Sep 26, 2013

Whitley Writes: South Carolina vs. UCF Is A Marquee Matchup Orlando Deserves

Can you feel it? Something is different about this week, at least if you’re a college football fan in Orlando.

If you can’t feel it, you can see it. Network television trucks are parked outside Bright House Networks Stadium. Earlier this week, real live students stood in line to buy tickets. Everybody wants to see Saturday’s high-noon showdown between UCF and South Carolina.

Let’s recap: Sellout. National TV. Bowl implications. Steve Spurrier.

“That’s what college football is all about,” UCF coach George O’Leary said.

Yeah, but for too long that wasn’t what Orlando was all about. Part of the city will finally feel a bit like Tuscaloosa or Ann Arbor. And some of the people feeling it most will be Florida Citrus Sports members.

They bought a block of about 150 tickets, and with good reason. Both UCF and South Carolina teams could end up playing in Orlando bowls. It’s not often Florida Citrus Sports members can go on scouting trips without having to leave Orange County.

The game is also vindication of sorts. Florida Citrus Sports always knew out-of-town fans would show up for the Capital One Bowl, the Russell Athletic Bowl and the Florida Blue Florida Classic. What they didn’t know was if the local appetite was there.

Actually, they were pretty sure Orlando would support big-time college football games in the regular season. They just couldn’t prove it to skeptics.

There were plenty of those in the drawn-out campaign to fund the renovation of the Citrus Bowl. The plan was approved in 2007, then the economy bottomed out and everything was put on hold. It finally got the go-ahead this spring. Orlando can now join the hunt for marquee matchups. You know, the kind we’ve been hearing about all week.

“It’s a huge game,” Spurrier said. “A big game for us, a big game for Central Florida.”

The school actually prefers to be called UCF, but that’s all right. Spurrier can be forgiven because much of America also just now paying attention to O’Leary’s program.

It’s the first time in UCF’s 34-year history that a game will be televised on network TV. That’s what happens when you are 3-0 and just won a game at Penn State. Now here comes Jadaveon Clowney and the 12th-ranked Gamecocks.

“This is definitely all about the college football experience,” said Florida Citrus Sports CEO Steve Hogan. “We haven’t had it for a long time.”

It’s the kind of game he might have tried to arrange if the schools hadn’t done it. The organization used to do that, back when the Citrus Bowl was considered merely old and decrepit. Those days ended about the turn of the century, when Notre Dame played Navy.

That was the last neutral-site game played at the Citrus Bowl, which soon was considered old, decrepit and completely unsuitable for such events. Competition for neutral-site games increased, and other cities built swanky stadiums to lure teams and other events.

Dallas could dangle the world’s largest video screen. Orlando had to counter with perhaps the world’s oldest public urinals. Some of the original 1936 plumbing was still being used at stadium.

Teams like Notre Dame, Alabama and LSU started playing in cities like Atlanta, Phoenix and Washington D.C. A rebuilt Citrus Bowl will not only get Orlando back into that mix, it will allow it to compete for Bowl Championship Series games, NFL preseason games, Motocross, WrestleMania and just about every other big-stadium event.

All that will start in 2015, when the $175 million renovation is completed. For now, the UCF-South Carolina game serves as a preview of what might evolve.

“It’s too exciting,” UCF tackle Chris Martin said. “This is what you live for, for games like this.”

If everything goes as planned, you’ll be feeling it a lot more around here.


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