NEW ORLEANS — Bowl games began because schools with large fan bases were attractive to tourism-driven cities. Television got involved later and getting popular college football teams on the same field in early January became highly attractive.
Consider tonight’s Sugar Bowl meeting between No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2) and No. 3 Alabama (11-1) a throwback to what bowl games once where and likely will be again with the BCS era coming to a close next week.
These are classic programs with iconic coaches, legendary players and, above all else, championship histories spread through generations.
“I’ll cherish this moment for the rest of my life,” OU defensive lineman Chuka Ndulue said.
Just look back on the Sooners’ last four bowl opponents — Texas A&M, Iowa, Connecticut and Stanford. Any of the those teams scream college football tradition?
Compare them with the Crimson Tide and their 10 national championships since 1961, 62 bowl appearances and their recent status as the dominant power in college football and you see where the excitement comes from.
In the Sooners’ case playing in a BCS bowl against anyone would be a thrill. They seemed to be left for dead following an early November loss to Baylor that dropped them to 7-2. They closed by beating Iowa State, then Kansas State and Oklahoma State — as road underdogs — to get here.
This game is viewed as the opportunity to show OU still is one of the elite programs in college football and as a way to build momentum for the 2014 season.
“I embrace it. I appreciate it,” OU linebacker Eric Striker said. “I know we’re all happy to be here and we should take advantage of this opportunity. When I actually heard, I knew there was no other team I’d rather play than Alabama.”
The Crimson Tide’s motivation is the one in question. After all, it was hoping this would be the year it became college football’s first threepeat national champion.
But the loss to Auburn in the regular-season finale ended the national championship hopes and left it without a shot at the SEC title.
However, the thought of playing the Sooners — a program with seven national championships, five Heisman winners and a tradition that rivals Alabama’s is something to get excited about.
“I think it’s fantastic to be a part of something that has that kind of tradition, certainly makes it special to be a part of,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
For the Sooners at least, the esteem of the opponent has made this bowl trip — the program’s 15th straight and 47th overall — different than many others. Players have enjoyed their time in New Orleans, but the opportunity to play against the Crimson Tide was the biggest prize. Questions about mindset and preparation weren’t necessary.
“We know we have a big challenge, but very excited about the challenge,” OU coach Bob Stoops said. Our team is excited about the challenge of it. And we’ve worked hard to put ourselves in the position, hopefully, to win the game tomorrow.”
The ramifications of doing that would be a massive shot in the arm to OU. Seniors have talked about wanting to leave with the program heading on an upward track. Those returning see this as a chance to catapult the Sooners into the 2015 national championship discussions.
Big bowl games against perennial national title contenders create those scenarios. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.
Both OU and Alabama have done it many times in the past. That’s why they’re two of college football’s most acclaimed programs.
You don’t get games like this often. Both are savoring the opportunity.