ARLINGTON, Texas — Oklahoma State and Ole Miss each began the season with unprecedented expectations: preseason Top 10 teams, trendy picks to possibly upset the order in their respective power conferences and get into the Bowl Championship Series.
Well, those lofty ambitions didn’t quite work out.
The No. 21 Cowboys (9-3) of the Big 12 and the Rebels (8-4) of the SEC instead meet Saturday in the first Cotton Bowl played out of its namesake stadium. Both seek a positive finish after ending the regular season with losses to their instate rivals.
“They faced the same kind of dilemma that we faced,” Oklahoma State offensive tackle Russell Okung said. “We all wanted to go to the national championship, and we didn’t. But we’re getting a chance to go out there and play and make our record better.”
The Cowboys will do it without second-team All-American cornerback Perrish Cox. Coach Mike Gundy announced Friday that Cox would not play because he violated team rules.
National title dreams were burst the first few weeks of the season. Both then had lopsided losses against their conference opponents, Texas and Alabama, respectively, who will play in the BCS national championship game.
“It’s a great opportunity to come out and show we kind of fell short early in the season, but just to let everybody know that it wasn’t a fluke,” Ole Miss defensive end Kentrell Lockett said. “We just had some mishaps during the season, some early letdowns, but we didn’t get down.”
A rematch of the 2004 Cotton Bowl won by Ole Miss in Eli Manning’s final college game will be the first played in the nearly $1.2 billion shiny new Cowboys Stadium. The Cotton Bowl moved after 73 years in hopes of eventually regaining its status as one of the elite postseason games.
When the BCS was formed a decade ago, the Cotton Bowl was left out because of concerns about the aging stadium and the weather. That has been alleviated by moving to the home of the Dallas Cowboys, a stadium with a retractable roof that can accommodate more than 100,000 people.
Ole Miss has a unique place in the bowl’s history, playing in the first Cotton Bowl at the new location after beating Texas Tech a year ago in the final one at the namesake stadium.
Their 47-34 victory last January gave the Rebels a six-game winning streak, a huge catalyst to being No. 8 in this year’s AP preseason poll along with the return of quarterback Jevan Snead and all-around offensive threat Dexter McCluster. It was their first preseason Top 10 ranking since Archie Manning’s senior season in 1970.
Rebels coach Houston Nutt and Gundy both mentioned “uncharted waters” this week when describing what their teams have been through this season.
Oklahoma State, which like Ole Miss was 9-4 last season, began this year No. 9. It was the Cowboy’s highest preseason ranking since 1985, when Thurman Thomas was in the backfield.
The Cowboys were up to fifth after opening with a win over Georgia, but never returned to the Top 10 after losing to Houston in Week 2. They lost 41-14 at Texas on Halloween night, yet still had a chance for a BCS berth until losing their regular-season finale 27-0 to Oklahoma.
“We had a few bumps in the road and Ole Miss had a few bumps. I think both of us still want to kind of have maybe a thought that maybe this year wasn’t so bad after all coming out with a win,” Cowboys center Andrew Lewis said. “That puts that much more meaning into this game.”
Ole Miss peaked at No. 4 after starting 2-0, then plummeted after losing a nationally televised midweek game at South Carolina and a 27-3 loss to Alabama two weeks later. The Rebels’ last game was a 41-27 loss at Mississippi State, but they still did enough for more cotton.
“I was excited with the way we fought through it. There’s nothing wrong about being in the Cotton Bowl,” Nutt said. “We had the goal of getting to Atlanta (for the SEC championship game). One day, we’re going to get there. But this is a good step. It’s always about the way you finish.”
Nutt, wrapping up his second season at Ole Miss, is a former Oklahoma State quarterback facing his alma mater for the first time. He was also an offensive assistant coach for the Cowboys from 1984-89, the last four when Gundy was the starting quarterback.
Gundy is in his fifth season as the Cowboys’ head coach and consistently referred to Nutt as “Coach” this week.
The Cowboys, playing in a school-record fourth consecutive bowl game, can match another record if they get 10 wins for the first time since Gundy was the quarterback and Nutt an assistant coach for teams that went 10-2 in 1987 and 1998.
“Our program is continuing to get better and improve,” Gundy said. “We’re continuing to work toward the same goal. We want to win a Big 12 championship, but to finish strong enough to have an opportunity to play in the Cotton Bowl is a great reward and a great opportunity.”
Stephen Hawkins/The Associated Press