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First semifinal Orange Bowl of College Football Playoff era brings change, excitement

Orange Bowl Committee CEO Eric Poms believes South Florida got best draw

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DELRAY BEACH, Fla. – When the final seconds tick away Thursday on the first College Football Playoff semifinal at the Orange Bowl, one team will be just 60 minutes away from winning a national championship, while another team's season will come to an abrupt end. Regardless of the outcome, Orange Bowl Committee chief executive officer Eric Poms believes the real winner will be South Florida.

Poms said the Orange Bowl couldn't have gotten a more attractive matchup when the College Football Playoff selection committee paired No. 1 Clemson (13-0) with No. 4 Oklahoma (11-1).

"We're ecstatic about it, and, fortunately, we got the opportunity to host the No. 1 team in the country in Clemson, who happens to be the (Atlantic Coast Conference champion) and the only undefeated team," Poms told Local10.com. "That's tremendous."

The opponent just so happens to be a regular to the Orange Bowl. Oklahoma is making its 19th all-time Orange Bowl appearance. That's the most of any school.

A sellout crowd is expected to fill Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens to see Clemson face the Big 12 Conference champion in one of two penultimate postseason games.

This year's Orange Bowl provides added ammunition for both teams, serving as a rematch of last season's Russell Athletic Bowl. Clemson manhandled the Sooners, 40-6, in Orlando last December, but the stakes are much higher this time around.

The winner will play the Cotton Bowl winner -- either No. 2 Alabama or No. 3 Michigan State -- in the College Football Playoff National Championship.

"It has a little bit of a different feel," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said of his team's return to the Orange Bowl. "We're here a day less, and I guess there's just a sense of the anticipation that there's something else out there, which there is for all four teams. There's another game possibly, and you can't ignore that. So, in that way, it is a little bit different."

A trip to the Orange Bowl has arguably never meant more for Clemson since beating Nebraska to win its first and only national title in the 1981 season.

Clemson becomes the first ACC champion to play in the Orange Bowl -- its traditional home since 2006 -- since Florida State in the 2012 season. The Seminoles played in the final Bowl Championship Series title game in the 2013 season and qualified for the inaugural College Football Playoff last season, leaving the Orange Bowl to fill their spot with the Tigers on Jan. 3, 2014, and ACC runner-up Georgia Tech last New Year's Eve.

"It's great to have the ACC champion feed into this given our relationship with them throughout the BCS and now the College Football Playoff era," Poms said. "We're fortunate to have them."

This will also be the second consecutive Orange Bowl to be played on New Year's Eve. With the exception of the 1996 season, the game has historically been played on New Year's Day or shortly thereafter.

Poms said the date is the price of being a part of the College Football Playoff.

"It's about adapting to change and what the model presents," Poms said.

Poms said the Orange Bowl's purpose is two-fold: it "brings economic development to the area and likewise gives our residents something really special to enjoy each and every year."

"So, in this era, we knew things were going to change," Poms said.

Poms said the Orange Bowl isn't locked into the New Year's Eve date. He said there would be some Dec. 30 and New Year's Day games in the future, but there is no concern about attendance or a lack of interest on New Year's Eve.

"Arguably Dec. 31 has become the biggest day in college football," Poms said.

Another unusual note about the Orange Bowl is its kickoff time. This year's game is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. to accommodate ESPN, which is also airing the Peach Bowl at noon and the semifinal Cotton Bowl at 8 p.m.

Poms said the College Football Playoff consults with ESPN to determine when each game will begin, but he said the Orange Bowl was indifferent about the kickoff time.

"Eight o clock would have been fine," Poms said. "There's merits in both cases, but in the end, you know, we were hoping for the best matchup we could get."

Poms said he believes there is "a good balance" between the number of fans of both teams and South Florida residents who want to watch high-level, postseason college football.

"When there's a game of relevance that comes to South Florida, the interest is at its highest level possible," Poms said.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney noticed a difference when he arrived between this trip and his two previous visits to the Orange Bowl.

"It's always neat when you come to the Orange Bowl because you don't usually have a welcome like this," Swinney said. "The guys are excited because they know we're in the final four. We started the year with hopes to achieve this."

Although South Florida recently lost its bid to host a national championship game, Poms said the regular visits from College Football Playoff officials every three years that the Orange Bowl hosts a semifinal game should serve as an opportunity to showcase the region.

"Obviously, any opportunity to host a game of this level … to have the key stakeholders who are involved in this system here in South Florida for that duration of time and then they see all that South Florida has to offer, you know, from the weather, from the amenities that the destination offers and the activities, the hotel infrastructure and, probably, the most pressing change and important change would be the stadium modernization, I think they're going to be, you know, very pleased and very excited about what Sun Life Stadium has to offer," Poms said.

Count Stoops among those already impressed.

"It's beautiful and there's sunshine," Stoops said. "The people here are fabulous. It's great, and we're excited about the opportunity."

But make no mistake, Sooners fans. Stoops said his team wouldn't just settle for a week in the sun.

"It's not about getting here," Stoops said upon arriving in South Florida. "It's about winning it."