Ducks, Bucks change everything

NEW ORLEANS -- While No. 4 Ohio State was making its final preparations to play No. 1 Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Thursday night, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer couldn't take his eyes off the TV.

As Ohio State's coaches and players ate their pregame meal and then loaded their buses for the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where they would play the Crimson Tide in one of the two semifinal games of the inaugural College Football Playoff, Meyer couldn't help but notice the results of other bowl games on New Year's Day.

No. 18 Wisconsin, which lost to Ohio State 59-0 in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 6, knocked off No. 19 Auburn 34-31 in overtime in the Outback Bowl.

No. 8 Michigan State, which the Buckeyes beat 49-37 on the road on Nov. 8, came from 20 points down in the fourth quarter to stun No. 5 Baylor 42-41 in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.

Maybe the Buckeyes were really good enough to upset the Crimson Tide, who had won two of the past three BCS national championships and were favored to beat Ohio State by more than a touchdown.

"Maybe the Big Ten's not that bad," Meyer told his players. "Maybe the Big Ten is pretty damned good."

The Buckeyes were more than good Thursday night. After two turnovers put Ohio State in an early 21-6 hole, the Buckeyes scored 28 straight points and then broke open the game on tailback Ezekiel Elliott's 85-yard touchdown run for a 42-28 lead with 3:24 to go. They held off Alabama's furious rally in the final three minutes and then won the game when safety Tyvis Powell intercepted a pass in the end zone on the final play of a 42-35 victory.

Finally, after losing 10 straight bowl games against SEC opponents (the Buckeyes had to vacate a 31-26 victory over Arkansas in the 2011 Sugar Bowl because of NCAA sanctions), Ohio State slayed the giant.

"Coach maybe brought it up a little bit," quarterback Cardale Jones said. "He told us we just beat the best team from the best conference in the history of the planet."

What Meyer didn't see on New Year's Day was the result of the other national semifinal game, which ended shortly before the Sugar Bowl kicked off. No. 2 Oregon blasted No. 3 Florida State 59-20 in the Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual, ending the defending national champion's 29-game winning streak.

"Oregon won by 40?" Meyer asked, after a reporter told him the final score.

"Oh, oh," said Elliott, who was sitting next to him on a podium during the postgame news conference.

"I gotta go," Meyer said, as he started to climb out of his chair. "We gotta go get ready for that one."

The Buckeyes will have 10 days to prepare for the high-flying Ducks before playing them in the College Football Playoff Championship presented by AT&T on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas. The Buckeyes will have to be just as good or even better than they were against Alabama. Oregon scored on six straight possessions in the second half against the Seminoles, with four touchdowns coming after FSU turnovers.

Oregon became the first team to score 50 points in the 101-year history of the Rose Bowl and handed the Seminoles the worst bowl loss by a defending national championship since the Associated Press started its poll in 1936.

"It's incredible," said Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, who threw for 338 yards with two touchdowns for the Ducks. "I'm so proud of these guys right here. We've got one more to take care of."

The irony is that if college football were still determining its champion in the old Bowl Championship Series system, the Buckeyes and Ducks probably wouldn't have even had opportunities to play for a national title. Alabama and Florida State, which was the only remaining unbeaten FBS team, probably would have played for the BCS championship.

"Obviously, we're really thankful for the playoff system," said Elliott, who ran for 230 yards, a Sugar Bowl record. "They 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. So I think the playoff system definitely helped."

At least Meyer now knows his team is good enough to play with anyone. The Buckeyes weren't supposed to be here after losing starting quarterback Braxton Miller in the preseason, falling to Virginia Tech 35-21 at home Sept. 6 and then losing quarterback J.T. Barrett to a fractured right ankle in the regular-season finale against Michigan.

Jones, who completed 18-of-35 passes for 243 yards with one touchdown and one interception against Alabama, was making only his second career start after he was forced into action after Barrett's injury.

"They're good enough," Meyer said. "That was a sledgehammer game. That was a classic, so we are good enough."

The Buckeyes didn't even seem to be in position to claim one of the four spots for the playoff until they routed Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. Even after that convincing victory, many wondered if Big 12 co-champions Baylor or TCU were more deserving. In the end, the playoff selection committee chose Ohio State.

"We've got an extreme chip on our shoulders and had something to prove," Ohio State receiver Devin Smith said. "I'd say we proved it tonight."

And maybe, after Ohio State and Oregon won convincingly, college football's landscape changed dramatically in the first year of the playoff. The SEC, which saw its teams win seven BCS championships in a row from 2006 to 2012, can't win a national title for the second season in a row. The SEC West, which was considered the sport's best division and had both Alabama and Mississippi State ranked No. 1 in the country at times this season, is an unsightly 2-5 in bowl games.

Maybe everyone else, including Ohio State and Oregon, has closed the gap on the once-mighty SEC. The SEC's last hope for redemption was the Crimson Tide, and it sure seemed like the SEC's dominance ended on the first day of 2015, or at least shortly after midnight, when Elliott burst through the defense for his backbreaking, 85-yard touchdown run.

"At the end of the day, there are great teams in college football across the country," Smith said. "I wouldn't say there's one team or conference that's supreme. There's obviously a perception about how great the SEC is, and it has had great success. But there are great teams around the country, and we happened to be one of them tonight."

Added Meyer: "I think the Big Ten Conference, the conference that we're a part of, certainly showed that it is getting better. That's not saying that the last couple of years maybe we weren't, because there's one way to silence people, and that's to go out and play. We're a bunch of good coaches and players that worked their tails off and investing in a lot of resources into these traditionally great programs.

"So at some point, you're going to get good results," he said. "[I'm] very fired up for our conference right now, because at some point, it gets exhausting when you keep hearing and hearing, and then you start believing."

After the first day of the first College Football Playoff, the Buckeyes and Ducks were better than everybody else.

The best news: We're finally getting to settle the debate on the field. Ten days from now, we'll know which team is the best.