NEW ORLEANS — If Urban Meyer wants to send Tim Tebow out as a winner, he'll have to have beat his alma mater and spoil what could be Brian Kelly's final game as coach of unbeaten Cincinnati.
After missing a shot at the national title by the slimmest of margins, the No. 4 Bearcats will play fifth-ranked Florida in the 76th Sugar Bowl.
The contest matches one coach who promised he won't leave for Notre Dame against another who can't get away from speculation he might. Meyer has already said he has no intention of leaving Florida, but Kelly has been worn down by questions about whether he will talk to Notre Dame about its coaching vacancy.
When the topic came up on a Sugar Bowl conference call on Sunday night, bowl spokesman John Sudsbury stepped in and asked that coaches only be asked questions about their current teams' participation in the Jan. 1 game.
On that subject, Kelly was enthusiastic.
"When you talk about history and tradition, when it comes to bowl games, the Sugar Bowl is always part of that," Kelly said.
Kelly called Florida "the benchmark" for college football during the past half-dozen years.
"We're excited about the matchup," he said. "Certainly our sights are set not only on being a good football team and a great matchup, but we want to win the football game."
The Gators lost the Southeastern Conference championship game to Alabama on Saturday night to end their 22-game winning streak and hope of winning a third national title in four seasons.
But with a 12-1 record – and the most popular player in the sport in Tebow – Florida was an obvious fit in the Sugar Bowl, which has a long relationship with the SEC.
Meyer said he remains a Cincinnati fan, given that both he and his father went to school there. He said he never missed a chance to watch the Bearcats on TV, adding that he viewed Cincinnati as "SEC caliber" and one of the best teams in the nation.
"Our guys talk about Cincinnati. They've watched them play," Meyer said. "The Gators will be highly motivated to play in this game."
The Gators have been to the Sugar Bowl seven previous times, last playing there in 2001, when they lost to Miami. This will be Meyer's first time at the event as a coach.
The Bearcats (12-0) are making their second straight BCS appearance and will be playing in the Sugar Bowl for the first time.
Cincinnati hoped for a crack at a national title after its wild 45-44 comeback victory at Pittsburgh on Saturday, a result that secured the Bearcats' undefeated regular season and a second-straight Big East championship.
However, Texas overcame Nebraska's upset bid with a last-second field goal to win the Big 12 title, meaning the Longhorns would meet Alabama for a national title. Cincinnati has to settle for the Sugar Bowl, which shows how far Kelly has taken the program in three seasons.
As it turned out, the difference for Cincinnati very well may have been that last 1 second of the Big 12 title tilt in Dallas and the small space by which Texas kicker Hunter Lawrence's 46-yard field goal sneaked inside the left upright.
The Bearcats finished third in the BCS standings ahead of unbeaten TCU, meaning Cincinnati likely would have played Alabama had Nebraska hung on. But the Huskers's chances of stopping Texas slid when a kickoff went out of bounds, giving the Longhorns starting field position on their 40 for the game-winning drive.
"The kickoff specialist from Nebraska is not getting a Christmas card form us, I'll tell you that," Kelly quipped.
"Hey, 12-0. Show me why we can't be No. 1," Kelly added while speaking with reporters in Cincinnati. "We won all of our games. We can only play the games they scheduled. After watching Nebraska-Texas last night, we're as good as anybody."
Yet, should Cincinnati and TCU both win their bowl games and finish without a loss, they'll be left to argue over who deserves to be No. 2.
Florida should know better than to take the Bearcats lightly, based on what happened to Alabama only a year ago. The 2009 Sugar Bowl was the Crimson Tide's consolation prize following a loss to Florida in the 2008 SEC title game. The Tide came in flat, and wound up being no match for unbeaten Utah of the Mountain West, which became the best of the BCS busters with a 31-17 romp.
"Our legacy is going to be dependent on how we finish this season," Meyer said.
Now the Big East is sending an undefeated team to the Big Easy to take on the SEC's second-best. Cincinnati will want to defend its league's honor better than it did last year at the Orange Bowl, when the Bearcats, then ranked 12th, fell 20-7 to Virginia Tech of the ACC.
There is a bit of SEC pride at stake as well. Many of those affiliated with the conference espoused the idea that Saturday's Alabama-Florida showdown was the de facto national championship. That argument holds water only if both teams win their bowl games. Florida will get its turn first on New Year's Day in New Orleans, with Alabama playing six nights later in Pasadena.