Before the 1978 Sugar Bowl, Bear Bryant had Woody Hayes try on his houndstooth hat (above). Nick Saban doesn’t wear houndstooth hats, and Urban Meyer doesn’t wear a white button-down shirt with a red tie and black pants. Yet, when Ohio State and Alabama meet on New Year’s Night in New Orleans, they’ll recall the meeting of two of the most famous coaches in college football history. In the spirit of remembrance, we offer the 15 most significant Sugar Bowls ever played.
15 – 1943: TENNESSEE 14, TULSA 7
This Sugar Bowl is significant because Boston College wasn’t in it. The 1942 Golden Eagles were about to be given an invitation to the 1943 game against Tulsa, but when they lost to Holy Cross, that invite was withdrawn. The Boston College team’s planned celebration at the Cocoanut Grove was cancelled.
On that November night in 1942, the Cocoanut Grove Fire killed 500 people in Boston. The Boston College team could have been part of the casualty list. Instead, those young men lived on. The Golden Eagles didn’t get a Sugar Bowl bid. They received something much more precious, while Tennessee faced Tulsa.
14 – 1951: KENTUCKY 13, OKLAHOMA 7
Kentucky’s football team beat the No. 1 squad in the country to finish a season 11-1. Yes, this happened. The Wildcats must have had a really great coach, someone really special.
Does Bear Bryant fit the bill?
The Bear won the first of his eight Sugar Bowls in 1951. He’d go on to have a remotely decent and halfway tolerable career.
13 – 1971: TENNESSEE 34, AIR FORCE 13
This is an unremarkable game, one that doesn’t jump off the page when the story of the Sugar Bowl is reviewed. Yet, there’s a simple detail which makes this an historically significant game: This is the last time a service academy team played in one of the four original New Year’s Day bowls (Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton). Navy had its run in the 1960s and a part of the ’50s. Army was a goliath in the 1940s. Air Force, though, put together a Sugar Bowl season in 1970, and that was the last gasp for the academies on the biggest postseason stages in college football.
12 – 2013: LOUISVILLE 33, FLORIDA 23
The significance of this game is found in… its insignificance as far as fans were concerned. Under 55,000 people made their way into the Superdome for this game, the worst bowl crowd of the 16-season BCS era and a searing indictment of how hollow the non-championship BCS bowls became from 1998 through 2013. What used to be a point of profound pride at an SEC program — worth the throwing of sugar cubes onto the field once a league title was clinched — is now viewed as a consolation prize or (worse) an exhibition. The 2013 Sugar Bowl reflected this impoverished reality more than any other.
11 – 2011: OHIO STATE 31, ARKANSAS 26
The significance of this game is that it even happened in the first place. The matchup was hastily created with television in mind, even though Ohio State was immersed in a controversy regarding the acceptance of impermissible benefits by players in exchange for memorabilia. Yes, these NCAA rules are full of something that rhymes with spit, but it’s clear that Ohio State’s leaders and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany were more concerned with a TV ratings magnet than with making sure proper procedures were followed.
Ohio State eventually vacated the win over Arkansas, but as is always the case with vacated or stripped wins, such a punishment does absolutely nothing to take away the awareness and knowledge of the fact that before a roaring crowd, one team got to experience the thrill of victory. That team was Ohio State. Vacating the win doesn’t change that reality. The 2011 Sugar Bowl — or more precisely, what led up to it — offered an expansive commentary on modern college sports… none of it good. After all, when Bobby Petrino is the coach of the program with the ethical high ground in a given game…
10 – 2009: UTAH 31, ALABAMA 17
Point-blank, the Utes used this dominant performance against a flustered and frustrated Nick Saban to leverage an invitation to the Pac-12 Conference a few years later. That’s quite significant. The moment might be a little bittersweet for Utah fans, however: Coach Kyle Whittingham has not created a moment which can even remotely compare to this one over the past six seasons in Salt Lake City.
Nevertheless, while Boise State and TCU won BCS bowls for the little guys in college football, Utah joined that chorus and helped affirm for national fans that the Mountain West and the WAC could play ball with the big boys.
9 – 1960: OLE MISS 21, LSU 0
From 1958 through 1963, Johnny Vaught ruled the SEC even more forcefully than Bear Bryant did at Alabama. Ole Miss won the Sugar Bowl four times in six seasons, twice as the No. 2 team in the nation. This was one of those two occasions, and unlike the 1961 game against unranked Rice, this triumph came against No. 3 LSU. It was and is the finest hour for one of the SEC’s immortal coaches… and one of the best prolonged stretches of excellence in league history (especially for any non-Alabama program; Florida in the 1990s comes close).
8 – 2000: FLORIDA STATE 46, VIRGINIA TECH 29
The 1993 national title Bobby Bowden won at Florida State was shrouded in the unavoidable controversy created by the simple fact that Notre Dame beat the Seminoles head-to-head. Therefore, it is historically significant that Bowden won an undisputed, no-doubt title in the 1999 season, powered by Peter Warrick in a thrilling win over Michael Vick and Virginia Tech.
Full game here:
7 – 1977: PITTSBURGH 27, GEORGIA 3
Not just anyone wins Sugar Bowls at two different schools, but Johnny Majors did. Before winning the 1986 game with Tennessee over Miami, Majors guided Pitt to the 1976 national title. He had a fellow named Tony Dorsett, that season’s Heisman winner, to help him out. Pittsburgh beat Georgia again in 1982 under then-coach Jackie Sherrill, showing how enduring a brand it was, once upon a time.
6 – 1979: ALABAMA 14, PENN STATE 7
Barry Krauss made a tackle. Daniel Moore re-created it in art. Bear Bryant foiled Joe Paterno for a second time in four seasons at the Sugar Bowl, this time in a 1-versus-2 battle which enabled Alabama to split the national crown with USC.
Alabama’s goal-line stand is here:
5 – 1993: ALABAMA 34, MIAMI 13
Gentleman Gene Stallings, a disciple of Bear Bryant, won a national title for his mentor’s school and put a dent in Miami’s aspirations to increase its dynastic reach. George Teague’s strip of Lamar Thomas served as an eerie forerunner of Maurice Clarett against Sean Taylor in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, another game Miami lost when on the precipice of deepening its hold on the rest of the college football world.
Full game here:
4 – 1981: GEORGIA 17, NOTRE DAME 10
Vince Dooley won his first and only national title. Herschel Walker, one of the all-time greats, won his first and only national title as well, coming close in each of the next two Sugar Bowls as well.
3 – 1997: FLORIDA 52, FLORIDA STATE 20
Steve Spurrier won his first and only national title. He needed Texas to beat Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship Game, and he needed Ohio State to beat Arizona State in the Rose Bowl. Once those two dominoes fell into place, the Gators avenged a late-season loss to the Seminoles and took their place in history.
2 – 1983: PENN STATE 27, GEORGIA 23
After not being voted national champion in several previous undefeated seasons, Penn State finally crossed the threshold and brought Joe Paterno his first national championship.
Second half here:
1 – 1973: NOTRE DAME 24, ALABAMA 23
Ara Parseghian and Bear Bryant. Notre Dame and Alabama. Giants met on the mountaintop at old Tulane Stadium on the final night of 1973, during a brief period when the Sugar Bowl was played on New Year’s Eve.
With Notre Dame protecting a tenuous one-point lead and facing a third down near its own goal line late in regulation, this iconic college football play unfolded: