ARLINGTON, Texas — Don’t tell Missouri that New Year’s Six games outside the College Football Playoff don’t matter. If you watched the No. 9 Tigers celebrate their 14-3 Cotton Bowl win against No. 7 Ohio State, it might as well have been a championship.
Players made snow angels in the confetti. Every staff member got a photo with someone. Nobody wanted to leave the field. Mizzou fans, who sold out their 13,000 ticket allotment in less than 18 hours, packed in more than half of the 70,000 people in AT&T Stadium. It was the Tigers’ biggest bowl win since the Cotton Bowl to cap a top-five season a decade ago. An 11th win. A reason to celebrate a breakthrough season and an upward trajectory.
“The way (the Cotton Bowl) treated us, it felt like the Super Bowl,” head coach Eli Drinkwitz said.
— Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic (@CottonBowlGame) December 30, 2023
Yet Friday night again highlighted the growing bowl conundrum of the past decade and why things are going to change next season.
The upcoming 12-team College Football Playoff was meant for teams like Mizzou — to provide access to the programs that don’t win their conference but have a top-10 season and might spring an upset or two. So they can play in a postseason game that matters, against a team that wants to be there.
This Cotton Bowl meant everything to Mizzou. It’s hard to say the same for Ohio State. Wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., a future top-10 pick, was here but didn’t play. The starting quarterback this season, Kyle McCord, has already committed to transfer to Syracuse and was on the sideline for the Orange’s bowl game last week. Ohio State played most of this game with its third-string quarterback.
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That’s not to take away from Mizzou, which didn’t have any opt-outs of note. They don’t put asterisks on wins. It’s just pointing out a reality we’ve seen for several years now. The New Year’s Six was meant to be the best of both worlds, keeping traditional bowl celebrations alongside the creation of the Playoff. It didn’t take long for many star players in non-CFP games to see little point in playing and risking injury, and the transfer portal exacerbated it.
Ohio State always expects to play for the national championship. Mizzou was picked to finish sixth in the SEC East. This sport has always been an expectations game.
It is the end of an era, when great teams could end their season with a major bowl win and celebrate. In the 12-team CFP era, 11 teams will go home with a loss. If the 12-team CFP existed this year, Mizzou would’ve played at Oregon in an 8-9 matchup for the right to play No. 1 Michigan. Instead, Tigers fans took over Arlington and enjoyed a win. They loved it.
“I’ll be honest, I hope we don’t lose that in the 12-team playoff, because there’s something special about having these bowl experiences,” Drinkwitz said. “But if this is the last one, wow, Mizzou did it right for ’em.”
Mizzou isn’t done here. The win was also a 2024 statement for the Tigers, who will return the majority of their team beyond All-American running back Cody Schrader and have eyes squarely on getting one of those CFP spots, perhaps on their home field.
“(This win) is special for our team next year,” quarterback Brady Cook said. “The guys coming back for one more, the coaches, the brotherhood. This is just going to give us more momentum.”
Cook will be back. Star receiver Luther Burden III will be back. The Tigers will add a top-25 recruiting class that features five-star edge rusher Williams Nwaneri, the No. 2 recruit in the country in the 247Sports Composite, along with a stellar transfer class. Mizzou’s administration stepped up to keep defensive coordinator Blake Baker, whom Drinkwitz said turned down jobs elsewhere over the past month.
Mizzou and Drinkwitz are making an impact in the places that matter in a cutthroat SEC that is about to add one of this year’s CFP teams in Texas, along with blue-blood Oklahoma. It’s a Tigers program that two years in a row gave Georgia its toughest regular-season game. This isn’t a Mizzou that will settle for bowl eligibility. It’s making waves in the name, image and likeness space, signing five-star players and not putting limits on what it can do.
“The future is extremely bright because of the plans we have and the vision we’re carrying out,” Drinkwitz said. “It’s not just me, it’s our administration and what they’ve done … It’s what our players have done. It’s what our recruiting is doing, getting the right players to play for us.
“With the 12-team Playoff system, this would be a game where we’re continuing to move on and have a chance to play at a higher level. Everything’s coming together now. But we understand the wind’s twice as hard at the top of the mountain.”
Come November 2024, college football could see upward of 30 or 40 teams in the Playoff hunt. Teams like Mizzou. That’s the excitement to come. Instead of hoping for a New Year’s Six opponent that may or may not care to be there, the Tigers could have a path to a national championship.
That may seem unlikely or unrealistic. Then again, so did this season.
“Going from unranked to top 10 was pretty special,” Drinkwitz said. “But why stop now?”
(Top photo of Luther Burden III: Sam Hodde / Getty Images)