December 27, 2021

The Cotton Bowl

The Joy of 86

The 2021 Cotton Bowl Classic marks the 86th renewal of this Texas-sized clash.

Pardon college football fans in Texas if they get a head start on celebrating the new year. For them, the celebration will kick off the day before with the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. 

This year’s classic, the 86th, has the added juice of national ramifications, as the game is a semifinal of the College Football Playoff that features a matchup between No. 1 Alabama (12-1) and No. 4 Cincinnati (13-0). It’s the sixth matchup between the schools, the first since 1990, and Alabama has won the previous five meetings. 

The 2021 renewal marks the third time AT&T Stadium will play host to a CFP game. The 2015-16 Classic saw No. 2 Alabama blank No. 3 Michigan State, 38-0; three years later, No. 2 Clemson routed No. 3 Notre Dame, 30-3. The winner of each of those games went on to win the National Championship, with Alabama beating Clemson, 45-40, in ’16 and Clemson returning the favor, 44-16, in ’19. 

But the Goodyear Cotton Bowl (the tire and rubber company bought sponsorship rights in 2014) doesn’t need hype to once again fill AT&T Stadium (capacity 80,000 or 105,000 with standing room). Its stature as one of the season’s most prestigious and recognizable bowl games is understood. 

The Cotton Bowl began as a way to recognize the Lone Star State and its booming cotton industry. Oilman J. Curtis Sanford was the driving force in the formation of a bowl for Texas after watching SMU play on the 1936 Rose Bowl — the game came to fruition on Jan. 1, 1937, in tiny Fair Park Stadium, which was renamed the Cotton Bowl in 1936.

That first Cotton Bowl saw No. 16 TCU, led by quarterback “Slingin’ Sammy” Baugh (a member of the College Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural Class of 1951), top No. 20 Marquette, 16-6. It was not exactly a financial bonanza, though, drawing only 17,000 people.

It didn’t take long for the game to catch on, however. Following the 1940 game, a group in Dallas took over management of the game. The Cotton Bowl Athletic Association became part of the Southwest Conference, and a bowl tradition was born.

The Cotton bowl became a showcase for the Southwest Conference and the reward for the SWC champion, which hosted the game from 1941 to 1994. They proved rather hospitable, going 24-29-4 (a .456 winning percentage). Beginning in 1995, when the SWC disbanded, the Classic had ties to the Big 12, then, in 1999, to the Southeastern Conference. 

The SEC is one win (23) behind the SWC and has the best winning percentage .588 (23-16-1) of any conference with at least seven appearances. In 2010, the game moved to AT&T Stadium, where it currently resides. 

But regardless of conference ties or venue, there’s always been a magic and an aura surrounding the game that made it a compelling watch.

That magic began in earnest in 1947, when demand was so great to see SMU tailback Doak Walker (College Hall of Fame Class of 1959 and the namesake of the award for the nation’s top running back since 1990) that the stadium added a second deck, increasing capacity to 67,000 from the original 45,507. The expansion earned the stadium the nickname “The House That Doak Built.” (Two more stadium expansions, in 1993 and 2008, raised capacity to 92,100.)

Walker was worth the show and helped the Mustangs to back-to-back appearances, a 13-13 tie with No. 4 Penn State for the No. 3 squad in ‘48, then a 21-13 win as No. 10 the following year over No. 9 Oregon. He was the first Heisman Trophy winner to play in the Cotton Bowl, winning the award in 1948 (he won the Maxwell Award in 1947), but he was hardly the last.

In all, nine players concluded their Heisman Trophy-winning seasons in the Cotton Bowl: Walker, Navy quarterback Roger Staubach (1964), Texas running back Earl Campbell (1978), Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie (1985), Auburn running back Bo Jackson (1986), Notre Dame wide receiver Tim Brown (1988), Texas running back Ricky Williams (1999), Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel (2013) and Alabama running back Derrick Henry (2015). This year, Alabama sophomore QB Bryce Young looks to increase that number to 10. 

Heisman winners are 5-4 and have won three straight. Walker, Flutie (beat Houston), Williams (Texas topped Mississippi State), Manziel (blasted Oklahoma) and Henry (beat Michigan State) won, while Campbell and No. 1 Texas (Notre Dame), Staubach and No. 2 Navy (No. 1 Texas), Jackson and Brown (both Texas A&M) left disappointed.

The Classic has also served as postseason stomping grounds for many other decorated players, including:


  • More than 150 College Football Hall of Famers
  • More than 30Pro Football Hall of Famers
  • 7 Walter Camp Award Winners
  • 7 Maxwell Award winners
  • 6 Outland Trophy winners
  • 5 Johnny Unitas Award winners
  • 4 Davey O'Brien Award winners
  • 4 Lombardi Award winners
  • 3 Doak Walker Award winners
  • 3 William Campbell Award winners
  • 3 Jim Thorpe Award winners


These greats have made memorable moments and created a lore that is hard for other bowls to match. 

In 1979, Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana orchestrated one of the greatest comebacks physically and on the scoreboard. Suffering from hypothermia, due to temperatures that peaked at 24 degrees fahrenheit (−4 celsius), and with winds as powerful as 30 mph, Montana took in a bowl of chicken soup at intermission (the bowl is in the College Football Hall of Fame). Warmed up, Montana heated up in the second half and turned a 34-12 fourth-quarter deficit into a 35-34 Fighting Irish win, completing an eight-yard pass to Kris Haines, with two seconds left to tie the game. The extra point gave Notre Dame the win. 

Weather also was a factor in the 1947 game between No. 8 LSU and No. 16 Arkansas. Frigid temperatures stymied both teams and the game ended 0-0. “The Ice Bowl,” as it has been referred to ever since, was witnessed by 38,000 truly dedicated fans. 

The 2015 Classic saw a much more temperate climate but as furious a rally, as Michigan State came back from 41-21 down in the fourth quarter to edge Baylor, 42-41, scoring the winning TD with 17 seconds remaining. The comeback spoiled a record-setting day by Baylor QB Bryce Petty, who threw for a Cotton Bowl-record 550 yards (36-of-51, with three touchdowns against one interception).

The 2021 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic will feature the No. 1 team in the country for the sixth time, but this is the first of those high-profile tilts that will NOT include Texas. The No. 1 team held on to win the first three of those meetings but has lost the last two. 

What awaits in the 2021 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic is to be determined, but one thing is certain: It will be a classic watch.

For additional information on the Hall of Fame be sure to visit the College Football Hall of Fame and plan your visit  

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