Amid the interminable, intermittently entertaining Cotton Bowl between Mizzou and Oklahoma State on Friday night at AT&T Stadium, we somehow found time to wonder … what, really, is the significance of bowl games that aren’t the BCS National Championship game or, next year, the College Football Playoff?
Are they merely glorified exhibitions, particularly considering 70 schools get to play in them? Are they substantial signatures of the season? A gateway to the next one?
In some sense or another, it’s probably all of the above at once.
Which brings us to Mizzou’s rousing 41-31 victory over the Cowboys sealed at last on Shane Ray’s 73-yard fumble return with 55 seconds left … nearly 4 hours, 30 minutes after the game began.
Simply put, the Tigers had to win this to make this season special.
Yes, MU entered the game toting an 11-2 record and a Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title, certainly distinguishing the season after the distressing 2-6 SEC debut in 2012.
But the Tigers also were lugging the 59-42 SEC title game loss to Auburn and the preposterous 545 rushing yards they allowed in a game that would have propelled them into the national-title game.
So beating the Cowboys to match a school-record 12 victories wasn’t just a luxury if Mizzou wanted this season to be remembered … particularly as it remains in the early stages of building bridges to its SEC future and particularly against a former Big 12 foe.
Despite the breakthroughs that had characterized MU’s season, an SEC-move-redefining win at Georgia, the resilient four-game winning streak to win the East after the excruciating double-overtime loss to South Carolina, a loss was going to make the true level of success open to debate.
After all, Georgia, 8-5 and 5-3, wasn’t what it has been (at least in part since it was beset with injuries, much as MU had been the year before), and Florida was downright down at 4-8 and 3-5.
Mizzou was part of creating both of those circumstances, of course. And there’s no minimizing the significance of those wins, even if in terms of perception alone.
But those are the kinds of things that would have been scrutinized more with a season-ending drop-off, especially as Missouri tries to demonstrate it belongs back in a national conversation after going just 13-12 the previous two seasons.
And that it did against the Cowboys, 10-3, in a victory that brought with it another program milestone: coach Gary Pinkel’s 102nd win at Mizzou to break a tie with Don Faurot, whose name adorns the field at MU.
Only months ago, Pinkel was speculated to be on the hot seat, and certainly MU athletic director Mike Alden’s off-season words noting urgency and accountability in the program reinforced that notion.
Instead, Pinkel re-energized the program through tweaks in his staff, offensive schemes and even how he treated players.
For all the other elements and moving parts in the game, including Michael Sam’s strip of Clint Chelf for Ray’s TD and Henry Josey’s three touchdowns, maybe the game will be remembered most for this. Pinkel stuck with senior quarterback James Franklin despite Franklin starting one for 10 with an interception — and ultimately was responsible for two fumbles on a botched handoff and an ill-considered pitch.
In between all that, freshman Maty Mauk unleashed a dazzling second-quarter drive highlighted by his 73 rushing yards and fine-feathered 24-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Lucas on a corner route just out of the grasp of two OSU defenders.
There’s a fine line between sheer stubbornness and staying the course, as anyone who’s followed Pinkel particularly understands.
And in the Twitter-verse, anyway, many wanted Pinkel to pull Franklin in favor of Mauk.
But Pinkel stayed with what he believed was right. And it worked out. There is a certain integrity in that, even if it wasn’t popular and may have backfired.
Franklin had become an MU leader, even it he was completing just 15 of 40 passes.
“I thought James kept his composure,” Pinkel said. “You look at the quarterback, and you can point at him, but there’s blocking, there’s protections, there’s routes, there’s all those other things that … most people can’t see all the time.”
And that made for a game that’s both the signature of this season and a gateway to the next.