With three weeks to go in the college football season, Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl Association president Rick Catlett said his selection committee has enough options for its Southeastern Conference vs. Big Ten matchup to assure a game that will easily surpass the attendance of last year‚Äôs matchup between Northwestern and Mississippi State.
‚ÄúI think by the time we get to selection day (Dec. 8) and we look at our board of available teams, we‚Äôre going to find a lot of 8-4 or 9-3 teams from both conferences, and those teams will have fans who will be enthusiastic about coming to the First Coast,‚Äù Catlett said on Monday. ‚ÄúBoth leagues are very deep this season and I‚Äôm very optimistic.‚Äù
The Gator Bowl matches the sixth selection from the SEC against the fourth selection from the Big Ten, after the BCS bowls are filled. It‚Äôs the final season for a four-year conference affiliation deal, with next season starting a six-year term of the SEC vs. either a Big Ten or ACC team.
Depending on how the next two weeks play out, the Gator should be able to select one of four Big Ten teams: Michigan (7-3), Nebraska (7-3), Minnesota (8-2) or Iowa (6-4). The SEC choices could come down to Georgia (6-4) or Mississippi (7-3), with LSU (7-3) possible with another loss.
Michigan and Nebraska are national brands in college football. Minnesota has exceeded expectations, winning eight times despite the health issues involving coach Jerry Kill, and Iowa might bring more fans than any of the other teams.
Catlett predicted that Georgia back to Jacksonville, six weeks after playing Florida at EverBank Field, would still command support from its fan base. It also would be the final college game for record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray.
Catlett also likes the enthusiasm being generated at Ole Miss with the job coach Hugh Freeze is doing in his second season.
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt think we‚Äôd have any worries with Georgia, especially since they haven‚Äôt played in the Gator Bowl since 1987,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúAnd we love having teams on the rise, with a fan base that is excited, and Ole Miss is that kind of team.‚Äù
Catlett said he wouldn‚Äôt rule out a Georgia-Nebraska rematch of last year‚Äôs Capital One Bowl, a 45-31 Bulldogs‚Äô victory.
‚ÄúIf they are the two best available teams on our board, I don‚Äôt think the committee would have a problem with that,‚Äù he said.
Mary Daniel, president of the Jacksonville Bulldog Club, agrees that Georgia would sell tickets for a Gator Bowl game.
‚ÄúWith the injuries this season and some of the really tough losses, I think the fans would love to come to Jacksonville,‚Äù she said. ‚ÄúAnd they won‚Äôt want to miss seeing Aaron play in his last game.‚Äù
Daniel said bringing the Bulldogs back to Jacksonville six weeks after the Florida game would not be a negative.
‚ÄúThe week of the Florida game, the team flies to St. Augustine the day before the game, goes straight to the World Golf Village, goes to the stadium the next day and flies home right after the game,‚Äù she said.
‚ÄúIn a bowl game, the team would be here all week, fans would have more opportunities to interact with them than they have all season and the kids would be able to enjoy the trip.‚Äù
The Gator Bowl will have some flexibility, unlike last season when Northwestern vs. Mississippi State, which drew a 13-year low crowd of 48,612, was about the only match-up possible. Depth was depleted in the Big Ten in 2012 because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible and five teams had losing records. The conference bowl picture was further muddled when Wisconsin (7-5) mauled Nebraska (10-2) in the Big Ten championship game to get to the Rose Bowl.
GATOR BOWL SCENARIOS
Garry Smits projects the likely scenarios for the teams in the Gator Bowl Jan. 1 at EverBank Field:
Pricing flights to JIA: Georgia (6-4), Mississippi (7-3).
Outside shot: Vanderbilt (6-4).
Still could be: South Carolina (8-2), LSU (7-3), Texas A&M (8-2), Missouri (9-1).
Smits says: Georgia
The outlook: Book Alabama and Auburn for BCS bowls, unless Missouri or South Carolina pulls an upset in the SEC championship. Missouri, Carolina, Texas A&M and LSU likely will be divided up among the Capital One, Cotton, Outback and Chick-Fil-A bowls. That will leave the Gator Bowl with either Georgia or Mississippi. It might be easy for the Chick-Fil-A in Atlanta to keep the Bulldogs close to home but Georgia has played in the game only three times in its 45-year history and the Dogs would want the chance to help their recruiting presence in Jacksonville.
Remaining games: Georgia ‚Äî Kentucky Saturday, at Georgia Tech Nov. 30. Mississippi ‚Äî Missouri Saturday, at Mississippi State Nov. 28. Vanderbilt ‚Äî at Tennessee Saturday, Wake Forest Nov. 30. LSU ‚ÄîTexas A&M Saturday, Arkansas Nov. 29. Texas A&M ‚Äî at LSU Saturday, at Missouri Nov. 30. Missouri ‚Äî at Mississippi Saturday, Texas A&M Nov. 30.
Pricing flights to JIA: Michigan (7-3), Nebraska (7-3), Iowa (6-4).
Outside shot: Minnesota (8-2).
Still could be: Wisconsin (8-2), Michigan State (9-1).
Smits says: Michigan.
The outlook: The Gator Bowl invitation is likely going to the survivor among Michigan, Nebraska and Iowa. Michigan vs. Iowa on Saturday could be an elimination game. If the Hawkeyes win, their game at Nebraska could decide it. However, Iowa can‚Äôt be ruled out at 7-5. There are still memories on the selection committee that go back to 1983 when Hawkeye fans contributed to the fourth-largest crowd in game history. Minnesota has the most difficult games remaining of the Gator Bowl contenders, against Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Remaining games: Michigan ‚Äî at Iowa Saturday, Ohio State Nov. 30. Iowa ‚Äî Michigan Saturday, at Nebraska Nov. 29. Nebraska ‚Äî at Penn State Saturday, Iowa Nov. 29. Minnesota ‚Äî Wisconsin Saturday, at Michigan State Nov. 30. Wisconsin ‚Äî at Minnesota Saturday, Penn State Nov. 30. Michigan State ‚Äî at Northwestern Saturday, Minnesota Nov. 30.