When the Allstate Sugar Bowl entered into its new partnership with the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12, there was an acknowledged tradeoff between being assured of having teams from “Power Five” conferences against the likelihood that one or both would not be the best teams from those leagues.
That’s coming true this season.
Conference champions Alabama and Oklahoma are in the College Football Playoff.
And the matchup of Ole Miss and Oklahoma State on Jan. 1 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome marks only the third time in the game’s 82-year history that neither team is ranked in the top 10.
On the other hand, there should be no shortage of enthusiasm for fans of the No. 12 Rebels and No. 16 Cowboys about their bowl destination.
“There are going to be thousands of Cowboys in New Orleans,” Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder said. “Christmas has come early for us.”
Holder was referring to Baylor’s 23-17 loss to Texas on Saturday that lifted the Cowboys (10-2, 7-2) to second in its league and into the Sugar Bowl for the first time in 70 years.
It hasn’t been quite that long for Ole Miss (9-3, 6-2), although Archie Manning was a junior when he led the Rebels to a 27-22 victory against Arkansas in the 1970 game in the latest of their eight Sugar Bowl appearances.
“It’s on the bucket list of every coach at Ole Miss to bring a team to the Sugar Bowl,” Rebels coach Hugh Freeze said. “I’ve heard so many stories from our fans about how they feel about this bowl. They’re really pumped up about it, and so are we.”
Indeed, since it was widely assumed for the previous week that Ole Miss would wind up in the Sugar Bowl, Rebels fans didn’t wait to make their plans.
“Their fans have absolutely been burning up the phones to our offices and to the hotels,” Sugar Bowl Chief Operating Officer Jeff Hundley said.
And that, Hundley added, goes back to the original mission of the game: bringing fans to New Orleans.
“We’ve got two schools with strong fan bases and a pent-up demand because neither one has been here in such a long time,” he said.
Ole Miss fans’ anticipation of being in the Sugar Bowl was based on the Rebels going into the final week of the season ranked ahead of Florida in the CFP rankings (despite a 38-10 loss to the Gators in October) and Florida being a 17-point underdog to Alabama in the SEC championship game.
The Gators’ 29-15 loss Saturday sealed that.
“We knew we were in pretty good position,” Freeze said. “All week it was hard to contain the excitement by our players. And now that it’s finally official, we can celebrate again. Next to being in the playoffs, this is the pinnacle of everything we could accomplish.”
The Sugar Bowl is the second straight New Year’s Six appearance by Ole Miss. But after finishing No. 12 in the CFP rankings last year, the Rebels were pounded by TCU 42-3 in the Peach Bowl.
“We won’t remind our players of that game because we prefer to look ahead instead of back,” Freeze said. “And this team has a different vibe to it than last year’s. But it’s always important to have good preparation for your bowl, and then going out and winning it never hurts, either.”
Oklahoma State lost its last two games — 45-35 to Baylor and 58-23 to Oklahoma — and finished a spot behind TCU in the CFP rankings. But the Cowboys’ 49-29 victory against the Horned Frogs gave them second in the Big 12 and the Sugar Bowl berth, along with a little help from Texas.
“I was watching a kids basketball tournament in a small town and didn’t have any cell service,” coach Mike Gundy said. “But went I got out of the gym, I started getting all kinds of texts from our assistants giving me play-by-play. Obviously it’s a great emotional lift for our players and our program.”
Gundy said that lift should help the Cowboys in bowl preparations.
“You think of the bowl week as a time to reward your players for 11 months of hard work together,” he said. “And you’re always looking forward to having a good game, no matter who your opponent may be. We came up short in our last two games, but we’re going to get through exams and look forward to a great trip to New Orleans.”