By Jeff Moeller
Can Jacksonville be a vibrant football town again?
It proved it could be when the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl came to town last week in what was one of the more entertaining college football bowl games. In fact, Notre Dame’s 45-38 victory over South Carolina was the highest scoring Gator Bowl in its 78-year history.
Notre Dame’s game-winning touchdown in the final quarter, and it quieted a frenzy Gamecocks’ crowd that embodied three-fourths of TIAA Field. They provided all the tapestries and pageantry in a sea of red and white that normally encompasses the usual 77,000-plus in Columbia.
It was a memorable night on several occasions that included a swearing-in ceremony for a small band of future marines.
Gator Bowl officials deserve a pat on the back and a shake of a hand for inviting two of college football’s teams with dedicated fan bases. They were both no-brainers, and it was evidenced by the rabid crowd that engulfed the area in front of the gates in anticipation of their admittance.
If you were driving down on I-95, you know the feeling. Also, if you were anywhere in Jacksonville the morning of the game, you could sense the electricity in the air.
But the stop-gap crowds and the burgeoning traffic were welcome sites.
There are few better experiences than a playoff-like atmosphere in any town before a game. You have to appreciate it and take it all in.
This year’s version certainly was an upgrade from last year’s dud between Wake Forest and Rutgers in which half of the stadium was empty.
I have only been down here for two years, but I know the feeling from similar situations in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
Now, it is up to the Jaguars Saturday night when they are playing their biggest game in five years before a national audience on ESPN/ABC. The world will be watching the recent Trevor Lawrence/Doug Pederson-based phenomena that has transcended over the past two months.
A full capacity of 67,000-plus at TIAA Bank Field Saturday night will create a worthwhile environment you need to experience. There isn’t any reason why there shouldn’t be a raucous, sellout crowd.
Pederson is a Coach-of-the-Year candidate, and the Jags are one of the league’s top and feel-good stories.
They have taken the next step by being able to finish games and win the games they should as well as any trap games, such as the game in Houston last week. That one could have turned into a nail biter, but the Jags managed to put their foot on the Texans’ neck.
That’s what good teams do. These Jags aren’t just a doormat anymore. The development of Lawrence, the coaching and assurance of Pederson, and the adjustment and growth of the defense have been major transitions. There are plenty of others –like the emergence of running back Travis Etienne – that have changed the landscape.
But the Jags have to take one more major step this season by wrapping up the AFC South crown with a victory over a beaten-up yet stubborn Tennessee team that likely won’t go quietly with a fight.
I know this is a different situation, but the Titans have won 11 of the last 15 meetings and have an overall 15-12 record in Jacksonville. In January 2000, the Titans beat the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game.
The Jags shook off a nine-game losing streak to the Texans last week, and they can begin to establish a future foothold on the annual AFC South crown with a win Saturday night.
If they do, a home playoff football game is ahead, and football is vibrant again in Jacksonville.
Do yourself a favor, and help to begin to take it all in. It should be here for a while.
(Columnist Jeff Moeller covers the NFL and other sports for SportsDay and the Florida Sports Wire)