Identity shift

30

NEW ORLEANS — The college football landscape underwent a transformational shift one night in the Arizona desert eight years ago.

Ohio State’s 41-14 loss to Florida in the BCS championship game represented not just one bad night for a proud power but the creation of a deep-fried monster that would assume a life of its own.

As the Southeastern Conference claimed seven consecutive national titles, other leagues became cast as the junior varsity.

Ohio State might be good but not SEC good and certainly never SEC fast.

On Thursday night, Urban Meyer — with the help of his uncommon Buckeyes team — formally ended the reign he began.

HOW DID BIG TEN FARE IN BOWL GAMES?
BOWL RESULT B1G WIN
Zaxby’s Heart of
Dallas Bowl
Louisiana Tech 35,
Illinois 18
No
Quick Lane Bowl Rutgers 40, UNC 21 Yes
New Era Pinstripe Bowl Penn State 31,
Boston College 30 OT
Yes
National University
Holiday Bowl
Southern California 45,
Nebraska 42
No
Foster Farms Bowl Stanford 45,
Maryland 21
No
Outback Bowl Wisconsin 34,
Auburn 31 OT
Yes
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Michigan State 42,
Baylor 41
Yes
Buffalo Wild Wings
Citrus Bowl
Missouri 33,
Minnesota 17
No
All State Sugar Bowl Ohio State 42,
Alabama 35
Yes
TaxSlayer Bowl Tennessee 45, Iowa 28 No

Ohio State’s 42-35 win against top-seeded Alabama in the Sugar Bowl provided the latest implausible chapter to its storybook season and punctuated a Big Ten bowl mutiny that upended everything we thought we knew.

Meyer came to Ohio State in 2012 to build a deeper, faster program modeled after the titans of the SEC — the way he did in leading Florida to national titles in 2006 and 2008. Three top-five recruiting classes later, he has a team without equal in the once-invincible southern league.

The Buckeyes (13-1) will play second-seeded Oregon for the first College Football Playoff title on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas.

“We’re back,” linebacker Darron Lee said. “We’re back. Those that thought we were gone, we’re back. Be afraid, very afraid.”

It was surprise enough that a Buckeyes team with one win in 11 all-time bowl meetings against SEC teams vanquished, as third-string quarterback Cardale Jones said with a laugh, “the best team from the best conference in the history of the planet.” More surprising was the way they did it, rendering every area in which the Crimson Tide were judged to hold an advantage a Big Easy mirage.

Ezekiel Elliott sprinted for a Sugar Bowl-record 230 yards against a vaunted run defense yet to allow a 100-yard rusher, Jones overcame Alabama’s pressure to throw for 243 yards, and the Buckeyes frustrated a record-setting Crimson Tide offense. Alabama built a 21-6 lead on the strength of two early Buckeyes turnovers.

“We really were not stopping them,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “We had the momentum of the game because of the turnovers. We did not control the football game like we usually do.”

Afterward, Ohio State’s players bounded through a storm of confetti in shirts reading, “WON NOT DONE,” while a familiar cry rang through the Superdome.

“SEC! SEC! SEC!”

Except this time, it came from a pocket of delirious Ohio State fans as Alabama’s players exited the field.

“Maybe, the Big Ten’s not that bad,” Meyer said. “Maybe the Big Ten is pretty damn good.”

And maybe Thursday will be remembered as the day the axis of power shifted.

All 10 Big Ten bowl-bound teams entered their postseason games as underdogs. Five won, including three on a banner New Year’s Day. Michigan State beat No. 5 Baylor while Wisconsin beat Auburn, both results of which gave Ohio State’s players confidence heading into their game. They had a final blast of proof they could play with anyone in the country.

Also, I watched the end of the Michigan State game, and we were pulling hard for them. Our players, you should have seen their face, man, they knew. They knew.
— Urban Meyer

“There’s a perception out here,” Meyer said. “I’ll tell you when I think the tide turned a little bit is when Wisconsin beat Auburn. Everybody on our team knew that. I made sure they knew that. So there’s no doubt that when we saw Wisconsin beat Auburn, that was a major, major moment for us getting ready for this game.

“Also, I watched the end of the Michigan State game, and we were pulling hard for them. Our players, you should have seen their face, man, they knew. They knew.”

Asked afterward if Alabama was the most physical team Ohio State faced this season, Lee said no. That would be Michigan State.

“It was a big day for the Big Ten, and we were glad we were able to put an exclamation point on it tonight,” OSU athletic director Gene Smith said in the hallway outside the Buckeyes’ locker room early Friday morning. “We had our struggles over the years, but our talent level is up and our coaching is up.”

Next up is Oregon, which rocked defending champion Florida State 59-20 in the Rose Bowl. Informed of the score, Meyer smiled and said, “I got to go. We’ve got to go get ready.” The same way the Buckeyes were underdogs against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Alabama, they will be again, with Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota and the Ducks installed as touchdown favorites.

Yet if the Buckeyes’ wild ride has offered any guidance, it might be best to keep an open mind.

“We showed the world that the Big Ten, hey, we’re a powerhouse conference, too, now,” safety Vonn Bell said. “We’re not backing down from anybody.”

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