GAINESVILLE — One year after barely qualifying for a bowl game at all, the Florida Gators are going to a BCS bowl.
Florida (11-1) finished the season ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings, behind No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama, and will play Louisville (10-2) in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 in New Orleans. The Gators will be making their 22nd consecutive bowl appearance, the second-longest streak in the nation and tops in the SEC.
This will be Florida's first BCS bowl appearance since a 51-24 victory over Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl after the 2009 season, and the Gators' ninth overall appearance in the Sugar Bowl. Florida is 3-5 in its eight previous Sugar Bowl appearances, which includes a 52-20 victory over Florida State for the national championship after the 1996 season.
"We're honored to play in New Orleans," Florida coach Will Muschamp said Sunday night. "New Orleans is a great place for a lot of Gators, it was their first national championship in 1996. I have a lot of respect for Louisville and the football team they have."
Louisville, making its first appearance in the Sugar Bowl, earned its BCS bid with a 20-17 victory over Rutgers this past Thursday.
Interestingly, this is not the matchup most fans anticipated before Sunday afternoon. Florida was expected to play Oklahoma, a rematch of the national championship game after the 2008 season. But when Northern Illinois unexpectedly ended up ranked high enough in the BCS standings to earn a BCS bid, it knocked Oklahoma out.
"We're going to play in the Sugar Bowl and represent our conference and that's a huge honor in itself," Muschamp said. "We have great motivation for this game, regardless of the circumstances."
For many Gator players, the game will pit them against their former defensive coordinator, Charlie Strong, now in his third season as head coach at Louisville. Former UF assistants Vance Bedford and Kenny Carter are also on Louisville's staff.
"We're so excited here at the University of Louisville to be playing an opponent like the University of Florida," Strong said. "Our football team has done a great job. It's a resilient team, a team that we had two of our stumbles late in the season, but from the onset we played pretty well. And I'm just so happy for this program and so happy for this university."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.