ARLINGTON – Watching Henry Josey run for his third touchdown against Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl was like seeing a ghost. You weren't sure you saw it at all, and it definitely wasn't supposed to be there.
Last year Josey didn’t get to play football. And Missouri didn’t make a bowl game for the first time since 2004. Now he and the Tigers are Cotton Bowl winners, after a 41-31 victory at AT&T Stadium. The junior running back had 94 yards and those three rushing touchdowns, showing good burst and reads on his cuts, and Missouri won 12 games for the first time since the 2007-08 season. That also happens to be the last time the Tigers were in the Cotton Bowl.
Josey missed the entire 2012 season after a knee injury he suffered against Texas. At the time, Mizzou athletics head physician Dr. Pat Smith said, “It’s a tragic fluke, a one-in-a-million type of injury.” There were doubts whether he’d ever play again. On Friday night, he was awarded outstanding player of the game and was taking questions about his draft status.
“He’s special,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “That’s what you see on the field. But the reason he’s special, he’s got great athleticism, he’s tough, he’s strong, all those other things. But his heart, you can’t measure how big it is, his determination, his perseverance. Once he overcame that injury, I mean, you know, you grow from those things. He’s now different now. Remarkably he’s an even better player now.”
There was a scare on one of Josey’s long runs early in the game when Daytawion Lowe was flagged for a face mask and kind of for throwing Henry Josey into one of the bright and shiny AT&T barriers protecting the Missouri cheerleaders. It was hard not to think about the hit that shoved Josey into the cart on the sidelines in the SEC championship against Auburn. Josey was okay, and after the penalty the Tigers had first-and-goal. Josey scored two plays later on a three-yard run to put Mizzou up 7-0.
That seemed to wake up the crowd and the Cowboys’ offense, which went 75 yards in five plays, including a 40-yard Clint Chelf-to-Josh Stewart score to tie it up on the next possession. It was a dogfight from there, with Oklahoma State eventually taking a 31-27 lead off a Desmond Roland two-yard score coming off back-to-back big plays from Cowboys’ senior QB Chelf.
Missouri answered right back with that third Josey score from 16 yards out, and OSU had the ball down 34-31. Chelf (33-of-57, 381 yards, 3 total TDs) looked to have a bit more magic in him, but his fumble recovered by Shane Ray taken 73 yards for a touchdown sealed it for the Tigers.
It’s only fitting the Cotton Bowl is going to be part of the College Football Playoff rotation. Missouri and Oklahoma State are exactly the type of teams looking to benefit from the new system. With a little luck, the Cowboys or the Tigers will get to play there again in a game that means even more. AT&T Stadium will be the home to the 2014-15 National Championship, and the Cotton Bowl will be a semifinal game in 2015-16 and every third year after that.
“I just don’t know if there’s a better facility out there that puts on a show and is accommodating to the game,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “It’s very impressive. I think that whoever made the decision made a good decision to give these people the opportunity to have that national championship game.”
Coming into the game, there was the sense both teams were sitting at the nexus of two different planes of existence. Oklahoma State was a win away from a Big 12 title. Missouri was a win away from potentially playing in the national championship.
There’s an identity crisis in play for the Cowboys and the Tigers. Are they aiming to be elite? When you’ve been tenured as long as both Gundy and Pinkel have, the fluctuations that surround other programs tend not to constrict and suffocate. But how much further can Missouri and Oklahoma State climb?
If the goal is consistently winning 10 games and having a shot at the college football playoff down the road, OSU and Mizzou are right there. If there’s the aspiration for something greater, someone’s likely going to be disappointed, whether you have a running back as talented as Josey or not.
Maybe that’s not such a bad place to be in the long run. The future is still so unknown with how much college football will change when the playoff finally arrives. As former Oklahoma State running back and Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders told SI.com back in November,
“It’s been talked about for so long, and those individuals who watched the game in my era, we remember the days when you had champions crowned and there was always a dispute or an argument. “Have they played such-and-such team?” You have two teams finishing at the top, both of them were undefeated, and they never played each other. It was always in doubt."
The only thing in doubt now is whether or not the existence of dynasties is still possible. A team can’t dominate its conference, go undefeated and suddenly be awarded a shot at the title. Before the BCS arrived, you didn't even have a chance to settle it between two teams. With the playoff in place, this opens the door for Missouri, Oklahoma State, or even a Baylor, UCF or Michigan State to have a hot season and parlay that into a darkhorse championship appearance.
The teams that are “consistently good, not occasionally great” (to borrow a phrase from Bowling Green coach Dino Babers) are now at an advantage they weren’t afforded before. There are more seats at the table now from year to year. The Tigers – and the Cowboys – are hungry for more.
"They say we have to get back to the attitude and compete for championships around here," Pinkel said. "This is what they're telling me in January and February in my office. We went about that, goal setting. Certainly more emphasis with our team on those things. We stayed very healthy this year. But certainly the senior class, I'll always remember them for getting Mizzou back to its winning ways."