ATHENS - For awhile now, Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett had been dreaming of matching Georgia and Michigan. Two storied programs that had not met since 1965 had a real chance meet this New Year's Day in Jacksonville.
And then at close to the last moment, the dream died, and the Gator ended up with Georgia playing Nebraska, a team it played one year ago.
Catlett still thinks it's a good matchup, and makes a persuasive case for why, under the circumstances, his bowl committee made the decision. Still, there's little doubt a Georgia-Nebraska rematch has very little juice with either fan base.
The good news, as Catlett pointed out, is that the process that put the Gator in a bind is in its last throes.
"Unfortunately the selection process for bowl games under the BCS has not been the easiest process," Catlett said. "It worked out great for the BCS, the selection process was really seamless in the SEC. But it's been difficult to create great matchups under that system. The good news is we feel like we've got arguably the best matchup we've had in the last three games."
In the SEC selection pecking order, the Gator was picking after the Outback and Chick-fil-A. In the Big Ten selection order, it was picking after the Buffalo Wild Wings.
On the SEC side, there were indications that Georgia was in play for the Chick-fil-A, with one late report on Sunday that Georgia and Miami would be matched up with Miami. But reportedly some lobbying by the ACC office prodded the Chick-fil-A to take Duke, and then that bowl managed to get Texas A&M - which the Outback, selecting ahead of the Chick-fil-A, had reportedly wanted, but ended up with LSU.
Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity said he understood that his team was "in the mix with Texas A&M" for the Chick-fil-A up until the latter part of this week.
Gary Stokan, the head of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, said Sunday night that Texas A&M's offense was a big sell, specifically quarterback Johnny Manziel, last year's Heisman winner. There was also a newness factor.
"We have never had Texas A&M in our game," Stokan said on a conference call. "As we move forward into the college football playoff, our bowl needs to look nationwide to programs like Texas A&M."
"There was a lot of discussions," Catlett said. "The one thing that we don't do, is it's not a conference call (decision). So it's not like I'm on the call, and Jim McVay (who heads the Outback) and Gary Stokan (who heads the Chick-fil-A) are on the conference call with the SEC. They talk independently and individually with us. We certainly attempt to talk to each other as much as we can."
In fact, Catlett said he spent a lot of time speaking with McVay at the SEC championship, comparing both SEC and Big Ten teams, since both of their bowls select from those conferences.
"We felt coming out of that (championship) game we were in pretty good shape with where we were going and what we were doing," Catlett said. "But when you've got independent bowls out there, and you've got a selection order that has to be followed, bowl games will try to put the best matchups they can together. And sometimes that's not maybe the best for the entire system.
"In our case, we wanted Georgia. We didn't make any bones about it. We wanted Georgia for some time. There was a concern we wouldn't have an opportunity to have Georgia the past week. And we had two teams that we wanted to put them against on the Big Ten side. And we ended up with one of those teams."
So essentially it boiled down to this for the Gator Bowl: Pick two teams that it felt would travel well, or pick one and take a risk on another (Vanderbilt or Minnesota, for instance)? The bowl made the safe choice on both sides.
Catlett explained the selection process as a "three-legged stool": Television, economic impact on Jacksonville (hotels, restaurants, tourism, etc.), and a matchup that would bring in local attendance.
Jacksonville has the second-largest club for Georgia fans in the country, behind only Atlanta, according to Catlett. So that made them feel good about the Bulldogs. Nebraska is sure to travel better than other Big Ten teams that were available.
And as for TV ratings, the feeling was Nebraska-Georgia, airing around the same time as the Capital One (South Carolina-Wisconsin) and Outback (Iowa-LSU) was competitive.
"I think this matchup is just as strong as either one of those two matchups. I think we should do very well in the ratings," Catlett said.
Starting next year, the overall selection process will be different: For one thing, the advent of the four-team playoff means no limit on teams from one conference in a top-line (BCS) bowl. But the conference will also be much more active in assigning teams to bowls, and a greater effort will be made for good matchups.
That's a change that Catlett said he looks forward to.
"To be able to sit in a room together and not have 'you pick first, you pick second, you pick third.' Let's see if we can't all pick great matchups," Catlett said.