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 Dallas.
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 points, Alabama (12-2) pinned the Buckeyes inside their 10-yard line on three straight possessions.
Alabama took over at the OSU 23 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 OSU at its 5-yard line, but Ezekiel Elliott, who carried 20 times for 230 yards, broke an 85-yard touchdown run, and a two-point conversion made it 42-28. Alabama managed a 6-yard scoring pass from Sims to All-American 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.
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 by Sean Nuernberger when Jones twice fumbled snaps in the backfield and threw three incompletions.
In between those two drives, Elliott lost a fumble that was recovered by Alabama safety Landon Collins at the OSU 33. Two plays later, Crimson Tide running back 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 Alabama 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 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 3-yard scoring run. After a three-and-out series by Alabama, Jones got the ball back at his 23 with 1:32 left in the half. He quickly completed three passes for 37 yards and then scrambled up the middle for 27 more to the Alabama 13-yard line.
That's where the Buckeyes called 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 down to 21-20, and the Crimson Tide 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 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.
But Nick Saban's team wasn't surrendering the way Florida State did to Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Sims dumped a short pass to Henry, who took it 52 yards to the OSU 17 to set up a 5-yard scoring run by Sims that cut the deficit to 34-28 heading to the fourth quarter.