Lewis: Tradition takes a back seat as playoff nears _lowres

LSU's Justin Vincent, right, and David Jones celerbrate after the Tigers defeated Oklahoma 21-14 during the Sugar Bowl on Sunday, Jan, 4, 2004. (AP Photo/Phil Coale)

Several billboards around New Orleans in the past few weeks sported this motto: “The Sugar Bowl: Preserving the Past; Ensuring the Future.

The first part certainly has been accomplished. For 80 years, thanks to the efforts of the membership and staff, the Sugar Bowl has always been in the top tier of college football’s postseason. That’s worth celebrating.

As for the second part, well, in a changing, challenging situation, they’ve done about the best they could.

There’s a new partnership with the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12 that begins next season and runs for 12 years. That’s security.

The relationship includes four semifinals in the College Football Playoff — the first one coming up next season, which will still be called the Sugar Bowl. That’s big.

It doesn’t include, as we’ve found out, a guaranteed spot in the championship game rotation, something the Sugar Bowl has had six times since 1991. That’s disconcerting.

But it’s also example No. 1 of the conferences taking control of the postseason away from the bowls. They’re doing it because they realized they could.

Nothing satiates powerful people more than more power.

“That paradigm has changed some,” SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said. “But you have to credit the Sugar Bowl for working hard to retain its status when things do change. As good as our partnership has been, its future is even greater.”

Sugar Bowl President Jay Batt took a more realistic approach: “We didn’t have a choice.”

Nope, they didn’t.

There was too much pride and tradition built in the past 80 years to let that happen.

It came at a financial cost, one that played a part in being outbid for the 2016 CFP title game by Glendale, Ariz. And it came at the cost of the bowl’s last vestige of freedom — choosing the participants — before it even officially began.

Oklahoma got the nod over Oregon for Thursday’s game because the Sugar Bowl felt obligated to honor its future agreement with the Big 12. That’s understandable.

But instead of an intriguing game between Alabama and Oregon, which spent much of the season ranked Nos. 1 and 2, we have an Oklahoma team that is a 16½-point underdog, its largest in 15 years under coach Bob Stoops.

The future non-CFP semifinal Sugar Bowls may not produce potential mismatches of that scale, but neither are we likely to see the type of games that will rival the Rose Bowl in attention, as officials from the SEC and Big 12 keep insisting will happen.

The reason is that the Sugar Bowl has already become a victim of the SEC’s success.

This is the eighth straight year the SEC champion has played for the BCS title instead of in the Sugar Bowl. Using the BCS standings as a guide, in five of those eight years, a second SEC team would have been in a four-team playoff. Four Big 12 champions would have been in the top four in that span.

Contrast that to the Big Ten and Pac-12, which have had three BCS title-game participants combined in the past eight years and a combined eight top-four teams — compared to the SEC/Big 12’s 17.

So, seeing sugar cubes thrown at the winner of future SEC Championship Games is highly unlikely. And at any rate, the CFP semifinals — which will rotate between the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton, Fiesta and Chick-Fil-A bowls — are going to overshadow any other bowls played on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Most of them haven’t mattered much during the BCS era to begin with.

Last year’s Florida-Louisville game yielded the smallest Sugar Bowl crowd since 1939 and the second-lowest ever TV rating, surpassed (?) only by the Virginia Tech-Michigan game the year before — the first Sugar Bowl since 1945 without a top-10 team.

Permanently playing on Jan. 1 — only six of the past 16 Sugar Bowls have been on that date — will help, as will no longer having to abide by BCS restrictions.

But for all the talk about the Rose Bowl becoming the lead-in to the Sugar Bowl, ending the season in New Orleans will never have the same cachet as doing it in Pasadena. It’s just a different mindset.

As for future national championship games, it apparently is going to take a financial commitment from the state — much like a funding system through tax revenue from major events, as exists in Texas — to make that happen.

But missing out on 2016 means there won’t be an opportunity for a New Orleans title game until 2019 at the earliest. With cities like Tampa, Indianapolis and San Francisco, which were not part of the BCS, getting in the mix, there could well be only one in the next 12 years.

“You’re not going to see the championship game coming back to the same city on a four-year cycle,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “But I feel confident that we will be playing it in New Orleans again.”

That’s Batt’s goal.

“Hopefully this has been a wake-up call to the leaders in Baton Rouge and to our local hospitality industry,” he said. “And going forward, we know we’re going to be entertaining teams from the two best conferences in the years when we don’t have a semifinal. Our mission hasn’t changed. We will continue to provide the same hospitality and be ambassadors for our city and state like we have in the past.”

Was there any other choice?