Rabalais: Outback Bowl better than you think

A few thoughts on LSU’s upcoming New Year’s Day trip to the Outback Bowl …

Some folks are lukewarm about LSU going to the Outback to play Iowa. Just remember bowl opponents are like relatives: you don’t get to pick them. There’s no doubt playing Nebraska or Michigan would have been a sexier opponent for many Tiger fans.

What those fans should be thinking about more is the destination. Tampa, Fla., a city that has hosted four Super Bowls, is a great place to visit for a postseason game. Having just been to Raymond James Stadium in September for the Saints-Buccaneers game, it’s a nice venue (how many stadium’s have a pirate ship in the end zone? About one).

So go to Tampa, have a cigar and a Cuban sandwich in Ybor City or Channelside, bring your trunks and offer some sunscreen to what no doubt will be some shockingly pale-looking folks from Des Moines and Iowa City and Council Bluffs. Chances are you’ll end up looking at each other like an animal exhibit at Busch Gardens.

LSU was disappointed to go to the Chick-fil-A Bowl last year and rightly so. At 10-2, the Tigers should have been in the Cotton or Outback, but circumstances intervened. Nothing against the Chick-fil-A or the highly ranked matchup with Clemson, but it was the sense that LSU got disrespected.

That’s not the case this year. At 9-3, LSU got pretty much what it deserved. In fact, there are strong indications that the Outback Bowl was enamored with Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel. But some serious lobbying by LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva and a fair amount of influence exerted by Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive made the Outback see the light, to wit, it would have been poor form for the Outback to invite an 8-4 A&M team that lost to 9-3 LSU and 11-2 Missouri.

The last time LSU went to the Outback Bowl was the 1988 season, so long ago I was in college (a couple of my bones just creaked at the thought) and the game was known as the Hall of Fame Bowl. As a result, some are touting this year’s appearance as a once in a lifetime or once in a long time prospect for LSU.

That almost certainly isn’t the case. While I wouldn’t bet on LSU making a second straight trip to the Outback next season, the Tigers will likely be heading back to Tampa in the near future.

Here’s why: With the start of the College Football Playoff next season, the SEC is losing two of its bowls to that six-bowl conglomeration: the Chick-fil-A and Cotton.

After the teams are placed in the two CFP semifinals in the Sugar and Rose bowls, the CFP selection committee will put eight other teams in the Orange, Fiesta, Cotton and Chick-fil-A.

The Capital One will then get first pick of whatever SEC teams are left. After that, the SEC will assign teams to six bowls: the Outback, Gator, Music City, Liberty, Houston and Belk (Charlotte, N.C.). The latter two are joining the SEC bowl list next season.

Unlike the outgoing arrangement when the Cotton had right of first refusal for a team from the SEC West and the Outback had right of first refusal for teams from the East (though that didn’t happen this season), those distinctions will cease to exist next season. So it’s easy to see LSU returning to the Outback relatively soon.

LSU is more than a touchdown favorite (I’ve seen about 8.5 points), but it’s a shaky advantage considering the Tigers will have to rely on true freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings. The Tigers will have to be highly motivated to play well, more motivated than some of their fans are about the game.

Iowa isn’t flashy. It’s a steady, solid program, one that is making its 25th bowl appearance since 1981 (by comparision, LSU is making its 23rd).

Another comparison: since 1979, Iowa has had two coaches: Hayden Fry from 1979-98 and Kirk Ferentz since 1999. Since 1979 — even leaving out Bo Rein, who didn’t coach a game before dying in a 1980 plane crash, and Hal Hunter, who was interim coach for one game in 1999 — LSU has had eight.

What’s more important to the future of LSU football: winning the Outback Bowl or sweeping the recruits considering LSU who will announce their commitments a day later at the Under Armour All-American Game in St. Petersburg?

While securing a 10-win season is huge, I would argue the latter. Getting Leonard Fournette and “Speedy” Noil and company to say “LSU” on ESPN will be more critical for the long term.