East: Empty seats mar decent Sugar Bowl

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER McCLELLANDLouisville Cardinals fans react to a touchdown against the Florida Gators during first half action of the Allstate Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on Wednesday.
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER McCLELLANDLouisville Cardinals fans react to a touchdown against the Florida Gators during first half action of the Allstate Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on Wednesday.

By LES EAST

Advocate sportswriter

NEW ORLEANS — The Allstate Sugar Bowl on Wednesday night had some notable storylines.

There was pumped-up Louisville staging the biggest upset in the history of this storied game.

There was Cardinals sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater introducing himself as a potential future Heisman Trophy candidate to presumably the largest television audience that has seen him this season.

There was a third upset loss by a Southeastern Conference team in 48 hours — following LSU’s loss to Clemson and Mississippi State’s loss to Northwestern — demonstrating that as good as the SEC is, there are people playing pretty good football elsewhere.

But the 800-pound gorilla in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome came in the form of lots and lots of empty seats.

The stat sheet listed an attendance of 54,178, but the eyes could see this was the smallest crowd to see a Sugar Bowl in this building that has housed 37 of them.

In fact this was the smallest crowd to attend a Sugar Bowl since 1939 when 44,308 fans showed up at Tulane Stadium to watch Davey O’Brien lead TCU against something called Carnegie Tech.

This game will be long remembered by Louisville, which might be headed back to national prominence, and Florida, which might be a little farther from rejoining the SEC elite than it thought after an 11-1 regular season.

But this game needs to be remembered by the folks running the BCS as well.

When they finalize the details of a new postseason playoff system for the 2014 season, they should look at this Sugar Bowl as Exhibit A in favor of the free market.

This match-up wasn’t going to draw a big crowd, and if the Sugar Bowl could have, it wouldn’t have picked either one of these teams.

No offense to the Gators, who might have had the nation’s best résumé after the two teams playing in the BCS Championship — Notre Dame and Alabama. And no offense to the Cardinals, who showed they were worthy of competing in a bowl game of this stature.

But Florida was in the Sugar Bowl because its ranking guaranteed it a spot in a BCS bowl. Louisville was in the Sugar because as champion of its conference — the rapidly disintegrating Big East — it was guaranteed a BCS spot as well.

When Midwestern Athletic Conference champion Northern Illinois climbed to No. 15 in the BCS rankings, it was guaranteed yet another BCS spot, bumping Louisville from the Orange Bowl to the Sugar.

Florida historically does not travel well when it’s not playing for a national title.

Louisville’s fan base had Florida’s beat easily here, but is is relatively small by BCS participant standards and it too contributed to the embarrassing turnout.

If not for the BCS’ automatic qualifications — and its limit of two BCS teams from one conference — the Sugar Bowl would have had a much more attractive pairing from among Georgia, LSU and Oklahoma.

And with it, a crowd worthy of this bowl.