NEW ORLEANS -- One of the most popular storylines leading up to Wednesday's Sugar Bowl between Florida and Louisville is Cardinals coach Charlie Strong and his deep connections to the Gators.
Strong is one of the most prominent assistant coaches in UF history. He worked under Florida head coaches Charley Pell, Galen Hall, Gary Darnell, Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook and Urban Meyer.
He started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Florida in 1983. He returned to UF in 1991 as defensive ends coach, became assistant head coach/defensive tackles coach in 1994, and after time at Notre Dame and South Carolina, Strong came back to join Zook's staff as defensive coordinator in 2003.
When Zook was fired after the 2004 season, Strong served as the Gators' head coach in the 2004 Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl against Miami.
He remained on staff when Urban Meyer took over the program in 2005 and was Florida's defensive coordinator in the 2010 Sugar Bowl victory here over Cincinnati.
He left to become Louisville's head coach after the game and recently turned down an offer from Tennessee to remain in Louisville.
Strong remains a popular figure with Florida's administration.
"My success started at Florida,'' Strong said. "I was part of two national championship teams and worked for so many outstanding coaches. One after the next, those coaches gave me opportunities and built tremendous programs with tradition.
It took Strong longer than expected to take over his own program, but in three seasons at Louisville, he is 24-14 including a 10-2 record this season.
The wait was worth it for Strong.
"When trying to become a head coach, it's all about waiting and being patient and finding the right job,'' he said. "I didn't get a head job right away, but I am so thankful that it happened for me here at Louisville. I'm at the right place right now."
FLOYD'S WIN-WIN SITUATION
Among the Gators' underclassmen that are considering the NFL Draft, junior defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd is projected by most analysts to get drafted the highest.
Floyd is a first-round pick on many draft boards and likely to go no lower than the second round should he leave school early.
Floyd appeared relaxed when talking about the upcoming decision over the weekend.
"I've been just getting ready for this,'' Floyd said. "On Jan. 3 we can talk about it. I get questions but at the end of the day, I'm honestly just focusing on the team and I'm not locked in to anything else yet.
"There's no decision right now."
A prototypical defensive end, Floyd had 41 tackles in the regular season and led the Gators with 11 tackles-for-loss. He moved back to the interior line this season after spending much of his sophomore season at defensive end due to a lack of depth.
Regardless of what the future holds, Floyd looks at like a win-win situation.
"At the end of the day, it's not a bad situation,'' Floyd said. "I'm leaving or I'm staying. If I stay, I'm still going to be with my boys. If I leave, I'm still going to be in contact with them. At the end of the day it's about what is best for the team and what the coaches feel is the best."
Gators junior safety Matt Elam earned first-team All-American honors and is projected to be an early-round draft pick should he leave school after the Sugar Bowl and enter the NFL draft.
Elam declined to discuss his draft status in New Orleans, saying, "I'm not answering questions about that right now."
While he'll make that decision public later, he matured into one of Florida's best players in front of everyone the past three years.
Elam was inconsistent early in his career but as a junior blossomed into the kind of player most expected when he came out of Dwyer High in Palm Beach.
"It was all progress,'' he said. "I didn’t start off too well, but I stayed focused on consistency. I experienced a lot, and it helped me grow as a man.
"I feel like the smarter I got, the easier it became. There’s a lot of great players in the SEC, so it was a challenge, and that’s a part of the learning process.”
STAYING IN TOUCH
Louisville's Gerald Christian and Robert Clark were teammates of Elam's in high school and at UF for two seasons. The two transferred to Louisville after the 2011 season and sat out this season per NCAA rules.
Elam remains close with his longtime teammates.
"I communicate with them every day,'' Elam said. "It was tough coming in [together] and seeing them leave."
Elam visited Christian and Clark over the summer in Louisville and has hung out with them in New Orleans.
QUOTE OF NOTE I
"What Coach Muschamp has started is really hard to do. To get this program back on top, it feels great to be a part of it, especially having gone through the highs and the lows." -- Offensive lineman James Wilson on Florida's turnaround
QUOTE OF NOTE II
"We try not to listen to that. People like to take the underdog role on. It is what it is. On film you can see that they're a very talented team.'' -- Louisville center Mario Benavides on the Cardinals being more than a two-touchdown underdog
QUOTE OF NOTE III
"We said that as soon as it happened, 'that probably could be play of the year right there.' We still say it. That really could have been the turning point of our season." -- Gators LB Jon Bostic on Elam's game-changing strip in a 14-6 win over LSU
Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel and Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater both attended the Elite 11 Camp in California in high school. "We kind of go back a little ways,'' Driskel said. "I know him a little bit." ... The official Sugar Bowl pep rally for the Gators is at 4:45 p.m. Tuesday afternoon. For more information, click this link from the Sugar Bowl's official website ... Gators receiver Frankie Hammond Jr., who also performed in the high jump for Florida's track team, said he is done with track and has no plans to pursue a track career after football.