NEW ORLEANS — By most measures, this is the blah-est Sugar Bowl in years.
No. 22 Louisville (10-2) is the lowest-ranked team in the game since Jan. 1, 1991, when Virginia came in unranked — although the Cavaliers were No. 1 when they were invited with three games left in the season.
No. 4 Florida’s most recent Sugar Bowl team featured Tim Tebow playing his final college game. This year, the Gators (11-1) rank 114th nationally in passing yardage.
Accordingly, both teams failed to sell their allotments of 17,500 tickets. At last report, Florida’s count stood at 7,000 and Louisville 14,500, the latter figure helped by corporate sponsor Papa John’s offering to front $75 for $135 seats. StubHub.com is offering the same tickets for $35.
So, not surprisingly, there’s likely to be an embarrassing number of empty seats Wednesday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“I wouldn’t even venture to guess why we haven’t sold out,” Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan said. “But it’s definitely not what we hoped it would be.”
But to those actually on the field, there’s plenty to play for.
Louisville, in a BCS bowl only because of its Big East title, is hoping to justify being here.
“This is definitely a statement game for us,” sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said. “Our league gets called the Big Least, and it gets no respect at all. This is a chance for us on a big stage to show what kind of team we really have. That makes it very important for the university.”
For Florida, the game is about showing the Gators are back. They fell to 7-6 last season, their first under coach Will Muschamp, after winning two BCS titles under Urban Meyer.
“Last year was very disappointing because we knew we were better than our record showed,” senior linebacker Jon Bostic said. “We worked hard through the offseason getting better and, even if we’re not playing for the national championship, we’ve proven what we’re capable of doing.”
The game is a contrast in styles. Florida is a physical team on both sides of the ball — but particularly on defense, where the Gators are No. 6 nationally against the run, allowing 97.0 yards per game.
Senior tackle Sharrif Floyd, a third-team All-American, leads Florida with 11 tackles for loss. When not making stops, he stuffs holes for the linebackers.
“They never stop attacking,” Louisville senior tackle Alex Kupper said of the Gators’ defensive front. “They don’t have plays off.”
Added center Mario Benavides: “They’re just so big and talented and fast. They just line up and play. They’re pretty intimidating looking. With Florida, it’s really just draw a line in the dirt and fight.”
As it is, the Cardinals may not be trying to run the ball that often. Since losing then-leading rusher and scorer Senorise Perry (705 yards and 11 touchdowns) to injury three games ago, Louisville has just 117 yards on the ground.
But in Bridgewater, who has thrown for 3,452 yards and 25 touchdowns, the Cardinals have the Big East Player of the Year. Thanks to sacks, he has just 43 net rushing yards, but he can beat opponents with his feet.
“You’ve got to be disciplined in the way you rush,” Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “We can’t let him get outside and create.”
Bridgewater will have to contend with first-team All-American Matt Elam. The safety leads Florida with four interceptions and is second in tackles for loss with 10.
“He’s just a beast,” Bridgewater said.
Florida is particularly tough on third down, ranking fourth nationally at preventing conversions at 28.3 percent. Louisville relies on its conversion ability on third down, ranking 13th nationally at 48.5 percent.
The Louisville defense will have to contend with a Florida running game keyed by All-SEC senior Mike Gillislee (1,104 yards and 11 TDs). That helps make up for a passing game that ranks last in the SEC (139.5 ypg).
But Louisville defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said statistics can be misleading, especially since the Gators have improved as the season progressed.
“They play with a lot of confidence,” he said. “Their line is big and athletic, and their quarterback’s playing better every game. Their receivers are stepping up, and Gillislee is playing lights-out. We can’t have any missed opportunities against them.”
Even though the Cardinals are two-touchdown underdogs, they’re anxious for the test.
“We’ve been counted out all year, even with the conference championship,” senior cornerback Adrian Bushell said. “But we’re a bunch of hungry guys whose job isn’t done. We have to go out and finish strong. The sky’s the limit for this team.”
Is that exciting enough for you?