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January 1, 2010

Plenty of distractions for Gators, Bearcats

MORE: Sugar Bowl: Who gets the edge? | Bowl schedule/results

NEW ORLEANS -- Tens of thousands annually flock to New Orleans this time of year to enjoy the nightlife and excitement of celebrating the New Year in the Crescent City.

The Cincinnati Bearcats and Florida Gators, Sugar Bowl rivals, are among the throngs this year -- but there seems some doubt whether either really wants to be here. And that's not because Florida quarterback Tim Tebow isn't the type to sip Hurricanes in the French Quarter.

On paper, it's an intriguing matchup of top-five teams. The game features the rising Bearcats, out to prove the legitimacy of their unbeaten record. UC is pitted against the established Gators, aiming to further demonstrate the dominance of the SEC.

But off-field matters have taken over. This will be the final game for a while for Florida coach Urban Meyer, who plans to take a leave of absence after the bowl. At least Florida will have its coach on the sideline for the Sugar Bowl. Cincinnati will be without Brian Kelly, who left for Notre Dame shortly after the end of the regular season. Bearcats interim coach Jeff Quinn already has another job, too; he has been hired as coach at Buffalo and takes over that program Saturday. Cincinnati's new coach is Butch Jones, currently the coach at Central Michigan.

Kelly's departure bothered some Cincinnati players, including star wide receiver Mardy Gilyard -- who made public his displeasure. The turmoil surrounding the coaching change has overshadowed that the Bearcats were tantalizingly close to playing for the national championship. Had a second not been put back on the clock to allow Texas the opportunity to kick a winning field goal in the Big 12 championship game, Cincinnati -- which finished third in the BCS standings -- would be preparing to play Alabama for the national championship.

"In our eyes, this is the next best thing [to playing for the national title]," Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike said. "It would have been great for the Cincinnati community to play in the national championship, but we're in the Sugar Bowl, so we're just looking forward to getting into the game."

Meanwhile, Florida's coaching situation -- and the effect it will have on recruiting and whether certain juniors will enter the NFL draft -- has been the talk of college football for the past week. Meyer, alarmed by health issues that included chest pains, announced his retirement Saturday but changed course a day later, opting instead for an indefinite leave of absence.

"I think it's very simple. The love that I have for these players, I think that's well-documented," Meyer said when explaining his change of heart. "Maybe one of the issues that I deal with is that I care so deeply about each individual."

Meyer's players are glad he reconsidered.

"We support him and want him to get healthy," Florida center Maurkice Pouncey said. "He needs to focus on his health and we stand behind him 100 percent."

Meyer's situation has overshadowed that it's the last game for Tebow as well as popular defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, who is leaving after the bowl game to become coach at Louisville. In addition, as many as eight juniors -- including Pouncey and his twin Mike, a starting guard -- may be early entrants into the NFL draft.

Meyer saga aside, perhaps the biggest question surrounding the Gators is their motivation. The Sugar Bowl usually is a reward for winning the SEC. This season, though, it's a consolation prize for the Gators, who lost the chance to defend their national title when they were trounced 32-13 by Alabama in the SEC championship game.

"The last game was a disappointment, but we want to just come out and play hard and show that we are still one of the best defenses in the country," senior linebacker Ryan Stamper said. "We just want to come out and play the way we are capable of playing."

Florida's vaunted defense allowed 490 yards of offense to the Crimson Tide. That sets up an interesting matchup with Cincinnati's offense, which ranks sixth in the nation in yardage and scoring. The Bearcats scored more than 40 points six times this season, including in each of their last two regular-season games.

"Our players have the chance to redeem themselves after the Alabama game," Strong said. "Had that loss come at the end of the season, our players would have to eat this for eight or nine months. What's great is that we have the chance to play another game."

But do they really want to play? After losing to Florida in the 2008 SEC championship game, Alabama players and coaches made similar statements before last season's Sugar Bowl. But after falling to Utah in the bowl game, some Tide players admitted they weren't focused on the Utes.

For now, the Gators are acknowledging the importance of the game.

"Before all this happened, I think there still would have been a lot of emotions going into this final game," Tebow said. "After the fact, this might have added a lot of extra incentive. You don't know if this is going to be his last game, so you want to finish it the right way for yourselves, the team and for Coach Meyer."

MORE: Sugar Bowl: Who gets the edge? | Bowl schedule/results

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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