NEW ORLEANS — Earlier this week, Mardy Gilyard and Joe Haden ran into each other on Bourbon Street and realized something.
Cincinnati’s star wideout and Florida’s star cornerback will face each other in Friday’s Sugar Bowl, but most of the pregame hype has had to do with everything but the game itself.
“I was like, ‘Hey Joe, man, this is crazy,’” Gilyard recalled. “He just kinda smiled (and said), ‘Man, we’re playing in the Coaches’ Bowl.’”
Both teams are in the midst of coaching transitions. Cincinnati’s coach for the first 12 games of the year, Brian Kelly, won’t be on the sidelines Friday night after taking the Notre Dame job. The No. 4 AP/No. 3 BCS Bearcats (12-0) installed offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn as their interim coach for the Sugar Bowl, although it will be his last game on the job before focusing on his new gig, the head coaching position at Buffalo.
Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong will coach in the game despite being named the head coach at Louisville. Friday is also Urban Meyer’s last game before taking an indefinite leave of absence. Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio will serve as interim head coach during Meyer’s time away from the No. 5 AP/BCS Gators (12-1).
“We went 12-0 and the biggest talk of our season was about coach Kelly and what was going on with that,” Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike said. “Everything we did kinda got overshadowed. That was such a big thing in the media that when we got back to practice, it was almost like a safe haven for us.”
Florida and Cincinnati are also left wondering what could have been after falling short in their hopes of making the BCS National Championship Game.
The Gators are coming off their first loss in 23 games, while the Bearcats came within a last-second Texas field goal of making it to Pasadena.
Finding motivation for a bowl game, even one of the Sugar Bowl’s stature, hasn’t been easy.
“That’s what coach Meyer calls the human element,” Florida linebacker Ryan Stamper said. “That’s just natural. Of course, if we were playing in the national championship, it would be 100 times more intense. I’m not going to lie to you.
“We’re preparing to win the football game and coming out and practicing as hard as we can, but if we were playing in the national championship, would it be more intense? Would people have more of a sense of urgency? Yeah I think so.”
Those feelings of disappointment, due to Florida’s high expectations this season, are kind of a good thing in cornerback Joe Haden’s eyes.
“We wanted to play in the national championship, but since we lost that game we still have another BCS game to play in,” Haden said. “We can’t look at it like a consolation game or like backup game.
“Our program is doing really well if we play in the Sugar Bowl, and people are upset about it.”
On top of all that, Friday will be the last time many Gators and Bearcats wear their respective uniforms. Florida will see many of its top players finish their eligibility, including Stamper, quarterback Tim Tebow, linebacker Brandon Spikes, defensive end Jermaine Cunningham and wide receiver Riley Cooper. UF also figures to lose several juniors to the NFL Draft, with Haden and defensive Carlos Dunlap currently projected to be first-round picks.
It will also be the first time Florida takes the field since its disappointing 32-13 loss to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, which snapped the Gators’ program-record 22-game winning streak.
“Every person on this team wants to come out and prove something,” UF redshirt senior David Nelson said. “Every person on this team wants to come out and prove that’s not who we are. That’s not how we want to be remembered.”
The night promises to be extra emotional for Tebow, who has become one of the biggest faces of college football in his four years at Florida.
“It’ll be exciting to go play for the last time as a Gator,” Tebow said. “Just to have another opportunity to suit it up and get that bad taste out of our mouth.”
The Gators will hope they learned a lesson from the loss to the Crimson Tide as well as Alabama’s 31-17 loss to Utah in last year’s Sugar Bowl. UA won its first 12 games last season before falling in the SEC Championship Game and the bowl game.
“We pretty much took it out of them,” Stamper said. “They came in this game, pretty much feeling like they should’ve been in the national championship game, kinda like how we feel. That’s why they lost. We don’t want that to happen to us. We want to come out, prepare real well and send the seniors out on top.”
The Sugar Bowl caps off a Florida season that has been filled with plenty of off-the-field story lines. There was the Meyer-Lane Kiffin back and forth, the flu, Spikes’ eye-gouging incident, Meyer’s fine for criticizing officiating and Dunlap’s DUI arrest.
It seems almost fitting then that Friday comes after a week in which Meyer retired out of nowhere then reversed course and took a leave of absence.
“We’ve had a crazy rollercoaster season,” Nelson said. “It wouldn’t be the same unless we had it like this at the end of the season and had something going on until the last game.”