GAINESVILLE — When they began the season about four months ago ranked No. 3, the Gators had visions of SEC championships and BCS bowl games in mind.
Now they are just happy to be getting a bus ride to Tampa in a few weeks. Florida (7-5) will play Penn State (7-5) in the Outback Bowl at 1 p.m. on New Year's Day in Raymond James Stadium.
It will be the Gators' fourth appearance in the Outback Bowl, their most recent since a 31-24 victory over Iowa on Jan. 2, 2006. Penn State's most recent appearance in the Outback Bowl was a 2007 win over Tennessee 20-10.
"We are excited to hear that we are going to the Outback Bowl and play in another New Year's Day game," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "We are proud of our history of playing in January Bowl games; not everyone gets to enjoy that experience."
The bowl will cap the Gators' first five-loss regular season since 1988. It will offer the seniors a chance to end on a better note than their last outing, a 31-7 loss to Florida State.
This will be Penn State's 25th New Year's Day bowl under legendary coach Joe Paterno, who is the all-time leader in bowl wins (24-11-1) and appearances (37th). The Nittany Lions are 17-7 in January bowl contests under Paterno, who is in his 45th season as a head coach.
Florida and Penn State finished the regular season going in opposite directions. The Gators lost five of their final eight games, the Nittany Lions won four of their final six.
"This team has worked hard all season and has been a great group to work with," Paterno said in a statement. "I'm happy for the squad that their efforts will be rewarded with an opportunity to go to the Outback Bowl, where we have had some wonderful experiences, and be involved in a good, tough game. It will be fun to go back to the Tampa Bay area."
Most projections had the Gators slated for the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl after their loss to FSU. Outback Bowl president/CEO Jim McVay cited the tradition of the two programs as key reasons he's excited to have them playing in Tampa.
"When you talk about tradition and history of college football it just doesn't get any better than Penn State and the University of Florida," McVay said. "It's our 25th anniversary game, and we can't think of a better way to celebrate it on New Year's Day than with coach Paterno's Nittany Lions and coach Urban Meyer's Gators."
Meyer said he has made sure his team understands the significance of this bowl selection.
"We've been fortunate around here to be in a bowl game for 20 consecutive years, and I've told our players and staff to not take that for granted," he said. "This is a tremendous opportunity to continue to grow and develop as a football team, while having a week of hospitality in the great Gator city of Tampa."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.