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Notre Dame bound for Bayou, BCS matchup

Ken Fowler | Monday, December 4, 2006

It will be “local flavor” versus “national flavor” as Notre Dame will face Louisiana State in the Sugar Bowl at the Louisiana Superdome Jan. 3, and Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan lauded the matchup as “just what the doctor ordered” for the struggling New Orleans economy.

“If I had written this script, I couldn’t have written it any better,” Hoolahan said in a teleconference with media Sunday night. “This is going to be a tremendous atmosphere.”

The Sugar Bowl was widely expected to select the Irish. The Tigers earned their bid after Southeastern Conference (SEC) foe Florida jumped from No. 4 to No. 2 in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) standings and earned a spot in the BCS National Championship Game against undefeated No. 1 Ohio State. The SEC champion plays in the Sugar Bowl annually, except when it makes the national title game.

With its compensatory selection and first at-large pick, the Sugar Bowl grabbed the local favorites from Baton Rouge and the national powerhouse from South Bend for the first bowl game in the Superdome since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

“We have had some challenges in the past year and a half, but we are really excited to bring the Sugar Bowl back to its hometown,” Hoolahan said. “What better way to bring it back than with two teams of the quality of LSU and Notre Dame. … The two of these teams together in New Orleans is just what the doctor ordered. This is an absolute panacea for what’s happened here, where we need to go and what has to happen in the future. It’s a godsend.”

Last season’s Sugar Bowl was relocated to Atlanta.

Hoolahan said past Sugar Bowls averaged around $150 million in economic impact for the New Orleans area, and past games with national championship implications brought up to $250 million to the city. Throughout the teleconference, Irish coach Charlie Weis repeated his happiness that the Sugar Bowl will host an attractive matchup for the rebuilding Crescent City.

“We’re just delighted to be coming to New Orleans,” Weis said. “To be able to pick LSU in their home state for their local flavor matched up with Notre Dame for its national flavor, I think this is a perfect setup.”

Hoolahan said the propensity for Tiger fans to visit restaurants and shops in New Orleans when LSU has played occasional home games at the Superdome overcame concerns about the possibility of few LSU fans booking hotels for the game.

“I think everybody close to the program is certainly glad to see us playing in New Orleans,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We really enjoy that city. It’s a wonderful place and we can hardly wait to get there.”

Hoolahan said the Irish had their own set of benefits, and those were not limited to Notre Dame’s ability to attract fans and generate high television ratings. Hoolahan said Notre Dame’s unique position in the BCS, with athletic director Kevin White the only member of the BCS’ board of managers to be a representative of one university, is a major bonus for the Irish when the BCS bowls make their selections.

“The fact that he is seated at the table and directly negotiating for Notre Dame makes a huge difference … from the standpoint of just representing one entity,” Hoolahan said. “It’s a great tribute to the school that they have that one person at the table.”

The other members are the 11 Division I-A conference commissioners and the representatives of the four traditional bowl games in the BCS.

Both the Tigers (No. 4 in the BCS standings) and Irish (No. 11) finished 10-2 with their losses coming to top-10 teams. LSU lost 7-3 at No. 9 Auburn Sept. 16 and 23-10 in Gainesville to Florida. Notre Dame’s losses were a 47-21 defeat at home to No. 3 Michigan and a 44-24 loss in Los Angeles to No. 5 USC.

“We’re very, very excited to be traveling to New Orleans and, especially, to be facing an opponent the quality of LSU,” Weis said.

For Notre Dame, the selection marks the second consecutive season the Irish will play in a BCS game. Notre Dame played Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., to conclude last season.

LSU last played in the Sugar Bowl in 2003 against Oklahoma when the Tigers topped the Sooners in the BCS title game. Notre Dame and LSU have met nine times, with a 5-4 series lead for the Irish. The last meeting between the teams was in 1998, with the Irish topping the Tigers 39-36 on Senior Day at Notre Dame Stadium.

While the Tigers have had more success in recent years, Miles praised the Irish, citing Notre Dame’s ability to move the ball through the air and its “attitude” on defense.

“I’d like to congratulate Coach Weis on having a great year and a tremendously quality team,” Miles said in the teleconference.

While all sides expressed satisfaction in the matchup, the BCS shakeup that led to the LSU-Notre Dame pairing was not without controversy.

Michigan finished its season Nov. 18 with a 3-point loss to unanimous No. 1 Ohio State on the road. After that game, the Wolverines remained No. 2 in the two human polls that are a part of the BCS formula. But after Southern California beat Notre Dame last week, the Trojans jumped Michigan and took a slight lead for No. 2. When USC lost Saturday to intra-city rival UCLA Saturday and Florida beat then-No. 9 Arkansas in the SEC title game, the Gators leapfrogged both UCLA and Michigan in the human polls to earn their bid in the BCS National Championship Game.

Even Weis – whose squad lost by 26 to the Wolverines – and Miles – who is a Michigan graduate – had different opinions on who should go.

Weis said because the Wolverines “beat us soundly at home,” he felt it was “the right thing to do” by voting them No. 2 over Florida. Miles said he wrestled over the options and went with the Gators, who played one more game than Michigan.

“I felt like the winner of the SEC conference with one loss should have the opportunity to play in the national championship game,” Miles said.

The other non-title BCS games pit USC against Michigan in the Rose Bowl, No. 6 Louisville versus No. 14 Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl and No. 8 Boise State against No. 10 Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Wake Forest earned an automatic entry into the Orange Bowl by winning the Atlantic Coast Conference title game Saturday. Oklahoma won the Big XII’s spot in the Fiesta Bowl by winning its conference championship game Saturday, also.

Louisville earned an automatic berth into a BCS game by winning the Big East. Undefeated Boise State of the Western Athletic Conference used a provision of BCS by-laws intended to protect teams from smaller conferences to snag an automatic spot by finishing in the top-12 of the BCS standings.