Contrary to published reports from some so-called experts, whether or not a 6-5 Alabama would receive a bowl bid was never seriously in question. Despite the fact that the Tide finished barely over .500, one game worse than all the other bowl-eligible SEC squads, officials from both the Music City and Independence made it clear both publicly and privately that Alabama was their first choice. For that matter, the Crimson Tide was also No. 1 on the Tangerine's wish list, but Pittsburgh's final win over UAB rendered that point moot.
It's not necessary to go into a long explanation as to why. All things being equal (and even sometimes not-so-equal), bowl executives will choose Alabama over teams like Ole Miss every time. Laughable claims of payoffs, and bitterly biased allegations of favoritism in the SEC office may well play to the paranoia of your fan base.
But they don't change the truth.
When it comes to Alabama and bowls, what's not to like?
So it was that back two weeks ago even before the Tide defeated Southern Miss 28-15, Alabama had good reason to believe it would NOT be home for the holidays.
Why? Because bowl executives from all three minor bowls that remained a possibility had given the Tide private assurances to that effect, that's why.
"There really wasn't a lot of anxiety about being left out," Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione commented afterwards. "But until everything was official, you (wonder). We were anxious to hear where we were going and who our opponent was going to be to finalize our plans. I made plenty of phone calls back during the day to see what was going on. As much as anything I was anxious to find out what our direction was. Mainly to get all the details and to find out what has fallen into place."
Of course when the Tide's season ended, the smart money was on Nashville. Located just up the interstate from Alabama, the Music City with its NFL stadium and upscale nightlife seemed a perfect fit. And MCB executives weren't shy in making that fact known, both publicly--via newspaper and radio interviews--and privately to Tide notables.
The SEC was practically guaranteed two BCS teams, the only question was whether one would also play in the Rose Bowl for the national title. There was doubt as to whether or not the Orange would prefer Tennessee over Florida, but two berths were a given. That left six contractually obligated spots in the Citrus, Outback, Cotton, Peach, Music City and Independence, totaling eight bids to be divided among nine teams.
In normal years SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer probably could have wielded his significant influence, arranging a spot for the extra team in one of several small bowls elsewhere. But due to the events of 9/11, the SEC season finished late, dooming Ole Miss' best chance to bowl.
With a Tennessee victory Saturday night, the process would have played out with little surprise. The BCS formula would then send the Vols to the Rose; the Orange would have selected Florida; South Carolina was set for the Citrus, Georgia to the Outback, western-most LSU was headed to the Cotton; Auburn to Atlanta, Arkansas to Shreveport and Alabama to the Music City.
But a sign held up Saturday at the SEC championship game by a Bayou Bengal fan said it all. "We're here to mess things up."
And mess them up they did, though in unexpected ways.
Two big surprises came up during Sunday's round of selections, and thanks to the Outback and Cotton the pundits were sent scrambling. Glen Krupica, Executive Director of the Independence Bowl who was part of the process explained; "There were some choices (Sunday) that surprised a few people. South Carolina going back to the Outback Bowl for a rematch with Ohio State and the Cotton Bowl selecting Arkansas were things that to the common fan--and even to the common bowl director were surprising."
Of course given his more than 40 years experience with bowl games as player, coach and executive, Tide Athletics Director Mal Moore could see it coming. "I was not surprised. We realized that if LSU won that game, then it would be a domino effect down. We would just have to wait and see who went where and who the bowls picked."
The day started off predictably enough. LSU's conference title sent them to the Sugar; the Orange followed by taking the homestate Gators. And once again the adage that you can't spell ‘Citrus' without ‘UT' proved true.
But then things got interesting.
Most had assumed the Outback would pass on South Carolina. Nothing against the Gamecocks, but bowl games are about making money, and the Outback was facing a rerun of last season's Ohio State/SC match-up. Plus, the Peach was absolutely drooling over the possibility of a border-war contest between North and South Carolina.
But the Outback went with the Holtz-led Gamecocks, leaving Georgia and its 8-3 record in the pool. On paper at least, the Peach should have taken the Bulldogs, but that move would have cost them dearly in lost revenue, as Georgia fans would hardly be expected to spend tourist dollars in their own state.
So the Peach went with Auburn, which apparently sent a gift to the struggling Cotton Bowl.
Georgia is 8-3 and rated 16th (AP) and 19th (Coaches/ESPN) nationally, while Arkansas at 7-4 is unranked. But the lure of extra ticket sales in Dallas--the Razorbacks are a former member of the now-defunct Southwest Conference--carried the day. "The Cotton Bowl having a potential match-up of a No. 10 Oklahoma versus (16th) Georgia and not taking that opportunity but choosing Arkansas with their strong local interest and base surprised," Krupica said.
"Things came down (Sunday) the way they did basically as a result of the Cotton Bowl choice of Arkansas, which probably surprised a few people. That ended up steering Georgia to the Music City Bowl, which subsequently allowed us to make an Alabama choice."
As the bottom two bowls in the SEC pool, the Music City and Independence have what is termed a "shared choice." Scott Ramsey, the Executive Director of the Music City Bowl explained that each bowl conveys its pick to the conference office. If both bowls prefer the same team, then specific criteria are used to decide, including distance, regional appeal, previous appearances in the bowl, etc.
Three teams were left, Ole Miss (7-4), Georgia (8-3) and Alabama (6-5), with the Tide the first choice of both bowls. Krupica explained; "After the Cotton Bowl and the Peach Bowl choices, those were the teams we had to choose between. We think highly of all of them. Certainly Georgia is a great program, and we're familiar with Ole Miss, having had them in back-to-back years, too."
But a little-noted clause in the Music City's contract solved the dilemma. As part of its agreement with the SEC, it must select any team with a two-game edge. Thus Georgia (8-3) is Nashville-bound, while the Independence was thrilled to catch the 6-5 Tide.
"The trickle-down effect of yesterday had an effect," Krupica said. "At the time we really didn't know how that would play out. The Independence Bowl has been very fortunate to have had some outstanding programs over the last few years participate. With Alabama, you have one of the great names in the history of college football."
"Certainly we're expecting a great level of enthusiasm and interest and a strong fan following from Alabama."
While Tide fans initially preferred Nashville over Shreveport, for Franchione it was a win-win proposition. "We were excited about either opportunity," he said. "Both bowls are fine bowls. We were not really holding one in preference over the other one. I feel like our players will have a great time at the Independence Bowl."
Of course Shreveport's proximity to the Midwest coupled with the current Bama staff's close ties to high school coaches in Texas and Oklahoma is also a plus. "Our football team is excited to have the opportunity to go to post-season and to play in the Independence Bowl," Franchione said. "I think we'll have a lot of fans that will attend the game. Our team will be as excited this year as any team going to post-season."
After staying home last season with a 3-8 record, the Independence Bowl is important to the Alabama program on several levels. But the game won't be without some pressure. "You know that since we've established this relationship with the SEC, the SEC is 6-0," Krupica pointed out. "We wouldn't expect anything less."