NEW ORLEANS — Urban Meyer and Nick Saban have squared off with a right to play for the national championship before, but no one could have forecast what took place in the 2015 Sugar Bowl.
In the first instant classic of the playoff era, Ohio State defeated the favored Crimson Tide 42-35 to advance to the national championship game on Jan. 12 against Oregon.
The action-packed semifinal was a game of runs, big plays, dramatic swings, elite coaching and two rabid fan bases in one of the most vibrant cities in the world.
And it proved why college football has been salivating for a playoff for decades.
With just over three minutes to play in the first half, Alabama had a 21-6 lead. Ohio State made crucial mistakes. Quarterback Cardale Jones looked flustered and shaky and the offense had missed opportunities to put points on the board.
But offensive coordinator Tom Herman shook up his gameplan and allowed Jones to attack the Crimson Tide secondary. The 250-pound gunslinger found a rhythm at the end of the first half, and with the help of a trick play, rallied the Buckeyes with big throws and emphatic runs.
"I never would have thought we would have been in this position," Jones said. "We weren't supposed to be in this position. We just beat the No. 1 team in the world."
Ohio State rattled off 28 unanswered points to take a 34-21 lead late in the third quarter. As expected, Alabama never went away, cutting the lead to six with 1:01 left in the third and then against to seven points with 1:59 left in the fourth quarter.
When Blake Sims' Hail Mary attempt landed into the waiting arms of Tyvis Powerll as time expired, the Scarlet and Gray half of the Superdome erupted into a celebration befitting of the Big Easy on New Year's Day.
Regardless of who won, college football was the real winner Thursday. The performance from both teams validated the College Football Playoff in just its first year of action.
Earlier in the day on the other side of the country, the other semifinal was less dramatic with Oregon defeating Florida State 59-20 in the Rose Bowl but no less significant. The Ducks' win ended Florida State's 29-game win streak and bid to win a second national title.
And the best part? One more game to determine a national champion.
"It's awesome. It's perfect," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said after the game. "This is the first year and everyone is already talking about eight. The reality is you will always have someone left out. But this works. Today we had phenomenal football games. I think it's worked."
The former BCS system likely would have placed the undefeated, defending champions (Florida State) against the one-loss No. 1-rated SEC champs (Alabama) into a one-game playoff. Now both teams are eliminated.
Instead of Florida State-Alabama, Arlington will play host to two teams left for dead in the first month of the season.
The experts certainly weren't predicting an Oregon-Ohio State battle. In the system's first year, the sport has already witnessed two of the sport's most historic games. In a battle of two Heisman Trophy quarterbacks in the most gorgeous of settings, Oregon ended Florida State's dominance. Meanwhile, Ohio State did something few believed possible.
College football gets to do it all again next week in Texas.
To no one's surprise, Oregon is a touchdown favorite over Ohio State to win the season's final game in Arlington. So let the drama and prognostication begin again.
"Underdogs again?" freshman linebacker and Sugar Bowl Defensive MVP Darron Lee said. "When will they ever learn?"