Almost two decades after being left out in the cold — literally — this year's Cotton Bowl Classic ranks as one of college football's best postseason games.
No. 9 Texas A&M and No. 11 Oklahoma meet in prime time Jan. 4 for the game's 2013 edition, its fourth since moving from its namesake in Dallas to nearby Arlington.
By abandoning Fair Park for the majestic, plush — and domed — Cowboys Stadium, the Cotton Bowl took its first step toward returning to college football prominence.
If things go as expected, the Cotton Bowl will soon join a rotation to host national semifinals in the new playoff system.
“It has been our goal to get back to the very top tier of the collegiate postseason,” said Cotton Bowl chairman Tommy Bain.
Bain, a 22-year member of the game's board of directors, watched the Cotton Bowl's status wither after it failed in 1994 to be included in the Bowl Alliance, the Bowl Championship Series' precursor.
“We tried to be one of those, because historically, we were one of the primary bowls,” Bain said. “We had been for 60 years.”
The Cotton Bowl traditionally paired the Southwest Conference champion with an SEC opponent or a highly ranked independent.
Notre Dame made seven appearances; the Fighting Irish routed then-No. 1 Texas 38-10 to conclude the 1977-78 season, becoming the Cotton Bowl's last national champion.
Beginning in 1992, the Bowl Coalition formed with the goal of creating a No. 1 vs. No. 2 national championship game, while also providing with high-quality bowl matchups to major conference champions.
Because the Big 10 and Pac-10 Conference champions were contractually tied to the Rose Bowl, they weren't included in the coalition; the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange and Sugar Bowls became “Tier 1” coalition games.
The system met its demise two years later, evolving into the Bowl Alliance, which — while still excluding the Big 10, Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl — included just three “Tier 1” bowls.
The Fiesta, Orange and Sugar Bowls were chosen for the new alliance, which denied the Cotton Bowl because of its older stadium and North Texas' unpredictable, often cold, weather in early January.
“The old, antiquated Cotton Bowl is a wonderful stadium in October,” Bain said. “But for postseason, you need suites, you need good weather because of the television contracts ... we needed a dome in this part of the country.”
The Jan. 1, 1994 Cotton Bowl was the last before the Bowl Alliance; No. 4 Notre Dame beat No. 7 Texas A&M 24-21.
The next year's Cotton Bowl saw No. 21 USC rout unranked Texas Tech 55-14.
While there were still some Cotton Bowl matchups with ranked teams, the game unquestionably lost much of its luster.
The game's prestige began to pick back up, though, when it moved to the new Cowboys Stadium.
“We were left out, and then all of a sudden this stadium got built,” Bain said.
“We can just do so many things out here that we couldn't do. Also, it's 72 degrees at kickoff, guaranteed.”
Last summer, university presidents approved a plan for a new four-team playoff system to determine college football's national champion.
Beginning in the 2014-15 season, semifinal sites will rotate between the current four BCS bowl games and two more. The Cotton Bowl expects to be in that mix.
“We're doing everything we can,” Bain said. “We really anticipate that we will be one of those selected.”
The two semifinal winners will meet in a new national championship game, which will be bid on by local organizing committees, similar to how the location of the Super Bowl is selected.
“The Cotton Bowl is going to certainly bid on the national championship game,” Bain said.
Some wondered in 1994 if the Cotton Bowl game would die after it was denied Bowl Alliance status.
But after 18 years of picking up the pieces and moving forward, the game's chairman talks of hosting national championship games.
“We just want to get it once,” Bain said. “If we get it once, we know they'll want to come back.”