As officials from the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic spent Thursday reveling in their game’s return to national prominence, Cotton Bowl president Rick Baker reflected on a two-decade journey that led to Wednesday’s confirmation of playoff status for the annual game at Cowboys Stadium.“It’s very emotional… to get back to being involved in the biggest games after almost 20 years of being on the outside looking in,” Baker said. “It’s gratifying and overwhelming. It’s something I’ll never forget.”As one of six bowls in the semifinals playoff rotation under the new College Football Playoff system, widespread changes are coming to the Cotton Bowl. Among the tweaks will be a fresh date for most future games (Dec. 31) and a more national focus in future matchups, with teams assigned by College Football Playoff officials.Those are welcomed changes in Arlington, where Cowboys Stadium will host its final Cotton Bowl matching Big 12 and SEC teams after this season (Jan. 3, 2014), with two high-profile games in a 13-day window the next year — the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 31, 2014, and the first national championship game of the playoff era on Jan. 12, 2015.For the Cotton Bowl, left out of the lucrative top tier of bowl games for almost two decades during the BCS era, Wednesday’s inclusion in the semifinals rotation represents a huge boost in national prestige and annual revenues. It also represents a significant rebound from what Baker cited as the “lowest of lows” in Cotton Bowl history: a rain-soaked, sparsely attended 1996 game played without a title sponsor in an era when bowls need them to help pay the bills.Colorado defeated Oregon 38-6 on Jan. 1, 1996, on a cold, wet day in front of 58,214 fans in Dallas. It remains the smallest crowd in Cotton Bowl history since the Cotton Bowl stadium — the game’s original home — was expanded to seat more than 47,000 for the 1949 contest.Baker said the lack of a title sponsor for that contest, combined with being left out of the BCS loop and having no Southwest Conference champion to boost local ticket sales, drove home the difficulties bowl officials faced to regain lost footing on the college football landscape.“If you ask our board members and civic leaders, they’d all say that was our lowest point,” said Baker, who has seen the game rebound in its new venue and in partnership with AT&T, the game’s title sponsor since 1997. “The last piece of the puzzle for us was the move to Cowboys Stadium. It took our game to another level.”In the game’s four seasons in Arlington, the contest has drawn four of the top five crowds in Cotton Bowl history, including 87,025 for Texas A&M’s 41-13 victory over Oklahoma on Jan. 4. By reaching a new level of national prestige, as driven home by Wednesday’s announcement, the following changes will soon be evident at the Cotton Bowl:• There will be no conference tie-ins for participating teams after this year’s contest.• Officials from the College Football Playoff group will select the Cotton Bowl teams, rather than members of a local bowl committee. In playoff years, the game will feature a matchup of seeded, semifinals opponents (No. 1 vs. No. 4 or No. 2 vs. No. 3). In nonplayoff years, the game will feature an assigned matchup of teams that finish outside the playoff mix. Typically, both teams will rank among the top 12 in whatever system replaces the BCS standings. Both Baker and Tommy Bain, chairman of the Cotton Bowl Athletic Association, said they have been assured that regional geography will be a factor in assigning teams in nonplayoff years.• In seasons that Cowboys Stadium lands a national championship game, the Cotton Bowl also will be played as a nonplayoff contest that year. That will be the case during the 2014 postseason. Administrators have 11 additional championship games to place during the 12-year contract of the College Football Playoff. Officials at Cowboys Stadium have indicated they will seek to land more than one title game during this 12-year cycle.• In seasons that the Cotton Bowl hosts a playoff game, the game’s official name is expected to change that year. Bowl officials said they anticipate a designation along the lines of “College Football Semifinals, presented by the AT&T Cotton Bowl.”• Founded as a traditional New Year’s Day game, the Cotton Bowl’s primary playing date in future seasons will be Dec. 31. The initial Cotton Bowl of the playoff era will be held on Dec. 31, 2014, less than two weeks before the 2015 national championship game. Dates for semifinal matchups during the 12-year tenure of the College Football Playoff contract will be Dec. 31, 2015; Dec. 31, 2018; Dec. 31, 2021, and Dec. 31, 2024. Only once in the first 77 editions of the Cotton Bowl has the contest been played on New Year’s Eve. Georgia defeated SMU 24-9 on Dec. 31, 1966, in what the Cotton Bowl media guide refers to as the “1967 Classic.”• The 2015 championship game will mark the first time college football’s national title has been settled in Dallas-Fort Worth since the 1978 Cotton Bowl, when No. 5 Notre Dame knocked off No. 1 Texas 38-10 vaulting the Irish into the top spot in the final polls.• The 2015 championship game will be administered by officials from the College Football Playoff group, with assistance from Cotton Bowl officials, in much the same way that NCAA representatives oversee the Final Four with help from a local organizing committee.• Ticket allotments for competing teams in national championship games during the College Football Playoff era will be 12,500, down by 5,000 from BCS era minimums. The Cotton Bowl’s minimum in recent years has been 12,500.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch