Though it fell short in its attempts to snap its losing streak against its archrival and make a BCS bowl for the first time, Oklahoma State is in position to record its first 10-win season since coach Mike Gundy was playing quarterback for the Cowboys.
To reach that mark, however, it will need to beat another former Oklahoma State signal-caller.
The 21st-ranked Cowboys go for their school record-tying 10th win Saturday in the first Cotton Bowl held at Cowboys Stadium, where they’ll meet Mississippi and coach Houston Nutt, a former Oklahoma State backup who’s looking for his second Cotton Bowl victory in as many seasons with the Rebels.
Oklahoma State (9-3) looked poised for a BCS bowl bid before a 27-0 loss to Oklahoma in the regular-season finale Nov. 28. The Cowboys, shut out for the first time since 2005, lost their seventh straight against the Sooners and failed to clinch their first 10-win campaign since Gundy was under center to lead them to consecutive 10-2 finishes in 1987 and ’88.
“If you’re in it for the right reason, you’ll never get over those games,” said Gundy, finishing his fifth season as coach. “You have to move forward, and that’s something that we had talked about after the game. I think the coaches have to be enthusiastic about getting back on the practice field and the chance to go to the Cotton Bowl and spend time together. That’s the way we’ve approached it.”
The Cowboys will try to regroup against Oklahoma State alumnus Nutt, who was a backup quarterback with the Cowboys in 1979 and ’80 and an assistant coach while Gundy was quarterback.
Nutt is making his second appearance in the Cotton Bowl since taking over at Ole Miss (8-4) last season following a 10-season stint at Arkansas. The Rebels beat then-No. 8 Texas Tech 47-34 in last year’s event for their seventh win in their last eight bowl appearances.
This year’s Cotton Bowl will be a rematch of the 2004 game, these teams’ only meeting. Eli Manning led Ole Miss to a 31-28 win over Oklahoma State, passing for three touchdowns in his final college game.
While both teams are familiar with the bowl, it will have a very different look this year. It will move from Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas to the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Rebels got a preview of the $1.2 billion venue while watching the Big 12 championship game Dec. 5.
“They can’t wait,” Nutt said the next day. “They were watching the game last night and were looking over the stadium, and talking about it today in the stretch line.”
Like Oklahoma State, the Rebels closed a strong season on a sour note with a loss to their chief rival. Their 41-27 defeat at Mississippi State on Nov. 28 snapped their three-game winning streak and dropped them from the Top 25.
Jevan Snead threw for 275 yards and three touchdowns against the Bulldogs but was intercepted three times, and Dexter McCluster was held to 82 yards on the ground after averaging 184.8 over his previous four contests.
McCluster, the offensive MVP of last year’s Cotton Bowl, could have a hard time bouncing back against an Oklahoma State defense that’s limited opponents to 87.7 yards per game on the ground, the sixth-lowest mark in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Cowboys allow 329.9 total yards and 21.8 points per game.
Despite Oklahoma State’s stout defense, it appears likely McCluster will become the first player in SEC history to have 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in a season. He needs 15 yards on the ground and 25 in the air.
After a rough showing against Oklahoma, however, linebacker Andre Sexton doesn’t expect the Cowboys to make anything easy on the Rebels.
“Another opportunity to get out there and show the country that we are the real deal and we’re not a joke,” Sexton said. “Even though OU did make us look pretty bad, we can come back and still salvage some stuff from this season.”
Oklahoma State quarterback Zac Robinson has returned to practice after an ankle injury bothered him throughout the regular-season finale. He said he isn’t completely healthy but expects to be 100 percent in time for the bowl.
Robinson will be joined in the backfield by Keith Toston, who’s second in the Big 12 with 98.1 rushing yards per game and 11 TDs on the ground.
This the fourth straight bowl appearance and seventh in the last eight seasons for the Cowboys, who lost 42-31 to then-no. 15 Oregon in the Holiday Bowl last season.
The Rebels are 7-2 with six straight wins in bowl games against Big 12 opponents, and they’re 3-1 in the Cotton Bowl.