The potential problem for hosts in the College Football Playoff rotation, like Miami’s Orange Bowl game, is you face a letdown when you don’t host a semifinal every third year. You’re Broadway one year, and local dinner theater the next two.
Notice I said potential problem. It isn’t an issue for the 83rd edition of the OB kicking off Friday night at 8 and beamed out by ESPN from Hard Rock Stadium.
No. 6-ranked Michigan and No. 11 Florida State gift South Florida with a matchup that has the national heft of a CFP semifinal — partly because both teams began the season convinced they were going to be in one, with one of those teams still adamant it should be, right Jim Harbaugh?
Not all Orange Bowl matchups are created equal. None are awful; there are dozens of lesser bowls to accept the sediment of five-loss teams and games you would pay to not watch. But every once in a while even the stately, tradition-rich OB will find itself with a Georgia Tech-Mississippi State matchup. Or years when, somehow, a Northern Illinois sneaks past security and gets in.
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Those are years when I, representing the host media outlet and faced with a matchup of modest interest, scramble to bugle the OB’s rich past. How it began in 1935 to promote tourism. How it has crowned 20 national champions. How it is turbulent Miami’s greatest civic constant, sports or otherwise.
This time no tap dance is required. The stage is filled by elite national programs in the Wolverines, one-touchdown favorites, and Seminoles. Top coaches steer them in Harbaugh, a star on the Nick Saban/Urban Meyer echelon, and Jimbo Fisher, lavished with a contract extension as the up-to-the-task heir to Bobby Bowden.
We also get the calendar bonus of this game not interfering with folks’ New Year’s Eve plans, after the previous two OBs both were played Dec. 31.
The season’s anointed CFP semifinalists are Alabama vs. Washington and Clemson vs. Ohio State, but, otherwise, for me, Michigan-Florida State is the best game going. (The only acceptable argument might be Penn State-Southern Cal in the Rose).
As Orange Bowl chief executive Eric Poms put it: “When you have two iconic programs, one within the state, and the other the winningest program in college football history, they align and create a lot of excitement for the community. The stadium will be full. And we expect a big television audience.”
A year ago Miami and the OB hosted a CFP semifinal as Clemson, No. 1 and unbeaten but somehow a betting underdog, orange-crushed Oklahoma, 37-17. The OB will host its next semifinal the year after next, the 2018 season.
Not all of the “in-between” matchups will be as tasty as Friday night’s, although the Orange Bowl’s new conference alliance assures many will be. The OB gets the highest-ranked Atlantic Coast Conference team not in the CFP (which could be Miami), and pairs it with the highest-ranked available team from the Southeastern Conference, Big Ten or Notre Dame.
I love what has materialized this time — Michigan-Florida State — for its contrast, and not just FSU’s dynamic offense against Michigan’s stout defense led by Jabrill Peppers.
There is negligible history between Michigan and FSU — they have met only twice, in 1986 and ’91 – so the history is there to be drawn now on a blank page.
(Quick sidenote: This matchup also makes arcane but not insignificant history at the administrative level. It is the first major college bowl game presided over by two black athletic directors, FSU’s Stan Wilcox and Michigan’s Warde Manuel, according to The Miami Times).
To Miami, one team we know well. Too well. The other is a stranger.
Florida State is the Miami Hurricanes’ ACC rival and nemesis, of course. Too often for Canes fans, the Seminoles have delivered heartache in this same stadium. FSU also is making its 10th Orange Bowl appearance, third-most of any school.
Embodying the local familiarity is the Noles’ likely NFL-bound star running back Dalvin Cook, born-and-raised Miami, from Central High. For him, this will be a home game. (Oh, and thanks, Dalvin, for not joining other college football stars in skipping bowl games to avoid the chance of injury).
“It’s a blessing that his family can be in his home town to watch him play in a major bowl game,” said Fisher, “in possibly his last game at Florida State.”
Less known than Cook’s Miami roots is that Seminoles quarterback Deondre Francois spent part of his childhood in Miami’s Little Haiti, and that his uncle, Patrick Julmiste, was a Miramar High quarterback who first ignited in Deondre the wonders of throwing a football.
“My grandmother, she’s very excited because she lives 10 minutes away from the stadium,” Francois said.
Contrasting FSU’s familiarity, Michigan is a far-flung mystery. The Hurricanes have played the “other” UM only twice. And Michigan has made only two prior Orange Bowl appearances, the last following the 1999 season, on Jan. 2, 2000.
That game, one of the greatest Orange Bowls, Michigan beat Alabama 35-34 in overtime, led by 369 yards passing and four touchdowns by some guy named Tom Brady. (Seventeen seasons later, the same Mr. Brady will be back in the same building on Sunday, pitching for the New England Patriots against the playoff-bound (yes, playoff-bound) Dolphins.
Ultimately, of course, no matter the competing teams that visit, the Orange Bowl is what it has been uninterrupted since 1935: A positive advertisement for Miami. A postcard.
In that spirit, we give the last word to Michigan cornerback Jourdan Lewis, who, when asked how it felt to be here, smiled and said:
“It feels amazing. We came from 23-degree weather, so this feels good!”