Lewis: Sugar Bowl still top-tier event, but somewhat of a consolation prize _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The site of many Super Bowls, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome shown Jan. 2, 2013.

Monday night in New Orleans, athletic directors and other officials from the Big 12 Conference were the dinner guests of a bowl none of them want to be in come Jan. 1.

Well, that’s only technically true.

The Allstate Sugar Bowl, always has been, still is and always will be a top tier event. You don’t last 80 years without doing things right.

But as Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby puts it, “It’s a different model. It’s a different day.”

Indeed.

The Big 12 and Southeastern Conference teams in this season’s Sugar Bowl will be there because they didn’t make the cut for the College Football Playoffs, the sport’s new Holy Grail.

Not only that, but they’ll be the ones from their leagues who came the closest to being in the final four, so the disappointment level for both the teams and their fans could make coming to New Orleans seem like one of those gag consolation prizes on Let’s Make a Deal.

And while it’s unlikely, it could be a league’s third-best team in the Sugar Bowl, should the two highest ranked finish in the top four.

Or it could be the best if the champion finishes outside the top four.

If all of this sounds a little complicated, it is. Mainly, it’s just because it’s still new.

But remember how long it took folks to get the BCS rules straight? The folks in charge of the CFP are the same ones who ran the BCS tweakfest that mercifully petered toward the end of its 16-year run.

So while this is the second year of the CFP, it’s the first for the new Sugar Bowl setup: the top teams from the SEC and Big 12 who aren’t in the playoffs meeting in prime time on New Year’s in the two years out of three that the Sugar is not a CFP semifinal.

Got that straight?

“In an ideal world, we all want to make the playoffs,” said Baylor AD Ian McCaw, whose team just missed doing so last season. “But obviously not everybody will.

“We’re really excited about our new partnership with the SEC and the Sugar Bowl. I believe our players and fans would be thrilled to be in the Sugar Bowl.”

Mississippi State Athletic Director Scott Stricklin, who, like McCaw, previously did a stint in the Tulane athletic department, echoed that sentiment.

Last year, Mississippi State was the highest-ranked SEC team outside the top four (No. 7). That would have earned the Bulldogs a Sugar Bowl berth (against No. 5 Baylor) had not the Sugar been the site of the Alabama-Ohio State semifinal.

“Our people would have been fired up beyond belief,” said Stricklin, whose school has never played in the Sugar Bowl. “The place would have been covered up in maroon.”

Views like that are good news for Sugar Bowl Chief Executive Officer Paul Hoolahan.

Since the Sugar Bowl beat out the Cotton Bowl for the right to host the game the SEC and Big 12 created and originally called the Champions Bowl, there’s been consternation that while it was the right thing to do (nailing down the Jan. 1 time slot, retaining the relationship with the SEC, etc.), there always would be the chance that teams would play like they wished they were elsewhere (Alabama vs. Utah and Oklahoma) or their fans would just stay at home (Florida for Tim Tebow’s last game).

“We had to be incredibly aggressive to get this game,” he said. “But going forward, we’re as nicely positioned as we can be.

The Sugar Bowl isn’t alone in its situation.

The Rose Bowl, home to the Big Ten and Pac 12 since 1947, will feature teams from those two conferences as usual and have its traditionally New Year’s afternoon kickoff. But, as is the case with the Sugar Bowl, they’re likely getting second-bests.

“The Rose Bowl is going to look like the Rose Bowl always has,” said Scott Jenkins, chairman of the Rose Bowl management committee, the group which works with the two leagues to set bowl policy. “We’ll still have all of our pageantry and tradition, including the parade before the game.

“If our champions are in the playoffs, we’ll happily release them. But we’re not worried about teams being disappointed to be here.”

Last year, the Rose Bowl was the Oregon-Florida State semifinal. If not, it would have paired Arizona, which has never been in the game, against Michigan State, whose last appearance was in 1988. So Jenkins’ view is well-founded.

The Sugar Bowl, even before its new setup, didn’t have the Rose Bowl’s panache.

Playing for the national championship, not going to the Sugar Bowl has been the ultimate goal for SEC teams.

And the schools of the Big 12 have been over the year anchored to the Cotton, Fiesta and Orange bowls.

But by coming to New Orleans for two days of meetings they would normally have at league headquarters in Dallas (something the SEC has never done), the Big 12 has shown its desire to forge a strong bond with its new bowl partner.

Still, college football is ever changing. There already is pressure to expand the playoffs from four to eight teams. McCaw has predicted it will happen within five years, while Stricklin said Monday, “It was a lot of fun being in the conversation until late in the season last year. I’d like to double the number of fan bases that can be part of it.”

None of that is certain. But it’s already likely that if the Big 12 is shut out again, it will petition the NCAA to add a championship game in 2016 even though its membership is two short of the current qualifying mark.

That something Hoolahan said the Sugar Bowl will have to deal with if it happens.

“There are always going to be variables out of our control, he said. “But we know whatever happens, we’re going to have two high-quality teams from two outstanding leagues.

“And we certainly believe that most people want to come to New Orleans for a bowl experience.”

In the ever-changing world of college football these days, that’s about the best a bowl can hope for.