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Gators coming to Outback

Florida is staying close to home for the holidays and will face Michigan in the New Year's Day game at Raymond James Stadium.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 4, 2002


GAINESVILLE -- Florida's tumultuous football season will end two hours away from home on New Year's Day.

The No. 23 Gators accepted an invitation Tuesday to play No. 13 Michigan in the Outback Bowl at 11 a.m. Jan. 1 at Raymond James Stadium.

"We're all very excited to have two programs of the caliber of Michigan and Florida, two heavyweights in college football," said Carter B. McCain, chairman of the Outback Bowl. "They are two of the three schools that have been on national television the most, so obviously you'll have a lot of attention because people around the country want to see them."

It will be the first meeting between the Gators and the Wolverines and is Florida's first Outback appearance.

"Obviously, we're honored and happy to play a great football team," Florida coach Ron Zook said. "It's a team that has a storied tradition, a great program. It's a great game between two great programs."

This will be familiar ground for Zook, who coached against Michigan while an assistant at Ohio State (1988-90). He also has been on the sideline at Raymond James as an assistant coach with several NFL teams. But for the rest of the Gators, this will be a new experience.

"We are just ecstatic to have two of the greatest football programs playing for the first time in our game," said Steve Schember, bowl chairman. "This game has all the makings of being the greatest Outback Bowl ever."

Michigan (9-3, 6-2 in the Big Ten) finished third in its conference behind Ohio State and Iowa. The Wolverines lost 14-9 to the Buckeyes, who are headed to the Fiesta Bowl to play for the national championship.

Florida (8-4, 6-2 in the SEC) finished second to Georgia in the SEC Eastern Division. The Gators are coming off a disappointing loss to Florida State last week and will have nearly a month between games.

But Zook said he is sure his players will view playing in the Outback Bowl as one last chance to prove they are a good team.

"I haven't talked to them all, but I've talked to a bunch of them," he said. "There's no question in my mind they are going to be excited about this game and going down there. Obviously it's an opportunity to prove yourself. Seems like we've been in that position all year long. But this is a good football team. It will be an opportunity to prove ourselves."

The Outback Bowl is the sixth largest bowl behind the BCS bowls and the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, with a $2.5-million payout for each team. McCain said that in several economic impact studies, the bowl has an impact of $35-million to $40-million in the Tampa Bay area.

"Our bowl game brings people to the Tampa Bay area who need hotels and rental cars during a time when business travel is at an all-time low -- the holidays," McCain said. "We bring in new economic impact during a time when many hotels would be empty because business travel is down. It's the largest annual repetitive event in terms of economic impact."

But whether that impact with the Gators involved will be equal to past years remains to be seen because so many UF fans live within driving distance.

Each team will receive 11,000 tickets and bowl officials said sales are above normal. The bowl has sold out three of the past four years.

McCain said organizers are confident Gator fans will spend some time in the area, sleeping in hotels and spending money.

"I'm not an economic expert but when Florida went to the Orange Bowl last year and Citrus Bowl (in 2001), they still brought fans," McCain said. "While there may be some (negative) effect, I don't think it will be large. One advantage is that our game starts at 11 a.m., so it's not necessarily conducive for somebody in Jacksonville to drive over that morning. It's a holiday and people want to spend a few days, so I don't think it's going to greatly diminish travel."

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