NEW ORLEAN --When Alabama lost at Ole Miss 23-17 on Oct. 4, Nick Saban heard the doubters.
"Not only did everyone sort of discount this team totally and completely, it just wasn't that this team wasn't going to make it, it was that the whole era of what we've been able to do at Alabama was done, gone, didn't work anymore and all that," said Saban.
That's why Saban was so gratified when this Alabama team reeled off eight straight wins to win the SEC Championship and a spot in the first College Football Playoff. And it is also why he was so disappointed Thursday night after No. 1 Alabama fell to No. 4 Ohio State 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl.
"You're always disappointed when you lose a game like this but I'm especially disappointed for this team," said Saban, who was trying to win his fourth national championship since coming to Alabama in 2007. "I'm very proud of what this team accomplished because they excelled all year long. They kept Alabama in the forefront of college football all season. There were a bunch of guys who cared about each other. It was a fun team to coach."
Ohio State (13-1) now advances to the CFP national championship game against Oregon (13-1) on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Tex. Alabama (12-2) was stopped short of having a shot at its 16th national championship.
Alabama will look back at a number of factors that led to this loss.
Alabama took a 21-6 lead in the first half, after setting up two scores with two forced Ohio State turnovers.
"But the fact is we were leading the game because of a couple of turnovers and a couple of stops in the red zone," said Saban. "I didn't like the feel of the game even then."
Alabama had a 15-point lead in the first half but on defense the Crimson Tide simply could not get off the field on third down. Ohio State averaged 16 yards per play on third down, which allowed the Buckeyes to put together drives of 71 and 77 yards before the half and trail by only one, 21-20, at the intermission.
After Ohio State drove 75 yards on six plays for a touchdown (on a 46-yard pass from Cardale Jones to Devin Smith) early in the third quarter, the Buckeyes had out-gained the Crimson Tide 423-139. Then Ohio State defensive end Steve Miller returned a 41-yard interception for a touchdown and the Buckeyes led 34-21 with 3:21 left in the third quarter.
Alabama came back with an 84-yard drive that ended on a Blake Sims' 5-yard run that cut the Ohio State lead to six, 34-28, with 1:01 left in the third quarter.
Sims, who set the Alabama record with 3,250 yards passing this season, had a golden chance to give the Crimson Tide the lead when they took over at the Ohio State 23-yard line after a short punt. But on the first play Sims short-armed a pass to tight end O.J. Howard, which was intercepted by Von Bell at the 1-yard line.
It was one of three costly interceptions by Sims, who had an improbable senior season in leading Alabama to the SEC championship and a spot in the playoffs. But Thursday night's outcome denied Sims the storybook finish to his career.
"I just learned that I had a lot of great guys around me," said Sims, who completed 22 of 36 passes for 237 yards. "I had coach that really cared about his teammates and wanted to see them do great. I wanted to leave it all on the field and didn't want to leave until we got what we got. I'm just happy I got the opportunity to play this year, and I know Coach Saban is going to do a great job with the team next year."
The reality is that Alabama, which came into this game leading the nation in rushing defense, (88.7 ypg), did not have an answer for an Ohio State offense that rolled up 537 yards (256 rushing). Sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones, making only his second career start, shook off some early mistakes to throw for 243 yards. Jones took the place of starter J.T. Barrett in the Big Ten championship game, a 59-0 win over Wisconsin.
"The one thing that the new quarterback (Jones) is he has a tremendous arm," said Saban. "And they have some very talented receivers. And those two things became very apparent in the last two games because the quarterback."
Ohio State also held Alabama's receiver Amari Cooper to only 71 yards receiving on nine catches. He did not have a catch over 15 yards.
"We did not control the football game like we usually do and it wasn't anything that they did different," said Saban. "They had a good plan. They executed it well against us. And we gave up far too many big plays in the game, which has been a problem for us toward the end of the year. When you give up big plays and you don't get off the field on third down, you've got lots of problems."
Saban is now 2-2 against Ohio State's Urban Meyer, his former rival at Florida. In 2008 Florida beat Alabama to advance to the BCS championship game, where the Gators beat Oklahoma. The following year Alabama beat Florida on the way to a BCS national championship. Now Meyer will get his shot at a third national title against Oregon on Jan. 12.
"I think there are a lot of winners on this team," said Saban. "I don't think you necessarily have to be a trophy to be a winner."