One of the SEC's finest—a team that was good enough for a BCS bowl but not good enough for the BCS bowl—will have the opportunity to prove its superiority on Wednesday night in the Sugar Bowl.
And with a Big East team as an opponent, most think it should be able to get the job done with ease.
No. 3 Florida takes on No. 21 Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, Louisville trying to prove it still has something left even after dropping two late-season games to UConn and Syracuse, and Florida trying to prove that its midseason loss to Georgia was just an ill-timed and unfortunate aberration.
But which team will fulfill its mission? Here are the keys to victory for both sides in Wednesday's matchup.
Louisville: Steady Offense and Fourth-Quarter Defense
The Cardinals have had plenty of close calls in 2012, and on top of those, they've played in two overtime games this season, one of which went their way and one did not. When Louisville has been able to win those tight games, it has been because of its ability to score frequently and steadily—and usually, because of its ability to play good defense at the end of games.
In a season-ending win over Rutgers—a win that stopped a two-game slide and represented the difference between a BCS bowl and a lower-tier bowl—they fulfilled one aspect of that game plan, but it was the most important aspect: They played defense.
After going into halftime down 14-3, the Cardinals came out and put 14 points on the board in the third quarter and kicked a field goal in the fourth while holding Rutgers to a single field goal in the half.
Looking at their triple-overtime loss to UConn a week earlier, they again fulfilled one half of their game plan, and that time, it was too little, too late. They played stellar defense in the second half, holding the Huskies scoreless, and though they scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to send things to overtime, they couldn't hold on when it counted—and some earlier offense would have paid off big.
The Cardinals aren't going to get away with a late surge against an SEC team with one of the nation's best defenses. They can't play mediocre football in the first half and then expect to turn it on in the second.
For the Cardinals to have any chance in this game, they need to keep the offense coming throughout and simultaneously play the best defensive game of their lives.
Florida: Rely on the Defense
In 2012, the Gators were best known for a few huge victories over great teams. The first was a 14-6 statement win over LSU back in early October. The Gators may have let LSU score first, as it took a 6-0 lead into halftime, but that was it for the Tigers. Florida would keep them off the board for the rest of the game and come away with the W.
The next big win was a 44-11 beatdown of South Carolina. The offense didn't have to rely on the defense that time around, but if it needed to, it could have. Florida kept the Gamecocks out of the red zone entirely and scored at least one touchdown in each quarter—and even though the offense was bountiful in that matchup, the defense never took a play off.
The third big win came on Nov. 24 in Florida's rivalry game against Florida State. The winner would get the Sugar Bowl berth, and it was one of Florida's biggest tests of the season. It blew a 13-3 halftime lead and let the Seminoles put up 17 third-quarter points. It could have let things spiral out of control, but instead, it locked down on defense, scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns and a field goal, and victory was theirs.
Florida's third-ranked defense has played well when it has needed to. It has played well when it hasn't needed to. And if it can keep the Cardinals at bay on Wednesday, the offense won't have to work too hard to put this one away.