NEW ORLEANS -- The play that changed everything -- the game, the first-ever College Football Playoff and the sport’s landscape across the nation -- came late in the fourth quarter of No. 1 Alabama’s gripping Sugar Bowl semifinal against No. 4 Ohio State. The Buckeyes spent a majority of the period in the shadows of their goalposts, languishing on offense while trying to protect a precious one-score lead.
But a quarter of offensive futility vanquished in the most fitting manner possible: with a burst of speed. Ohio State tailback Ezekiel Elliott received an inside handoff, rocketed through a hole in the left side of the line and ran 85 yards into Ohio State lore. As he crossed the goal line with no would-be tackles near him, he delivered the knockout blow in the Buckeyes’ 42-35 victory. Along the way, he may have left a lot of college football perceptions vanquished in his wake.
The snarky way to refer to Elliott’s game-defining burst is with the term Big Ten speed, a nod to the SEC speed we’ve heard all about for years. Yet the reality of this victory, coupled with a pair of Big Ten wins earlier in the afternoon, is that Thursday could be remembered as the day when the axis of college football power shifted -- at least marginally -- away from the South.
No. 4 Ohio State will play No. 2 Oregon in the inaugural College Football Playoff final. It will be the first time an SEC team won’t play in the title game since 2005, and the second straight season in which there won’t be an SEC champion. It can be dangerous to read too much into a few bowl wins (and the Michigan hiring of Jim Harbaugh), as the league has won just two national titles since 1970. (Or half as many as Nick Saban.) But the SEC West’s 2-5 record this bowl season -- thank goodness for Arkansas and Texas A&M -- shows the college football world is flattening out. When next year’s preseason rankings are released, there will be more attention paid to regions outside the Southeast. “I’m tired of hearing about the SEC,” Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett said.
Over a shocking 72-hour span, Bennett got his wish: Notre Dame edged LSU 31-28; TCU smashed Ole Miss 41-3; Georgia Tech ran all over Mississippi State 49-34; and Wisconsin stunned Auburn 34-31 in overtime. In the raucous Ohio State locker room after Thursday’s win, linebacker Joshua Perry offered this advice to those who view SEC superiority as a given: “Flip on the film.”
The film from New Year’s Day showed how this Ohio State program has come full circle since Urban Meyer inherited it in November 2011. He arrived in Columbus two years after his career spiraled following Florida’s 32-13 loss to Nick Saban and Alabama in the 2009 SEC title game. Meyer landed in the hospital that night, stepped down later that month and returned for one unmemorable season with the Gators. He then took a year off to get mentally and physically healthy before going about the task of building Ohio State into a program that could beat a power like Alabama. “I can lie to you and say, ‘Oh no,’” Meyer said in a quiet moment long after the game ended. “It is really gratifying. It’s not so much them. If it’s Alabama, if it’s Oregon. Whoever the top school is, that’s who you look at.”
He added: “If some [NFL] coach says he’s not trying to build a beat the Patriots, he’s lying to you. That’s what they’re trying to do.”
Meyer has built for this moment since his first offseason conditioning with the program prior to the 2012 season. He recruited size in the trenches that allowed Ohio State to dominate up front, as the Buckeyes ran for 281 yards on a defense that entered the game allowing 88.7 yards per outing. Ohio State’s defensive front four kept Bama in check just enough, as the Crimson Tide rushed for 170 yards on 34 carries. But Ohio State’s average of 6.7 yards per carry, compared to Alabama’s clip of 5.0, showed the Buckeyes won the battle in the trenches. “We ran the ball really well,” Ohio State strength coach Mickey Marotti said. “We’ve got some tough kids. I love those kids, man. They crave that stuff, the toughness.”
Marotti said his job at Ohio State has been to mold a team that can compete with Alabama, the SEC and now beyond. His actions spoke louder than words in the bowels of the Superdome, as he was so overcome with emotion that he stumbled around like a punch-drunk boxer. “It’s history,” he said with a smile. “It’s history.”
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Other than in the trenches, the SEC’s supposed areas of superiority were its speed and depth. But Ohio State proved to be every bit as dynamic as Alabama. “I know how fast I am,” said wide receiver Devin Smith, who caught a 47-yard touchdown to give the Buckeyes a 27-21 third-quarter lead. And it’s hard to question Ohio State’s depth as Cardale Jones, the serendipitous third-string quarterback, led his team to its second consecutive win on a prominent stage. The looming matchup against Oregon on Jan. 12 will give Jones a chance to complete one of the most improbable runs in college football history.
The setting, the opponent and the sight of grinning Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany dripped with irony on Thursday night. Delany beamed as he walked on to the field after defensive back Tyvis Powell caught his game-clinching interception as time expired. Delany finally experienced the end of a bowl season in which he didn’t have to hear questions about his league flopping in the spotlight.
Consider all the factors that led to this moment: After the 2011 season, Alabama played LSU for the national title here in New Orleans. That game provided the peak of SEC braggadocio. No one will admit it publicly, but the fact that two SEC teams played for the title that year and shut out the other power leagues led to the paradigm shift in thought with commissioners and presidents that ended the BCS.
If Delany wasn’t the last playoff convert, he was one of them. He embraced the stale party lines about regular-season sanctity and the importance of the bowls, as well as laughable excuses like players missing class time.
So, when I asked Delany if there was anything to this moment -- a Big Ten team finally breaking through against the SEC in New Orleans -- his smile could have lit up the Eiffel Tower. “No irony,” he said, his grin belying his words. “It’s kind of a reset,” he said of the Big Ten’s inferiority narrative.
Ohio State’s big night capped the Big Ten’s big day. And with a statement that will reverberate through college football for months, and perhaps longer, Ohio State quieted the SEC hype for a little while. Meyer built this program to beat the SEC, and the rest of the Big Ten followed suit enough to keep up. “We had to do that,” Meyer said of the Big Ten’s performance, “because enough is enough.”
While Elliott’s mad dash offered the game’s defining highlight, it may resonate through the Big Ten and beyond for years to come.