Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M pulled off the comeback against LSU on Sunday that they couldn’t finish in October.
The presumed Heisman Trophy front-runner and the 10th-ranked Aggies snatched a Cotton Bowl bid away from the ninth-ranked Tigers, who beat A&M 24-19 on Oct. 20 in College Station, Texas.
A whirlwind 24 hours of match-making among bowls and highly ranked Southeastern Conference teams began with the conclusion of the regular season Saturday, and LSU (10-2 and 6-2 in the SEC) landed in the Chick-fil-A Bowl rather than the Cotton. The Tigers will play No. 14 Clemson (10-2 and 7-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) at 6:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve in the Georgia Dome.
The Aggies (10-2 and 6-2) will play Oklahoma in Cowboys Stadium on Jan. 4.
“We look forward to a great matchup and a competitive game in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against a very talented team from the ACC,” coach Les Miles said in a statement released by LSU on Sunday night. “We enjoy playing in Atlanta. It’s a great city that has been very good to LSU.”
The Tigers learned their destination and opponent Sunday after they and three fellow SEC teams were finally distributed among four of the top non-BCS bowls.
Alabama’s 32-28 victory over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday put the Crimson Tide in the BCS Championship and sent Florida to the Sugar Bowl, leaving the rest of the SEC teams out of the BCS bowl picture. No conference can send more than two teams to the BCS unless the league claims the top two spots in the rankings but neither is its champion.
That left the Cotton, Chick-fil-A, Capital One and Outback bowls to choose among the Tigers, Aggies, Georgia and South Carolina.
Speculation had LSU at various times headed to the Cotton or Chick-fil-A or even to the Outback. South Carolina appeared headed to the Outback throughout, and that’s where the Gamecocks wound up.
It had been assumed that the Capital One would eagerly grab the Aggies and Manziel, a dynamic quarterback who could become the first freshman to win the Heisman. That would have left the Cotton choosing LSU or Georgia.
On Saturday night, Cotton Bowl chairman Tommy Bain told the Austin American-Statesman that LSU was “the favorite in the clubhouse.”
The dominoes began to fall late Sunday afternoon when Georgia accepted a bid to the Capital One in Orlando, Fla., to play Nebraska. South Carolina then accepted a trip to Tampa, Fla., to play Michigan. That left the Cotton and Chick-fil-A to split LSU and Texas A&M.
The Cotton had considered the possibility of matching Texas and Texas A&M, but those schools’ long-time rivalry ended bitterly this season when the Aggies left the Big 12 Conference.
The Aggies overtook the Cotton’s clubhouse leader Sunday after Northern Illinois, the champion of the Mid-America Conference, which does not have automatic qualification into the BCS, climbed to No. 15 in the BCS rankings.
BCS rules guarantee a spot for a non-AQ conference champion if it is ranked in the top 16 and ahead of the champion of an AQ conference in the final rankings. The Huskies, who defeated Kent State for the MAC title Friday, were ranked ahead of two AQ champions: the Big East’s Louisville and Big Ten’s Wisconsin.
That sent Northern Illinois to the Orange Bowl, bumping Louisville to the Sugar Bowl and Oklahoma to the Cotton. With Texas out of the Cotton and into the Alamo Bowl, A&M leaped to the Cotton forefront.
LSU officials seemed caught off-guard by the turn of events. They had said last week that they would hold a Sunday night news conference to discuss their bowl destination. But that changed Sunday, and the university issued its statement and said it would make Miles available on a conference call Monday.
The first confirmation of the Chick-fil-A destination came as several players, including punter Brad Wing, wide receiver Russell Shepard and running back Jeremy Hill tweeted the news. Defensive tackle Bennie Logan tweeted his reaction: “I’m too excited and pumped about this game.”
LSU fans, who had pre-ordered more than 16,000 tickets to the Cotton Bowl and half of that to the Chick-fil-A, seemed less enthused. Many took to Twitter and message boards to complain that the Tigers should have been chosen ahead of the Aggies because of the head-to-head outcome.
LSU played A&M in the Cotton Bowl two years ago and will play TCU in Cowboys Stadium, site of the Cotton, in the 2013 opener in August.
Instead of another trip there, the Tigers will head back to the Georgia Dome, where they completed the most successful regular season in school history with a 42-10 victory against Georgia in the 2011 SEC Championship Game.
“We’re about as excited as you can be to have a 10-win team ranked number seven in the nation (in the coaches poll) in the LSU Tigers,” Chick-fil-A president and CEO Gary Stokan said in the statement. “Coach Miles has led this team to the pinnacle of elite programs in the country and they will, without doubt, give us one of the best bowl match-ups in the nation.”
LSU has won all five of its previous trips to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, formerly known as the Peach Bowl. The Tigers beat Georgia Tech 38-3 in its last trip after the 2008 season.
Clemson and LSU have played twice, and LSU won both games, prevailing 7-0 in the Sugar Bowl to conclude its 1958 national championship season and 10-7 in the Peach Bowl after the 1996 season.
LSU will face one of the nation’s most productive offenses: Clemson led the ACC with averages of 518 yards and 42 points per game.