ST. PETERSBURG — Mary Williams is no stranger to bowl games.
She and her friends, who live in New Jersey, have been to plenty across the country, following their favorite team, Rutgers University.
This weekend, the friends trekked south to see their alma mater take on the University of Central Florida at the St. Petersburg Bowl.
The foursome mingled through the crowds of tailgating fans who gathered hours before kickoff at Tropicana Field.
"It's a pretty happenin' place," said Williams. "We love the area. The people are great."
The weather wasn't so bad, either.
While sports reporters and fans from perennial powerhouse colleges sometimes disparage minor bowls, thousands of Rutgers and UCF fans spread across the Trop's parking lot before the game seemed intent on enjoying themselves.
They drank beer, danced to a band and lined up to ride a mechanical bull.
Others gathered in groups, chanting team slogans — although both football teams are called the Knights.
One UCF student raced around while waving a large flag above his head.
Sara Wilcox and Drew Hanson, students at the Orlando university, said they had no excuse to miss the game considering the proximity.
The couple made a day trip out of the event.
"I'm excited," said Wilcox, 19, who sported a modified Santa hat that featured her school's colors. "I'm a freshman so its cool my first year I can go to a bowl."
This is the city's second year hosting the bowl, which debuted last year amid skepticism.
Last year's event drew 25,200 fans. This year, organizers said, the game was sold out with 28,000 seats claimed.
"The bowl doesn't have a brand yet, but the match-up is good," said UCF alumnus Bill Hendrickson of Orlando, who, along with his wife, is a season ticket holder. "I think the exposure for the school is key."
Rutgers senior Stephen Markowski said he was surprised when his team accepted the St. Petersburg Bowl bid because the school is in the middle of final exams.
That didn't stop the 21-year-old or his family from flying from New Jersey for the event.
"I've been going to games since before I went to school," Markowski said.
And thoughts of a Monday psychology test floated away as the student, garbed in a painted knight's costume and matching red cape, partied and pumped himself up for the game.
"Not too many (schools) can say they've been to a bowl game and won four straight years," Markowski said. "We're hoping this will be the fifth."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643.