January 2, 2010

Cotton a consolation prize for Rebels, Cowboys

MORE: Cotton Bowl: Who gets the edge? | Bowl schedule/results

A Cotton Bowl clash between Ole Miss and Oklahoma State would be cause for great excitement and anticipation -- if this were 2003.

When the Rebels and Cowboys completed their seasons in Dallas six years ago, the Cotton Bowl was a step up in stature for two programs whose postseason appearances usually were in lower-tier games such as the Independence, Alamo or Sun bowls.

But this season, the Cotton Bowl is a consolation prize.

Despite the opportunity to play in the Dallas Cowboys' palatial new stadium, only the most ardent optimist would disagree it's not a destination of disappointment.

"Any bowl game is good for us," said Ole Miss running back/receiver Dexter McCluster, who fits that optimist role. "We're happy to be going there. We had a good run there last year [a 47-34 win over Texas Tech]. We need to get another win under our belt.

"We definitely want to play another game. We've been in bowl games now two years in a row. The program hasn't done that for a while [this is the first time since 1999-2000], so we're happy."

Still, the Rebels would be happier if they were playing in New Orleans -- or Pasadena. The same goes for the Cowboys.

This was supposed to be a breakout season for Ole Miss and Oklahoma State. Both were ranked in the preseason top 10, determined to challenge the established powers in their divisions. The Rebels and Cowboys seemingly were within reach of their first BCS appearances.

Each had a good season, just not quite good enough. Each also ended the regular season with stunning losses to in-state rivals.

Texas and Oklahoma typically dominate the Big 12 South, but Oklahoma State was seen as a legitimate contender primarily because seven starters returned from an offense that ranked sixth in the nation in 2008.

But the Cowboys were upset early by Houston, fell to Texas 41-14 on Halloween night and closed the regular season with a 27-0 loss to Oklahoma that eliminated them from Fiesta Bowl consideration.

The Cowboys still managed nine wins, but it could have been much better. Before the season started, starting middle linebacker Orie Lemon was lost for the year with an injury and starting tight end Jamal Mosley quit the team. Later, running back Kendall Hunter suffered an injury that forced him to miss most of the season. Wide receiver Dez Bryant, perhaps the best in the nation at his position, was suspended for the year after he played in just three games.

Senior offensive tackle Russell Okung, a projected first-round pick, said the Cowboys are taking a glass-half-full approach.

"We didn't meet our goals, but a lot of teams don't," he said. "You've got to put that aside and keep pushing. I'm glad we're just playing. You've got to be excited just to play football.

"It's another great opportunity. I'm a God-fearing man. God gives you a chance to do something every day. And no day is promised to you, so you accept the challenge."

Ole Miss had a challenging season, too.

The Rebels were No. 4 in the polls three weeks into the season. But in a 16-10 loss to South Carolina, it was apparent they sorely missed offensive tackle Michael Oher and wide receiver Mike Wallace, who had gone on to the NFL.

Two weeks later, they fell to Alabama. They were upset by Auburn on Halloween. They closed the regular season by falling to Mississippi State 41-27 in a game that wasn't that close.

If the Rebels can win the Cotton Bowl, they would reach nine victories for the second season in a row. Ole Miss hasn't posted nine wins in consecutive seasons since 1961-62.

"Of course you think what might have been, but you can't worry about that," defensive end Kentrell Lockett said. "You have to buckle it up and make the best of the situation. A lot of teams would love to be where we are."

And, truthfully, the Rebels and Cowboys would love to be somewhere else.

MORE: Cotton Bowl: Who gets the edge? | Bowl schedule/results

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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