NEW ORLEANS (WDRB) -- The University of Louisville, for a second time in a Bowl Championship Series appearance, is poised to show that it belongs from a support and operational standpoint.
That is to say, it will deliver a large contingent of its own fans -- perhaps 25,000 by some estimates -- to the AllState Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for a game against the No. 3-ranked Florida Gators.
Even facing a fiscal cliff, Cardinals fans grabbed their rappelling ropes and headed down to New Orleans. If they did not completely sell out the school's bowl allotment of 17,500 tickets, they came far closer than the University of Florida, which had approximately 10,000 unused tickets. U of L sold at least 15,000 of its allotment from the bowl, and thousands more on the secondary market.
On Bourbon Street the night before the game, the size difference between the two fan bases was stark. U of L figures to deliver one of the top 10 traveling contingents at any bowl game this year.
U of L's football team has walked through a "Card March" of fans at its hotel to the buses for every practice since it arrived, prompting assistant coach Clint Hurtt to take to his Facebook page to thank fans for the response.
What is more important, however, is whether the Cardinals are able to build some top 10 credibility on the football field.
U of L coach Charlie Strong has fielded questions this week over the Cardinals' schedule next season and whether it will be strong enough -- given Boise State's recent defection from the Big East -- for a team with national aspirations.
U of L players, when asked, have voiced a desire to play bigger-name opponents.
Happy New Year, Cardinals. That opportunity has come. The most important game of the 2013 football season for the Cardinals is the one they will play to close out 2012.
"I say to (players) this is the first game of next season," Strong said. "And it shows us exactly where we are. Now you have a team that it is a really good football team. And now we have to have a good showing in this football game because we need to know exactly where we are. 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."
Strong explained the apparent gap in the sizes of the fan bases in New Orleans by referring to the newness of the BCS experience to Louisville.
"Florida is a program that has had so much tradition over the last few years," Strong said. "At Louisville, this is just our second BCS bowl game, so our fans are excited."
But don't expect that lack of enthusiasm to translate to the Florida's team. Strong, U of L defensive coordinator Vance Bedford and running backs coach Kenny Carter were popular assistants at Florida, and quite a few Gators players have said they want to play well against their former coaches.
Beyond motivation, however, there's execution.
Florida has a major advantage in three crucial areas of any football game -- running game, special teams and defense.
The Gators' defense is one of the nation's stingiest. Florida is third in the nation in scoring defense, first in pass efficiency defense and sixth nationally against the run. The Gators have allowed only 17 touchdowns all season. Only Notre Dame (10) has allowed fewer. Opponents average only 4.2 yards per play, and convert just 28.3 percent of their third downs (fourth nationally).
Teddy Bridgewater acknowledged that "it's another level from anything we've faced."
In special teams, the Gators are the only team in the nation with three players who have punt returns of 30 yards or longer. The Gators have blocked 10 kicks in 25 games under coach Will Muschamp, and four this season, including three field goals. Andre Dubose is perhaps the most dangerous of the Florida return speedsters. He had a 99-yard kickoff return for a TD in last year's Gator Bowl.
The Gators rank seventh in the nation in net punting (punting average minus returns allowed). U of L ranks No. 119. Florida held South Carolina to minus-13 yards on three punt returns.
In the running game, Florida has averaged 4.9 yards a carry with 14 rushing touchdowns on the season. U of L's numbers were comparable before losing Seniorise Perry. Florida has especially excelled at running in the second half of games, where its yardage, average and time of possession has increased as part of Muschamp's philosophy to be able to control the game with the run in the second half.
So against such overwhelming stats, what is U of L to do? All indications are that Charlie Strong and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson will put the game into the hands of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, building a short passing game based on long methodical drives that move the chains.
Bridgewater was pummeled in last season's Belk Bowl loss, and a similar beating tonight could prove catastrophic given that the sophomore is recovering from a broken wrist and an ankle sprain. Expect the Cardinals to keep Bridgewater out of situations where he could be exposed to re-injury -- running the ball or deep drops, particularly early in the game.
One interesting question will be how the Cards try to establish their running game. A fully healthy Corvin Lamb gives them a back whose speed matches what Florida will put on the field. But U of L coaches have gone with Jeremy Wright more this season than anyone else. Because getting outside will be difficult against a faster Florida defense, the Cards may well content themselves to pick up yardage in short chunks over the middle, hoping just to move the chains. In the passing game, expect Bridgewater and his receivers to test Florida's coverage with a couple of early deep balls, but don't expect a steady diet. Florida has been able to get great pressure with its front four, and safety Matt Elam, who often lines up near the line of scrimmage, is a first-rate blitzed.
It'll be a major "show-me" game for U of L's talented receiving corps, especially DeVante Parker, who figures to have the athletic tools to play with whoever is matched up against him. Their ability to create separation -- even just a sliver of it -- will go a long way to determining what kind of day U of L has.
One thing that could help the U of L offense is the game being in a dome. In an advantageous kicking environment, John Wallace's range should be upwards of 50 yards and the Cards might be willing to try anything from 55 yards and in. Against a Florida defense that is tough to score on, that might wind up being important.
Defensively, the Cards' main focus will be stopping Florida running back Mike Gillislee. He's coming off a 24-carry, 140-yard performance against Florida State, in which he became the first Florida back to surpass 1,000 yards since 2004. He was the No. 3 rusher in the SEC, but he's not all the Gators have. Junior Trey Burton has run for 640 yards in his career and has scored a TD every 8.5 times he has carried the ball.
U of L defensive coordinator Vance Bedford says stopping Gillislee and the run will be Job No. 1 for U of L. If the Cards can accomplish that, they will force Florida to do some things were it hasn't had the same kind of success rate.
For once, it's not the atmosphere of the game or the magnitude of the situation that U of L is most worried about -- it's the quality of the opponent.
"We want to play the best teams," Wright said. "Well, here it is."
He's right. For the Cards, the opportunity is here. The fans are here. Soon, we'll get to see where the team is.