The Cotton Bowl is experiencing arguably its finest hour as a New Year’s Six Bowl in the College Football Playoff. Long the destination for the Southwest Conference Champion (SWC), it took a hit when the SWC folded and the Bowl Championship Series cast it aside.
Now it's back in its rightful place as one of college football’s premier bowls, which is good because it has historically hosted great teams and players. Saturday’s matchup marks Clemson’s first Cotton Bowl Classic appearance since 1940, and Notre Dame’s eighth all-time and first since 1994. In fact, Notre Dame has played in two of the five greatest Cotton Bowls of all time. Take a look.
5. TCU 28, Syracuse 27
Jan. 1, 1957
The Horned Frogs jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but Syracuse running back Jim Brown — in his final collegiate game — returned the ensuing kickoff 30 yards. He then accounted for 59 of Syracuse’s next 70 yards, including a two-yard touchdown run. Another four-yard touchdown run by Brown with 1:02 left in the half tied the game at 14-14. Two fumbles by Brown allowed TCU to take a 28-14 fourth-quarter lead. He then returned the following kickoff 46 yards to the TCU 49 and scored on a one-yard touchdown run 13 plays later. Brown then lined up to kick the extra point, but Chico Mendoza smashed through the Syracuse line to block it. Syracuse scored again but ran out of time. Brown finished the game with 132 yards on 26 carries, three touchdowns, 20 yards passing, 96 yards on kickoff returns, and three out of four extra points.
4. Texas 21, Notre Dame 17
Jan. 1, 1970
Notre Dame made its first bowl appearance in 45 years (the Irish did not accept bowl bids between from 1926 to 1969) against top-ranked Texas. Notre Dame had a passing attacked led by Joe Theismann, while Texas was scorching the college football world with its revolutionary wishbone offense. With 6:52 left in the fourth quarter, Theismann hit Jim Yoder with a 24-yard touchdown pass to put the Irish up 17-14. Texas responded with a 76-yard touchdown run that culminated in a one-yard touchdown run by Billy Day to put the Longhorns ahead with 68 seconds remaining in the game. The Irish ran out of time and Texas secured its second consensus national championship.
3. Houston 17, Nebraska 14
Jan. 1, 1980
Both Nebraska and Houston were tied in the fourth quarter when Houston’s Kenny Hatfield booted a 41-yard field goal with 8:25 to go. Nebraska recovered a Houston fumble and scored six plays later to put the Huskers up 14-10 with about four minutes left. Houston took over on its own 34-yard line with 3:48 remaining and Cougar quarterback Terry Elston drove his team down the field. Facing 4th-and-1 one on the Nebraska six-yard line with 19 seconds remaining, Elston took the snap and fired the ball through three defenders to Eric Herring, who bobbled it before securing the ball and the win.
2. Michigan State 42, Baylor 41
Jan. 1, 2015
The highest-scoring Cotton Bowl of all time also produced one of its greatest comebacks. Bryce Petty threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to LaQuon McGowan midway through the third quarter to put Baylor up 41-21 and it appeared that the game was clinched. Then Michigan State shut down the Bears’ offense and put together two fourth-quarter touchdown drives. Leading 41-35 with 1:15, Baylor lined up to attempt a field goal, but it was blocked by Marcus Rush and then returned to the Bears’ 45-yard line by R.J. Williamson. The Spartans scored 49 seconds later and then intercepted a last-ditch pass by Petty to secure the win.
1. Notre Dame 35, Houston 34
Jan. 1, 1979
Dallas’ temperamental weather was always a factor in the Cotton Bowl before the completion of Cowboys Stadium. The 1979 game was played a day after the city’s worst ice storm in 30 years. When Houston and Notre Dame emerged for the third quarter with the Cougars leading 20-12, Irish quarterback Joe Montana remained in the locker room battling hypothermia. The Notre Dame staff warmed him with blankets and fed him chicken bouillon. When Montana returned with 7:37 left in the fourth quarter, Houston’s lead was 34-12. Notre Dame blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown. Montana then came in and executed the two-point conversion. He then led another scoring drive and two-point conversion to close the gap to 34-28. The tying score came on an eight-yard touchdown pass from Montana to Kris Haines as time expired. Kicker Joe Unis then nailed the extra point for the win. Today, the “Chicken Soup Game” is part of the legend of Joe Montana.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.