The Michigan Wolverines and Florida Gators are scheduled to arrive in Atlanta on Sunday to begin the buildup to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl six days later.
It’s a pairing of top-10 teams that bowl officials are excited about – but had no input into putting together.
As part of its deal to become a rotating host of College Football Playoff semifinal games, the Peach Bowl ceded authority to determine its matchups to the CFP selection committee, even in seasons, such as this one, when the bowl doesn’t host a semifinal.
“It’s one of the things I miss the most, frankly, doing the research on matchups,” said Peach Bowl Inc. president and CEO Gary Stokan.
“But the trade-off is that we get two top-10 teams pretty much on an annual basis and get to host a semifinal every third year. That is more than worth it.”
Peach Bowl officials don’t even get advance notice of their matchup, finding out which teams will meet in their bowl when the playoff committee makes its annual “Selection Sunday” announcements from Grapevine, Texas, on ESPN. The committee’s assignment of Michigan to the Peach this season marks the first time in almost three decades a Big Ten team will play in the Atlanta bowl.
Until joining the semifinal rotation when the playoff began in 2014, the Peach Bowl – founded in 1968 – selected its own teams, which from the 1992 through 2013 seasons came exclusively from the ACC and SEC, thanks to the bowl’s contracts with those conferences.
The ACC vs. SEC formula proved successful for the once-struggling bowl, helping elevate it high enough in the postseason pecking order to be chosen by the College Football Playoff as one of six bowls – dubbed the New Year’s Six – to rotate as sites of semifinal games.
“We had built a successful brand, but joining the CFP was a step up,” Stokan said. “To be one of the top six bowl games - who ever thought the old Peach Bowl would be in the same sentence as the Rose, Cotton, Sugar, Orange and Fiesta bowls?”
But in an aspect of the deal that Stokan acknowledged is still not widely understood by fans and even by some college football coaches and administrators, the CFP selection committee also assumed responsibility for selecting teams for the Peach, Cotton and Fiesta in the two years out of three that those bowls don’t host a semifinal.
This is how the 13-member committee arrived at the Florida-Michigan pairing for the Dec. 29 game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium:
> First, it ranked the Top 25 teams on the morning of Dec. 2, Selection Sunday, placing the top four in the playoff semifinals, which this season will be played in the Orange and Cotton bowls. No. 1 Alabama will meet No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange, and No. 2 Clemson will play No. 3 Notre Dame in the Cotton.
> Next, the Rose and Sugar bowls, which have contracts directly with conferences, selected their matchups. The Rose Bowl chose the Big Ten and Pac-12 champions – No. 6 Ohio State and No. 9 Washington, respectively – under terms of the bowl’s contracts with those two leagues, both of which failed to place a team in the playoff. The Sugar Bowl took SEC runner-up and No. 5-ranked Georgia vs. Big 12 runner-up and No. 15-ranked Texas, the highest-ranked available team from each of those leagues after their champions reached the playoff.
> Then, the CFP committee sorted out the matchups for the Peach and Fiesta bowls from among the highest-ranked teams still available: No. 7 Michigan, No. 8 Central Florida, No. 10 Florida and No. 11 LSU. Central Florida played in the Peach Bowl last year, and the committee’s stated preference is to avoid placing a team in the same bowl in back-to-back seasons. The committee also prefers to avoid a bowl rematch of teams that met in the regular season, as Florida and LSU did. And it generally prefers to place the highest-ranked team in a group (Michigan in this case) in the location closest to its campus (Atlanta in this case). Those preferences left Michigan vs. either Florida or LSU as options for the Peach. The committee chose to send the Gators to Atlanta to play the Wolverines and LSU to the Fiesta Bowl to play Central Florida.
The committee controversially opted against a Florida-UCF game, which would have been more compelling for many fans in the Sunshine State.
Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin, a member of the CFP selection committee, said he was recused from the discussion and decision on the Peach and Fiesta pairings.
“At that point, (other members) looked at me and said, ‘Scott, can you leave the room?’ ” Stricklin said at a Peach Bowl news conference. “Ten minutes later, they brought me back in, and I looked on the wall where they had the screen and the matchups, and that’s how I found out what happened.
“The bowls don’t get to politic. The schools don’t get to politic. It’s a very pure process from that standpoint,” Stricklin said. “The great beauty of it is that we get great matchups. … If it had been us against UCF, that’d have been a great matchup. We’re blessed that it’s us against Michigan because that’s going to be a great matchup.”
With Michigan, the Peach Bowl gets a Big Ten team in its game for the first time in 28 years. The most recent was Indiana in 1990, when the bowl was still played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Michigan hasn’t played in the Peach previously.
With Florida, the Peach has an SEC team for the fourth time in the first five years of the CFP arrangement. The bowl has drawn an ACC team once in that time, albeit not in a game vs. an SEC team.
“It’s exciting to have two of the biggest brands in college football,” Stokan said of Florida-Michigan.
On the down side, the game will be the teams’ third meeting in four seasons, with Michigan winning in a 2017 opener at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium and in the Citrus Bowl at the end of the 2015 season. The Wolverines are 4-0 all-time against the Gators.
Next season, the Peach Bowl will host a playoff semifinal for the second time, drawing either the Nos. 1 and 4 teams or the Nos. 2 and 3 teams.
Earlier this year, the Peach Bowl’s original six-year contract with the CFP was extended an additional six seasons through 2025, giving Atlanta semifinals again in 2022 and 2025.
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