BOCA RATON, Fla. — Sometime late Friday afternoon, Florida Atlantic will load up its luggage and head south to the hotel that will house the Conference USA champions for their bowl-game preparations.
It’ll be a 4-mile drive.
The comforts of home await the Owls this weekend as they get ready to play in the Boca Raton Bowl, and they’re hardly the only team in America that won’t be seeing a new part of the country as part of the postseason perk package. FAU, Miami, Navy and Memphis are playing bowl games on their home fields, and five other teams — six if Georgia makes the College Football Playoff title game — will play bowls in their home states.
“A chance to stay home is really special, basically to have another home game,” said FAU coach Lane Kiffin, whose Owls will essentially “host” Akron in the Boca Raton Bowl. “From that advantage, it’s really neat. Our players obviously at first were like, ‘Well, we don’t get to go anywhere.’ But then when they really looked at it, they realize, ‘Hey, we’re honored because we’re going to the best bowl that there is for our conference.’”
The Boca Raton Bowl is Tuesday, the first of the four de facto home games for some teams in this postseason. Navy is remaining in Annapolis, Maryland, for its bowl, the Dec. 28 Military Bowl against Virginia. Miami is headed to the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30, where Wisconsin awaits. And Memphis is off to the Liberty Bowl, set to meet Iowa State on Dec. 30.
Memphis had hopes of getting into a New Year’s Six bowl. When that didn’t happen after a loss to UCF in the American Athletic Conference title game, wide receiver Anthony Miller said going to the Liberty Bowl “was the next-best thing.”
“I don’t mind,” Miller said. “I just love the energy of being at the Liberty Bowl. I love being in Memphis. I love the fans. It’s my senior year. It’s my last year. I don’t think there’s a better way that I could end it.”
FAU hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2008, so its upperclassmen all will attest that being home for a bowl obviously is better than being at home with no games left to play. Navy had prearranged many of its bowl sites for the last decade or so, though now falls into the AAC mix — and the Military Bowl was thrilled to pit the Midshipmen against the Cavaliers, given how the campuses are roughly 150 miles apart.
Miami ended a decade-long bowl-victory drought last season, rose to No. 2 in the national rankings this season before dropping its final two games and has reveled in how that success re-energized the fan base. The Hurricanes fell out of CFP contention with losses to Pittsburgh and Clemson, but one last night at Hard Rock Stadium is more than a consolation prize for their seniors.
“It’s going to be somewhat of a home game for us,” coach Mark Richt said. “It is our home stadium. Our fans have been phenomenal all year long. It’s been one of the best turnouts of fans, probably in the history of Hard Rock Stadium. … Even though we are home, in our home city, we know we’re going to get a chance to do some things we don’t normally get to do that the bowl will provide for us.”
Florida International, SMU, Texas, TCU and Wake Forest are also playing in-state bowls. SMU is going only 28 miles to Frisco, Texas, for its game, Wake Forest is going 80 miles to Charlotte, and Texas coach Tom Herman is going back to Houston — his former home.
“I think it’s neat,” Herman said. “It’s a city that my family and myself have called home on a couple of different occasions, at Rice (and) at the University of Houston. … It is a city that I have a lot of friends and people that I know back there, and I’m excited to bring our team out to Houston to play in front of them.”
The last time Wake Forest went to Charlotte for a bowl game, the Demon Deacons brought 30,000 fans.
“We expect that number to increase,” athletic director Ron Wellman said.
Miami isn’t staying at “home,” per se. The Hurricanes are moving to a resort in Broward County on Christmas night for bowl week, part of the Orange Bowl’s contractual obligations. And even though Wisconsin and Akron both know they’re playing road games, leaving winter behind for a few days seems like a fair trade-off.
Kiffin doesn’t see a downside for his team, either.
“Miami used to want to do what? Go to the Orange Bowl,” Kiffin said. “USC and UCLA want to do what? Go to the Rose Bowl. So it can be really special when it’s a premier bowl like this.”