MIAMI, DEC. 27 -- There are two questions that must be asked about the inaugural Blockbuster Bowl. The first is simple: What is it? The second is much more complex: Is it another symbol of corporate America going berserk on the playing field, or is it a sign that ingenuity and a little luck still go a long way in putting on sports events?
It used to be that South Florida had only one college bowl game, the Orange Bowl. Now, though the Orange Bowl -- pitting No. 1 Colorado against No. 5 Notre Dame -- ultimately commands the area's attention, the pre-New Year's Day landscape has changed.
On Friday night at 8, in art deco Joe Robbie Stadium near the Dade-Broward county line, sixth-ranked Florida State (9-2) plays seventh-ranked Penn State (9-2) in one of the three best bowl games of the season, and the top game before New Year's Day. This is the Blockbuster Bowl.
It is the creation of Raycom Management Group, a company associated with the Raycom sports network, and sponsored by businessman Wayne Huizenga's Blockbuster Entertainment Corporation, the company that rents videos.
There should be no mistaking the difference between the football game and its sponsor. Penn State Coach Joe Paterno said he's never, ever rented a movie, and isn't about to change.
Bowls these days have funny names, with the California Raisin, Poulan/Weed Eater Independence and Eagle Aloha bowls already concluded. All but six of the 19 bowl games now have names of sponsors in their titles. But only two of the 13 go strictly by the corporate name: the John Hancock (formerly the Sun Bowl) in El Paso and the Blockbuster.
The brainchild of former University of Florida associate athletic director Richard Giannini, the Blockbuster Bowl has serendipitously found a niche in this most unsettled of college football seasons. First, it found a home when the Orange Bowl Committee voted to stay put -- for at least five years -- in aging Orange Bowl stadium near downtown Miami and not move 15 miles north to glistening, four-year-old Joe Robbie, home of the Dolphins.
Next, Huizenga signed on Oct. 15 as the title sponsor. He already had bought 15 percent of the Dolphins and 50 percent of Joe Robbie Stadium after the Dolphins owner's death. With his help, the bowl offered $1.6 million per team, the sixth-biggest payoff of any bowl. (The Orange Bowl pays $4.2 million; only the Rose Bowl has a bigger payoff, $6 million.)
Finally, some of the craziest wheeling and dealing in bowl history left the new game with a couple of teams that any New Year's Day game would now love to have. As athletic directors and bowl officials scurried to make deals well before the Nov. 24 deadline, Florida State and Penn State were not hot properties. The Seminoles still had to play Florida, and Penn State had Notre Dame and Pittsburgh left.
Still, it appeared the Fiesta Bowl wanted Penn State and Virginia, but soon neither team wanted anything to do with that bowl after the uproar over Arizona's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday vote.
There, waiting patiently, was the new kid on the block.
"We believed all along we were going to attract good teams," said Giannini, president and chief executive officer of Raycom Management Group. "We knew when we got the title sponsor, we could compete with the top bowls. Our problem was lack of tradition. We knew we'd need teams to be guinea pigs. Then, the way the bowls broke early helped us. In was an interesting process this year, particularly happening in our first year."
Orange Bowl officials, who appear to be content with the Blockbuster Bowl's presence here, agree with Giannini.
"There's always a place for a matchup of two top independent teams," said Steve Hatchell, Orange Bowl executive director. "The Fiesta Bowl usually positions itself to be the major fisherman of that catch. But because of its problems and because of the money and the positioning of the Blockbuster Bowl, they were in position to make that catch this year."
The game is sold out and will be on television in more than 90 percent of the country, mostly on major network or Fox stations. By most measures, it is a success even before it happens.
"In August, if someone had told you there would be 74,000 people selling out Joe Robbie Stadium to watch the Blockbuster Bowl, and people would be in the hotel lobby begging for tickets, you would have sent that person to counseling," said L. Budd Thalman, Penn State's associate athletic director for communications.
There is a game to be played, and both teams possess legendary coaches and faint designs on a national title. Especially Penn State.
"The winner of our game sure as heck has some sort of claim," said Thalman. "Particularly if it's us, because we beat Notre Dame."
The head coaches -- Paterno and Bobby Bowden -- are fast friends who are helping to sell the game as well as coach in it. "I don't think anybody has got two better clubs out there during the holidays," Bowden said.
Penn State has won nine in a row, including its 24-21 victory over No. 1 Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., last month. The Seminoles lost only to Miami and Auburn in the middle of the season.
The coaches have 433 victories between them (Paterno 229, Bowden 204) and have coached a combined 34 bowl games. It's the first time 200-victory coaches have met since the 1978 Sugar Bowl, when Alabama's Bear Bryant faced Ohio State's Woody Hayes.
All this makes Blockbuster officials downright giddy.
"The great thing about this is the name," said Giannini. "Its connotation is 'A big event.' "