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Encore on I-4? The pros and cons of a USF-UCF bowl matchup

As bowl announcements near, a Bulls-Knights matchup remains plausible.
 
USF quarterback Byrum Brown (17) runs for a fourth-quarter touchdown in the Bulls' 2022 game against UCF at Raymond James Stadium. Despite a furious Bulls rally, UCF held on for a 46-39 triumph.
USF quarterback Byrum Brown (17) runs for a fourth-quarter touchdown in the Bulls' 2022 game against UCF at Raymond James Stadium. Despite a furious Bulls rally, UCF held on for a 46-39 triumph. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Nov. 28, 2023

For the first time in five Decembers, the crispness in our air is accompanied by conjecture.

USF is going bowling, and fans finally are pondering a holiday itinerary beyond office parties and gift exchanges. While visions of Sugar Bowls aren’t exactly dancing in their minds, they are speculating about a winter getaway to Boca Raton. Or Boston. Or their back yard.

In theory, the Bulls (6-6) could land in any of those places for their first bowl contest since 2018. And while the destination is fun to project (especially for those planning a road trip), guessing the opponent suddenly has become even more tantalizing.

Because UCF (6-6) is bowl eligible also.

Could this really happen? Could the “War on I-4,” put on an indefinite hiatus when the Knights jumped to the Big 12, be resuscitated with a postseason clash? No bowl bylaw forbids it, and the tie-ins that bowls possess with certain conferences can be overlooked to create matchups that make the most sense for all parties.

While we’ve previously speculated on the possibility of a Knights-Bulls encounter, we’re assessing it further — with a list of pros and cons — now that it remains a viable option as December dawns. All bowl pairings will be formally revealed Sunday.

Why it could happen

UCF fans react with the horns-down signs at the conclusion of the Knights' 46-39 win against the Bulls at Raymond James Stadium on Nov. 26, 2022.
UCF fans react with the horns-down signs at the conclusion of the Knights' 46-39 win against the Bulls at Raymond James Stadium on Nov. 26, 2022. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

1. ESPN wants the ratings

Follow along. ESPN owns most of the December bowl games, and presumably wields considerable influence in which teams ultimately play in those contests. Its inventory includes the Gasparilla Bowl at Raymond James Stadium, which has a coveted Friday prime-time slot (Dec. 22, 6:30 p.m.). To maximize ad revenue for that slot, an attractive matchup is essential. UCF-USF would meet that prerequisite much more than, say, Syracuse-South Alabama (as CBS projects) or USF-South Alabama (which Yahoo! predicts).

2. The bowls want the ticket sales

What bowl (especially in Florida) will turn down a matchup that could potentially double its attendance? Last year’s Gasparilla Bowl (Wake Forest-Missouri) drew an announced crowd of 34,370. The 2022 Cure Bowl (Troy-UTSA) drew only 11,911. Even last year’s Fenway Bowl (Louisville-Cincinnati) attracted only 15,000. We believe the Knights and Bulls would do better business at any of those venues.

3. The later the better for the Bulls

As it pertains to Florida-based bowl games, the Gasparilla seems the likeliest to land a “War on I-4″ matchup, which would benefit USF (and possibly UCF). While some Bulls fans would grumble about their team being denied a bona fide bowl trip, the Gasparilla’s later date (Dec. 22) would afford the Bulls more practices, which they covet. By contrast, their practice time would be reduced greatly with a berth in the Cure (Dec. 16) and slightly with a berth in the Boca Raton (Dec. 21).

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Why it could be quashed

Officials break up a skirmish between USF and UCF players during their clash in Tampa on Nov. 26, 2022. As a result of UCF's move to the Big 12, the annual rivalry is on hiatus.
Officials break up a skirmish between USF and UCF players during their clash in Tampa on Nov. 26, 2022. As a result of UCF's move to the Big 12, the annual rivalry is on hiatus. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

1. UCF has nothing to gain

Oh the irony. Less than a generation ago, USF (then a Big East occupant) wanted nothing to do with the Knights (then in Conference USA) because the Bulls had nothing to gain from the matchup. Now, the Knights — newly-minted members of the Big 12 — rightfully can make the same claim. While we see this rivalry ultimately being restored in the regular season (as a non-conference clash), we sense the Knights will push back on playing USF again so soon and lobby for a bowl game against a Power Five foe.

2. Feuds don’t spill into December

For whatever reason, rivalries that died (or were put on hold) normally aren’t resuscitated in December or January. Oklahoma-Nebraska, which ended as an annual rivalry in 2010, never has been staged in bowl season. Nor has Pitt-West Virginia, Missouri-Kansas or Texas-Texas A&M. The only exception we found was Florida-Miami (2001 Sugar, 2004 Peach). Could USF-UCF be another exception? Sure, but history says the odds are bleak.

3. The Big 12 may have other plans

While ESPN, as the owner of most December bowl games, likely has considerable pull in determining bowl matchups, the conferences also have a voice in where their teams land. We’re presuming the Big 12 is keen on the idea of showcasing one of their shiny new brands to one of their longstanding bowl partners. Turns out, UCF is the only one of the league’s four new brands to earn bowl eligibility. Hence the reason the Knights could land at a bowl such as the Independence or Liberty.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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