The Sugar Bowl has always been the crown jewel of southern football. Held annually in New Orleans since Jan. 1, 1935, the game has a long affiliation with the Southeastern Conference and teams in the South in general. Only twice - for the 1945 and '72 seasons - did the game not feature at least one team from the states in the old Confederacy. And this year marks only the sixth time since World War II that no team from the SEC will appear in the game.
Being the biggest game in the South also has its baggages. The Sugar Bowl was the last major bowl to integrate, not having a single black player participating until Jan. 2, 1956, a month after Rosa Parks made her famous stand that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In contrast, the Rose Bowl had an African-American player in just its second game, on Jan. 1, 1916.
Bobby Grier's appearance for Pittsburgh - against Georgia Tech - proved contentious, as Georgia governor Marvin Griffin lobbied the Yellow Jackets not to face the Panthers. Though the game did take place over the objections of many, southern football would not fully integrate until the late 1960s.
The Sugar Bowl gained a measure of eminence in the early 1970s, partly from shedding its segregationist past and partly from the move to the state-of-the-art Louisiana Superdome in the 1975 season. It was also at this time that the bowl formally cemented its ties with the SEC, with the conference champion guaranteed an annual berth in the game.
That bond was unbroken until the advent of the Bowl Alliance - precursor to the BCS - when SEC champion Florida was shipped to the Fiesta Bowl to face Nebraska in 1995. The following year the Sugar Bowl would host its first Bowl Alliance title game - but it turned out to be a rematch, with Florida avenging an earlier loss to Florida State to win the national championship.
Sound familiar? This year, the Sugar Bowl will be missing an SEC team for the first time since the 1999 season. It will also host the first BCS title game that features two teams that already met during the regular season.
While the SEC has dominated the BCS championship games, having won the last five in a row and seven overall, its Sugar Bowl record in the BCS era is rather mixed, with a 7-4 record and having split the last six. The most surprising of those losses was after the 2008 season, when fourth-ranked Alabama was drubbed by non-BCS qualifier Utah, falling behind 21-0 early en route to a 31-17 loss.
Here's a quick look at the Sugar Bowl in the BCS era:
Best Game: In Rich Rodriguez's finest hour as coach, West Virginia, a double-digit underdog to Georgia, pulled off a 38-35 shocker in the Georgia Dome. The 2006 game was moved to Atlanta because the Superdome was under repairs after it was pounded by Hurricane Katrina. So the seventh-ranked Bulldogs really had additional home-field advantage. But the Mountaineers jumped out to a 28-0 lead and tried to hang on for dear life as Georgia mounted a ferocious comeback in the second half. Holding on to a three-point lead with 1:26 remaining, RichRod called a daring fake punt on fourth-and-6 at midfield, with punter Phil Brady running for 10 yards to seal the victory.
Worst Game: In the 2008 game, Hawaii arrived as the only undefeated team in Division I-A, yet almost no one gave the Warriors a chance against Georgia. And the result proved all the skeptics right, as the Bulldogs romped to an easy 41-10 victory in a game that wasn't even that close. Hawaii's offensive line had no answer for the Georgia pass rush, as quarterback Colt Brennan was sacked eight times, threw three interceptions, fumbled twice and had a career-low of 169 yards passing. It was also the only loss by a non-AQ team to an AQ opponent in a BCS bowl.
Best Performance: Tim Tebow was not a happy camper coming into the 2010 Sugar Bowl. His Florida Gators lost a chance to repeat as national champions after losing the SEC title game to Alabama. His coach Urban Meyer decided to resign for health reasons, then changed his mind to take an indefinitely leave instead. So Tebow took it out on the hapless Cincinnati Bearcats, whose own coach Brian Kelly already bolted for Notre Dame and skipped this game. In his final game as a collegian, Tebow completed 31 of 35 passes for a BCS record of 482 yards and also ran for 51 more. He had three touchdowns passing and added another running. His 533 total yards might last forever as the BCS record.
Biggest Controversy: The game for the 2003 BCS title turned out to produce not a consensus national champion, but a giant headache for the BCS. Ranked No. 1 in both the AP and coaches polls, USC was excluded from the title game when Hawaii and Notre Dame lost on the final day of the season. Instead, LSU faced Oklahoma, a team that was routed in the Big 12 title game by Kansas State, 35-7, yet stayed No. 1 in all the computer rankings. LSU would win the Sugar Bowl in an ugly 21-14 affair and was guaranteed the title in the coaches poll per BCS rules. But USC was the runaway choice for No. 1 in the AP poll, resulting in the first (and so far, only) split national championship in the BCS era. The BCS standings underwent a drastic makeover after the season, with the formula unaltered ever since.
Prediction for the 2012 Game: Almost everyone denounced the selection of Virginia Tech for this game, forgetting that it's actually ranked higher (11th) than Michigan (13th) in the final BCS standings. But the critics do have a point: the Hokies have beaten nobody this season and in their two biggest games - both against Clemson - they were walloped by a combined score of 61-13. Michigan, in contrast, has faced nine bowl teams and beaten seven. Virginia Tech will play with a chip on its shoulder, though that added weight won't help to contain Denard Robinson. Michigan should win going away, 35-17.