By John Shinn
CNHI News Service
NORMAN — There are multiple facets to every bowl game, but the hardest to gauge and predict is whether teams are excited to be playing. It’s a question that doesn’t usually get answered until the game gets going.
Oklahoma, however, answered the question several times since it received its official invite to the AT&T Cotton Bowl.
It had to because the last time this team played it thought the next destination would be the Sugar Bowl. That spot in a BCS bowl game was eliminated when Northern Illinois rose to No. 15 in the final BCS standings and locked up an at-large berth.
Few saw it coming when on Dec. 1, after OU had beaten TCU to finish the regular season at 10-2 and with a share of the Big 12 championship.
“It took us by surprise, but we can’t control what happens with the BCS,” OU defensive end David King said. “The only thing we can control is winning and losing.
“A lot of people were a little upset that we didn’t get the Sugar Bowl bid. It happens, but we’re over it now. We have a new challenge. We have a better game than if we were going to the Sugar Bowl and playing Florida.”
In terms of raw interest, it’s hard to debate King’s thinking. The matchup between the Sooners and No. 10 Texas A&M (10-2) on Jan. 4 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, is one of the most highly anticipated of the bowl season. There’s the element of pitting two former conference rivals against each other in game within an easy drive of both campuses.
It doesn’t hurt that OU will be going against the Aggies’ Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Fan interest hasn’t been a problem. Tickets flew out of the box office. Last week, Cotton Bowl president Rick Baker said this game would likely break the game’s attendance record.
Still, players and fans relish the chance to spend some time in a vacation destination that it typically doesn’t visit. OU hadn’t played in New Orleans since the 2003 national championship game.
The Cotton Bowl will be OU’s third game in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex this season.
Everyone, however, wasn’t caught off guard.
“I’m kind of one of those people that weighs on the negative side all the time, so I didn’t expect to go to the Sugar Bowl,” OU wide receiver Kenny Stills said. “I felt like this was gonna happen, so I wasn’t too down about it.
“I was excited about going to Dallas. I love playing in ‘Jerry’s World,’ so it’s not a negative thing for us. It’s a huge game for us to get to play against the Heisman Trophy winner and a great team.”
The Sooners have said all the right things since receiving the Cotton Bowl bid. They’ve embraced everything the game has to offer.
“Did we want to go to a BCS game? Absolutely. Who doesn’t want to go to a BCS game? But that’s not the way it turned out for us,” OU quarterback Landry Jones said. “If you look at all the other BCS games because of automatic qualifiers and all those sorts of things, this might be one of the top two or three games in the country.
“I know there’s a lot of hype behind it. I know our team, and I’m sure Texas A&M, is extremely excited about this game. It’ll be a great game. It’ll be good for college football.”