ARLINGTON, Texas -- It seems fitting, doesn’t it? In the first year of the College Football Playoff, the last team in -- the one that didn’t even appear in the top four until the decisive ranking -- is the last one standing.
Ohio State rendered Oregon nearly unrecognizable on Monday night at AT&T Stadium on its way to lifting the College Football Playoff trophy after a 42-20 victory against the Ducks. That makes the Buckeyes the first “undisputed national champions,” at least according to the hats they wore on the stage for the trophy presentation.
“I love these players,” head coach Urban Meyer said. “This team wasn't supposed to do this, but they fought through adversity, they got stronger and stronger and stronger, and this is a great team.”This team had a hard time shedding that “not supposed to do this” image. Under the old system, Monday's game would have been between Alabama and Florida State, while Ohio State’s season would have been over after playing Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Its early-season loss to Virginia Tech was the worst among playoff contenders, causing cries from TCU and Baylor fans who thought their team deserved that fourth spot instead. It was a big underdog against top-seeded Alabama. It was an underdog against Oregon. But when the night was done, the Buckeyes left no room for argument. They are the best in the country.
They have Meyer, who can make as good a case as anyone for best coach in the country. This is his third national championship as he joins Nick Saban as the only other coach to do that with two different teams. While Meyer was at the Alabama-Notre Dame championship game in 2013, he texted the team that “the chase is on.” The chase to reach that national title game, to reach the level of play he saw from Alabama.
“The chase is complete,” Meyer said. “These guys accepted their final mission and did it. It was our final mantra the past few weeks and I’m very grateful for the work these guys put in.”
They have a revolving door of quarterbacks like few others. Braxton Miller was supposed to be the Heisman contender at the beginning of the season, before his year was ended before it started to due to a shoulder injury. Replacement J.T. Barrett turned himself into a Heisman contender with his breakout year, but got hurt in the final regular season game against Michigan. Cardale Jones, who can hardly be referred to as a third-stringer anymore, showed that he perhaps could have been a Heisman contender had he been given a full season. In his third career start, Jones completed 16 of 23 passes for 242 yards.
“It means a lot because going back to early August, late August, around camp, everybody counted us out when our Heisman Trophy quarterback went down, Jones said. “And then when the first college football ranking playoffs came out we was like No. 16 or 17. Long story short, we weren't supposed to be here … all the odds were stacked against us through the whole season.”
Then there’s Ezekiel Elliott, who weaved, dodged and pounded his way through the Oregon defense for a championship game record 246 yards and four touchdowns on 36 carries. He somehow topped his previous two games, where he went for 220 and 230 against Wisconsin and Alabama, respectively. No other Buckeye had ever run for 200-plus yards in two consecutive games, let alone three.“We knew that our O line was bigger and more physical than their D line, and we just had to punch them in the mouth,” Elliott said. “The O line, they came out, they played their butts off and they paved the way for me.”
Elliott carried a majority of the weight for the Buckeyes and was awarded with offensive player of the game honors. Still, given their four turnovers, other playmakers helped them hold on to a lead. Despite the blowout score, the game was well within reach for Oregon, down eight in the fourth quarter. Ohio State made plays when it needed to -- it was 8-for-15 on third down and 3-for-3 on fourth, compared to Oregon’s 2-for-12 and 0-for-2.
In the middle of the first Buckeye scoring drive -- a 10-play 97-yard march -- Jalin Marshall made a crazy catch reaching around the Oregon defender to haul in a pass for 26 yards on third down. Later in the drive, a quick pass to Marshall on fourth and two put the ball past the first-down marker by a nose. At other points in the game, Jones found Michael Thomas and Devin Smith for key first downs. He found Nick Vannett for his only passing touchdown of the day. Important contributions came from all over the field for the Buckeyes.
And don’t forget about the defense. The unit came up with big stop after big stop, forced Oregon into uncharacteristic mistakes and held the Ducks to their lowest point total since Nov. 23, 2013.
“Third down was a big deal,” Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich said, “and part of that was precipitated by not being great on first and second down and getting in some third and longs, which is not where you want to be against any defense along the lines of these guys.”
Sophomore Tyvis Powell was named the defensive player of the game for his nine tackles, but it really could have gone several ways. Darron Lee had eight tackles. Eli Apple had seven and the game-sealing interception. Vonn Bell had six, including a sack.
It was a complete performance from Ohio State. Aside from the turnovers, which kept the game much closer than it should have been, there were no glaring weaknesses. Oregon was second in every facet.
The existence of the College Football Playoff and the weekly rankings threw the nation into a year of unprecedented debate. With more teams having a shot at the national championship, and the participants not decided by a formula, they were picked apart, broken down and judged more than ever.
Debate no more. Ohio State is the best team in the land, and will forever be the first champion of a playoff at the top level of college football.