The Orange Bowl's Sad, Sorry Descent Into Irrelevance

If you love the history and tradition of college football, Wednesday’s Orange Bowl was a tough sight to stomach.

2012 orange bowl
The game matched the champions of the Big East and the ACC – the combined rankings put it behind the Cotton, Capital One and Outback bowls and the interest level put it far behind the Champs Sports and Alamo bowls. The game was played before at least 8,000 empty seats in Sun Life Stadium. The thorough beating West Virginia delivered to Clemson – West Virginia was up to 63 points halfway through the third quarter before shutting it down – resulted in what will likely be the lowest-rated major bowl game, BCS or otherwise, in history.

It was the end to a stunning fall for what was once college football’s most important game.

Much like the SEC has dominated the sport for almost a decade, college football was dominated by two entities in the 1980s and early 1990s – the old Big 8 (Oklahoma, Nebraska and Colorado) and major independents (Miami, Notre Dame and Florida State). The conclusion to the college season every year for 15 years took place in Miami and the results were legendary.

Starting with Clemson’s victory to seal a national title in the 1982 game and ending with Nebraska claiming its first under Tom Osborne in the 1995 edition, the Orange Bowl was THE game. The Rose Bowl maintained its place as the Granddaddy of Them All. The Cotton and Sugar bowls appealed largely to regional audiences with its SEC and old Southwest Conference tie-ins. The Fiesta Bowl filled in the gaps for years when two independents needed to duke it out for a title – think Miami vs. Penn State or Notre Dame vs. West Virginia.

But year after year, it was nearly a foregone conclusion that the national championship would be decided in the Orange Bowl. Beyond just crowing a champion, the Orange Bowl provided college football fans with iconic memories and moments that still reverberate through the college football landscape.

It began when Miami defeated Nebraska 31-30 to win the 1984 national championship in a game still hailed by many who watched it as the greatest game ever played. If nothing else, Tom Osborne’s decision to go for 2 in the waning seconds – eschewing a tie that almost certainly would’ve wrapped a national title – earned him universal praise and is certainly regarded as the gutsiest coaching decision ever made.

As the years went by, the memories kept coming. There was the epic Oklahoma/Miami showdown, overshadowed by a suspended Brian Bosworth watching helplessly from the sideline. There was Notre Dame trying to lay claim to a national title by whipping Colorado, only to be denied when Miami won the Sugar Bowl. The following year, Notre Dame and Colorado staged another classic, defined when Rocket Ismail’s late punt return touchdown was negated by a very controversial (to say the least) holding call.

The Orange Bowl’s Big 8 tie-in concluded with two of the most memorable bowl games in history. In the 1994 edition, heavy favorite Florida State won Bobby Bowden’s first title with a thrilling 18-16 win over Nebraska. The following year, Tom Osborne and Nebraska finally exorcised its Miami demons by running over the Hurricanes in a stirring 24-17 victory that served as the launching point for Nebraska’s late-90s dynasty.

The 1995 season, and the new Bowl Alliance, ended the Big 8 tie-in. The first post-Big 8 Orange Bowl featured top ten teams in Florida State and Notre Dame. Despite the name brands and close contest, the game was eclipsed by the following night’s Fiesta Bowl and empty seats were clearly visible. The descent had begun.

The next year, the game moved to the Dolphins home stadium from the venerable Orange Bowl and the empty seats grew in number. A disappointed Nebraska fanbase – the team had lost its national title hopes in the first Big 12 title game – declined to show up and the New Year’s Eve Orange Bowl become notable for what it wasn’t – important. Except for years when the title game rotated to the Miami, the Orange Bowl was almost always the least attractive major bowl.

After the Big East defections of Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami, the Orange Bowl made a disastrous decision that has effectively sunk the game – they made a pact to take the ACC champion in years when they didn’t make the BCS title game. Banking on Miami and Florida State to rule the conference, neither team has played in the game since the deal was announced in 2006. Instead, it has been a parade of mediocre at best teams like Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. To make matters worse, the ACC team has usually been no more than a sparring partner for a vastly superior opponent.

In 2007, Wake Forest was no match for Louisville. In 2008, Virginia Tech couldn’t beat Kansas. In 2010, Georgia Tech barely gave Iowa a fight. In 2011, Virginia Tech was blown out by Stanford. In 2012, Clemson was embarrassed by West Virginia.

As we look forward to the next iteration of the BCS, there are many questions and concerns surrounding the BCS and the bowl games. Clearly, in a tough economy, fans are being thriftier when it comes to bowl trips. Adding to that pressure to travel are games asininely scheduled to take place well after New Year’s, when school is back in session and adults are back to work.

The chatter about what the next BCS system looks like has already started with rumors floating from a four-team playoff within the bowls, the removal of AQ status and a plus-one game after the traditional bowls.

Whatever the next iteration is, the Orange Bowl needs help. It cannot keep the ACC tie-in. It cannot keep playing on Jan. 4th. It cannot continue to be irrelevant. It needs name brands. It needs Notre Dame. It needs SEC and Big Ten schools. It needs teams in the top 10. It needs help.

Last night’s Orange Bowl brought to mind another sad descent – the Cotton Bowl. In the final Cotton Bowl with the Southwest Conference tie-in, USC led by Keyshawn Johnson put an unholy beatdown on Texas Tech. The Cotton Bowl faded into obscurity, rebounding only recently thanks to strong SEC and Big 12 tie-ins, a great TV partner in Fox and the deep pockets of Jerry Jones to provide the game with a state-of-the-art home.

On Friday night, the non-BCS Cotton Bowl will match two top 10 teams in front of more than 80,000 fans watched by a large network television audience. The Orange Bowl will look, and sigh.

“That used to be me.”

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