ATHENS - The Gator Bowl did like the idea of hosting Aaron Murray's final college game. That won't happen now, but it doesn't mean the Jacksonville-based bowl doesn't still want Georgia.
"Obviously having an opportunity to have arguably the greatest quarterback in Southeastern Conference history is a pretty big deal. Has it changed our desire to have Georgia play in our bowl game? No," Rick Catlett, the president and CEO of the Gator Bowl, said on Monday.
Georgia (7-4) remains in the mix for a number of bowls, including the Chick-fil-A (which will have representatives at the Georgia-Georgia Tech game), the Music City, and perhaps even the Outback. But the Gator Bowl, which matches an SEC and Big Ten team, is very keenly interested.
Georgia's proximity to Jacksonville is a prime attraction, with attendance such a major concern for basically all bowls. There's already what Catlett called a "huge" Georgia Bulldog club in Jacksonville, no surprise considering the annual game against Florida.
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Yes, Georgia is in Jacksonville every year because of the Florida game. But two years ago the Gator Bowl picked the Gators, and attendance was a solid 61,312 for a matchup with Ohio State. Last year, when the matchup was Mississippi State-Northwestern, the attendance plummeted to 48,612. So clearly the Gator will not be deterred by picking a team that's already been to Jacksonville this season.
"I would say the same thing about when we've selected Florida in the past: It's a different scenario," said Catlett, who said he's attended about 50 Georgia-Florida games, and said there was nothing to match the pageantry of that game. "A bowl game is really more of a celebration over the holiday season, about coming down and having a good time, without the pressure of a Southeastern Conference rivalry game. And yet still getting to see your team, and how it stacks up against other teams from major conferences around the country."
Georgia also hasn't played in the Gator Bowl since 1989, in Vince Dooley's final game as head coach. Asked if that was a consideration, Catlett appeared to downplay it, returning to Georgia's benefit of proximity. And he seemed to relate it to the impending College Football Playoff, which begins for the 2014 season.
"I think you're gonna see over the next 10 years, 12 years, you're going to see bowl games that want to have storied programs, name institutions, that are viewed nationally as being a great program, and that program hopefully comes from your region of the country," Catlett said. "The reason we renewed our deal with the SEC is to have an opportunity to host a Georgia, a South Carolina, a Tennessee, Auburn. And so that probably is going to play more and more into bowl selections. You know, we're not trying to match the best two teams in the country against each other. That's what the national championship does.
"What we're trying to do is get two fan bases that are excited about their programs, and certainly with an eye on their future, to play for a great college football game that you don't get to see every year. If you see a Georgia-Florida every year, a bowl game isn't that. A bowl game is Michigan-Georgia, Iowa-Georgia, Texas A&M playing Penn State. It's those kinds of matchups that you don't see as much."
So the Gator Bowl clearly seems to favor Georgia, but this weekend's games still figure heavily into it: For instance if Ole Miss wins and Georgia loses, then momentum is in the Rebels' favor.
There are other dominoes that have to fall also: The Cotton Bowl has to "protect" the loser of the SEC championship game. In other words, if Missouri or South Carolina (whoever wins the East) falls in the SEC championship, it could be passed over by the Capital One Bowl, but then the Cotton Bowl would have to take that team.
"I would tell you, for Georgia's bowl prospects beating Georgia Tech is really important," Catlett said. "Ole Miss playing Mississippi State is really important. You really want to look at teams coming off of victories in their rivalry weekends."
Still, Catlett - who was born in Athens before moving to Jacksonville when he was two years old - wanted to make clear his respect for the Bulldogs' season.
"We understand the Georgia disappointment in not challenging for a national championship. But when you've lost the personnel that Georgia has lost, and you're still able to win as many games as they've been capable of winning in the SEC, that's a hell of a football year," Catlett said. "We would be very, very pleased to have Georgia play in our game."