In late 2012, the Allstate Sugar Bowl officially won the bid to serve as the “Champions Bowl” – a bowl game to highlights the champions of the Big 12 Conference and the Southeastern Conference; an equivalent bowl to the Rose Bowl, which hosts the champs of the Big Ten and the Pac-12.
Despite the Oklahoma-Alabama Sugar Bowl pairing following the 2013 season, the first official SEC-Big 12 tie-up in New Orleans wouldn’t happen until January 1, 2016, following the 2015 College Football Playoff Semifinal in the Sugar Bowl.
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby admitted that when two leagues put up what they called the “Champions Bowl” up for bid, there was some apprehension about staging the game inside the SEC footprint instead of his own conference, namely Dallas.
“We had to swallow hard,” he said the night of the first installment of the new format. “I’m sure the SEC would feel the same way if it were the other way around. But ultimately we found the right place for this type of game. It’s an absolute home run, and I think it’s a cinch to be successful every season.”
Sugar Bowl president Carey Wicker concurred, saying, “This is an historic night for us. Our organization has many great traditions, and we’re starting a new one tonight.”
While the agreement slated the leagues’ champions to meet in New Orleans, a caveat was that if either or both league’s champ earned a slot in the College Football Playoff, then a replacement team would represent that league in the Sugar Bowl.
“We know that most years one or both of our champions are going to be in the playoff,” Bowlsby said. “But we want this to be a big game no matter how it winds up.”
It wound up with an interesting match-up, sans either of the league champions. Oklahoma and Alabama were both in the playoff. Sixteenth-ranked Oklahoma State (10-2) was designated the Big 12 representative – the Cowboys had earned the second-place slot in the Big 12 after multiple tiebreakers gave them the edge over Baylor and TCU. The SEC, on the other hand, had designated the CFP Rankings to decide its representative and 12th-ranked Ole Miss (9-3) earned the honor.
It was just the third time in the 82-year history of the Sugar Bowl that neither team was ranked in the Top 10 going into the game. But it still had a lot of allure, and the pairing was like welcoming back old acquaintances. The Cowboys hadn’t played in the Sugar Bowl in 70 years. Oklahoma State had been a factor in the Big 12 race almost to the end – though they lost starting quarterback Mason Rudolph for the last month due to a foot injury; he would remain questionable for the Sugar Bowl right up to kickoff. Despite the injured quarterback, the Cowboys countered effectively with experienced run-first quarterback J.T. Walsh, a senior captain who had served as the team’s primary weapon in short yardage and red zone situations.
Ole Miss, once a Sugar Bowl mainstay, was making its first appearance in 46 years. In its halcyon days as a football power, the Rebels were a regular participant, playing in eight Sugar Bowls in a 16-year period. Only one other Rebel coach, Johnny Vaught, had brought a team to New Orleans, the last in 1970. Ten coaches had followed Vaught at Ole Miss, but Hugh Freeze became just the first of that group to guide the Rebels to the Sugar.
The Rebels were clearly a dangerous team, having tallied nine wins, including a victory over eventual SEC and national champion Alabama, but they had also lost three times – including 53-52 in double overtime to Arkansas on a fluky fourth-25 play that led to the Hogs’ winning touchdown. Without that one play, the Rebels would have been in Atlanta at the end of the regular season playing for the SEC championship in a rematch with Florida.
Instead, they were happy to be in New Orleans for the first time in nearly a half century with a stellar cast of characters such as quarterback Chad Kelly (the nephew of former NFL star Jim Kelly), receiver Laquon Threadwell, and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, considered one of the best linemen in college football.
“Growing up in these parts, hearing the stories of how the Ole Miss people feel about this bowl is just ‑‑ we’re really pumped about bringing our fans and our team to participate in the Allstate Sugar Bowl,” said Freeze. “It’s kind of a bucket list thing, if you’re a coach at Ole Miss, to bring a team to this bowl. Just really honored and excited about this opportunity.”
[Story by Sugar Bowl historian Marty Mulé, an award-winning sportswriter who covered college football and the Sugar Bowl for the New Orleans Times-Picayune for 33 years.]