David J. Neal

David J. Neal: Orange Bowl needs a local festival element

Georgia Tech runs out onto the field for the start of the game. Mississippi State vs Georgia Tech at the 2014 Orange Bowl Game at Sun Life Stadium on Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014.
Georgia Tech runs out onto the field for the start of the game. Mississippi State vs Georgia Tech at the 2014 Orange Bowl Game at Sun Life Stadium on Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014. Miami Herald Staff

First rule of throwing a big New Year’s Eve event: Unless it’s in a church or temple, go strong on the party.

Second rule: Get the right guests. I’m a devoted daddy, but if you’ve got guests that want to go home at 11:30 to kiss their kids, the Green Party’s got a better shot at success than yours.

The Orange Bowl Committee doesn’t have much say in the latter. But if it does something about the former, it could put some of the South Florida flourish that’s been missing from South Florida’s longest running premier athletic event.

The College Football Playoff has designed its schedule to re-establish college-affiliated football’s preeminence over the two-day New Year’s Eve-New Year’s Day period. The Orange Bowl’s a night game, period. Some years, it’ll host a CFP semifinal, occasionally the national championship game. The other years, it’s on Dec.31.

So, either the Orange Bowl hosts one of the three sexiest games of the year or hosts the coolest New Year’s Eve party/football game. At least, that’s the way they should approach it.

I’m not suggesting the Orange Bowl go all the way Ultra. But whereas the CFP inclusion partially replaces the national sheen that’s been off the game for too long, the Orange Bowl can finish the job locally by embracing all that it now can be.

After covering Georgia Tech’s 49-34 win over Mississippi State, getting to bed at 5:30 a.m. and rising around 8 a.m., I don’t have a crystal clear idea how to do this. I’m thinking a party, festival feel maybe with a serious postgame act or open air dance floor with DJ. Something really cool at midnight. After all, these are two colleges and this is a game that runs late on grown folks night.

Wednesday’s game took 3 hours 28 minutes, super speedy for a big college bowl game fat with commercials and a traditionally long halftime show. Most years, it’ll run past midnight. This year’s 11:48 ending meant about as many fans remained in the stands as Georgia Tech players still celebrating on the field when nice, if brief fireworks went up at midnight.

The official attendance, 58,211, bore a relationship to the actual attendance in that both use five digits and a comma. That’s not the Orange Bowl’s fault.

As far as the teams involved, the Orange Bowl is a kid in the school lunch line. They get what you get. This year’s matchup, interesting on a football level, sparked limited local interest and not just because neither roster included a single player from Dade or Broward.

Take Mississippi State. While it shouldn’t take much to inspire folks to leave Starkville for a few days, the Bulldogs inspire little more than shrugs outside the state (for now). They’re a newbie nationally. Despite the increase in college football coverage and the star quarterback having a catchy name Margaret Mitchell might’ve used (Dak Prescott), State’s a newbie nationally.

Georgia Tech’s either that team running that triple option that Jerome Brown or Micheal Barrow would’ve squashed by the second TV timeout because they had swag (UM fans); not even in the SEC or usually as good as Georgia, so beneath notice (Florida fans); or some team in the sad sack Coastal Division that, like everybody else, needs to stop persecuting Jameis Winston, he’s just a kid! (Florida State fans).

To that matchup, just add water from the sky and you get Wednesday’s Orange Empty Seat Bowl.

So many scalpers, fans, even Orange Bowl Committee members fanned blocs of tickets for sale, the front of Sun Life Stadium resembled an August night church service in the Mississippi Delta.

Before you come with “there’s so much to do here…” just stop. Other than beaches, winter golf, South Florida’s like most other metropolitan areas for leisure time activity and well behind more than you think. Everybody not at a sporting event isn’t tanning or trying to break 100, either at 1 p.m. or on New Year’s Eve. People have jobs, spend weekends running to kids’ sports events, Home Depot and Target. And a big couch in front of a big TV near your own bathroom and beer gets tougher to beat each year.

The football itself didn’t disappoint at all.

Georgia Tech runs a scheme rarely seen, fast and loose (but not too loose — no fumbles) with burnt bacon crispness. Game MVP Tech quarterback Justin Thomas benefited whether Bulldog defensive backs got caught peeking in the backfield, thus leaving receivers wide open downfield, or got caught on the edges one-on-one against him.

Mississippi State tried to keep pace, yet looked like a team about a week behind in bowl preparation. Untimely red-zone drops bedeviled quarterback Dak Prescott when he wasn’t making untimely red-zone overthrows after being archer accurate earlier in the drives.

Among this year’s bowl games, the Orange lacked the breathlessness wackiness of some earlier, lesser known bowls. But, personally, I found it entertaining enough to start a rewatch after I got home from Sun Life Stadium.

The night just needed some local spice.

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