How Ohio State and Alabama Met in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl
The more things change, as the saying goes, the more they remain the same.
Everything seemed different in the 2014 season leading up to the 81st Sugar Bowl. It was the first for the College Football Playoff system, in which teams were vying for a spot among the top four to compete in a “tournament” for the National Championship, replacing the two-team BCS formula.
In its many incarnations over the past nine decades the Sugar Bowl adapted to each with uncommon success, picking its opponents to create the best game possible, or matching the best suitable foe for its official partner from the late ’70s on, the Southeastern Conference. The Sugar Bowl thrived, showcasing 23 national champions in that span.
Now the Sugar Bowl was designated the site of a Playoff Semifinal game, with the winner going on to play for the title, but having no say in who would be slotted for the New Year’s night game.
But the end result was pretty close to what Sugar Bowl observers had come to expect: an intriguing pairing that produced one of the half dozen or so best games in the bowl’s history.
The SEC was perceived as the lord of college football, with a garrison of superpower programs. When the first rankings of the top four came out in October, three were not only from the SEC, but all from the SEC Western Division – which was a combined 28-0 against everyone outside that grouping. On the other end of the spectrum was the Big Ten, seen as a collection of also-rans, fodder for resurgent Ohio State, whose astounding record under former Florida coach Urban Meyer was largely dismissed as having been accumulated against defenseless football urchins.
Alabama won the SEC and earned the No. 1 ranking – it was a 12-1 team hoisted on the shoulders of its No. 1-ranked defense. The Tide’s offensive line didn’t seem as a dominant as the past few seasons, and its quarterback, first-year starter Blake Sims, was inconsistent. Sims was aided tremendously by the presence of wide receiver Amari Cooper, considered the best single football player in the country, and the presence of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, the former head coach at Southern Cal and Tennessee. Sims got better and better as the season progressed, checking with Kiffin after every play for his next move.
The Buckeyes were 12-1, too, a record thought to be built against Lilliputian-like opposition, and with consistent woes at quarterback. A serious Heisman Trophy candidate, Braxton Miller was lost just before the season to a shoulder injury. However, backup J.T. Barrett carried Ohio State through the season, emerging as a possible Heisman winner, too – until he injured his ankle in the season-finale. For the Big Ten Championship Game, a 59-0 beatdown of Wisconsin, and any postseason outing third-stringer Cardale Jones would be at the helm.
Despite its Big Ten title, it wasn’t a given that Ohio State would be selected for the semifinals. TCU, also with just one defeat and ranked as high as third earlier, had a strong case. But after winning by 52 points in their last regular-season game, the Horned Frogs were leapfrogged by the Buckeyes for the fourth spot.
The Sugar Bowl had a pairing of two of the biggest brand names in the sport – No. 1-ranked Alabama and No. 4 Ohio State. The other game in the Rose Bowl matched No. 2 Oregon – and Heisman recipient Marcus Mariota – against defending national champion Florida State, which was looking for its second straight undefeated season.
Any spice that needed adding was provided by the coaches. The Crimson Tide’s Nick Saban, with a reputation as a defensive genius, had already coached four national champion teams. Meyer, an offensive guru, coached two when he was at Florida. Between them, Saban and Meyer combined for five of the last eight national titles.
There were trends that favored Saban. In the Tide’s three national championship appearances under him, beating Texas, LSU, and Notre Dame, Alabama rolled up a cumulative score of 100-35. Also, Ohio State was 0-10 against SEC teams in bowls, excluding the 2011 victory over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, which was vacated because of NCAA sanctions against the program.
On the other hand, Saban’s Crimson Tide lost in its last two Sugar Bowl appearances, to Utah in 2009 and Oklahoma in 2014, meaning Saban was 0-2 in Sugar Bowls during his tenure at Alabama.
Still, no bowl had as much coaching glitter since the 1978 Sugar when the same two schools played, with Bama’s Bear Bryant and his four national titles and the Buckeyes’ Woody Hayes, who had collected three.
That game turned into a Tide blowout, 35-6. This one would be a classic, surprising no one on the sideline of Alabama, a nine-point favorite. “We talked to several coaches in their league who had been in the SEC,” said Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart beforehand. “They all said without a doubt, they’ve (OSU) got an SEC team; they’ve got SEC speed and SEC size. They just don’t play in the SEC. They’ve got a chip on their shoulder. These guys are out to prove something.”
Story by Sugar Bowl historian Marty Mulé, an award-winning sportswriter who covered college football and the Sugar Bowl for the New Orleans Times-Picayune for 33 years.