Sugar Bowl offers glimpse of future SEC-Big 12 rivalry

This could be the start of something big.

Well, the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12 Conference are already pretty big, but they’re about to embark on a future that will strengthen their ties.

Under an agreement that kicks in next season, the highest available teams from the SEC and the Big 12 will meet in the Sugar Bowl every year except when the bowl is a designated host of one of the NCAA playoff semifinals. Because 2014 is one of those exceptions, an SEC-Big 12 matchup isn’t guaranteed until the following year.

But thanks to the way the bowl matchups have shaken out this year, the enhanced SEC-Big 12 rivalry gets a head start as Alabama and Oklahoma meet in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

And thanks to Sooners coach Bob Stoops, this meeting has a little spice added to it.

Last spring, Stoops, while acknowledging the SEC’s superiority in winning the last seven BCS championships, questioned the overall strength of the league from top to bottom.

“Listen, they’ve had the best team in college football, meaning they’ve won the national championship,” he said. “That doesn’t mean everything else is always the best.”

Stoops cited “a lot of propaganda that gets fed out to you” in acknowledging the strength of “the top two, three, four, five, six teams” while overlooking “the bottom six, seven, eight, whatever they are.”

In other words, the justifiable attention paid to the strength of most of the SEC teams can deflect attention from the fact that the bottom of the league is a lot like the bottom of other leagues.

Still, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said: “People who don’t play in our league don’t realize how tough it is.”

Stoops’ comments inevitably invited comparsisons between the leagues, especially with his team facing a Bama program that has won three BCS titles in four years, in one of the marquee bowls.

Of course, any comparison of these conferences from top to bottom isn’t comparing apples and apples.

The SEC has 14 teams and the Big 12, despite its name, has just 10, thanks in part to Texas A&M and Missouri deciding the grass was greener on the other side and bolting to the SEC two years ago.

Stoops’ comments were made in the wake of the 2012 bowl season in which the Big 12 sent nine of its 10 teams to bowl games and the SEC sent nine of its 14.

The SEC’s bowl record was 6-3 and the Big 12’s was 4-5 — including a victory by Texas A&M, which tied for second in the SEC West, against Big 12 co-champion Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl in the only SEC-Big 12 matchup.

The other Big 12 co-champ, Kansas State, lost to Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl.

This year is different. The SEC has as many teams in bowl games as the Big 12 has teams. The bottom four teams in each league — TCU, West Virginia, Iowa State and Kansas in the Big 12 and Tennessee, Florida, Arkansas and Kentucky in the SEC — failed to win the requisite six games to be bowl-eligible.

In addition to the Sugar Bowl, the Cotton Bowl also has an SEC-Big 12 matchup as Missouri, which lost to Auburn in the SEC title game, plays Oklahoma State, which tied the Sooners for second in the Big 12.

The Big 12 has no say in whether the SEC’s streak of BCS titles reaches eight because Atlantic Coast Conference champion Florida State is paired against Auburn in the title game.

But the two Oklahoma schools will have opportunities to make on-the-field statements about the two leagues, though Stoops downplayed it.

“There’s always a lot of talk because there has to be, because newspapers have to be filled and air time has to be filled,” Stoops. “You have to talk about something, but we don’t concern ourselves with it.”

The Big 12 had three shots against SEC teams in BCS title games and came up short each time as LSU (2003) and Florida (2008) beat Stoops’ Sooners and Alabama beat Texas in 2009.

Stoops, who coached Oklahoma to a BCS title-game victory against Florida State in 2000, also lost to USC in 2004.

“I think there’s probably a lot of animosity out there because of the success we have in our league, but I think that kind of goes with the territory,” Saban said in response to Stoops comments. “I understand that. But we certainly respect the great program they have at Oklahoma and the other good programs they have in the Big 12.”

When the Alabama-Oklahoma game was set, Stoops played coy when first asked about his offseason comments.

“What comments?” Stoops asked.

He was reminded of his remark about people not paying enough attention to the bottom half of the SEC.

“I’m not playing the bottom half,” Stoops said. “If the SEC is Alabama, there is nothing to talk about, right? If you want to say the SEC is Alabama, then sure. They’re the ones that have won all the national championships, or most of them.

“Now, if you want to play in the bottom half, that’s a different story. But we’re not playing the bottom half, are we? So there’s not a lot to talk about, is there?”

Well, actually, there is.

When the four-team playoff begins next season, overall strengths of conferences as well as the postseason success of their elite teams will help form opinions that will factor into the selection process.

So this Sugar Bowl ushers in a new SEC-Big 12 rivalry.