The Allstate Sugar Bowl may be New Orleans' premier college football bowl game, but once every four years it plays dress rehearsal for the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) National Championship game. This is one of those years, and some sports fans have argued that the talent pool for the Sugar Bowl this year is diluted.
The Jan. 3, 2012 contest between the No. 11 Virginia Tech Hokies and the No. 13 University of Michigan Wolverines isn't the sexiest matchup the BCS could have delivered to New Orleans, and it's precisely this matchup that has caused the biggest stir among BCS critics who bemoan that teams like Baylor University (with Heisman-winning Robert Griffin III), Boise State (which finished ahead of both Michigan and Virginia Tech in the polls) or Michigan State (which finished ahead of Michigan in the Big 10) aren't getting a chance in a major bowl. While the machinations of the BCS could drive any football fan crazy, there's no chance the current system will change in the immediate future.
Michigan and Virginia Tech were selected because their fans usually travel well, and Sugar Bowl organizers felt it was the best way to sell tickets to a game that will be overshadowed by the BCS Championship game a week later. Since it's played in the Superdome, there are plenty of tickets to sell.
The Sugar Bowl still has the potential to be one of the more exciting matchups in college football, however. Both teams sport defenses ranked in the top 20 of college football, and both have dynamic playmakers on both sides of the ball. Here are five reasons to not overlook this year's Sugar Bowl:
1. Denard Robinson — The 6-foot junior quarterback for Michigan is the most dynamic player on both sides of the ball. He burst onto the scene last year when he threw for more than 2,500 yards and ran for more than 1,700 yards — though those numbers weren't enough to keep Michigan from finishing 7-6 — all while being pictured in a full Heisman Trophy pose during a game against Notre Dame where he amassed 502 total yards.
Robinson, who also garnered attention for how he doesn't tie his shoes, followed last year's performance with slightly reduced numbers — just over 2,000 yards passing and 1,100 yards rushing — but managed to lead his team to 10 wins. Despite the slight drop in stats, Robinson remains one of the most dangerous dual threats in college football. He's got large hands to control the football on pump fakes and elite speed to blow past defenders when he decides to tuck and run.
As dynamic as he can be, however, Robinson is prone to turnovers. He threw interceptions in all but three games this season and lost a key fumble in a loss to Iowa in mid-November. But while Michigan fans probably pulll at their hair every time Robinson has the ball, neutral observers will be comforted knowing that more often than not, something exciting is about to happen.
2. Fitzgerald Toussaint —Michigan's red-shirt sophomore running back isn't related to New Orleans-born composer Allen Toussaint. But that's no reason for locals to ignore him. Toussaint, who was hampered by injuries last year, is the primary reason Robinson hasn't piled up gaudy rushing stats for the second consecutive year.
Toussaint started out slow this year, but rushed for 120 or more yards in four of his last five games, including a career-best 192 yards rushing against Illinois on Nov. 12. Not bad for a player who wasn't even the first-string running back at the start of the season because of knee and shoulder injuries. The biggest threat Toussaint poses is in his complementary role to Robinson in Michigan's option offense. Whereas last year Robinson had to carry the load pretty much by himself, Toussaint provides a credible and dangerous option, and also is a threat in the traditional running game. It's not surprising, then, that the Robinson-Toussaint combo is the first pair of Michigan players in more than three decades to amass more than 1,000 yards rushing in a season.
3. Tariq Edwards — The Hokies will have their hands full trying to contain the Michigan running attack, but luckily for Virginia Tech, it has one of the best sophomore linebackers in the country in Tariq Edwards.
Although Virginia Tech's defense is among the best in the country, it was humiliated during a 38-10 loss to Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Championship game. In that contest, the Hokies gave up 217 rushing yards, not a good way to end the regular season before facing off against two 1,000-yard rushers. This kind of performance has been more the rule than the exception for the Hokies. The Virginia Tech defense gave up an average of 188 rushing yards per game, hardly the numbers you'd expect from a BCS Bowl team. Look more closely, though, and you'll see Virginia Tech is a classic bend-but-don't-break defense that gives up big numbers in yards but has only allowed 17 points per game this season (good for eighth in the country).
For Edwards & Co., the chances of keeping Robinson and Toussaint from running wild are not as important as making sure they're tackled before reaching the end zone. With his speed and strength, expect Edwards to run down Wolverines all game long.
4. Virginia Tech's fans (or lack thereof) — As mentioned earlier, the Sugar Bowl selected Virginia Tech and Michigan over higher-ranked schools because of their traveling fan bases. But while Michigan has had no problem selling its allotment of tickets, Virginia Tech officials have had to make public appeals to fans urging them to come to New Orleans to support their team. With less than two weeks left until the game, Virginia Tech officials have said they'll give unsold tickets to local charities.
The number of Virginia Tech tickets sold (or not sold) has become one of the more compelling storylines of the Sugar Bowl. After all, if the Sugar Bowl committee selected the Hokies because their fans travel in big numbers, what does it say about the fans who don't show up? It could lend credence to the argument that a team like Baylor or Boise State was more deserving of a selection. With mid-major schools like Utah and Cincinnati managing to bring fans out in droves in years past, who's to say Baylor and Boise State fans wouldn't have migrated en masse to see their teams play in a major bowl game?
5. BCS Repercussions — For fans of college football, divisive games like this year's Sugar Bowl only add to the growing drumbeat against the structure of the sport, the BCS and the NCAA. While the bowl season provided some of the most compelling and exciting games in college football history, much of it often is lost in the flood of bowl games that stretch from mid-December to early January.
That makes the outcome of the Sugar Bowl that much more important. If the game is a boring defensive struggle or a lopsided win for either team, it won't help the status quo at a time when many people are pushing for changes in the current system. A close, exciting, back-and-forth game also won't exonerate the BCS system, but it will give the Sugar Bowl committee something to hang its hat on when people say it doesn't know how to pick good teams. Unfortunately for the status quo, recent trends haven't been favorable for the Sugar Bowl: Four of the last six games have been blowouts.