NEW ORLEANS — It’s been quite a week for the University of Louisville.
On Wednesday, the school accepted membership in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
On Thursday, the Cardinals snapped a two-game losing streak by defeating Rutgers 20-17 on the road to win the Big East title and secure the second BCS bowl berth in school history.
And Sunday, Louisville learned that it would be playing in the Allstate Sugar Bowl for the first time. The Cardinals (10-2) will meet No. 3 Florida (11-1) on Jan. 2 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“It’s just been a great week for our entire university,” Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. “It speaks volumes for how far we’ve come. We’re taking small steps here. But each year, we’re getting better and better.”
The game pits Strong against the school where he served as defensive coordinator for seven seasons, during which Florida won two BCS championships. He took the Louisville job in 2010.
“(Florida is) a program that is consistent, year in and year out,” said Strong, who is 24-14 at Louisville. “I really enjoyed my time there, and there are so many memories there. Every time you’ve been somewhere, you keep following them, and I follow the University of Florida every week.”
That Louisville landed a Sugar Bowl berth was as much of a surprise as the school’s upcoming ACC membership. The Big East champion seemed destined to be the final at-large selection, which would have paired the Cardinals against ACC champion and future conference foe Florida State.
But Northern Illinois moved from 21st to 15th in the final BCS standings thanks to its 44-37 double-overtime victory against Kent State in the MAC Championship Game on Friday. That earned the Huskies an automatic BCS bowl berth because they were ranked higher than champions from two AQ conference — No. 21 Louisville and Big Ten champion Wisconsin, which did not make the BCS top 25.
That also meant Oklahoma, which the Sugar Bowl had hoped to pair against Florida, was out of the running. The Sooners will play Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
The Sugar Bowl had the pick ahead of the Orange Bowl and, with a choice between Louisville and Northern Illinois, it opted for the Cardinals, leaving the Huskies to play Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
“Certainly the University of Florida is no stranger to our game,” Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan said. “But we are very happy to welcome Louisville to our game for the first time.”
Louisville may not carry the cachet or ranking of Oklahoma, but there should be little worry about Cardinals fans showing up. In the 2007 Orange Bowl against Wake Forest, the school’s only other BCS appearance, Louisville sold nearly 30,000 tickets.
It has been a surprisingly stellar year for Florida, which finished 7-6 last season, the first for former LSU defensive coordinator Will Muschamp as coach. If the four-team playoff that begins in 2014 had been in place this season, the Gators would be in the semifinals against Alabama, whom they didn’t get to face this year, with the Sugar Bowl a possible site.
“The system we have in place now is the one we have,” Muschamp said. “We had our opportunity in Jacksonville (a 17-9 loss to Georgia) but didn’t quite get it done, and that cost us a chance to get into the championship game. We’re going to the Sugar Bowl to represent our conference. That’s a huge honor in itself, so we have great motivation for this game.”
Plus, Muschamp added, there is great respect for Strong, who recruited and coached many of the Florida upperclassmen.
“Charlie Strong was a huge part of two national championships here at Florida,” Muschamp said. “He was an outstanding defensive coordinator and a good friend. In this profession, you see guys and what their teams do on the field. Everywhere he’s been, they’re good on defense, they play hard, they play physical and they do things the right way.”
Florida and Louisville had one common opponent: Kentucky. The Gators beat the Wildcats 38-0; the Cardinals downed their in-state rival 32-14.
This is Florida’s ninth trip to the Sugar Bowl, with the most recent coming in 2010, when the Gators defeated another Big East team, Cincinnati, 51-24. That was Strong’s final game with the Gators.