The NCAA men’s basketball championship match-up pits two universities with football programs that would look just as at home on such a big stage were it a football match-up for the first time since 2007. That season, the Ohio State Buckeyes and Florida Gators met in a redux of the BCS championship, played just three months prior.
This year, the NCAA tournament culminates with Louisville vs Michigan. Not only were the Cardinals and Wolverines top tier basketball teams in the 2012-’13 season, each garnering the No. 1 spot in polls, but the two schools host the last two Sugar Bowl champions as well. The 2012 football Cardinals won the Big East Conference championship for the first time since 2006, but entered the postseason as sizable underdogs against the 11-1 Florida Gators.
Yet, Charlie Strong’s squad jumped all over Florida early and led by double digits for almost all of the Sugar Bowl’s 60 minutes. The win puts Louisville on the 2013 BCS radar, so expect a preseason top 10 ranking for the Cardinals.
Leading the Michigan basketball team is point guard Trey Burke, winner of every major Player of the Year honor. In this match-up, Burke’s counterpart would sport red-and-white. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater garnered some much deserved national recognition after going 20-32 for 266 yards with two touchdowns against the ballyhooed Florida defense.
Bridgewater was outstanding throughout his sophomore campaign. He completed 68.5 percent of his attempts for 3718 yards, with 27 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. Bridgewater was recruited as a dual threat quarterback, but under offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, has NFL scouts’ interest piqued as a Pro Set play maker. CBS Sports ranks Bridgewater the top quarterback prospect for the 2015 NFL draft class — not unlike Burke, who Jeff Goodman projects as the first point guard taken in June’s NBA draft.
Michigan went 11-2 in Brady Hoke’s first season leading the maize-and-blue, the culmination of which was a 23-20 defeat of Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. Hoke may not necessarily have established himself as a Michigan Man that January evening, but he certainly made the case. The Wolverines went 8-5 last season despite preseason buzz about contending for the program’s first national championship since 1997.
A gauntlet of a schedule contributed to the Wolverines’ disappointing record. Michigan played each of the BCS championship game participants in the non-conference, Alabama and Notre Dame. Big Blue also lost to the only undefeated team in all of Division I football, Ohio State. Each of Michigan’s other two losses — against the South Carolina Gameocks and Nebraska Cornhuskers — were against teams that finished with double-digit wins.
Hoke’s team should be worse for the wear in 2013. Like the 2011-’12 basketball Wolverines, who disappointed in a Round of 64 exit against the Ohio Bobcats, Michigan football looks poised to rebound in the following campaign. Devin Gardner is back behind center after a strong finish to 2012, playing behind one of the best offensive lineman in college football, Taylor Lewan. Consider Lewan the Mitch McGary of Michigan football: big, aggressive and a surefire pro prospect.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison resurrected the Wolverines’ on that side of the ball, switching to a 4-3 after the failed experiment of Greg Robinson running the 3-3-5 stack. Michigan went from allowing 35.2 points per game in 2010 (No. 108 in the nation), to 17.4 (No. 6) in 2011 and 19.9 (No. 20) last season. If Louisville football takes a page from Michigan basketball with a ball-controlling superstar manning the offense, the opposite is true for the Wolverine defense. Michigan swarms effectively, akin to Rick Pitino’s pressure defense on the hardwood.
Bridgewater’s ability to read Thomas Gordon and Raymon Taylor in coverage is an X-factor in this hypothetical Louisville vs Michigan showdown. Louisville was not a particularly effective rushing team last season, ranking No. 102 in the FBS. But the 2013 Michigan Wolverines’ hopes could rest on getting the rush defense up to speed, with Kenny Demens, Jordan Kovacs and Craig Roh out of eligibility and Jake Ryan sidelined by a knee injury.
Establishing an effective pass attack to the middle of the field is Louisville’s best weapon against such a defense. Mattison is likely to drop more defensive backs to force UL to rush, while bringing pressure up front. However, Bridgewater had no trouble exposing seams against Florida. It’s a risky gamble for a defense, much like trying to put too much pressure on Burke and watching him dribble by a trap.
Michigan is still feeling out its offense under Al Borges, but Gardner appeared much better suited to the West Coast than predecessor Denard Robinson. An effective and multifaceted ground attack is best against the Cardinal defense — Louisville was No. 16 against the pass last season, and returns defensive backs Terrell Floyd and Calvin Pryor. Countering with an old school, more smash mouth approach would behoove the Wolverines on the gridiron, not unlike the Cardinals on the basketball court.
The 2013 national basketball championship contenders are not scheduled to meet this autumn on the football field, but who knows? Maybe Louisville vs Michigan comes to fruition in a BCS bowl.