Business or pleasure?
The football game being played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Monday is a curious hybrid, a reflection of college sports still trying to maintain tradition while dealing with modern realities.
The official name says it all: The College Football Playoff at the Allstate Sugar Bowl. A game with a huge payoff — the winner moves on to play for the national championship — is being played with the trappings of a rewards system that goes back more than a century.
There’s even CFP “oversight,” on a game the Sugar Bowl has been staging for 84 years, another sign of changing times.
The attitudes about just how much “the bowl experience” matters to Alabama and Clemson is reflected in the words of the players, who are pretty much parroting the differing attitudes of their coaches even though the Crimson Tide is in the CFP for the fourth straight year and it’s three straight for the Tigers.
“It can definitely be a huge distraction,” Alabama junior running back Damien Harris said of his team’s stay in New Orleans, which began Wednesday with its arrival at Louis Armstrong International Airport. “But this is a business trip for us.
“We’re not looking at what we can get into in New Orleans. We are focused on how we can defeat Clemson and blocking out the outside stuff.”
However, Clemson junior defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, whose team also arrived on Wednesday, while first declaring this a “business trip,” for the Tigers, also said he was looking forward to his first visit to the Crescent City.
“I’m definitely excited,” he said. “I didn’t grow up traveling much, so this is a different part of the country for me and a state I’ve never been to.
“We know when it’s time to grind, it’s time to grind, and we’ll put our best foot forward. But we’ve earned the right to be here, to enjoy ourselves and have a little fun as long as it’s not too much of a distraction that would get us worn out before the game or anything like that.”
To be sure, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he would caution his players about spending too much time on Bourbon Street before its first night in the city (the New Orleans Police Department annually does that for Sugar Bowl teams). But he also recalled two Sugar Bowl trips he made when he played at Alabama, how much fun he had and how he has a hankering for beignets.
“Probably 95 percent of our team has never been to New Orleans,” said Swinney, who acknowledged he’d been back only a handful of times himself since Jan. 1, 1993, when Bama upset Miami for its first post-Bear Bryant championship. “We’ve worked very hard to get here, and I want our guys to enjoy the journey, enjoy checking into the hotels, enjoy practicing and enjoy everything, because it can be our last week together.
“Obviously we want to win the game and earn one more bus ride. But you don’t have to be miserable to do that.”
Try telling that to Alabama coach Nick Saban.
The Crimson Tide’s first CFP semifinal was also in the Sugar Bowl after the 2014 season. And Saban, never one to let one of his team’s rare losses fail to become a learning experience, has since said he felt Bama’s 42-35 loss to Ohio State was due in part to his team’s embracing the bowl experience perhaps a little too much.
Alabama is 2-0 in the past two semifinals by a combined 62-7. But then again, so is Clemson by a combined 68-17.
Try pointing that out to Saban, who calls the semifinals “games with consequences.”
“I give our leadership on our team the opportunity to make the decisions about curfew, what they do and how they do it,” he said. “Each passing year they have been more serious about the game and less interested in the bowl experience.
“They understand the fun of it all is winning the game, and no matter what you do, you do not remember the things you did but whether you won or lost the game. I would love to see them rewarded for having a great season, but the two (a good experience and the game's outcome) do not fit together that well.”
Still, there are mandatory bowl obligations for both teams, such as news conferences with selected players and coaches Thursday and Friday at the media hotel and a full-fledged media day Saturday in the Superdome with all players and coaches made available (Saban does not allow media access for true freshmen or his assistant coaches, but even he can’t overrule CFP policy).
And the Sugar Bowl has entertainment for the teams’ first three nights in New Orleans.
Clemson took in Fulton Alley on Wednesday and Alabama was feted at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, although it has long been bowl policy those events are pretty much kept from public view. That’s a marked contrast to the Rose Bowl, which is hosting this year’s other semifinal between Georgia and Oklahoma.
Those outings also have bene frontloaded a bit this year. In the past, the teams’ first night has usually been left to them to explore the city.
“We’re accommodating the wishes of the teams and still providing them the bowl experience,” Sugar Bowl Chief Operating Officer Jeff Hundley said. “We know their mission here is to win a football game and advance to the championship.
“I think the whole concept is still being developed. But just because it’s a playoff game, you don’t want the best teams being robbed of a bowl experience just because they were good enough to get here.”
And regardless of their approaches, both Saban and Swinney went out of their way Wednesday to praise the Sugar Bowl for the hospitality it provides plus the rest of the work it does in producing a top-tier event in every way.
Perhaps Swinney put it best.
“This is what it’s all about,” he said. “It’ll be a great moment Monday night.”
Even if you’re Alabama and doing your best Grumpy Cat imitation until it’s over.