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After watching SEC football growing up, IU’s southeast natives will face Tennessee in the Gator Bowl

Reakwon Jones celebrates after a big play during Indiana’s week two game against Eastern Illinois. Jones will be returning to his home state of Florida for Indiana’s bowl game on January 2. (Jared Rigdon/HN)

Fifth-year linebacker Reakwon Jones kept refreshing his Twitter page.

He had seen all the predictions in the hours leading up to the announcement. He had dressed up in his full uniform and bowled in the Indiana Memorial Union Bowling alley for a promotional video. And finally as the New Years Six bowls were announced and the subsequent bowls that followed, Jones, a Florida native, saw what he had truly wanted all along.

He kept refreshing his feed amidst the confusion of the reports IU would play Kentucky, quickly followed by the announcement they wouldn’t. Eventually, he saw his team would play Tennessee. To him, it didn’t really matter who IU faced. He gets to go home.

“This is the bowl game all the Florida guys were hoping for deep down,” Jones said. “Going home, being able to play in Florida, being able to have our families come to the game, just make it a little bit easier for them, just an exciting opportunity to play in Jacksonville against a great SEC opponent with a lot of history.”

Rick Catlett, the executive director of the Gator Bowl, called IU athletic director Fred Glass around 4 p.m. Sunday. He offered Glass and the football program the chance to come to Jacksonville, and play in the Gator Bowl, easily the most prestigious bowl IU has gotten to play in decades.

Glass accepted. Immediately.

IU got the chance to slide up into the Gator Bowl largely in thanks to the placement of Wisconsin and Penn State. With Wisconsin playing as competitively as any team had against Ohio State all season Saturday night, the Badgers earned a spot in the Rose Bowl while Ohio State went to the playoff. It cleared a spot for Penn State to go to the Cotton Bowl, and for all the non-New Years Six Big Ten teams to move up a slot as a result.

“We have a chance to be the one thing that everybody is watching,” IU head coach Tom Allen said. “Being raised in a home of a coach, watching all of these bowl games since I was young, you have to remember, to me it just means a lot. You just sit there, you dream of one day being in that situation, to be a part of one of those either as a player, a coach. Now to have that is pretty awesome. I know our guys feel that way.”

And it puts IU in Florida, the home state of 26 of its players. Add in the surrounding states and that total jumps to 34. Jacksonville itself is home to two key IU defensive players in Khalil Bryant and Devon Matthews. According to Glass, 23,000 IU alumni live within 300 miles of Jacksonville.

It puts Indiana in the center of an area it recruits so heavily, and will continue to recruit going forward. Allen has a new contract to show recruits he isn’t leaving, and now brings his team to them to see in person, without having to go far from home.

Those recruits will get to watch the Hoosiers from the southeast get to play in a primetime January game, the only college football game on that night.

“It’s just a great thing for this university and this program to be in the limelight like that,” Jones said. “We just want to make sure we take full advantage of it, show the world what Indiana football is all about.”

They’ll be playing against a conference the 34 players from that region watched every week.

Jones and the rest of the southeastern natives on IU’s team grew up watching SEC football. Jones watched Florida and Florida State most often. He grew up a Florida fan. He saw Gator, Seminole and Crimson Tide logos wherever he went.

But all the southeastern natives never got offers from those schools. They never got the opportunity to play for the schools they grew up so close to, grew up fans of. Instead they came to IU, a program without any history close to resembling its Gator Bowl opponent in Tennessee. Now they have a chance to beat them.

“I’m going to have a chip on my shoulder,” Jones said, “And ready to prove to all the SEC schools that didn’t offer me or didn’t take any of the kids from Florida, we came up here to make change. We’re going in with a big chip on our shoulder.”

Allen and the players have said all season that the goal set out in fall camp is not just to go to a bowl game. They want the victory flag raised high above Memorial Stadium all spring and summer long.

“We’re going there to win,” Allen said. “That’s why when we got the sixth win they were excited, but they didn’t act like they had accomplished everything that they wanted, because they didn’t just want to get to a bowl game, they want to win the bowl game. That’s obviously the next step.”

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