NEW ORLEANS — One year ago, Florida and Louisville were six-win teams heading into their respective bowl games, desperately seeking a victory to end their seasons with winning records and hope for the future.
The No. 4 Gators and No. 22 Cardinals meet tonight with vastly improved teams, but a win in the Sugar Bowl still holds significance for both.
For Florida, a victory would complete the redemption process, particularly for a group of seniors that endured multiple coaching changes and down years and now want to be remembered as the group that brought the Gators back.
"It's real big," senior safety Josh Evans said. "You want to leave a winner. That's probably one of the biggest things for us is to come in as winners and leave as winners. We came in our freshman year going to the Sugar Bowl and finishing it, I could definitely say we've accomplished a lot to make a BCS bowl and finish as winners."
"It's very important to get the win for this senior group, and for this program in particular," senior nose tackle Omar Hunter added. "To be able to say you brought Florida back to the top before you left would be special."
For Louisville, a win could help prove the Cardinals are ready to compete among the nation's elite teams as they prepare to join the ACC in 2014.
"We have to have a good showing in this football game because we need to know exactly where we are," Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. "It's going to be a measuring stick for our program, and it's going to either show us how far behind we are or how much further we need to go. Our guys understand what's at stake."
Louisville is in search of its first 11-win season since 2006 and its second BCS win.
"It's a great opportunity for us to just show how hard we've worked all year and to just display that we are a top team in the country," Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said.
The disappointment and regret for Florida over what might have been has been replaced by a strong desire to finish what is. Yes, the Gators admit, there are times they can't help but wonder if they would have been in the BCS title game if they hadn't lost to Georgia. And with an offense ranked, No. 101 in Division I-A (338.4 yards per game), the Gators still have a lot to prove. So anyone who thinks Florida isn't taking this game, or Louisville, seriously, doesn't know this team, coach Will Muschamp said.
"I think that's hogwash," he said when asked about the perception the Gators aren't fully into the game. "I don't think there's anything to that at all. I've seen a football team prepared in how they practiced … totally in tune with what we're trying to do. We're playing a good football team. The film speaks for itself. We have great respect for the opponent."
Strong is well aware of what a victory over a top-level SEC opponent can do for his rising program. But the Cardinals will have to earn the win against a Florida defense that is ranked No. 5 in Division I-A in total defense (283.4 yards per game).
While Louisville is a 14-point underdog, the Cardinals bring impressive credentials into the game. Bridgewater, the Big East offensive player of the year, has thrown for 3,452 yards and 25 touchdowns in an offense averaging 425 yards per game. Louisville leads I-A in red zone offense, scoring 96 percent of the time.
The Gators said regardless of what the oddsmakers say, they know a victory isn't automatic.
"It's not like we're going to just roll our hat out there and win," cornerback Marcus Roberson said. "We have to play. It's not going to be an easy game. They made it this far and that's a good team."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]