Flanagan: Someone tell me this Sugar Bowl won’t suck

This is a fan-opinion column.

The Sugar Bowl sucks. Well, it’s actually a college football institution boasting elite programs competing at a high level, and fans lucky enough to see their teams invited to New Orleans for one more big game should flock to any chance they get.

Alabama fans would love to say as much. To them, the Sugar Bowl, when all the marbles have already spilled off the table and the Crimson Tide can only play for pride, represents something grimmer than a wonderful (if pricy) way to ring in the New Year. And to those on the fence about driving down I-59 South ahead of Saturday morning’s kickoff against Kansas State, we understand the reluctance to re-live certain not-so-sweet moments from this otherwise luminous era.

It started in 2008, in Nick Saban’s second year as head coach, when undefeated and top-ranked Alabama appeared ahead of schedule as a championship contender before Tim Tebow and Florida crushed those dreams in the SEC title game and sent the Tide to the crummy consolation bowl. . At least it was the Sugar Bowl? Which fellow blue-blood would they play? Utah?! We’re disappointed, but at least Bama will dominate such an inferior opponent so unfit to share the dome turf with a team re-approaching a dynastic standard.

But then…the Utes whipped the Tide. Kyle Whittingham’s spread unit gave Bama defense fits for 60 minutes, as John Parker Wilson and the offense sputtered on their way to a shocking 31-17 loss. It sucked, for the fans who made the trip to New Orleans and for those staring into the abyss of their television screens, unsure how…Utah…could compete. How would they cope with this embarrassment? Uh, well, umm…letdown! Yeah, non-championship bowl letdown. Alabama had the national title within its grasp, and any team and fan base would mentally check out with those shattered hopes. (Nice saving…)

Alabama Coach Nick Saban leaves the field after the 31-17 loss to Utah in the Sugar Bowl at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Friday, Jan. 2, 2009. (Birmingham News/ Mark Almond)BN

The Tide recovered, winning the next year’s BCS Championship, Nick Saban’s first and Alabama’s 13th overall. They went undefeated and ushered in a new age of glory out of the show of Bear Bryant and the golden ages before it. And when they lost three games and then regrouped to dominate Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, the bowl narrative changed. Instead of any letdown, Alabama was an angry sleeping giant keen on taking out its frustration on whichever team stood in its path of destruction. And Alabama would only get better.

Undefeated heading into the 2013 Iron Bowl at Auburn, the Tide was hoping to win a third straight national championship. But then the Kick Six happened, dashing their BCS hopes and sending them back to New Orleans to face Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. It was 2008 all over again. But they learned from that awful experience. Saban would not allow a similar letdown, right? Fool me once and all…

Well, history repeated itself, and the Sooners sent Tide fans back to Café du Monde to cry into their beignets. Why? Why did this happen again, to the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide? They show out at bowl games. They’re the sleeping giants who unleash hell when a season dares to steal the national title from its rightful owner. But look, when you endure an event as sports-traumatic as the Kick Six and the hands of your hated rival and watch them squander the opportunity, how can you really get up for a meaningless bowl game with nothing on the line? That’s how you get to Alabama. Savor it, Utah and Oklahoma fans, but just know that your improbable wins meant nothing to Bama, and they haven’t thought about the losses at all in the last 15 years, definitely not when they hear the words “sugar” and “bowl ,” not necessarily at the same time. (Great save…)

Sugar Bowl Alabama Oklahoma

Alabama head coach Nick Saban can’t believe what is happening during the second quarter of the Alabama vs. Oklahoma Sugar Bowl NCAA football game Thursday, January 2, 2014, at the Superdome in New Orleans, La. (Vasha Hunt)AP

Tough way to end 2013, but 2014 would promise new hope, even with a first-year starting QB in Blake Sims and new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, both of whom helped set records throughout the season only to position Alabama as the top seed in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Their semifinal opponent: Urban Meyer’s Ohio State team that snuck into the top four with their backup quarterback Cardale Jones. The venue: The Sugar Bowl.

Oh no. Not again. Yep. Again.

This one hurt badly because of the stakes. Alabama and the SEC are all about bragging rights. The SEC is so much better than everyone else, especially other bluebloods like Ohio State, and when all that noise is out there, it backfires on the fans. Alabama looked like they would dominate this game. They went up 20-7 early, and it really felt almost like a done deal. But they maybe eased up off the gas pedal a bit, and new quarterback Cardale Jones settled in after some jitters, and Ezekiel Elliott ran all over the defense. It was an attack. Saban’s teams don’t go down without a fight, with Blake Sims and sophomore backup Derrick Henry’s late heroics before Ohio State snuffed out any momentum.

And it hurt even more than those Sugar Bowl losses to Utah or Oklahoma because this was the big stage. A shot at the national title was on the line. Ohio State beat them fair and square, and they could hold it over Alabama for the next seven years.

Laissez les bon temps rouler? We think not. Find us sulking in the French Quarter. Gone are the days of the goal-line stand in 1979. Forget about George Teague running down and stripping Lamar Thomas. Sugar Bowl glory cast a shadow that loomed over the modern era. And we ran out of excuses several streetcar stops ago.

Alabama Sugar Bowl Ohio State

Alabama defensive back Marlon Humphrey (29) looks into the distance as the game gets away from Alabama late in the 4th quarter during Alabama’s 2015 Sugar Bowl and college football playoff semifinal game with Ohio State, Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015, at the Superdome in New Orleans. (Vasha Hunt)AP

Three long years and just one national title win later, Alabama wound up back in New Orleans. They’d hope to avoid a four-game losing streak in the Sugar Bowl against Clemson in a rematch from last season’s CFP final. NOLA was more like a tundra with freezing temperatures and winds. It felt like we saw fewer Bama fans than usual crossing Canal Street and moping their way to parades, pep rallies and po’boys before the semifinal matchup.

But Bama’s defense dominated the Tigers to give them a 24-6 victory en route to the legendary walk-off finale against Georgia. (Note: Saban’s 2011 team also won a national title in the Superdome, but it technically wasn’t a Sugar Bowl game.)

Did they break the curse? Was it even a curse to begin with, or did Alabama just lose those games fair and square, minus any made-up, face-saving letdown?

Here we are in 2022, at the dawn of a New Year and a new season, but not before the Tide play in another Sugar Bowl, their 17th overall, this time against scrappy Big 12 champions Kansas State. With a 1-3 record in this game, Saban insists the bowl prep has felt good.

“This has been the most enjoyable [non-playoff] bowl practice experience we have ever had — I’ve ever had,” Saban said during his Sugar Bowl preview radio show, suggesting the departures of “energy vampires” have boosted overall morale heading into the game set for New Year’s Eve.

Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, have some perspective. Alabama will play for a record 46th bowl victory in one of the greatest cities on Earth. The players are their own worst critics, and they deserve a reward for delivering Alabama’s 36th 10-win season (15th in a row). If you have the privilege of attending in person (you can still get tickets for as low as $20), soak in that experience. Eat New Orleans food. Stroll through Jackson Square. Watch fireworks boom above the Mississippi River as you wipe the slate clean and start anew.

The Sugar Bowl rules. Enjoy it while you can. Bon année!

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