Despite panning of Michigan-Virginia Tech matchup, Sugar Bowl officials feel they 'hit the mother lode'
Note: This story is from our Advance Publications partners at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. For their complete Sugar Bowl coverage, visit nola.com/sugarbowl.
By Ted Lewis
Since its earliest years more than three-quarters of a century ago, the unofficial goal of the Sugar Bowl has been “The best game possible.” But in the wake of the bowl’s selecting No. 11 Virginia Tech to play No. 13 Michigan on Jan. 3 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, making it the first Sugar Bowl without a top 10 team since 1945, many have seriously questioned if this year that’s the case.
If the assorted slings and arrows were real, bowl Chief Executive Officer Paul Hoolahan would look like Mayhem, the pummeled, bandaged spokesman for Allstate, the Sugar Bowl’s title sponsor.
And it’s somehow overshadowed the fact that six days after the Michigan-Virginia Tech game, LSU will play Alabama for the BCS championship in the Superdome. It comes close to matching the Saints-Vikings NFC championship game of two years ago as the most eagerly anticipated sports event in New Orleans history.
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“The combination of these two games is of astronomical proportions,” Hoolahan said. “When it’s over, people are going to say ‘Wow.’”
Certainly the LSU-Alabama game has the “wow factor” and then some.
And for all of the arguments about the worthiness of Virginia Tech to be in the Sugar Bowl after the Hokies’ loss to Clemson in the ACC championship game (oddly enough, there’s little knocking of Michigan although the Wolverines are actually ranked lower than the Hokies), the teams are evenly matched. The Wolverines are a two-point favorite.
Point spread alone doesn’t make it the best game possible, but there were other factors at play that led to the pairing, some within the Sugar Bowl’s control and some not and some which could well cause future change in the BCS rules that does at least explain it:
• With LSU and Alabama in the championship game, the rules forbade a third Southeastern Conference team in a BCS bowl. So the Sugar Bowl, which had replaced the SEC champion with another SEC team for the past five years, had to look elsewhere instead of inviting No. 6 Arkansas or No. 9 South Carolina.
• Unbeaten Houston looked like a lock until losing to Southern Miss in the Conference USA championship game. Although from a non-BCS conference, the nearby Cougars undoubtedly would have brought more fans than previous non-BCS Sugar Bowl participants Hawaii and Utah.
• With Houston losing early in the day Dec. 3, Hoolahan was in discussions with the Big 12 to have Oklahoma come to the Sugar Bowl instead of the Fiesta Bowl had the Sooners beaten Oklahoma State with the Cowboys playing in the Fiesta. Or, there was the possibility of a victorious Oklahoma going to the Orange Bowl with a victorious Virginia Tech (probably ranked No. 5) coming to the Sugar Bowl instead of its fourth trip to Miami in five years. But both Oklahoma and Virginia Tech lost, meaning no swaps.
For some time, Hoolahan had been locked in on Michigan because of the Wolverines’ large fan base, which hadn’t been to a BCS bowl since the 2006 season and to New Orleans since 1984.
The remaining eligible teams were No. 4 Stanford, No. 7 Boise State, No. 8 Kansas State, No. 12 Baylor, Big East champion West Virginia and Virginia Tech.
Stanford, Boise and West Virginia were never under consideration. Neither was Baylor despite the presence of Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III whose parents are natives of New Orleans. ESPN apparently didn’t push for any of those teams, either.
That left the choice between Kansas State, which has never been in the Sugar Bowl and Virginia Tech, which had made three appearances since 1995.
Both schools and their conferences made their pitches on Selection Sunday, although K-State Athletic Director John Currie said last week, “I let us down. I didn’t know the people well enough to do what we were supposed to do.”
But Currie added that the relationship between Hoolahan and ACC Commissioner John Swofford, who were football teammates at North Carolina, was a factor.
Hoolahan vigorously denies that, but does acknowledge that the familiarity with Virginia Tech is a factor, especially in a year when double-hosting has his organization stretched to the max.
“We were already bringing in one unknown entity in Michigan,” he said. “And we really saw Kansas State and Virginia Tech lumped together (the Wildcats were No. 10 in all three polls and the Hokies were 11th).
“We came at it from every angle and in the end made a decision based on our best judgment and experiences and what was best for the Sugar Bowl. If the rules were different, it would have been an entirely different game.”
Making those rules different is something Hoolahan hopes happens. While a championship game featuring two teams from the same conference may never happen again, the rules restricting leagues to one at-large team is a hindrance toward making the best pairings for both a competitive and financial reasons (the bulk of the Sugar Bowl’s income comes from ticket sales).
When the conference commissioners who control the BCS meet next spring, amending that rule is sure to be on the agenda with speculation running high that all qualifying standards may be eliminated when the next cycle of games begin in 2014 although the albatross the Big East has become has many wishing it could be done before then.
Even more important to the bowls is the elimination of the post-Jan. 1 BCS bowls because of the problems they cause for those with school and work conflicts such as this year’s game is doing to the Sugar and Orange bowls.
While much has been made of Virginia Tech’s inability to sell its official allotment of 17,500 tickets (Michigan is within 2,000 of its allotment), West Virginia, which has never been to the Orange Bowl, and Clemson, which hasn’t played in it since 1982, have sold only 5,000 and 8,000 tickets respectively to their game, which will be played the day after the Sugar Bowl.
“These items are going to be brought up and discussed,” Hoolahan said. “And if our partners in this consortium agree, then the rules will be modified to the benefit of everyone.”
Meanwhile, Hoolahan and the rest of the Sugar Bowl staff and volunteers have two games to prepare for.
“We’re looking at the biggest game in our history - a monster game,” he said. And we’re looking at an outstanding Sugar Bowl with brand-name programs whose fans we’re confident will be here in large numbers and which will deliver the numbers our TV partner desires.
“We feel like we’ve hit the mother lode.”
Ted Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504-232-5071.