Sugar Bowl is sweet on the future

Michigan players celebrate after beataing Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3, 2012, in New Orleans. (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)
Michigan players celebrate after beataing Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3, 2012, in New Orleans. (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

It’s been so long that Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan doesn’t remember the last time fans of the Southeastern Conference Championship Game’s winning team showered the Georgia Dome field with sugar cubes.

At least 2005.

For the past seven years, the SEC champion instead advanced to the BCS Championship Game. And even though two of those games were played in New Orleans under the auspices of the Sugar Bowl, the bowl itself has had to endure a long stretch of relative irrelevance.

“It’s become a pattern we’ve become accustomed to,” Hoolahan said. “It speaks to the quality of the league we’re affiliated with, so we’ve learned to deal with it.”

But things are changing. As part of its agreement with the SEC and Big 12 that the Sugar Bowl completed late last year and which starts with the 2014 season, the bowl will host four playoff semifinals in the next 12 years.

All 12 games — the four semifinals and eight “regular” Sugar Bowls — will be played in prime time on New Year’s Day following the Rose Bowl. And indications are the first of those semifinals will come in the format’s debut season, teaming the Sugar with the Rose Bowl to give it a powerful New Year’s Day doubleheader.

That likely means the 2014 SEC champion will know its next game will be in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, so fans of both teams should come prepared.

“That would be a nice impact,” BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock said of the Rose/Sugar pairing. “We haven’t finalized anything yet, but I’d say there’s a very good chance of that happening.”

In the years when the Sugar Bowl isn’t a semifinal, it will pair the highest-ranked SEC and Big 12 teams not in the playoffs, although it’s unlikely to ever be a champion-vs.-champion game. In the 15-year history of the BCS, there has never been a season in which the Big 12 and SEC winners both finished outside the top four in the BCS standings, and it’s unusual when even one hasn’t. While Big 12 champion Kansas State was fifth this season, the most recent SEC champion outside the top four was No. 7 Georgia in 2005; LSU, which the Bulldogs beat in the SEC title game, came into that matchup at No. 4.

A selection committee will replace the current rankings formula in 2014, but few substantial differences are expected, and the SEC’s run of dominance isn’t likely to abate.

“It’s not that we don’t want our champion to be in the Sugar Bowl,” said SEC Executive Associate Commissioner Mark Womack, who handled the bidding process that led to the new-look Sugar. “We feel that both leagues are deep enough that every year there’s going to be quality teams who bring market value for our game to hold its own with any other.”

That’s the intent for the “new” Sugar Bowl, which the leagues are hoping will build to a prestige level matching the Rose Bowl. ESPN certainly thinks it can happen: It’s paying an estimated $80 million annually for broadcast rights, putting it on the same financial plane as the Rose Bowl.

“The Rose Bowl has a 100-year head-start on us, so we’ve got a little catching up to do,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “But we’ve got a marquee matchup between two of the best conferences who are in a long-term relationship with the Sugar Bowl. That’s going to create come terrific football games.”

If history holds, that’s likely so. Using the BCS standings as a guide for a mock playoff under the future format, the only non-top-10 team in the “new” Sugar Bowl since 2006 would have been No. 15 Georgia in 2008. And that was because Alabama and Florida would have been in the playoffs that season.

Certainly there appears little chance of a team as low in the BCS standings as No. 21 Louisville making the game — nor a situation like last year, when neither Virginia Tech (11th) nor Michigan (13th) were in the top 10 while No. 6 Arkansas and No. 9 South Carolina were ineligible because LSU and Alabama had claimed the SEC’s BCS berths. (The Sugar Bowl did bypass No. 7 Boise State and No. 8 Kansas State.)

Also, the Sugar Bowl no longer will wind up with teams from outside the five power conferences, such as Hawaii in 2008 and Utah in 2009. That could have been the case if the Sugar Bowl had lost out to the Cotton Bowl for the Big 12/SEC showdown and wound up being one of the “host” bowls. Those games will feature two at-large teams picked and placed by the selection committee, whose makeup should be determined in the spring.

“It’s the difference (between) getting the blue-plate special and hoping it’s good or ordering prime rib,” Hoolahan said. “And when you’ve got the lead-in from the Rose Bowl, that’s as good as it gets.”

Still, there are concerns that the playoffs will overshadow what are now called the BCS bowls. (Changing the name is on the agenda.) Under the current format, the four BCS bowls have exclusive broadcast windows and are separated from the championship game by a week or so.

Now, in the non-Rose/Sugar semifinal years, the semifinals (likely pairing the Orange and Fiesta bowl winners and the Cotton and Chick-fil-A victors) will be played on New Year’s Eve, leaving the New Year’s Day games, including the Sugar, somewhat anticlimactic.

Hancock has a different opinion.

“We believe we’re going to change the nature of New Year’s Eve by elevating the status of the bowls played that day,” he said. “And our historical model is that the other bowls played that day and the next won’t be affected by either attendance or the ratings.”

Perhaps, but ticket sales have lagged for the past two Sugar Bowls, and the Orange Bowl is in a long fallow period. Sugar Bowl president Jack Laborde said he felt that was mainly a result of lackluster pairings, which should not happen under the new format.

“Some of these things just have to play themselves out,” he said. “We might be overestimating the crowds for the playoff games and will have to work on selling tickets there. But we were very committed to getting this because it was the best way for the Sugar Bowl to maintain its identity.

“I still love the spot we’re in.”