Strong, the Gators defensive coordinator, will fulfill interim coaching duties for UF after Zook was told by athletic director Jeremy Foley that his serves would not be needed any longer. In turn Florida officially hired Urban Meyer to replace the departed Zook. Zook has since filled the Illinois head coaching vacancy.
But UM coach Larry Coker isn't about to change anything because there's a coaching merry-go-round in full swing in Gainesville.
"I don't think our form of preparation is going to be any different just because they're going to have a new guy on the sidelines. We have to look at the whole picture here and understand we're going to face a football team that is playing very well right now," said Coker, as the No. 14 Hurricanes (8-3) were extended an official invitation to meet the No. 20 Gators (7-4) Dec. 31 in the Georgia dome. "And I know our football team feels the same way. There's always a little extra on the line when we play Florida."
State bragging rights and winning the recruiting tug of war are certainly at the top of the list. With the Hurricanes and Gators having already defeated the Seminoles this season the UM-UF survivor could lay claim to the Sunshine State Cup. And opening the eyes of potential recruits couldn't hurt either.
"It's no doubt something that all our players and coaches would take a lot of pride in," said Coker. "But even bigger than that is setting the groundwork for next season - and a win in this spot would really help us do that."
UM, which missed out on an automatic BCS bowl berth and the Atlantic Coast Conference championship after losing to Virginia Tech, had not concluded the regular season with a loss since 1997.
Both schools will receive $2.3 million from a record $4.6 payout. Miami leads the all-time series 27-25, including a 37-20 win over the Gators in the Nokia Sugar Bowl following the 2000 season.
After dropping three of four games in October, including a road loss at Ole Miss that triggered Zook's firing, the Gators have saved face with three consecutive victories. UF concluded the regular season last month with a 20-13 victory over FSU - their first over the Seminoles in Tallahassee since 1986.
The Gators defense, which has allowed 30 or more points in three of the team's four defeats, came under heavy criticism earlier in the season for repeatedly wearing down during the latter stages of games. But the unit silenced some of their critics by giving up just four touchdowns in their last three games.
"They've got some pretty darn good athletes on that side of the ball that just fly to the ball," said Coker. "Whenever you have the luxury of having so many guys that can make a game-turning play then you have a chance to win."
Coker should know.
Florida was on the verge of upsetting the Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl last season after jumping out to a 33-10 lead midway through the third quarter behind the play of then-freshman quarterback Chris Leak and a swarming defense that forced four turnovers before UM rallied with 28 unanswered points to seal the victory.
While most of the same players remain, Coker said that the Gators' key offensive figures - especially Leak and running back Ciatrick Fason - have had plenty of time to mature and improve during the past year and a half making the Gators not just a quality opponent, but a dangerous one in his view.
"The biggest difference I think is they've got some games under their belts now and have gained experience in certain situations that maybe they didn't have when they played us," said Coker. "They're still relatively young, but they can certainly make some big plays for their football team as we've all seen recently. I expect to have our hands full."
The Hurricanes, who defeated Virginia Tech 21-10 in the 1981 Peach Bowl with a squad that included current offensive line coach Art Kehoe and radio analyst Don Bailey, Jr., will be making their second appearance in the game.
TE Greg Olsen (fractured left wrist), who did not play against Virginia Tech last week, has told Coker that he wants to play in the bowl game although it appears he will be held out of the game.
Olsen was leading the team in receiving yardage before suffering the injury during Miami's 31-28 loss at North Carolina in October. RB Tyrone Moss (sprained knee), TE Kevin Everett (slight left shoulder dislocation) and FB Talib Humphrey (sprained ankle) are expected to play against Florida, Coker said.
Coker, Canes Ready
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