MIAMI — Behold, a fruit. Finally, a bowl game that a majority of the sports-consuming, burger-stuffing, nacho-crunching, is-there-another-beer-left-in-the-fridge populace can relate to.
Take your Humanitarian Bowl with you, sir, and please leave through the back door. Take the Emerald, the Silicon Valley, the Seattle, the Carquest and the All-American. Take the Liberty, or give me death. The Orange Bowl is iconic. The Orange Bowl goes back to when college football bowl games actually were cherished and meant something, not viewed as some painful and protracted stopover to a playoff.
It had a spot reserved on New Year’s Day. It sat on the top shelf, with the Rose, the Sugar, the Cotton. Even had its own parade for 62 years.
Georgia Tech plays in the Orange Bowl Tuesday night. The game is not actually played in the Orange Bowl any more, but that’s a good thing. Shifting kickoff to Land Shark Stadium was like a change of venue from Kabul. The Jackets face Iowa, a team from the Big Ten, which is usually good for some comic relief in the post-season. But for Tech, this game is about far more than the opponent, or even the final ranking. It’s about moving to a higher shelf.
Unfortunately, given the way college football has evolved (or devolved), bowl games are rarely viewed simply as rewards any more. Bowls define status more than ever. The idea is to avoid obscurity. Some bowls don’t get coaches raises — they get them fired. Often, the number of fans who declare, “Yes! We’re in a bowl game!” are dwarfed by the torch-carrying masses on message boards who declare, “I’d rather have a family of fruit flies nest in my left ear than go to Shreveport.”
The Jackets leave obscurity behind Tuesday. This is their biggest bowl game since the last time they played in the Orange Bowl. That came against Florida, 43 years ago. That’s so long ago, Steve Spurrier was relevant. Tech’s 19 bowl trips since then have been mostly second- or third-tier, or whatever a loss to Fresno State in San Jose is considered. Even in the 1990 national championship season (UPI), the second-ranked (AP) Jackets were farmed out to the Citrus Bowl against 19th ranked Nebraska. Why? Because the Orange Bowl took Colorado, the AP’s No. 1 ranked team, and Notre Dame. The Rose, Sugar and Cotton had other agendas.
The Jackets took a step up in coach Paul Johnson’s first season last year with the Chick-fil-A Bowl. But it’s a leap from nuggets to a BCS bowl.
“Obviously, this means a lot to a lot of people, getting to this game,” running back Jonathan Dwyer said. “When I first came here, I knew about the consecutive bowl streak [now at 13] and everything. I knew before I came here, they went to the Champs Sports Bowl, and that was kind of special. But just to have that recognition of being in a BCS bowl means a lot. People aren’t used to that at Tech. Hopefully now, people will view us as being a powerful team from the ACC and one of the top teams in the country.”
Dwyer was heavily recruited out of Kell High School. He considered Georgia, Florida, USC and Auburn, all programs with more recent success. Florida won the national championship when he was a high school senior (2006). Georgia won its second SEC title in four seasons under Mark Richt when he was a junior. USC won a national title and Auburn went 13-0 under Tommy Tuberville when he was a sophomore, and the Trojans went back to the title game again when he was a junior. Yet, he chose Tech.
“Everybody said to me, ‘Why are you going to Georgia Tech? You should go to Florida,’” Dwyer said. “But I saw the future of the program. When me and [Morgan] Burnett and [Josh] Nesbitt and a few others came in, we decided we were going to be the class that won the ACC. We were going to be the ones to go to a major bowl game. Now, none of my friends who said I should go to Florida or SC can say anything to me. I can talk trash to them all day long.”
If that’s how we gauge success, so be it. The Humanitarian Bowl and trash talking clearly don’t intersect. The Orange Bowl provides that opportunity. Tech is sitting on a higher shelf.