TRAIL GUIDE
Our experts score the debate: How Clinton beat Trump, round-by-round
Sports
Column

Goodbye SEC, hello Ohio State, Oregon in college football title game

Ohio State versus Oregon for the college football title game may seem improbable, but there were signs

Think of recent college football history as a bowl of alphabet soup:

For years the "A's" dominated the B-C-S, as Alabama and Auburn traded national titles in 2009 and 2010, with Alabama reclaiming the crown in 2011 and 2012.

Auburn took umbrage and stormed back to last year's championship game, falling 13 seconds short of a win against Florida State in the Rose Bowl.

It looked this season, for the longest time, as if the "M's" were moving in, as Mississippi State and Mississippi captivated audiences until they got mud thrown in their eyes.

Somehow we ended up with the amazing "O's," Oregon and Ohio State, who Friday arrived in North Texas in preparation for Monday night's first College Football Playoff championship game.

This matchup of Pac-12 and Big Ten conference champions was not always as improbable as it seems now. Both were top 10 in the preseason polls.

Oregon and Ohio State were built around outstanding returning quarterbacks, Marcus Mariota and Braxton Miller, and had plenty to prove. Oregon finished 11-2 in 2013 but lost the Pac-12 North to Stanford for a second straight season. Ohio State's undefeated season was wrecked by Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.

Oregon had the wrap of a "glitz" program until proved otherwise, soft in its underbelly. And the Pac-12 hadn't won a national title since USC's since-vacated 2004 season.

Ohio State, led by uber-coach Urban Meyer, had lost seven players now starting in the NFL. This season was supposed to be a bridge to 2015. And the Big Ten, which hadn't produced a champion since Ohio State in 2002, was viewed as a conference in retreat.

Oregon and Ohio State were given their due — but not at any expense of defending national champion Florida State or a blockade of teams from the Southeastern Conference, which had put a team in the championship game every season since 2005.

By Oct. 2 of this season, the biggest question about Oregon and Ohio State was what to write on their tombstones.

Ohio State lost Miller, the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year, to a shoulder injury before the season's first official snap, then suffered a 14-point home loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 6.

When Michigan State lost the same day at Oregon, the Big Ten was the first major conference declared as eliminated from playoff contention.

Oregon got the hook on Oct. 2 when the Ducks lost at home to Arizona. The next day, ESPN declared the Pac-12's best hope for the playoff had sunk off the coast of Coos Bay.

Here's a review of a few of the things everybody got wrong:

•The SEC was overrated, and so was Florida State. It took a while to root this out because the SEC strategically schedules so that its teams are measured only against each other. The best nonconference win between poll darlings Mississippi and Mississippi State was Ole Miss' early, neutral-site win over Boise State.

People suspected Florida State was over-inflated as it escaped with victory after victory against marginal competition. It took a 39-point loss in the Rose Bowl to finally unpeel Florida State's onion.

•Mariota, Oregon's quarterback, was more special than anyone imagined. He saved his team from defeat against Michigan State and Washington State.

Oregon would have probably lost to Michigan State had Mariota not made two super-human plays to extend drives that led to touchdowns. "We had him dead to rights two times on third down," Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio lamented this week.

•Oregon lost to Arizona for a good reason. It was missing four injured starters on the offensive line, which led to Mariota getting sacked 12 times in a two-game span. Oregon fixed its problem, starting with left tackle Jake Fisher returning, a week after the Arizona loss, for a blowout win at UCLA.

Mariota was not sacked once in the Rose Bowl.

•Oregon's defense got better under first-year coordinator Don Pellum. The Ducks gave up an average of 15.5 points in its last four games while scoring an average of 50.3.

As we say in the business: that works.

•Ohio State had more quality quarterbacks in storage than seemed possible. J.T. Barrett, Miller's successor, shook off a bad performance against Virginia Tech and was tremendous in leading Ohio State toward the Big Ten title. He didn't get the Buckeyes all the way there because he was lost for the year in the win over Michigan.

Who knew that, behind Barrett, the Buckeyes were stashing a third-stringer better than 90% of college football's starting quarterbacks? Cardale Jones stepped in to lead Ohio State to huge wins over Wisconsin and Alabama.

His performances defied logic given his experience, but the most disparaging thing you can say about him now is: Let's see you do it again.

•Meyer, not Nick Saban, may be college football's best coach. Meyer turned Ohio State around even faster than he expected, recruiting and developing the kind of players he procured to win two national titles at Florida.

He proved how close he is to establishing an SEC-like beach head in Columbus by defeating the SEC's masthead, Alabama, in the Sugar Bowl.

•The Big Ten, insecure for years and afflicted with SEC-phobia, was underrated and fed off its own inspiration. Wisconsin's bowl win over Auburn may have given Ohio State the confidence it need to defeat Alabama.

The Buckeyes, shortly before the Sugar Bowl, watched a Wisconsin team it crushed, 59-0, beat an Auburn coming off a close loss to Alabama. The myth of the SEC was punctured.

"That's when I saw everybody walked a little differently to the bus," Meyer said.

With the SEC sitting this one out, everybody's walking a little bit differently now.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

Twitter: @DufresneLATimes

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
85°