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January 1, 2010
SUGAR BOWL: WHO GETS THE EDGE?
Cincinnati rush offense vs. Florida rush defense: Running the ball is something the Bearcats do when they get tired of throwing the ball. Isaiah Pead is the leading rusher, with 758 yards and nine TDs. He had one 100-yard game, rambling for 175 against West Virginia; alas, he rushed for minus-5 yards the next week against Illinois. The Gators are 13th nationally in rush defense, and teams that prefer to run it right up the middle can hurt the Gators. But Cincinnati is not one of those teams.
Cincinnati pass offense vs. Florida pass defense: The Gators are third in pass defense and fifth in pass efficiency defense, and they have the best secondary Cincinnati has seen this season. The flipside, of course, is that the Bearcats have the best passing attack Florida has seen. The Gators harassed Arkansas' Ryan Mallett into a 12-of-27 day, but Mallett still threw for 224 yards and hit a few big passes. Cincinnati's Tony Pike is going to face a good rush, but the Bearcats have surrendered just 11 sacks and Cincy's quick passes should keep Florida off-balance. WRs Mardy Gilyard, Armon Binns and D.J. Woods have combined for 183 receptions and 25 TDs; the Bearcats have thrown 36 TD passes. One concern for Cincinnati is that Brian Kelly was the offensive play-caller. How much will he be missed?
Florida rush offense vs. Cincinnati rush defense: Cincinnati allowed at least 168 rushing yards six times and at least 200 yards three times. After rushing at least 37 times in each SEC game, the Gators inexplicably attempted just 14 runs in their SEC title game loss to Alabama. Expect a ground-bound attack against the Bearcats. Florida loves the read option, and its interior linemen should be able to carve out big holes in the middle of Cincinnati's defensive front. Florida rushed for at least 200 yards eight times and reached the 300-yard plateau three times.
Florida pass offense vs. Cincinnati pass defense: Florida's passing attack is nothing special, though TE Aaron Hernandez (59 receptions for 739 yards and four TDs) might be the nation's best at his position. But other than Hernandez and senior WR Riley Cooper, the Gators don't have any consistent receivers. The line has struggled in pass protection, as well, and Cincy is ninth in the nation with 35 sacks (2.9 per game). FS Aaron Webster is the Bearcats' best defensive back.
Cincinnati special teams vs. Florida special teams: Bearcats K Jake Rogers is 12-of-18 overall, but just 8-for-14 from beyond 30 yards. Rogers doubles as the punter and has been adequate in that role. Gilyard is a phenomenal return man and has taken back two kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns. The kick coverage has been good, but the punt coverage is shaky. Florida K Caleb Sturgis has a strong leg -- he has kicked a 56-yarder -- but he struggles with consistency and has missed four kicks of less than 37 yards this season. P Chas Henry is one of the nation's best; he has a big leg but also is adept at placing kicks inside the 20. Florida has allowed 21 total punt-return yards this season, and its kick coverage has been solid. Brandon James has been excellent on kick returns (26.1 yards per return) but disappointing on punt returns (7.4 per return). Florida has blocked two punts this season, a low number for a Meyer-coached team.
Cincinnati coaching staff vs. Florida coaching staff: Both staffs are in flux. Kelly already has departed for Notre Dame, leaving Jeff Quinn in charge as the interim. Quinn already has been hired as coach at Buffalo. While Quinn had the offensive coordinator title, Kelly called the plays. This will be the final game at UC for Bob Diaco, who was in his first season as the Bearcats' defensive coordinator; he will follow Kelly to Notre Dame. Meyer's indefinite leave of absence after this game leaves offensive coordinator Steve Addazio in charge of the UF program, and this is the final game for defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, who already has been hired as coach at Cincinnati.
X-factors: Motivation is going to be huge. Cincinnati is unbeaten and ranked third in the BCS, but numerous Bearcats players said they felt somewhat betrayed when Kelly left for Notre Dame. Can they regain their fire under an interim coach who's also leaving? Cincinnati can play the lack of respect card, too; while the Bearcats are unbeaten, there are many who doubt them - including the Vegas oddsmakers who have made Florida almost a two-touchdown favorite. As for Florida, its goal this season was to play for the national title. The Gators fell short, getting whipped in the SEC championship game. Will Meyer's situation fire up his players?
Cincinnati will win if: The Bearcats need to allow Pike to let it fly. Cincinnati's defense was awful down the stretch, giving up 424.5 yards and 36.5 points in the final four regular-season games. You'd think Florida would be able to control the ball with its rushing attack. Thing is, Cincinnati is one of the nation's worst in time-of-possession numbers, so that won't bother the Bearcats. The Bearcats can score quickly with their passing attack, and that passing attack needs to be sharp.
Florida will win if: Getting pressure on Pike is vital. DE Carlos Dunlap, who was suspended for the SEC title game, has been reinstated; it's no secret that he's leaning toward turning pro, and he can make himself some money with a big performance against an offensive line that was extremely good at protecting the passer this season. Florida's offense should put up solid numbers, which means it's up to the defense -- and, specifically, the pass rushers -- to keep this from being a shootout.