It’s more than fitting that Alabama would be an entrant in the 80th Sugar Bowl, the last one in which the storied game resembles its old format — an attractive opponent paired against the Southeastern Conference champion or a contending stand-in picked by the people running the game.
From now on, the opponents will be the top Big 12 and SEC teams not in the four-team playoff.
Of course, this season’s Crimson Tide would rather be in the BCS final title game — and maybe it should be — but at least Bama is back at the venue where much of its postseason glory was forged. Not only will Bama be playing in its 14th Sugar Bowl, more than any other program and one more than the home-state LSU Tigers, but four of the six national championships claimed during Bear Bryant’s tenure were showcased in the Sugar Bowl.
Two of the most memorable games in the four-score history of the Sugar Bowl — and in the annals of college football — were played in the Sugar Bowl: the 1973 shootout with Notre Dame that wasn’t decided until the final ticks of the clock, and the 1979 slugfest with Penn State highlighted by a Tide goal-line stand, an image that has become the enduring picture of Sugar Bowl brilliance.
From the closing months of World War II — when Duke, with a roster filled with veterans just back from the jungles of the Pacific and the European battlefields — just nipped Frank Thomas’ young squad, Tide football has flourished in the Sugar. The Blue Devils, a Navy training program, played a Bama team that started the 1944 season with just one backfield regular as old as 18. When he was asked how his players felt going into a game that seemed weighted against them, Thomas replied, “They’re too young to know any different than they’re going to win. I’m not going to tell them any different.’’
Tailback Harry Gilmer had Duke on its heels throughout, going 8-for-8 passing until the last minute, when a Duke defender made an open field tackle of a Bama receiver seemingly headed for the end zone. That preserved a 29-26 Duke victory.
Aside from Bryant’s national titles, probably one of the most satisfying (yet disappointing) Sugar Bowls that Alabama ever played was the 1978 Clash of the Titans: the Bear vs. Ohio State legend Woody Hayes, a pairing of two of the winningest coaches in history. At the time, Bryant had 270 victories, Hayes 231. The outcome could have given Bryant yet another No. 1 banner.
At a time when Big Ten-SEC games were rare, the No. 3 Tide felt it had a shot at the national title with a convincing victory over the 9-2 Buckeyes, ranked eighth. But most of the pregame hype centered on the old lions prowling the sidelines.
“I don’t know why you people keep making such a big deal over Woody Hayes and Paul Bryant,” the Bear growled beforehand. “I can assure you I’m not going to play ... but I hope Woody does.’’
Hayes made a case for the vintage years.
“If you want a good contest or a good agreement,” he said, “you’d better get the grandfathers involved.’’
It turned out to be not such a good contest. Despite an astounding 10 fumbles, Alabama tore through the Buckeyes and won 35-6.
With that no-doubt victory, coupled with a Notre Dame upset of No. 1 Texas, Bryant thought the Tide could catapult to the top spot. Didn’t happen.
The fifth-ranked Irish vaulted over the Crimson Tide in the final vote. Frustrated Bama inched up — but only to No. 2, souring Bama’s sweet dreams.