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The last time Ohio State and Alabama played matters a lot more now

The 2015 Sugar Bowl changed things, and not just in ‘The Heart of the South.’

Photo by Tyler Kaufman/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

As we gaze into the approaching maw of another blue-bloods-only title game, I’ve been thinking: When is a football game old enough to be accurately measured for its significance? How do we determine an acceptable aging process before we can measure the historical value of a given moment, or even really understand it?

I’m gonna say like… six years and two weeks. That’s the last time Ohio State and Alabama football played in the postseason, at the 2015 Sugar Bowl. Sound like a reasonable amount of time?

1. First, a quick callback to the 1992 SEC Championship between Florida and Alabama. The game was the first of its kind, created when former league commissioner Roy Kramer hatched the idea of conference divisions and a championship game. ESPN made an entire documentary, subtly titled “The Play That Changed College Football,” about how controversial this idea was at the time. Dissenting voices focused on how a conference title game could cannibalize a national title contender like the undefeated ‘92 Tide.

Accordingly, the titular play — Alabama defensive back Antonio Langham’s interception of Florida’s Shane Matthews — was appropriated as a proof of concept that, instead of a potential pitfall, conference championship games could help bolster the resume of a national title contender.

2. Compare Langham’s interception with Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott’s “85 yards through The Heart of The South,” 22 years later. The 2015 Sugar Bowl semifinal was a massive upset in the second-ever game of the inaugural College Football Playoff. The Buckeyes entered the bracket as a controversial No. 4 seed following the 2014 season (remember the bitter debate about the exclusion of both members of the Revivalry?). Earlier in the day No. 2 Oregon had handled No. 3 Florida State in the Rose Bowl (you definitely remember this part).

Up 34-28 with 5:24 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Buckeyes’ offense under third string quarterback Cardale Jones (we’ll get there in a bit) had stalled dramatically as the game wore on (the Buckeyes had -12 yards in the fourth quarter at this point).

You can watch the whole thing here, but the gist is that Ohio State was scraping for yards, and after Jones barely moved the sticks on a 3rd and 1 on the Buckeye 19-yard line (after missing on their previous four first down conversion attempts), Elliott ripped an 85-yard touchdown run to seal the game. And just like that, mighty Alabama, winner of three of the final five BCS Championships, was defeated in a postseason game with title implications for the first time since the 1990 Sugar Bowl against Miami.

3. It’s not so much that these plays even feel similar in the context of changing an important game, it’s that I think it’s time to treat them similarly. That means polishing up their significance while simultaneously buffing off some practical reasoning: Would the SEC have stopped holding conference title games if Langham had dropped the pick and Florida went on to win? Naw. That thing was and is a cash cow, generating an estimated $9 million in ‘92, and a Forbes report estimated the game — again, just the one game — would’ve generated $41.5 million in a non-COVID 2020.

Would a four-team College Football Playoff cease to exist today if it didn’t feature a dramatic upset in one of its debut bracket games? Of course not. We’re certainly still debating its merits and impact seven iterations later, but expansion is the relevant argument, not contraction. The current rotation of playoff bowls paid out $549 million to conferences and schools in 2019, according to USA Today. Things might change, but nothing will shrink.

It’s easier to ignore the boring engine of capitalism, and some create a fantastic notion that either game’s outcome could’ve affected the very structure of the postseason. So yeah, talking about those plays in these terms gives our narrative a lot of false agency, but it’s also a much better way to tell a story, and it helps us make sense of things. Let’s do that!

4. If you feel fatigued by the current idea that college football’s national title is a perpetual wash of “Clemson, Bama, Ohio State, repeat,” consider this: It was a lot bleaker six years ago. While repetitive, our current cycle at least represents three different conferences and two distinct regions of the country.

You could argue that before the 2015 Sugar, the sport wasn’t just suffering in a rut of dominance defined by geography, but that the weight of the SEC was threatening to void the national identity of the whole affair.

In 2015, “The North” was a joke. I choose that descriptor instead of “The Big Ten” or the more accurate “midwest,” because the SEC’s (and the larger Southern region’s) dominance was so absolute that they dictated everything, even the nomenclature, as a ruling class. A cold weather team hadn’t won a national title since January of 2003, when OSU upset Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. The Jim Tressel era in Columbus failed to furnish a proper dynasty, as the program went on to embarrassing results in BCS title games against Florida in 2007 and LSU in ‘08.

Think of it this way: In between OSU national titles in ‘03 and ‘15, the SEC won eight out of 11 years. During that time, national title winners were either the top half of the SEC or a massive national brand like Texas, USC, or Florida State, the last of which bore more than a kissing cousin’s resemblance to The League Where It Means More in geography and development. The only other cold-weather, midwestern school to even appear in a BCS title game was a Notre Dame program vaporized by Bama in a 42-13 blowout in 2013.

So as Elliott, via former national-title-winning-head-coach-from-the-SEC Urban Meyer’s offense, shot down the field, so too did the self-worth of an entire region of the country for the first time in over a decade.

5. It’s arguable that college football, as a nation, just really needed to see Nick Saban’s Alabama lose to someone outside of the SEC when it mattered by 2015. Once Saban was hired to Tuscaloosa, either the Tide won the BCS or another SEC program did, save for former Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher’s Florida State in ‘13.

In Saban’s 7-6 Alabama debut in 2007, Bama lost two regular season games to non-SEC opponents (Florida State and Louisiana-Monroe), and they still haven’t lost to a non-conference team in the regular season to this day, 13 seasons later. They did drop two Sugar Bowls, in ‘09 to Utah and a year before in 2014 to Oklahoma, but Tide fans will tell you that both games were meaningless exhibitions while another SEC program played for the BCS title and that recruiting during those bowl seasons was of far more importance. And you will believe them.

And sure, Bama would occasionally drop a game in conference (South Carolina in ‘10, Texas A&M in ‘12, Auburn a few times), but in three of the last five BCS seasons they ended up in the national championship.

The nature of Bama’s most recent title before the Playoff era — the all-SEC 2012 BCS Championship versus LSU — was an evolution from sports dynasty to horror movie trope. After losing 9-6 to LSU in the regular season (I was there! It happened!), the Tide failed to win their division or their conference, and yet snuck into the No. 2 ranking after Oklahoma State got upset by Iowa State on a random Friday night. Once in the title game, the Tide not only walloped LSU 21-0, but struck a deathblow to the BCS’ ever-evolving, never-satisfying mechanics of picking teams.

6. Not only did we really need to see Bama lose by January of 2015, but it was important that we, non-Alabama viewers, figured out how to have fun watching an Alabama postseason game. And this was a fun game, even long before Elliott’s defining run. The Tide (via a freshly procured dent-and-scratch discounted Lane Kiffin) ran most of their offense through wide receiver Amari Cooper, something that felt like actively-unfolding heresy at the time, and now, well, look at the Heisman winner.

I’ll concede that “fun” as a descriptor is about personal preference. But as an objective viewer at this game, I couldn’t help but fall in love with Cardale Jones, a sassy Kaiju who, at least in my own brain, gave birth to the now common visual trick of a quarterback’s throwing motion hiding just how goddamn hard and far a ball was about to travel.

Justin Fields has this superpower, so too do a litany of young NFL quarterbacks who came up the same time as Jones: Your brain registers their throwing motion as a “flick” or a “toss,” expecting a pass that travels according to those definitions, but instead the ball itself travels like it came out of a potato gun with Flomasters. It’s amazing, but more importantly, it’s delightful. It makes the viewing experience fun. And Alabama’s dominance, up to this point, had been established via a style of football with all the paint-drying intrigue of watching a body decompose.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that Jones had the goddamn swagger to (correctly) identify the hypocrisy of college sports in media res, recreated a Chappelle’s Show skit in real life and even dunked on Saban’s daughter about Ohio State backups as recently as this month.

7. Ultimately it was Jones the third-stringer, and that particular Ohio State team, who defined the Buckeyes as one of the few current members of the game’s ruling class. Without twice winning as underdogs in ‘15, we’d be inarguably toiling in the “Clemson-Bama” era, whereas now – at least until maybe tonight – it’s inaccurate to define this entire decade solely by those two programs.

Among schools with multiple Playoff appearances, Ohio State is in a class higher than Oklahoma, and therefore nearer to Clemson and Alabama, by sole virtue of the 2015 College Football Playoff. And because of that — that one title and the particular team the Buckeyes upset to get there — it’s still a fool’s errand to qualify college football as “The South’s.”

So maybe the 2015 Sugar Bowl is the most important game in modern Ohio State history, even more than their actual national title win vs. Oregon. Because a “Yankee team” could beat Nick Saban and Alabama on the shiniest stage, a feat which had yet to happen (and hasn’t since). We can’t in good faith stretch the blanket back across our entire country at the moment, but tOSU untangles it enough to keep someone else’s feet warm.

And while it’s not the ultimate arbiter of merit, it’s still a very popular t-shirt.