Florida Football: Why Sugar Bowl Is First Game of 2013 Season for Gators

Stephen SheehanCorrespondent IDecember 13, 2012

Freshman offensive tackle DJ Humphries earned valuable playing time during the regular season.
Freshman offensive tackle DJ Humphries earned valuable playing time during the regular season.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Gators' official schedule may say the Sugar Bowl is the 2012 season finale, but when No. 3 Florida takes on No. 21 Louisville at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, it'll be the first game of what should be a promising 2013 season. 

No one could have predicted Florida would finish the season as a Top 5 team, especially with an inexperienced sophomore quarterback thrust into a brand-new offensive system. 

However, 12 games later, the Gators stand mightily at 11-1 and arguably have the most complete resume of any team in the country. 

When looking back at the 2012 season, Will Muschamp's team can only blame itself for missing out a chance to play for the national championship. 

An eight-point loss to Georgia cost the Gators, leaving them in position to play in the Sugar Bowl. 

So what does this game mean to one of the nation's biggest surprises? 

Rather than capping off a highly successful campaign, the Sugar Bowl is the first step in a new journey to bring back a national championship to Gainesville.

What the Gators managed to accomplish in 2012 can't be understated. 

Jeff Driskel managed to avoid costly mistakes and showed everyone flashes of why he was Rivals.com's No. 1 high school quarterback of the 2011 class

Mike Gillislee capitalized on a starting job and became the Gators' first 1,000-yard rusher since 2004. 

Matt Elam talked a big game and played even bigger as the leader of the nation's No. 3 scoring defense, compiling a highlight reel of game-changing plays for a unit that literally put the team on its back. 

Looking back on the 2012 season, there were a number of clutch performances, unsung heroes and unforgettable moments, but that's behind us. 

The Sugar Bowl is a new beginning. 

Sure, the Gators seniors will want to go out with a bang and take down former co-defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, who led Louisville to an impressive 10-2 record. 

As great as guys like Omar Hunter, Jon Bostic and Josh Evans have played, this game isn't about them. 

It's not about finishing the season on a high note or verifying their No. 3 ranking. 

This is about making a statement for 2013.

As it stands, the Gators figure to lose about 10 of their 22 starters (not including kicker Caleb Sturgis), but thanks to the great depth assembled by Muschamp and UF's No. 1-ranked recruiting class for 2013, there shouldn't be a drop-off. 

If Muschamp wants to take this program to the next level, the Sugar Bowl will be the first step in a year-long quest for the Coaches' Trophy. 

That's not to say Florida's head coach should start a bunch of freshmen and sit his seniors, but this game needs to be attacked with the ferocity as if the Gators' 2013 national championship hopes depended on it. 

Muschamp and Co. must treat this game like a must-win and get it through to the players that the Sugar Bowl is simply the stepping stone for something bigger and better. 

All these players know the pain of defeat and probably still agonize over what could have been if they hadn't faltered in Jacksonville against the Bulldogs. 

The 2012 season can't be changed, and it shouldn't be. 

The Gators exceeded expectations and earned their way to a top-five finish. 

But when the Gators take on the Cardinals in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2, the 2013 season will have unofficially begun.