On Jan. 4, 2013, the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic between Oklahoma and Texas A&M will be played out in front of some of the most passionate college football fans in the country. The final score will send a signal to football fans—which team is truly on the rise and which team still isn't achieving its fans' expectations.
Right now, A&M is a team succeeding in a conference where it wasn't expected to do very well in its inaugural year in the SEC. Good for the Aggies. Their future looks bright with Johnny Manziel as their quarterback for a few more years and a 2013 recruiting class currently ranked No. 7 by Rivals.com.
Oklahoma, once a dominant Big 12 football team, has had moments of greatness this season—such as their Red River Rivalry romp over Texas—followed by moments of inferiority—such as losing 30-13 to Notre Dame. The Sooners' future looks uncertain despite pundits giving them the benefit of the doubt seemingly every preseason. Their class of 2013 is currently ranked No. 20 by Rivals.
A 10-loss regular season is a pretty amazing feat but somehow doesn't look or feel amazing. Oklahoma's two biggest challenges—Kansas State and Notre Dame—resulted in losses. Playing Baylor is no longer an automatic "w" but instead a test of fortitude.
The Sooners' last four games were wins, albeit nail-biters: 42-34 over Baylor, 50-49 over West Virginia, 51-48 (OT) over Oklahoma State and 24-17 over TCU.
The Big 12 is catching up to Oklahoma and it's already caught up with Texas, the other Big 12 heavyweight. Texas head coach Mack Brown is already feeling the heat but if Oklahoma loses to Texas A&M, he'll be in some good company.
Sooners head coach Bob Stoops is a great coach. Bob Stoops is also a pillar of the Norman, Oklahoma community. When you think of Norman, somewhere, in the back of your mind, Stoops is in the picture. He'll probably be in that mental picture for a long time but something has to change for that vision to have more clarity.
A win over Texas A&M would be a positive note with a lot of underlying messages. A two-loss Big 12 team is better than a two-loss SEC team. Stoops is still Big Game Bob. Oklahoma still owns Texas A&M—the Sooners currently have a 19-11 edge in the overall series record.
A win would mark Stoops' fourth consecutive bowl victory as well as tie the school record for consecutive bowl wins. The fact that Stoops has his team in its 14th consecutive bowl, the fifth-longest active streak in FBS, is a testament to his impact in college football.
How worried should Sooner fans be over the current state of the program?
All that will be forgotten with a loss to the Aggies. And suddenly, this will be remembered: Oklahoma commit Greg Bryant, the nation's No. 2 running back prospect, decommitted and flipped to Notre Dame.
With all this flipping, Sooner fans have to be concerned. But the final insult to injury is that Texas A&M opened as a three-point favorite over Oklahoma but is now a 4.5 favorite.
Tulsa World columnist John Hoover explained how Big 12 fans feel about Texas A&M in one paragraph:
This is a program that pulled up 100-year roots in the Big 12 Conference, cut ties with long-time rival Texas - they wrote songs about each other, for Pete's sake - and set up camp in the mighty Southeastern Conference.
Stoops has to win this bowl game. Beating a highly-regarded SEC team would be a definitive statement to both Oklahoma fans and SEC fans: We beat the team that beat the No. 1 team in football. Take that, SEC.
Stoops needs to win this bowl not to save his job—it's not in jeopardy at this point—but to head into the last leg of the recruiting season on a positive note. And to salvage a very good 10-2 season into a great 11-2 season.
It would also signal to naysayers that Sooner football isn't going anywhere. And neither is Bob Stoops.