As the college football world awaits the highly anticipated matchup between Notre Dame and Alabama for the BCS championship, there’s a bowl game three days earlier that is creating similar buzz.
That’s because Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and 10th-ranked Texas A&M will take on No. 12 Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl at Cowboys Stadium on Friday night, and while the game isn’t a BCS bowl, it figures to be one of the more entertaining clashes of the postseason.
The Aggies (10-2) and Sooners (10-2) finished in the top 11 in the final BCS standings, but neither received an at-large bid.
Oklahoma’s chances ended when Mid-American Conference champion Northern Illinois moved up to 15th, which was enough to secure an automatic bid. Texas A&M got left out because three SEC teams (Alabama, Florida, LSU) were ranked higher, with the Crimson Tide and Gators representing the conference in BCS bowls.
The Sooners split the Big 12 title with Kansas State, but the Wildcats clinched the league’s automatic BCS bid because they won 24-19 at Oklahoma on Sept. 22.
That leaves an intriguing matchup in this game between former Big 12 rivals, especially with Manziel the talk of the sport after becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman. The star QB was also named AP Player of the Year by a decisive margin.
“We hit a home run,” Cotton Bowl chairman Tommy Bain said. “When our team selection committee met for the first time a few weeks ago, we circled this matchup as the one we most wanted, and the cards fell in our favor.”
The cards fell in Manziel’s favor Dec. 8, when the redshirt freshman known as “Johnny Football” beat out Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein for the Heisman.
Manziel broke 2010 Heisman winner Cam Newton’s SEC record with 4,600 total yards in the Aggies’ first season in the league, and his coming-out party came at the expense of the then-No. 1 Crimson Tide.
Manziel went 24 of 31 for 253 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 92 yards in a 29-24 win at Alabama on Nov. 10, ending the defending national champion’s 13-game winning streak.
He passed for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns while running for 1,181 yards and 19 scores. That made him the first freshman, first SEC player and fifth player overall to throw for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 in a season.
While thrilled he made history in winning the Heisman, Manziel was quick to get his mind set on his next goals.
“First and foremost, there’s the Cotton Bowl,” he said. “From there, I have to be the guy who starts the motor for a run at the national title next year.”
Before the Aggies begin that quest, they will face a Sooners team — led by senior quarterback Landry Jones — that suffered its only other loss by a 30-13 score at home to the Fighting Irish on Oct. 27.
Jones had another outstanding season, completing 65.5 percent of his passes for 3,989 yards and 29 TDs. He set a school record with 554 yards in a 50-49 win at West Virginia on Nov. 17 and passed for 500 more the following week in a 51-48 overtime victory over then-No. 22 Oklahoma State, making him the career Big 12 career leader in passing yards.
A 244-yard performance in a season-ending 24-17 win at TCU on Dec. 1 gave him 16,368 yards — third most in NCAA history — and 122 TDs in 51 games at Oklahoma.
Jones is the Sooners’ career leader in passing yards, TD passes, wins (39), completions (1,353) and attempts (2,135). He is the first FBS quarterback to throw for at least 3,000 yards and 26 touchdowns in four seasons.
“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,” Jones said. “But if you look at all the other BCS games and, because of automatic qualifiers and those sorts of things, this might be one of the top two or three games in the country.”
Manziel being on the field is a major reason for that hype. He thrived under the tutelage of first-year Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, but the 33-year-old Kingsbury won’t be around for this game after accepting the head coaching job at his alma mater Texas Tech on Dec. 12.
Kingsbury crafted a Texas A&M attack that was third in the country in yards per game (552.3) and scoring average (44.8).
“You look at what our offense did this year. People didn’t really think that we were going to have much success in the SEC,” said Manziel, who will be the first Heisman winner to play in the Cotton Bowl since Texas’ Ricky Williams following the 1998 season. “They said these smashmouth, hard-nose defenses and this gimmick offense … won’t work.
“For us to come into Alabama and some of the other games and really stress tempo, tempo, tempo. We want to move fast. We want to make people uncomfortable. That was our main goal this year. Our offense with coach Sumlin and what coach Kingsbury did, I love it. I love everything about it. It’s definitely something that can work if you have the right people in place for it.”
Oklahoma was just as solid on offense with averages of 505.9 yards and 40.3 points, and the teams also have similar defensive statistics. The Sooners allow 378.8 yards and 24.2 points per game, while the Aggies give up averages of 389.3 and 22.5.
Oklahoma is 27-17-1 in bowl games and will be trying to match a school record with a fourth straight bowl win. The Sooners beat Arkansas 10-3 in their only other trip to the Cotton Bowl after the 2001 season.
“Another excellent football team, 10-2, ranked eighth or ninth in the country, a team that has won five or six straight games down the stretch,” coach Bob Stoops said of Texas A&M. “It begins with their offense and Johnny Manziel, the Heisman Trophy winner. … It’ll be a special bowl game and we’re looking forward to it.”
Texas A&M is in the Cotton Bowl for the 13th time. The Aggies, 14-19 in bowl games, lost 41-24 to LSU following the 2010 season to extend their skid at this event to six.
Oklahoma won eight of the final nine meetings between the teams before Texas A&M left for the SEC, but those victories came before Manziel and Sumlin joined the Aggies.
Plus, Sumlin is familiar with the Sooners after being a member of Stoops’ staff from 2003-07 prior to leaving to become Houston’s head coach. He served as a co-offensive coordinator at the end of his time with Oklahoma.
“Kevin and I are great friends, our wives are great friends,” Stoops said. “In the end, once you get to playing, you’re playing. … He’s bright, he’s got a good offensive mind. … He’s competitive. Kevin has all the great qualities you need.”
Kevin Lonnquist’s Take
Why to watch: If you can’t get up for this game, you don’t have a pulse. A&M features Heisman Trophy winner Johnny “Football” Manziel and a spread offense that sent SEC defenses scrambling. Oklahoma has the Big 12’s all-time leader passer in quarterback Landry Jones. Media requests were out of site and the game is sold out. This is the best non-BCS game on the card and arguably the second-best overall bowl matchup behind the national championship game of Notre Dame-Alabama. Plus, it’s nice to see former Big 12 rivals hook up again.
Kevin’s pick: Oklahoma 31, Texas A&M 28