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The History of the Cotton Bowl

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From TCU-Marquette to Western Michigan-Wisconsin

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Michigan State vs Alabama Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

On January 2, the Western Michigan Broncos will sprint out of the tunnel at AT&T Stadium, one of the most renowned venues in the country. The breathtaking site is identifiable by its retractable roof, neat artificial turf, layered audience sections towering above each sideline, and the colossal high-definition video scoreboard.

The 81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic will occur in this famous stadium, a project that was constructed in Arlington, TX for Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Each Cotton Bowl since 2010 claims AT&T Stadium as its home. But in the 70 years before, the heralded game kicked off in the Cotton Bowl, a venue in Dallas that matches the game’s namesake.

In the early years, the game featured a tie-in from the Southwest Conference (SWC), a conference composed of the majority of Texas college football teams and the Arkansas Razorbacks, paired against an at-large or independent team. Founded in 1937, the game quickly established itself into the bowl rotation as the fifth of its kind (only Rose, Orange, Sugar, and Sun are older).

About 17,000 spectators attended the original game in 1937, when No. 16 TCU rolled past No. 20 Marquette, 16-6. But the game saw its attendance more than double the next year, when the Rice Owls toppled Colorado 28-14 in front of 37,000 at the Cotton Bowl stadium.

The contest continued its SWC vs. at-large format consistently until 1996, after the conference folded. In the older days, some of the at-large selections are no longer FBS teams or even sponsor football programs. Marquette, Saint Mary’s, Fordham, and Randolph Air Force Base all participated in the annual game — which became a New Year’s Day staple.

When the SWC dissolved, the bowl added the Big 12 tie-in in 1997, a conference featuring former SWC members such as Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Texas Tech. Two years later, the bowl gained stability by directing the SEC to the matchup. Every New Year’s Day from 1999 to 2014, these two southern conferences squared off, often with high rankings attached to their names.

It is very characteristic of the game to feature two of the top teams in the nation. Several national champions have participated in the Cotton Bowl, including 1960 Syracuse, 1963 Texas, 1969 Texas, and 2015 Alabama.

A major change to the bowl system in 2014 elevated the role of the Cotton Bowl, after it never obtained BCS status during the 1998-2013 era. The Cotton Bowl was added to the New Year’s Six slate, a group of the six most prestigious bowl games, each of which host a College Football Playoff semifinal every three years.

This system demolished the Big 12-SEC tie-in, turning its invitation to successful at-large teams instead. In the first year as a New Year’s Six game, the No. 7 Michigan State Spartans upset No. 4 Baylor with an impressive comeback to win 42-41. The Spartans scored 21 unanswered points after trailing by 20, and shut out Bryce Petty and the Bears’ explosive offense in the fourth quarter to stage the unlikely victory. The 83 combined points mark the most ever scored in Cotton Bowl history, and the Spartans became the second team ever from the Big Ten Conference to win the bowl.

The Spartans would be featured in the Cotton Bowl once again in 2015, with even higher stakes. The December 31 game would be the second ever Cotton Bowl not played in the month of January, acting as a semifinal game to the College Football Playoff. The No. 3 Spartans took on No. 2 Alabama, college football’s most successful dynasty in the 2010s. The future-champion Crimson Tide handled the Spartans with ease, shutting the green and white out by a score of 38-0. It was the first non-tie shutout in the Cotton Bowl since Oklahoma A&M steamrolled TCU in the 1944 season’s edition of the game.

In 2016, the bowl’s function changed once more. For the first time under the new College Football Playoff, the Cotton Bowl would host the Group of Five champion. The format requires one team from the American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, or Sun Belt to participate in one of the top six bowls. Boise State defeated Arizona in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl and Houston shocked Florida State in the 2015 Chick-fil-A Bowl, demonstrating the Group of Five’s success in these New Year’s Six games.

For the 2016 Cotton Bowl, the undefeated Western Michigan Broncos made their initial appearance, representing the MAC for the first time in the game’s history. The No. 12 Broncos will compete with the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers, the Big Ten’s runner-up. This game marks the third time in the three-year history of the College Football Playoff that a Big Ten team would play in Arlington for the game. On the other hand, Western Michigan represents the Group of Five, aiming to sustain the underdogs’ run of success.

The Broncos, already arrived in the Dallas metro area, will set foot in the stadium in less than a week for the biggest game in program history. Western Michigan will play in the same contest that has featured Texas a record 22 times, one that showcased stars of the likes of Jim Brown and Troy Aikman, and one that hosted a national champion Alabama just one season ago. But whatever the result is, Western Michigan has done one significant thing for the conference in 2016: add the MAC to the game’s storied legacy.