Conference realignment closed the book on yet another rivalry Friday night. Florida Atlantic and Florida International were hardly the bitter rivals of Texas A&M-Texas, and never had major implications riding on their outcomes like Colorado-Nebraska. There was no century-plus of hostility exercised every time they took the field, like when Kansas played Missouri — mostly because the Shula Bowl was in just its 11th season.
Still, the Shula Bowl was more indicative of history than anything either program has. FAU and FIU were in a rare position: two universities with brand new football programs, launched within a year of one another, their campuses separated by a one-hour drive.
Friday night marked an end to more than the Shula Bowl. The rivalry’s final installment ended the first chapter of each participant’s football story. As 34-24 winner, FIU retains possession of the Shula Award and takes the trophy to Conference USA. FIU was among those chosen to replenish C-USA after losing members Houston, SMU, UCF and Memphis to the Big East last spring. FAU remains in the Sun Belt.
But for how long? College football legend and the first FAU football coach, Howard Schellenberger, made a pitch for the Big East to seek out FAU while appearing on the ESPNU broadcast. This is the current reality of college football, programs selling credentials based on metropolitan populations to stake an investment into the ever-expanding bank account. Actual football tends to take a backseat.
And the on-field product in Shula Bowl XI was pretty entertaining. Neither team is particularly good this season; Carl Pelini’s first Owl team entered Friday with three wins, rebuilding from a 1-11 finish the season prior. FIU had just two wins in a disappointing campaign that ended the program’s bowl streak at two. To that end, the Owls and Golden Panthers were evenly matched, which made for a competitive contest.
FIU running back Kedrick Rhodes showed flashes of the capable rushing style that helped the Golden Panthers to two consecutive postseason appearances. Quarterback Jake Medlock had a gutsy effort, which included a red zone flip that resulted in the always-exciting lineman touchdown.
Finally healthy, the Golden Panthers exhibited some of what prompted media to choose them the Sun Belt’s preseason No. 1. FIU has four, single digit losses on the season. Had those gone the other way, the Golden Panthers are at seven wins and headed to a third bowl game and Mario Cristobal is still one of college football’s hot coaching commodities.
As it stands, FIU has promise heading into C-USA and likely with its talented, young coach still at the helm. The work Cristobal began can continue.
FAU may have lost, but this season’s Shula Bowl showing was a vast improvement from the 41-7 thrashing the Owls took last year. Pelini’s team has sustained three close losses of its own, and is showing tremendous progress under his leadership. FAU should be in contention for its third bowl appearance in short order.
Both programs have high potential. FAU Stadium is brand new, and FIU has its own facility upgrades in the works. Each is planted in the heart of a recruiting hotbed. There is so much potential for each program to meet — it just won’t be met together. The half of an FAU helmet that graces one side of the Shula Award is a reminder of FIU’s roots, but nothing more.