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 score a 42-35 upset over No. 1 Alabama Thursday night in the Sugar Bowl before a Superdome crowd of 74,682.
The Buckeyes (13-1) were rated sixth in the penultimate rankings but moved into the top four when the selection committee dropped TCU from third to sixth. Coach Urban Meyer's team made the most of the opportunity and helped him even his record against Alabama coach Nick Saban at 2-2 and advance to the CFP championship game against Oregon Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas.
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 43 yards. But after pulling within six points, Alabama (12-2) pinned the Buckeyes inside their 10 on three straight possessions.
Alabama took over at the OSU 23 after a 21-yard punt, but Blake Sims threw an interception on first down. The next Alabama possession ended in a punt that put OSU at its 5-yard line, but Ezekiel Elliott, who carried 20 times for 230 yards and was named the game's outstanding offensive player, broke an 85-yard scoring run, and a two-point conversion made it 42-28.
Alabama managed a 6-yard scoring pass from Sims to Amari Cooper to pull within seven and got the ball with 1:33 left, but a desperation heave to the end zone was intercepted by Tyvis Powell as time expired.
Asked about playing one more game in the new system against Oregon, which dominated Florida State, 59-20, in the Rose Bowl, Meyer said, "I'd take these guys anywhere. If we had to play 10 more games, we'd play 10 more."
Meyer praised his team for its "resilience" after trailing 21-6 in the second quarter. "This might be the closest group of players I've ever been around," he said. "Playing for each other, that's how we did it."
Two first-half turnovers by Ohio State and the foibles of Jones threatened to serve the second semifinal 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 by Sean Nuernberger. A fumble by Elliott at the OSU 33 set up a 25-yard scoring run by Alabama's Derrick Henry. The Crimson Tide also got a too-easy 9-yard TD pass from Sims to All-American Amari Cooper (nine catches for 71 yards) and a 4-yard run from T.J. Yeldon for the 21-6 lead.
But when Jones found the range on two deep balls of 26 yards each down the middle to wideout Jalin Marshall on the Buckeyes' next drive, things began to fall into place. Elliott completed that drive with a 2-yard scoring run.
Just before halftime, Jones broke a 27-yard run that set up a trick-play TD. Wide receiver Evan Spencer ran a reverse and threw 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.
The Buckeyes 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 Devin Smith, who was wide-open when cornerback Eddie Jackson fell down. 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.
They rallied for two more TDs but couldn't keep up with the underrated Buckeyes. OSU linebacker Darron Lee, who was the defensive player of the game with three tackles for a loss, including two sacks, had what sounded like a warning for Oregon: "Those that thought we were gone, we're back. Be afraid, be very afraid."