Bowl Games Are the War on I-4's Only Hope For Now

Conference Realignment kills another rivalry for the immediate future, but Bowl season offers hope for the War on I-4.

UCF leads the series 8-6
Source: Chris O'Meara/AP

The UCF-USF rivalry is dead for the second time in its history. In 2008, USF's decision that Big East clout made them too good for UCF led to an indefinite hiatus for the rivalry. In 2013, UCF joined the American Athletic Conference, which emerged from the ashes of the Big East, resurrected the War on I-4 five years later. However, conference realignment is currently responsible for killing this rivalry.

USF's non-conference schedule lacks openings, which means the earliest the two schools can reunite is after the 2028 season. Fortunately, UCF AD Terry Mohajir is open to continuing the series once USF has non-conference openings. However, for now, USF and UCF fans' only hope for this rivalry lies in bowl games and two bowls miles away from either campus.

The Big 12 and AAC currently have only two possible bowl matchups until the end of the current bowl cycle in 2025. After the College Football Playoff selections, the Big 12 sends its sixth bowl team to either the First Responder Bowl in Dallas or the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, both owned by ESPN.

Hosting a rivalry involving two Florida schools in the Lone Star State is obviously counterintuitive, but it is facilitated by ESPN owning these bowls. ESPN's philosophy in running these bowls is to create the best TV matchup for fans, sometimes at the expense of in-person attendance.

ESPN frequently reunites rivals in bowls they own, as seen in the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl (Utah-BYU), the 2019 Hawaii Bowl (BYU-Hawaii), and the 2022 Fenway Bowl (Cincinnati-Louisville). The Cincinnati-Louisville example is particularly relevant to USF-UCF since both schools were over 800 miles from Boston, which significantly impacted the in-person crowd.

Although only 15,000 fans attended the inaugural Fenway Bowl, it attracted 1.1 million viewers and achieved a 1.2 rating despite the 11 AM ET kickoff. This made it the second-most viewed bowl game aired on ESPN on Bowl Season's opening Saturday, second only to the Las Vegas Bowl featuring Florida and a ranked Oregon State squad.

If both USF and UCF become bowl-eligible, ESPN could facilitate their reunion in a bowl game. In-person attendance may be affected as both schools are approximately 1,000 miles from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but fans of both schools are likely to tune in due to the existing animosity between them. Despite the location, the desire to preserve rivalries could attract even more fans to the game.

Will it be weird to see a rivalry between two Florida schools take center stage in a Texas-based bowl game? Absolutely. However, for now, it is the best that USF and UCF fans can hope for. Reuniting rivalries like the War on I-4 and the Keg of Nails, as the Fenway Bowl did last season, elevates bowls from being mere tourist-attracting exhibitions. As a result, if given the opportunity, the First Responder or Armed Forces Bowl should reignite the War on I-4.