NEW ORLEANS – Yes, college football fans, you have a new playoff system that works.
Ohio State, which sneaked into the first College Football Playoff in controversial fashion as the fourth team, overcame a 15-point first-half deficit to upset No. 1 Alabama 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl.
Ezekiel Elliott ran for 230 yards on 20 carries with two touchdowns for the Buckeyes (13-1), who were rated sixth in the penultimate rankings but moved into the top four when the selection committee dropped Texas Christian from third to sixth. Coach Urban Meyer's team made the most of its opportunity, advancing to face Oregon on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas.
Oregon beat defending national champion Florida State 59-20 in the Rose Bowl.
"Oregon won by 40?" Meyer said when told the Rose Bowl score during his postgame news conference. "I've got to go. We've got to go get ready."
Ohio State scored 28 unanswered points to take a 34-21 lead behind the terrific play of third-string quarterback Cardale Jones, who completed 18 of 35 passes for 243 yards and one touchdown and rushed for another 43 yards. But after pulling within six, Alabama (12-2) pinned the Buckeyes inside their 10-yard line on three consecutive possessions.
Alabama took over at the Ohio State 23-yard line following a 21-yard punt, but quarterback Blake Sims threw an interception on first down. The next Alabama possession ended in a punt that put the Buckeyes at their 5-yard line, but Elliott broke an 85-yard touchdown run, and a two-point conversion made it 42-28.
"I knew going into the game that the Alabama defensive front was going to be very tough, very big, very physical," Elliott said. "I knew I was going to have to hit those holes hard, break a couple of arm tackles."
Alabama managed a 6-yard TD pass to All-America Amari Cooper to pull within seven and got the ball with 1:33 left, but Sims' desperation heave to the end zone was intercepted by Tyvis Powell as time expired.
"We're good enough," said Meyer, a two-time national championship-winning coach at Florida who improved to 37-3 in his three seasons at Ohio State. "That was a sledgehammer game. That was a classic. So, we are good enough."
Two first-half turnovers by Ohio State and the early foibles of Jones threatened to serve the game to Alabama on a silver platter. The Buckeyes twice had first-and-goal situations in the first quarter but settled for field goals of 22 and 21 yards.
In between those two drives, Elliott lost a fumble that was recovered by Alabama's Landon Collins at the Ohio State 33. Two plays later, Derrick Henry broke a 25-yard scoring run. Alabama ended the first quarter with a 79-yard drive that culminated with a too-easy 9-yard TD pass from Sims to Cooper for a 14-6 lead.
When Ohio State's Jones began the second quarter by throwing an interception directly to cornerback Cyrus Jones, who returned it 32 yards to the OSU 15, things looked bleak indeed for the Buckeyes. A 2-yard touchdown run by T.J. Yeldon pushed the Tide's lead to 21-6.
But when Jones began to find the range on the Buckeyes' next drive, things began to fall into place. Elliott completed that drive with a 3-yard scoring run. After a three-and-out series by Alabama, Ohio State advanced to the Alabama 13 before calling a trick play that had wide receiver Evan Spencer running a reverse and throwing a 13-yard TD pass to Michael Thomas, who made an acrobatic catch and got one foot down a millimeter inbounds like a ballerina balancing on the head of a pin.
Suddenly, Alabama's halftime lead was 21-20, and it had been outgained 348-139, which was a pretty good indication of how momentum was flowing.
The Buckeyes made it 21 unanswered points when they took the second-half kickoff and went 75 yards in six plays to take a 27-21 lead on a 47-yard pass from Jones to wide-open Devin Smith. When Ohio State defensive end Steve Miller dropped into coverage on the next Alabama series and returned an interception 41 yards for a 34-21 lead, the avalanche was coming down on the No. 1 Crimson Tide (12-2), which ultimately was denied an opportunity to play for its fourth national championship in six years.
"It was a breakthrough win, against a very good — an excellent team," Meyer said.