SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The LSU Tigers and UCF Knights have been living the high life this week in this diamond-crusted Phoenix suburb, an oasis in the bright winter sun filled with glittering resorts, lush golf courses and pet chauffeurs (seriously, that’s a thing out here).
Starting Tuesday, though, as the calendar flips to 2019 and the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl kicks off across the Valley of the Sun in Glendale, the heavy lifting begins both teams.
It will be time for some serious image-crafting to begin.
State Farm Stadium will be the proving ground for the Tigers and Knights, both of whom are aiming to be right back here next December when the Fiesta Bowl hosts one of the College Football Playoff semifinals.
LSU wants to elbow its way back into that constellation of star college football programs, the elites for whom getting into a playoff game is not merely a wishing game. Whatever happens Tuesday, the debate will continue whether Ed Orgeron is the coach to navigate the Tigers back into those waters, but he does know how to read the charts telling him where he needs to go.
“I've been through it twice now at LSU,” Orgeron said, referring to bowl games. “I've been on the good side and the bad side. The other way is not an option. It is something that you don't want to go through, the negativity.”
A victory means a 10-win season for LSU, its first since 2013. A win means a top-10 ranking in the final polls. Ten wins is the initiation fee into the serious national players club.
“To me you better win 10 games at LSU,” Orgeron said. “And more. That's what is expected — and championships. Anything less than that is unacceptable. I understand that.
“So this is a big game for us. This means a lot to LSU. It means a lot to our program. It means taking the next step, winning a big bowl, our first New Year's Day Six bowl. There will be a lot of things to build on this.”
For UCF it is not about playing its way back into the elite club, but simply being accepted in the first place. The Knights have piled up win upon win the past two seasons, 25 straight in all. But UCF comes from the wrong side of the tracks in football terms, its address the mid-major American Athletic Conference and not one of the blueblood enclaves like the Southeastern Conference.
“A lot of us weren't four stars, five stars,” UCF defensive end Titus Davis said, referring to the highest level of recruiting rankings. “Just having that chip coming out of high school on your shoulder, you think that you want to be great and you want to do something great. And how can you leave a legacy at your school? And honestly, you don't know how you can do it. But you put in the maximum effort, the maximum work to get there, and we've done so.”
The Knights don’t have a chip on their shoulder about being blackballed from the CFP semifinals the past two seasons, they have a boulder. Of course in their case, being from Orlando, it’s a man-made boulder from Walt Disney World or Universal.
As UCF prepares to take on LSU in the Fiesta Bowl on Tuesday, it will have to be ready to face the toughest opponent it’s seen this year. But …
It was galling for 12-0 UCF to see the nation’s three other unbeaten teams — Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame — make the CFP semifinals while they didn’t even merit serious consideration once again. UCF finished No. 8 in the final CFP rankings, the high-water mark for a team from a Group of Five conference. But in reality it was still nowhere near the playoffs unless the playoffs come to UCF and expands to eight teams.
“I feel like no matter how far this goes, we're going to be underestimated,” Knights safety Richie Grant said. “People can say what they want to say. It comes down to us and what we believe in.”
Then there is simply winning. Winning a big game. Non-CFP bowls may be glorified exhibition games these days — sort of like the Saints' meaningless loss Sunday to the Carolina Panthers. But there are no playoffs waiting to start in a couple of weeks for LSU and UCF. A loss in a bowl game lingers all through the eight months of the offseason like a bad meal until they can play again.
“When you lose in a bowl game, you have to go a long time with that loss on your mind,” LSU linebacker Devin White said. “I think one of the things that motivated us this off-season is like, man, we really lost the last game (the 2018 Citrus Bowl to Notre Dame) and, you know, it was all due to us, lack of leadership, some things that didn't go right at bowl practices. And this year we didn't want it to happen. We want to go on to the next. We want to start the next season off with a win. Let that carry us into the next season. That's all we've been focusing on, is getting a win.”
A win, quarterback Joe Burrow said, “can springboard us into a great offseason and season.”
That and more.
For LSU and UCF, it’s time to put the resort pools and the golf clubs behind and have the pets driven to someplace swanky to watch the game.
It’s time to go to work.