The Southeastern Conference, a conference that produces the nation’s most prominent programs, has sent just six teams to the Valley of the Sun in the 48-year history of the Fiesta Bowl.
The SEC’s lack of Fiesta Bowl appearances can be attributed in part to the Bowl Championship Series era in college football from 1998-2013, when each conference had its own New Year’s bowl tie-in.
Alabama, Tennessee and Florida made three early appearances in the 90’s but the conference didn’t see its first Fiesta Bowl Championship until 1999 when No. 1 Tennessee defeated the No. 2 Florida State Seminoles for the National Championship in Tempe, Arizona.
“Many years were just based on the bowl tie-in, there wasn’t much opportunity to go to the Fiesta Bowl. It’s one of the iconic bowls on the map so it made it even more special to get a team out there,” SEC Associate Commissioner Herb Vincent said.
It took 20 years before the No. 11 LSU Tigers ended the Fiesta Bowl drought for the SEC by coming out to Arizona this December.
When the dust settled at the 48th Annual PlayStation Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium, the Tigers passing attack and gritty defense snapped the longest active win streak in the nation, defeating the No. 8 UCF Knights 40-32.
“It was a battle. They’re a good football team and I could see why they won 25 games in a row. Obviously well-coached but we were just a little bit better,” LSU head coach Ed Orgeron said after the game.
LSU quarterback Joe Burrow was named offensive player of the game. The junior threw four touchdowns and a career high 394 yards.
The win for the Tigers stamped their first 10-win season since 2013.
“It’s very special to have a team there. We feel like the Fiesta Bowl is a special place on the college football landscape and college football history,” Vincent said. “The SEC’s foundation is tradition and success, so to bring those two entities together it made for a very special week and a very special day.”
The 2019 Fiesta Bowl was the farthest west LSU had ever traveled for a bowl game. However, for LSU and Vincent, their introduction to Arizona started 14 years ago.
“I used to work at LSU and I was there in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. We had Arizona State scheduled to play at Tiger Stadium but could not play the home game. It was quickly rescheduled for Arizona. Our host was really the Fiesta Bowl, they’re the ones that made it happen so fast, as this was just in a matter of days,” Vincent said. “They put on this football game and we played Arizona State out there at Arizona State and when we got off the plane all the Fiesta Bowl members at the airport greeted us and they treated it like a bowl game. That’s why it was special for me to go back out there and to experience it all over again.”
From the deep south to the desert, LSU wouldn’t mind traveling back to Arizona.
“We’re glad to be Fiesta Bowl champs,” Orgeron said. “I want to thank the Fiesta Bowl people for their tremendous hospitality, tremendous facilities. One of the best bowls I’ve ever been to. And if you all invite us back, we plan to come on back.”
The conference has won two of the last five National Championships and has produced a team in the College Football Playoff every year since it began in 2014. With next year’s Fiesta Bowl set as a College Football Playoff Semifinal, the odds are favorable that the SEC will be back experiencing a Fiesta again come December 2019.
“We sure hope so. History fortunately says SEC teams compete for national championships every year and we hope that’s the case again next year,” Vincent said. “We hope to have an SEC team at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.”