Alabama was expected to be in the inaugural College Football Playoff all along.
The Crimson Tide has won three of the past five national championships, it was ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press preseason poll and it was the preseason pick to win the Southeastern Conference — which figured to be the source of at least one of the four playoff teams.
Ohio State began the season as a perceived playoff contender but slipped off the radar after losing its second game. The Buckeyes had a long and improbable journey to snag the fourth and final playoff berth when the last rankings came out.
Top-seeded Alabama and No. 4 seed Ohio State took very different roads to the playoff, but they both arrive in New Orleans on Saturday to begin final preparations for their matchup in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year’s night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Both arrive with 12-1 records. The Tide has won its past eight games, including a 42-13 victory against Missouri in the SEC Championship Game. The Buckeyes have won their past 11 games, including a 59-0 victory against Wisconsin for the Big Ten title.
Bama had a business-as-usual start to the season, defeating West Virginia, Florida Atlantic, Southern Miss and Florida by an average of 28 points. Then came a two-week stretch that called into question whether this Bama team was all it was cracked up to be. First the Tide lost at Ole Miss 23-17, then it barely escaped with a 14-13 victory at Arkansas.
With Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Auburn all ranked ahead of then-No. 7 Bama — and the Rebels having already beaten the Tide — the SEC West was wide open.
“I really think that our team came together in the Arkansas game,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “It was a rough day, bad weather, Arkansas is a very good team — probably an underrated team.
“We were in a real dogfight with them and made some plays at the end of the game to win the game. I saw an energy and enthusiasm in our players that I hadn’t really seen before. I think we really became a team. I think after that game you saw them play really well against Texas A&M, but I think it was a result of what happened at Arkansas.”
The week after the Arkansas game, Bama routed the Aggies 59-0 — and it was off and running. The Tide won at Tennessee 34-20 and rallied late to beat LSU 20-13 in overtime at Tiger Stadium.
Bama dropped No. 1 Mississippi State 25-20, then took care of business with a 48-14 nonconference win against Western Kentucky. The Tide claimed the SEC West with a 55-44 win against rival Auburn, then claimed the conference title, a playoff berth and the top seed in the playoff with its 42-13 win against Missouri.
Down the stretch, it was clear that Bama, Oregon and undefeated Florida State would reach the playoff, as long as they kept winning. But the fourth spot was up for grabs among one-loss teams that weren’t named Alabama or Oregon.
Thanks to a 35-21 loss at home to Virginia Tech, Ohio State didn’t seriously enter the conversation until the 11th hour. The Buckeyes, No. 5 in the AP preseason poll, fell to No. 8 after an uninspiring 34-17 win at Navy in their opener. They plummeted to No. 22 after the loss to the Hokies and were 20th three weeks later.
The perception of Ohio State, as well as its ranking, had taken a hit before the season when star quarterback Braxton Miller suffered a season-ending injury to his throwing shoulder.
But redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett filled Miller’s shoes nicely, and the Buckeyes kept winning. After the loss to Virginia Tech, Ohio State won its next four games — against Kent State, Cincinnati, Maryland and Rutgers — by an average of nearly 40 points.
It navigated the heart of its Big Ten schedule with wins against Penn State (31-24 in double overtime), Illinois (55-14), Michigan State (49-37), Minnesota (31-24), Indiana (42-27) and Michigan (42-28).
As the wins mounted, the Buckeyes’ ascension in the rankings accelerated. They debuted at No. 16, moved to No. 14 the next week, then in successive weeks were ranked No. 8, No. 6, No. 6 and No. 5 before Barrett broke his right ankle against Michigan.
Not only did its need to start third-string quarterback Cardale Jones call into question Ohio State’s ability to win the Big Ten title game, it also raised questions about the Buckeyes’ worthiness as a potential playoff participant if they beat the Badgers. But that 59-0 thrashing — Jones threw three touchdown passes — answered all the questions to the satisfaction of the selection committee.
So the Buckeyes arrive in New Orleans as an improbable participant and a nine-point underdog. But given the way they managed to get to the semifinals, perhaps they have another surprise or two up their collective sleeve.
When asked whether he had a team that was capable of competing with the Tide, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said, “Absolutely.”
Then, he added, “After Week 3, probably not.”
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.