NEW ORLEANS — When Florida made its last trip to the Sugar Bowl in the 2009 season, it was nothing short of pure chaos.
The Gators were coming off an emotional 32-13 loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game — a loss that ended their quest for an undefeated season and their shot at a national title. Then-defensive coordinator Charlie Strong was coaching his last game before heading to his new job at Louisville. And then-head coach Urban Meyer resigned before the team's departure for New Orleans then changed his mind by the time the team arrived.
It is an event senior DT Omar Hunter will never forget.
"It's funny; (Meyer) did it on my birthday (Dec. 27)," Hunter said Saturday. "I remember it like it was yesterday. Happy birthday. He got in the team meeting room and he said what he had to say about it and the guys were just looking around like, 'What's going on?' And I saw everyone on their phones text messaging and calling, calling their parents. Guys were saying they wanted to transfer, they wanted to do this, they wanted to do that and then I guess a few days later, 'Oh no, I'm staying.'
"But everybody bought back into the program at that time and hung together for the Sugar Bowl (51-24 win over Cincinnati), and after that things kind of calmed down."
Which is why, Hunter said, many of the Gator players, particularly their seniors, are relishing this year's game. It has been low key, free of major distractions and, well, enjoyable.
"We've been having fun and enjoying every step of the way," Hunter said.
TICKETS REMAIN: Florida is a double-digit favorite over Louisville, but that hasn't translated into ticket sales. Florida has sold just 7,000 of its allotted 17,500 Sugar Bowl tickets. With the average ticket price at $165, those unsold tickets could cost the University Athletic Association more than $1.7 million.
PREPARING FOR A CHALLENGE: Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said the Gators defense will pose one of the toughest challenges the Cardinals have faced this season. Florida is allowing 12.9 points per game, its fewest since 1964 (9.8). Watson said one thing jumps out when watching the Gator defense on film: talent.
"They have great talent, all across the board, and they have depth besides talent," Watson said. "That tends to lead to success, because what they do schematically is very good. They have every piece defensively you could ever want."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.