No term in college-affiliated sports needs more perspective to determine proper usage than “big game.” Take Saturday’s FIU-UCF game in Orlando.
ESPN nor any of the Big Four networks exactly clamored for this game. Each team is 1-1 with a win against Akron and a road loss. To most outsiders, only the enrollments involved with these schools qualify as big: UCF, 58,698 last year, second-largest in the nation, and FIU’s 47,966, eighth-largest.
Ah, but on a conference, school and personal level, this game brings more weight than a Shoney’s Sunday buffet.
In striving for respect, the Sun Belt Conference tries to rip wide any rent it makes in the college sports fabric. So this week, FIU and Western Kentucky (at Kentucky) carry hopes of upward mobility given fuel by Louisiana-Monroe’s upset of then-No. 8 Arkansas last week. Never before had a Sun Belt team triumphed against a top-10 opponent.
“It’s one of those signature wins that conferences need to achieve and build on,” Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson said. “You look at 2002 Fresno State … or Boise State beats an Oregon to start the season or a [Virginia] Tech … it’s those types of games that provide the momentum and impetus for anything to happen. The ULM win on Saturday night, obviously, got all kinds of attention Saturday night and into Sunday morning with all the ESPN platforms. Again … it takes that kind of game to even create the opportunity for a special season.”
Said Troy coach Larry Blakeney said on the weekly conference call: “It’s always good when our conference wins across conference lines, especially a BCS conference line like the SEC, the Western Division. Any win across conference lines is good for our league. It gives everybody hope and the understanding that if you put a great game together, you have a chance.”
Last season, it was FIU pulling the upsets of eventual Big East champion Louisville and UCF to get Top 25 votes. Going into this season, the defense that shut down Louisville and UCF in the second half was expected to make FIU the Sun Belt’s standard-bearer.
Instead, Duke and Akron rung up 75 points on FIU’s defense, leading to the question of if the Panthers took either school lightly. FIU coach Mario Cristobal dismissed that idea.
“Winning is hard,” Cristobal said. “All you’ve got to do is pull up the boxscore and watch how Monroe did this past week, how Sacramento State did this past weekend [win at Colorado]. It’s not always about — in fact, it has nothing to do with — what that point spread says. You’ve got to play the game. That’s why I’m a big proponent of the playoff system. It’s all about playing it on the football field. It’s no different than a heavyweight fight. If you get caught, you get reeling a little bit and you don’t recover, it’ll get you.
“We did a good job of recovering. Learned a lot about ourselves. Keep pushing forward.”
No such problem should exist Saturday. It’s also a recruiting turf game that FIU appears to need more than UCF. FIU is trailing UCF right now. UCF is leaving Conference USA for the Big East, while FIU is joining Conference USA. In the state’s showcase collegiate sport, UCF’s football program combines being 23 years older than FIU’s and with spiffier facilities.
FIU, however, could put this on recruits’ living room coffee tables for the past 12 months: Despite all of UCF’s seeming advantages, FIU beat the Knights 17-10 while perhaps having more room to grow than UCF.
“It’s a rivalry game,” FIU senior safety Johnathan Cyprien said. “It means a lot to the organization, and when I say that, I’m speaking of FIU.”
Cyprien is one of many on both sides who can speak of the game on a personal level.
Some players slap the “just another game” cliché on that idea. Others are more like UCF redshirt sophomore wide receiver J.J. Worton, who after describing how much of his family from South Florida was coming up, said he wanted to show them “what UCF’s about — and make up for last year.”
All that cross-pollination — 84 FIU players come from Florida, 71 for UCF — means the result becomes akin to a trophy. It’s put on the shelf by Monday yet sits there forever remindful of success or failure. Cyprien is close friends with UCF senior defensive back Kamal Ishmael. They graduated from North Miami Beach High together. Their families are close. How often, Cyprien was asked, did last year’s game come up?
Brought up by whom?
“By his mom, him, me …”
That’s what happens with big games.