NEW ORLEANS - Real-life conversation from one Ohio State fan to another at New Orleans International Airport the morning after the Buckeyes' eye-opening 42-35 upset of No. 1 Alabama in Thursday night's Sugar Bowl: "Urban came through, didn't he?"
In his third season after taking over a program on probation, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer realized his vision of rebuilding the Buckeyes (13-1) into an SEC-style national power. They sneaked into the first College Football Playoff as the fourth and final seed, but Meyer is positioned for a shot at the national title against Rose Bowl winner Oregon (13-1) on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas.
To get there, Meyer had to change the perception of the Big Ten as a weak player among the power five conferences. What better way than by knocking off archrival Nick Saban and Alabama?
Asked if he had to convince his players they were as good as the Crimson Tide (12-2), Meyer said, "That's true, there's a perception out there that we're not."
Meyer said victories earlier on New Year's Day by fellow Big Ten schools Wisconsin (over Auburn in the Outback Bowl) and Michigan State (over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl) motivated the Buckeyes, who beat both those schools. His players watched the end of Michigan State's upset at the pregame meal, and he saw the excitement on their faces.
"They knew, they knew," Meyer said. "Maybe the Big Ten's not that bad. Maybe the Big Ten is pretty damned good."
The Buckeyes' belief held strong when they fell behind the Crimson Tide 21-6 after committing two turnovers that led to Alabama touchdowns. "The mind is a fragile thing," Meyer said. "You get down against a team that's No. 1 in recruiting every year for the past six or seven years, and our guys know that.
"But we're pretty good, too. We go into East Lansing and beat the team that beat Baylor. And to play the way we did against Wisconsin [a 59-0 shellacking in the Big Ten title game], a team that just beat Auburn, that's the psychological approach to getting them to believe. When we saw Wisconsin beat Auburn, that was a major, major moment for us getting ready for this game."
Meyer and the Buckeyes ran off 28 unanswered points to take control with a 34-21 third-quarter lead. Ezekiel Elliott rushed for a Sugar Bowl-record 230 yards, OSU had 537 yards total offense and third-string quarterback Cardale Jones again was a force in his second career start.
They made a believer of Saban, who said Jones' arm strength allowed Ohio State's passing game to emerge in its past two wins. "I thought they were a very underrated team in terms of how people thought about them, especially the way they played against Wisconsin," Saban said. "I think they're capable of playing with anybody in the country."
Oregon's 59-20 demolition of Florida State ended the Seminoles' 29-game winning streak and left Ohio State with the longest streak in the nation at 12 games. When Meyer was told the Ducks won by nearly 40 points, he pretended to leave the postgame news conference, saying, "Oregon won by 40? I gotta go. We gotta go get ready for that one."
Ohio State is the underdog against Oregon, but having proved themselves against the SEC's best, the Buckeyes gave themselves reason to believe they can win it all.