NEW ORLEANS -- A speck of LSU purple and another of Alabama crimson stood out in the sea of Michigan blue in the east stands of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The two fans looked out of place in the front row, but they didn't seem to mind. The LSU backer, sitting alongside her companion in crimson, took every chance she could to hold up a made-for-TV sign.
It read: "Oops! We're a week too early Alabama LSU"
The two SEC fans came to the Allstate Sugar Bowl for a starter course before the Southern-style entrée is served Monday night. From the looks of it, they didn't come away with a good taste.
The countdown is under way for the BCS title game, and the SEC will take over the Big Easy as it prepares to crown its sixth consecutive national champion Monday night. The next six days mark an unparalleled celebration for a conference that has had plenty of them in recent years, a love fest for a league that has become the king of college football -- and wants everyone to know about it.
No one doubts the SEC's dominance, but there's a curiosity about which league has the best chance to catch up. If nothing else, the bowls leading up to the national title game provide showcase opportunities for teams from also-ran conferences to prove they're getting closer.
Virginia Tech and Michigan both had chances to help themselves and their much-maligned conferences Tuesday night. While the matchup itself drew groans from most corners of the country, the Wolverines and Hokies had the stage to themselves before the big show came to town.
At the end of the night, it became clear that the Big Ten and the ACC still have a long way to go, although the Big Ten has one of its big dogs back in the chase.
A masterpiece this was not. While the SEC can get away with a 9-6 overtime result between recent national title winners, other conferences simply don't have that luxury.
Michigan won 23-20 in overtime despite being outgained 377-184 and recording 10 fewer first downs than Virginia Tech. The Wolverines' only touchdowns came on passes that looked like interceptions when they left quarterback Denard Robinson's hands (he threw one pick and had two others overturned by replay on the same drive).
Almost every big break went Michigan's way, including a pass by wide receiver Drew Dileo on a fake field goal that hit a Virginia Tech player and landed in the arms of long snapper Jareth Glanda. The Hokies also had a diving touchdown catch by Danny Coale in overtime overturned by replay.
Virginia Tech thoroughly dominated the first half but went to the locker room down 10-6 after a folly-filled final minute that featured a near-interception-turned-Michigan-touchdown followed by a fumbled kickoff return. The Hokies received a big performance from sophomore quarterback Logan Thomas and repeatedly converted key third downs, but as has been the case for them and their ACC brethren, they found a way to lose.
"This game was about will," said Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges, whose unit had 239 yards below its season average. "There wasn't a lot of great execution on [either] side of the ball, but at the end of the day, the kids played like they played all year. They wanted to win. That's why we got 11 wins now. We've had some beautiful wins; we've had some ugly wins.
"This one's more the latter than the former. But I'm proud of the kids. You've got to win games like that. They're not all masterpieces."
Michigan's players didn't care about style points, especially the seniors who suffered through two coaching changes, back-to-back losing seasons and questions about the program's legitimacy as a college football power. They just wanted to leave as victors.
It's why senior center David Molk missed only one series after suffering a foot injury in warm-ups that some believed would keep him out for the game. It's why senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen played through a foot injury suffered in the second quarter and could barely walk off the field after Michigan forced a Virginia Tech field goal attempt in overtime.
"At the end of the day, we know, and I'm sure every other team that plays college football knows, the only thing that matters is the score," Van Bergen said. "It's not a less of a win for us because we didn't dominate some statistical categories."
Virginia Tech dominated in most of them, which added disappointment to the Hokies' latest BCS bowl setback. Frank Beamer's team wasn't outclassed this year, but still dropped to 1-5 in BCS bowls.
While Virginia Tech has dominated the ACC under Beamer, it also bears responsibility for the league's BCS bowl woes. The ACC is now 2-12 in the big bowls.
"We wanted to get a win for the ACC and wanted to get a win for Virginia Tech," Beamer said. "We haven't done as well as we want to in these BCS games. But you give Michigan credit. They hung in there and battled and hung on."
The Big Ten is grateful, as the league finishes the bowl season at 4-6. It took overtime wins by both Michigan and Michigan State to prevent another postseason disaster for a league that measures itself against the SEC.
The Michigan schools lessened a complete Big Ten backlash, but how close is the league from truly catching the SEC?
"Georgia was on top of LSU for a little while in the [SEC] championship game, and Michigan State went out and beat them," Van Bergen said. "The Big Ten competes with all conferences, especially with what they consider the powerhouse, the SEC."
The Big Ten's national title drought has reached nine years, and the league likely won't enter the 2012 season with a team pegged to unseat the SEC atop college football hierarchy. But the league certainly benefits from having one of its brand-name programs, Michigan, on the rise again, particularly with Ohio State banned from bowls next year.
"Michigan football is back where we need to be and where we want to be," athletic director Dave Brandon said.
But it will take more for the Big Ten and the ACC to say the same thing.
Until then, the leagues will continue to be appetizers before the main course.
Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.