NEW ORLEANS — When Tim Tebow speaks, others listen.
So it’s well-worth repeating what the former Heisman-winning quarterback said before his alma mater’s game against Louisville in Wednesday’s Sugar Bowl.
“(Louisville coach) Charlie Strong makes you believe like a preacher does,” Tebow said of the man who was Florida’s defensive coordinator when Tebow was a Gator. “He has his team thinking they’re just as good as the Florida Gators tonight.”
Not just as good, as it turned out.
At least on this night they were, posting a 33-23 victory for what was officially the biggest point-spread upset (15 points) in the 79-year history of the Sugar Bowl and certainly one of the biggest surprises.
“The coaches prepared us well,” said Cardinals’ sophomore free safety Calvin Pryor, one of 34 players from the Sunshine State on the Louisville roster, few of whom were recruited by the Gators, the Seminoles or the Hurricanes either, for that matter. “They’re one of the best coaching staffs in the nation.
“We had the right attitude and the right mindset that we would go out and beat this team. That’s what we did tonight.”
It was a Louisville team that even Strong wondered where it had been all year.
After a 9-0 start, the Cardinals tumbled home, losing twice before rallying past Rutgers 20-17 to finish in a three-way tie for the Big East championship. They got the league’s penultimate automatic BCS bowl berth by being the conference’s top teams in the BCS standings, albeit only at No. 22. The game against Rutgers was their only one against a ranked team (No. 25). The Cardinals were No. 113 in strength-of-schedule.
Meanwhile, Florida had beaten four of the top 12 teams in the standings (LSU, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Florida State) with only a 17-9 loss to Georgia preventing it from playing Alabama in the SEC Championship Game and a chance to meet Notre Dame for the national title. As it was, they were No. 3 in the BCS standings.
If college football’s coming playoff system had been in effect this season, Florida would have been playing Alabama in the semifinals and Louisville would have been playing Duke in the Belk Bowl.
Plus, leading up to the game, the Gators, coming off a 7-6 season in Will Muschamp’s first year, gave every appearance of being the Gators we’re accustomed to. And they were eager to prove it, even if their fickle fans weren’t exactly enthusiastic about the pairing, the site of the game or the day of the week.
“Hogwash,” Muschamp said of the notion that his team wouldn’t be properly motivated.
Tebow’s final team came in to the 2010 Sugar Bowl under similar circumstances — a loss to Alabama which kept it out of the BCS title game and facing another Big East champion, this one undefeated, third-ranked Cincinnati. Then, as now, Florida failed to sell its ticket allotment.
There was even the drama of Urban Meyer announcing his resignation the day before the Gators flew to New Orleans and changing his mind before the team had gotten on the plane.
That Florida team shook off any disappointments and distractions to win 51-24 with Tebow throwing for a BCS bowl-record 482 yards.
This Gators team was simply outplayed from start to finish by a Louisville team with more to prove than it could be a one-night wonder.
The Cardinals may be the most ambitious program out there.
They’re making the move from the imploding Big East to the relative stability of the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2014. And when Strong announced he was remaining at the school rather than taking the job at Tennessee, athletic director Tom Jurich declared Louisville was a top-10 program.
Bold talk to be sure. It would take the most dyed-in-the-red U of L fan to envision that a school with a 55,000-seat stadium and a fan base that’s largely contained in the environs of Louisville, a city a little smaller than New Orleans, is on the level with the biggest State Us of the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and even ACC plus the random Notre Dames, Stanfords and USCs out there.
This isn’t even Miami, which had geographic and other advantages. In fact, 15 of Louisville’s players, including Miller-Digby Trophy winning quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, are from the Miami area.
But in Jurich, Louisville has an athletic director who sees no limits. And in Strong the school has a coach who feels intense loyalty to his players, his university and his community in that order. And he receives it in return.
“I have a football team I really love and cherish,” said Strong, who shared a long hug with Jurich at the game’s end.
Strong also paid tribute to the 25,000 Louisville fans who were at the game, far outnumbering the Florida contingent which is satisfied only if the Gators are playing for the national championship.
Which, perhaps they will be again soon. Certainly, in all likelihood before Louisville, which must raise its recruiting level to compete with its new conference foes like Florida State and Clemson.
“We don’t want to go that far,” Strong said when asked about his team starting next year in the Top 5.
Florida, obviously, has great resources at its disposal, and Wednesday’s fail should be more no more than a speed bump.
Still, losing to Louisville will no doubt cause more recriminations in Gator Nation that LSU’s loss to Clemson did to Tigers fans.
“We got outcoached and outplayed,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Even the mighty can be humbled.