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Russ Brown: No. 20 Louisville will battle Georgia for the first time in Belk Bowl

Bobby Petrino will lead Louisville to its fifth straight post-season appearance, a game against Georgia in the Belk Bowl on Dec. 30 (UofL Photo)

Bobby Petrino will lead Louisville to its fifth straight post-season appearance, a game against Georgia in the Belk Bowl on Dec. 30 (UofL Photo)


By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent


Jake Smith didn’t quite understand the wacky bowl selection process, but when the dust had settled early Sunday evening, the University of Louisville offensive lineman did understand this:

“An opportunity like this is huge for us,” Smith says.

He was referring to No. 20 UofL’s first-ever matchup against SEC opponent and No. 13 Georgia (9-3) in the Belk Bowl on Dec. 30 in Charlotte, N.C. Kickoff will be at 6:30 p.m. in Bank of America Stadium and will be televised by ESPN.

It will be the Cardinals’ (9-3) second appearance in the Belk in four years, the first coming in 2011 when they lost to North Carolina State 31-24.

“It’s a great venue,” Smith says. “We had 25,000 fans down there last time and it’s safe to say fan base more excited now than they were back then.”

Nevertheless, it wasn’t where UofL officials — and probably coaches and players — preferred to wind up. During the day, UofL believed it was headed for the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando. Then the Music City Bowl appeared to be the destination to face LSU, but the SEC reportedly wanted to play Notre Dame instead, so the Cards were bumped to the Belk.

UofL coach Bobby Petrino wasn’t made available for comment, but in a statement said, “I am proud of our team’s hard work and commitment this season, and playing in the Belk Bowl against a nationally ranked SEC team is very exciting for our program. Charlotte is a great destination for our fans and very accessible. Georgia is a high-quality opponent with a great tradition, and the bowl’s first-ever top 20 match-up will definitely be exciting.”

Georgia coach Mark Richt also issued a statement, saying, “The selection of our team to play for the first time in the Belk Bowl is a great opportunity for our team and especially our seniors. We’ve never been to Charlotte and it will be a new experience for our fans and all our players. Charlotte is an exciting city, has a great stadium, and will furnish first-class competition with a quality opponent like Louisville. It will be a challenge for our team and we are looking forward to the game.”

This will be Georgia’s 50th bowl game, sixth most of any team in the country. The Bulldogs’ all-time bowl record is 27-19-3.
Georgia finished second to Missouri in the East Division of the SEC at 9-2. The Bulldogs won three of their last four games before losing to Georgia Tech, 30-24 in overtime in their season finale.

In an interesting sidelight, the game pits UofL defensive coordinator Todd Grantham against his former employer. Grantham was the defensive coordinator at Georgia for four years before leaving after last season to join Petrino’s new staff at Louisville.

Georgia started the season ranked 12th in the Associated Press poll and finished 13th in the College Football Playoff rankings. UofL also won three of its last four games and wound up No. 21 in the final CFB standings.

The Cards were scheduled to play the Bulldogs in the 2011 season opener in the Georgia Dome, but ESPN and Georgia paid $600,000 to get out of the obligation so they could set up a matchup between Georgia and Boise State.

Louisville has won five straight against SEC competition — four vs. Kentucky and the 33-23 win in the 2012 Sugar Bowl win over then-No. 3 Florida.

Despite missing out on a trip to balmy Florida, Smith says he and his teammates are excited about facing Georgia.

“We got lucky in getting the Belk Bowl and playing Georgia,” Smith says. “We had a great time my freshmen year playing down there, and Georgia is a great opponent. They were ranked early in the year an being talked about as a national championship contender. In the national media’s eyes, the SEC is certainly the best in the country, and getting to take a crack at two SEC teams in one year is a great opportunity.

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“We’re constantly trying to make a statement nationally, and Georgia is clearly one of the teams you think about that gives you the chance to do that. They’re a team you see on TV all the time, so an opportunity like this is huge for us.”

Smith said he was following the afternoon’s rapidly-changing developments closely trying to figure out where the Cards were going to spend their holidays and which team would provide the opposition.

“It was weird, with things going back and forth,” he said. “Family was calling and guys were texting. I heard everything from the Sun Bowl to Music City, but we’re very fortunate to go this bowl with this opponent. We’re happy about it.”

The Cards will be making their fifth straight bowl trip, and will be seeking their third straight 10-win season. They are 9-8-1 all time in bowls and have won their last two postseason games — the Sugar Bowl and the Russell Athletic Bowl (over Miami).

Russ Brown has covered University of Louisville athletics for 31 years, including 15 for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. He is senior writer/editor for the Louisville SportsReport, which he helped found, and also writes for Cardinalsports.com.

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