One team lost its coach to Notre Dame. The other is losing its coach -- at least temporarily -- to health concerns following this game. Has there ever been a BCS bowl game where there has been less talk about the game itself than Friday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl between Cincinnati and Florida? Big East blogger Brian Bennett and SEC blogger Chris Low take a closer look at the matchup and everything surrounding it.
Brian Bennett: Well, Chris, clearly Urban Meyer and Brian Kelly don't think the Sugar Bowl is that important, since Meyer tried to upstage it with his non-retirement retirement and Kelly couldn't be bothered to stick around to coach this game. You've been around the Gators. What's your sense in how they're approaching this game and how much motivation they'll have to play it after losing to Alabama?
Chris Low: Brian, an excellent question. The only thing missing now is for a bunch of players on both sides to take a leave and decide not to play in the game. That said, Florida has about seven juniors who are looking strongly at turning pro. That's never a good thing, because you never know for sure what their commitment level is for that last game -- assuming it is their last game. The best thing the Gators have going for them is Tim Tebow. He desperately wants to go out a winner and has had a pretty good hold on this team for the last couple of years. Typically, the Gators have followed his lead. But with no national championship to play for and so many unknowns concerning Meyer's future, this has an uneasy feel to it if you're of the orange and blue persuasion.
BB: Of course, Cincinnati has its own distractions, with Kelly's departure and interim coach Jeff Quinn taking the Buffalo job. But I get the sense that the Bearcats are focused and motivated for this game. Unlike Florida, they really have something to prove. They can show that they can win without Kelly, that they can beat a big SEC power and they can finish 13-0 with at least a claim to being the best team in the country. Motivation only goes so far, though. Cincinnati is going to have to play a nearly perfect game, I think, to win. I actually believe that outside of Tim Tebow, Florida doesn't have nearly as many offensive weapons as the Bearcats do. Am I crazy on that point, Chris? And did the Gators' defense show some fatal flaws in Atlanta?
CL: Sticking with the motivation theme for a moment, this will be the first game Florida has played since the end of the 2007 season where the Gators didn't have a national championship in their sights. Talk about reshuffling the deck. But, no, I don't think you're off at all about the lack of offensive weapons for the Gators. They have plenty of talent and plenty of guys who can run fast. What they don't have is an abundance of guys who consistently made plays down the field in games this season. Tight end Aaron Hernandez is a tough matchup for anybody, and the Gators will involve him in several different ways. Receiver Riley Cooper was Tebow's favorite target on the perimeter and made some big plays for the Gators. But all in all, it was much more of a grind-it-out offense this season, and as we saw in the SEC championship game, the Gators aren't real comfortable when they have to play from behind. To me, the key is whether the Bearcats can keep Tebow in a bunch of third-and-long situations. Do they have that kind of defensive muscle, Brian, to stuff the Gators on first down?
BB: In short, no. At least not if that defense plays the way it did down the stretch this season, when it gave up more than 36 points per game. The Bearcats are small up front and highly susceptible to being pushed around by bigger offensive lines, which the Gators have. Tebow could give them nightmares with a power option. Cincinnati is really built defensively to stop spread attacks with its speed, though its athletes probably can't match Florida's. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco would love to see the Gators play like they did against Alabama, when they pretty much abandoned the running game. But Cincinnati will likely have to score quickly and build a lead for that to happen. Arkansas gave Florida some trouble with its spread. How do you think the Gators' defense will stand up to the Bearcats' no-huddle, pass-happy system which is unlike most SEC offenses? Can they pressure Tony Pike, who gets rid of the ball so quickly from the shotgun?
CL: It's hard for anybody to get that last impression of the Florida defense out of their mind. The Gators didn't do much of anything well defensively against Alabama in the SEC championship game. But in fairness, that was the exception this season. Charlie Strong's guys set the tone for the Gators as they sprinted out to a 12-0 regular season. When they needed a play on defense, they got it. I do believe Florida is well equipped to handle Cincinnati's up-tempo style. For one, the Gators get their best pass-rusher, junior defensive end Carlos Dunlap, back for this game after he was suspended for the SEC championship game. He's a force coming off the edge, but Jermaine Cunningham is just as good on the other side. And even if the Bearcats are able to get rid of the ball quickly and neutralize the Florida pass rush, the Gators have plenty of answers in the secondary. Strong won't be afraid to play man coverage with cornerbacks Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins, both of whom will be playing in the NFL at some point. There's a reason Florida tied for the SEC lead with 20 interceptions. The Gators had 13 of those during the final six weeks of the regular season. Heck, even middle linebacker Brandon Spikes has four interception returns for touchdowns over the last two seasons. In short, this is a Florida defense that gravitates to the football.
BB: It's a formidable defense, Chris, and as much as I've been impressed with Cincinnati all year, I'm not sure the Bearcats can match athlete vs. athlete, especially without the game-day wizardry of Kelly. They are going to have to get some special-teams magic from Mardy Gilyard, get their offense to put Florida on its heels early and hope that the Gators really don't care much about this game. I see the Bearcats hanging tough early but losing by about two scores in this one. How do you see this playing out?
CL: The Tebow factor is just too much for me to pick against the Gators. He will make sure they're ready to play even if a few of his teammates happen to be thinking more about NFL dollars than the Bearcats. I look for the Gators to get out of the gate quickly on offense and then break the game open with a big play in special teams. There are so many ways they're capable of doing that, too, with a blocked kick, punt return for a touchdown or simply setting up short drives for themselves with their superior punt game. Cincinnati will score some points in this game, but I have Florida winning going away ... by at least 17 points.