It was a match made in heaven.
IU. The University of Kentucky. In a bowl game. John Calipari be damned, the Hoosiers and Wildcats would finally play a game in a revenue generating sport.
A month-long parade of petty Twitter battles, rivalry-ing and other nonsense was going to culminate in two basketball crazy states going nuts over their football programs in Jacksonville, Florida.
Or so we thought.
Instead of the reported Bourbon Barrel matchup, a late change of heart by the University of Tennessee shook up the entire bowl landscape.
Due to head-to-head wins over Kentucky and Mississippi State University, Tennessee had first preference over the other two schools. Per the Athletic, The Vols initially told the SEC their preferred destination would be the Music City Bowl in Nashville due to its proximity to UT’s Knoxville campus.
But late in the bowl process on Sunday, Tennessee Athletic Director Phil Fulmer changed his mind and changed his school's preference to the Gator Bowl.
“Nashville would have been a fantastic destination,” Fulmer said during a teleconference Sunday. “The conference commissioner in the end makes the decision and asks for our preferences, and we’ve been back and forth a couple of times as to what was best, and I think at the end we landed in the right place for this football team at this particular time.”
While there are some actual benefits from playing in the Gator Bowl instead of the Music City Bowl — better bowl prestige and better date/time slot come to mind — the advantages have been well known throughout the entire bowl process.
The advantages are things Fulmer obviously knew when he originally designated Nashville as Tennessee’s top choice. So what changed?
It is fair to assume Tennessee boosters saw that conference-rival Kentucky was reportedly going to Jacksonville and decided Kentucky didn’t deserve to get to go to a more established bowl than a historically more prominent program in Tennessee.
Boosters went to Fulmer, and Fulmer put in his eleventh hour request to the SEC. And because of the combination of Tennessee having preference and UT being a bigger traditional brand than Kentucky, the SEC made a spineless move to side with Fulmer and change the Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi State bowl assignments at the last second.
That leaves IU in an awkward spot.
The tease of a temporary revival of the IU/UK rivalry trumps most of the excitement of the Gator Bowl. The consolation of playing even a program with the past success of Tennessee just feels hollow from a fan’s perspective.
Yet, even with that empty feeling, this is still a huge deal for the IU football program. The Hoosiers are playing in their first Florida bowl game and just the program's third January bowl in history. In Tennessee, IU faces a historically proud program with a strong tradition.
“We have a chance to be the one thing that everybody is watching," IU head coach Tom Allen said. "You dream of one day being in that situation, to be a part of one of those either as a player, a coach. Now to have that is pretty awesome. I know our guys feel that way.”
As Allen notes, the Gator Bowl is a standalone prime-time game on Jan. 2. There are no other bowl games or NFL games to compete for viewership, so the eyes of a football-crazed nation will be on the Hoosiers.
If IU can deliver a good performance against Tennessee, it can be a useful game for how the nation views Allen’s program — more than a win over rival Kentucky would be.
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