinnati’s part: They want to throw the ball early and often. However, Florida’s defense has been incredible against the pass in 2009 and their secondary is one of the most individually talented units in America. With Cincinnati’s struggles defensively, the Bearcats will need to outscore the Gators to win and that means that their passing game must put up big numbers.

While Cincinnati’s aerial attack has been impressive this season, they’ve built their resume against a fairly light set of pass defenses. The Bearcats have only faced two teams that finished ranked in the top 50 nationally! On the other hand, Florida has built their stellar reputation against five top 50 pass offenses, so it appears that they’ve had consistent success against well-versed passing games.

But it gets deeper than that. First of all, the Gators are going to have to be able to cover Cincinnati’s excellent trifecta of Mardy Gilyard, Broderick Binns and D.J. Woods. All three are top-flight players and the Gators will need to play man to man to prevent QB Tony Pike from running the quick-hitting pass game that brought the Bearcats this far.

However, Cincinnati hasn’t seen a backfield like this one all season. Florida’s Joe Haden is a potential first round draft pick and fellow defensive backs Will Hill, Major Wright and Ahmad Black are extremely athletic. Expect Haden to follow Gilyard all over the field and the Gator secondary will make life difficult for the Bearcats receivers.

Another factor in this matchup is Florida’s dominant pass rush. The Gators are 8th in the country with 35 sacks and the real strength of Cincinnati’s amazing pass protection is their ability to get the football out quickly. With the excellent Gator secondary, it would seem likely that Tony Pike will be forced to hold the ball longer and that could lead to some big plays for the Gators in the backfield.

One final major consideration: Cincinnati will have a new play caller without Kelly and that could be enormous. Kelly always seemed to make the right call at the right point in time and losing him will be a major difference on offense.

With that in mind, who has the advantage here? Florida has, by all accounts, the more talented athletes and Haden has the talent to virtually eliminate Gilyard from the passing game. Meanwhile, the Gators have built their reputation against a much more formidable group of pass offenses and there isn’t anything that the Bearcats will do that the Gators won’t expect. Finally, without Brian Kelly there is going to be a different dynamic in the Bearcat passing game and I don’t like the idea of having to shake things up when a) they’ve been so successful all year and b) they’re facing by far the toughest pass defense that they will see all season.

Combining all of those factors together seems to indicate that Florida will have a big advantage in this matchup. Expect the Gators to force the Bearcats into one of their worst showings of the season.

 

THE BREAKDOWN

Perhaps more than any bowl game in the country, this game will be swung on both teams’ motivation. Beginning with Cincinnati, there is the obvious distraction of losing their head coach. However, it goes deeper than that. With an interim coach, how will that affect their preparation? Furthermore, it seems very likely that a number of Cincinnati assistants will follow Kelly to South Bend after the bowl game and that won’t resonate well with a very disgruntled team that vented their frustrations in the media. Finally, how will the disillusioned Bearcats respond to playing an extremely tough football game when they went undefeated in a BCS conference yet failed to play for the National Championship and then lost their coach who had been telling them that he wasn’t going anywhere for months? That’s far from an ideal recipe for beating Florida.

However, the Gators have some distractions of their own. Defensive Coordinator Charlie Strong was just named the new head coach at Louisville and while he will coach the Gator defense in this game, his attention will undoubtedly be split. Furthermore, the Gators have a lot of players with the NFL on their, especially some juniors who are going to be considering forgoing their senior year and turning pro. That can be a huge distraction and could affect how some players play. Furthermore, there is the Carlos Dunlap saga to deal with: Will the suspended Gator star be re-instated? That could be another distraction. Finally, the Gators have to deal with the disappointment of missing out on the National Championship: can they get their heads back in the right place and come out strong against Cincinnati? After all, Alabama came out flat in last year’s Sugar Bowl and was upset by Utah.

Judging by Meyer’s results in the postseason, it seems extremely unlikely that his team wouldn’t be ready to play. His 5-1 record is a proven track record of postseason success. Meanwhile, there is a big concern on the Cincinnati sideline. Their coaching staff is a temporary arrangement and the Bearcats have never won a BCS bowl game. There is no other logical conclusion than to expect Florida to be the more prepared team.

 

Cincinnati vs Florida Preview

With so many question marks surrounding both sides in this game, it will be very interesting to see which team comes out and plays well. There is coaching tumult on both sides and suspensions and NFL futures to consider for the Gators. So which team will come out and claim victory?

I don’t think anyone is going to argue that Florida is the more talented team. They’re loaded with future NFL stars and they have a ton of experience in BCS bowls. Florida’s seniors will be playing to win their 3rd BCS game! Florida also holds a number of major advantages off of the field: Their defensive coordinator will continue to help their preparation leading into the game and Urban Meyer has dealt with NFL aspirations for years. Finally, it seems impossible that a team led by Tebow and star linebacker Brandon Spikes wouldn’t come out ready to play.

On the field, the Gators also hold a major edge. The Cincinnati defense isn’t very good and even Bearcat fans expect Florida to put up plenty of points. However, Florida should have an advantage in defending against Cincinnati’s prolific passing game and I think that the Bearcats will sorely miss Brian Kelly’s playcalling.

So how will things shake out? Expect the Gators to come out firing and score with a lot of consistency. Meanwhile, Cincinnati will make some plays but Florida will have success at stopping them. That’s not a good sign because the Bearcats are going to have serious issues slowing down Tebow in his final college game. While the Bearcats will hang around for the first half and Mardy Gilyard could make a major impact in the return game, the Gators are going to be the better prepared team and more motivated team and Florida will close out Tim Tebow’s historic career with a decisive Sugar Bowl victory.

 

THE PICK: FLORIDA 41, CINCINNATI 24

 

By: Matt Baxendell
Bax is collegesports-fans.com’s football writer. Keep an eye out for all 34 of his bowl previews! If you want to get in touch with him, email him at Matt.Baxendell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @MattBaxendell


 


 

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