While it’s not fair to say that winning the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic doesn’t mean something as the Missouri Tigers did Friday night with a 41-31 triumph over former Big 12 rival Oklahoma State, there was a time during this college football season when Missouri had the world at its doorstep, an opportunity for greatness laid out neatly in front of it.
At 7-0, the Tigers were not only in the running for an SEC championship, but were legitimately in the conversation for a BCS national championship, which is usually the divine right of the SEC champs anyway.
Through seven games, Missouri had beaten everyone it had played by at least 15 points. This included blowouts of traditional SEC Eastern Division powerhouses Georgia (41-26 away) and Florida (36-17 at home). A home game with South Carolina on October 26, a team Georgia had already beaten by 11 points, held the key to the Tigers continuing in the national title race.
Playing backup quarterback Maty Mauk in place of the injured James Franklin, the Tigers went up 17-0 after three quarters, only to see the lead disappear and eventually lose 27-24 in double overtime. The loss didn’t necessarily end Missouri’s chances, but it made the road a whole lot tougher.
Wins over Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi and Texas A&M moved Mizzou to 11-1 and earned the Tigers a berth in the SEC Championship Game. That game has basically been a national semifinal for seven years now through this era of SEC dominance in the BCS. Win the SEC title, and Missouri might just find a way into the national title game after all.
Of course, you remember what happened. The Tigers, ranked in the top-20 in rushing defense entering the game, promptly gave up 545 yards rushing to Auburn to go along with 59 points as the blue-and-orange Tigers finished 17 points better than the black-and-gold, or perhaps black-and-blue Tigers.
All that was left was the Cotton Bowl, a game that used to be one of the big ones on New Year’s Day and helped decide national champions in the past. No such luster was on the game this year, and since it has moved to the AT&T Stadium in Arlington (aka. JerryWorld), the game seems to have dropped down a few pegs despite putting together some pretty good matchups.
Friday night’s win over Oklahoma State will be viewed by some as a nice way for Missouri to end the season. No doubt, 12-2 is a heck of a record for just about any team. They were deserving winners on Friday night. The Tigers overcame numerous turnovers and momentum swings, not to mention a late Cowboys drive when the result was still in doubt that ended in a Missouri fumble return for a touchdown by Shane Ray after a Michael Sam sack and strip.
However, the season will still go down as a frustrating one for Missouri. Hold on to a 17-point lead against South Carolina and play any defense at all against Auburn, and Missouri would have been in the BCS title game on Monday against Florida State. Even with a loss there, we would have remembered 2013 as a breakthrough season for Missouri football.
Winning the Cotton Bowl on a night where more folks were probably paying attention to the Orange Bowl between Clemson and Ohio State only serves as limited consolation. Even at 12-2, even as Cotton Bowl champions, this was just another season of really good, but not great Missouri football.