Ohio State-Oregon championship game is perfect playoff payoff
NEW ORLEANS — Late Thursday night, long after he’d hoisted the Sugar Bowl trophy, a victorious Urban Meyer stood outside Ohio State’s Superdome locker room with his wife, Shelley, greeting well-wishers. Someone asked him about the coming national championship matchup between his fourth-ranked Buckeyes and No. 2 Oregon.
“It’s really cool,” he said. “I just think it’s interesting …” And then he paused. And then he repeated: “It’s really cool.”
A school official whisked Meyer away before he could further elaborate, but we can attempt to surmise where the Ohio State coach was going with that thought train. He probably thinks it’s cool that his own tradition-rich program will be playing for the sport’s biggest prize in a season few would have expected. He probably thinks it’s interesting that two programs on the cutting edge of the sport’s up-tempo spread offense craze will play in the season’s biggest game.
What he would never say, but what we can say for him, is that Thursday’s first-ever playoff semifinal results — Oregon’s 59-20 rout of undefeated Florida State and Ohio State’s 42-35 upset of top-ranked Alabama — capped a day that flipped college football completely upside down.
The Seminoles and Crimson Tide, winners of four of the past five national championships, were eliminated.
The Big Ten’s Ohio State and Michigan State beat top-five opponents in bowl games, while the vaunted SEC West completed a disastrous 2-5 postseason.
That eight-year-old narrative that Northern teams like Ohio State can’t hang with the South’s premier teams? The Buckeyes obliterated it Thursday with their own dazzling display of #SECspeed. Tailback Ezekiel Elliott shredded a Nick Saban defense for 230 yards on 20 carries, including an 85-yard touchdown run, and Ohio State also scored on a 47-yard Devin Smith catch and a 41-yard Steve Miller pick-six.
And Florida State’s season-long insistence that the ‘Noles simply were proving their championship mettle by making all those second-half comebacks against mediocre foes? Marcus Mariota and the Ducks exposed that myth in humbling fashion while also putting to bed for good any lingering notion that Oregon’s system doesn’t fly against a “physical” opponent.
Ohio State-Oregon will be “cool” because, most of all, it’s different. After all, were the BCS still in place, Alabama and Florida State would be playing in the national championship game.
“Obviously we’re really thankful for the playoff system,” Elliott said. “[The committee] gave us a chance to go out there and show that we’re one of the better teams in the nation and we deserve to be in the national championship.”
For the first time since 2005, an SEC team will not play for the national championship. It’s a stunning reversal of fortune for a conference that on Oct. 28 placed three teams (Mississippi State, Auburn and Ole Miss) in the top four of the selection committee’s first rankings. A conference that’s long prided itself on defense saw its three New Year’s Six bowl participants (the Tide, Bulldogs and Rebels) allow 49, 42 and 42 points, respectively, in their defeats.
Meanwhile, the Big Ten is enjoying its best bowl season since Ohio State won the league’s last national title in 2002, a perhaps even more stunning development given how many of us left the conference for dead following the Buckeyes’ Week 2 home loss to Virginia Tech. Wisconsin (over Auburn), Michigan State (over Baylor) and Ohio State all beat highly respected opponents on New Year’s Day.
Meyer made sure his team took notice.
“There’s no doubt that when we saw Wisconsin beat Auburn, that was a major, major moment for us getting ready for this game,” he said. “Maybe the Big Ten’s not that bad. Maybe the Big Ten is pretty damned good.”
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany was more restrained in his comments while watching the Buckeyes’ trophy celebration. But clearly he welcomed a possible turning of the page for his league’s perception.
“Narratives are based on facts, but sometimes narratives overcome the facts,” he said. “Winning big games on big stages — it deserves a reset.”
The entire 2014 season necessitates a reset as we begin 2015. Come Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas, a quarterback, Ohio State’s Cardale Jones, who spent the first 12 games of his team’s season riding the pine, will square off with Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota for the national championship.
Perhaps that surreal scenario is a fitting end to a season in which parity among the nation’s top teams was evident right down to the last day. Had 12-1 TCU been given a shot, the Horned Frogs may well have won one of Thursday’s games. That’s how thin the line was between No. 1 and Nos. 5 through 10.
And the same goes for Oregon and Ohio State. The Ducks will be the favorites, but no one would dare count out the Buckeyes after what they did to Alabama.
“It is really gratifying,” Meyer said of beating the Tide.
Alabama has been the sport’s standard-bearer for seven years. Florida State had been its reigning juggernaut for 29 straight games.
Jan. 12 will be a new day.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, "The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff," is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.