NEW ORLEANS — All signs point toward Sept. 6.
That was when Ohio State got hit with a wake-up call. That's when it knew something had to change.
The Buckeyes had just lost to an unranked Virginia Tech team by two touchdowns at home. They looked unprepared. They looked outmatched. Frankly, they looked like a team that had no shot at being in contention for a Big Ten title, let alone a national one.
But shortly after that loss, something clicked.
"The loss to Virginia Tech brought us closer," redshirt freshman linebacker Darron Lee said. "After that loss to Virginia Tech we knew this was going to be something special.”
Fast-forward four months and Ohio State finds itself with a chance to claim something that seemed impossible on that September evening: a win in the first-ever College Football Playoff.
The fourth-ranked Buckeyes take on No. 1 Alabama tonight in the Sugar Bowl. A win would put them into the national championship game in Dallas a week from Monday against the winner of the other national semifinal between Oregon and Florida State.
But Ohio State wasn't really supposed to be here.
Not after losing four starting offensive lineman, a 1,000-yard running back and its best wide receiver. Not after losing two first-round NFL Draft picks on defense. Not after losing its two-time Big Ten Player of the Year and Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback two weeks before the season started. Not after that loss to the Hokies in Week 2. And certainly not after J.T. Barrett, the quarterback who replaced Braxton Miller and finished fifth in this year's Heisman Trophy voting, was lost for the season during the Michigan game.
Yet, the Buckeyes are here. And it's because of their togetherness and the way they have been taught to respond to any and all adversity.
“This is without a doubt the closest team I’ve ever been on. We’re always together in football, workouts, stuff like that but outside we’re just always together," junior offensive lineman Taylor Decker said. "But it's also just how our program is, we’re trained that way. The offseason is all adversity and decision-making and are you going to respond when something happens. Losing players at key positions and the next guy coming in, people think good for him, but that’s how it’s supposed to be and that’s how our program is designed."
The way they've stuck together throughout everything has even taught their head coach something.
"The great teams, coaches learn from them," Urban Meyer said. "I've learned from this team."
Ohio State may not beat Alabama when the two times line up across from each other tonight inside the Mercedes Benz Superdome, but that doesn't matter. Meyer doesn't believe much in moral victories, but the fact the Buckeyes are in this position is impressive enough.
"Just to go from where we was at and people really just marking us out then to come back and make the playoffs, the first-ever college playoffs, it’s a blessing and it’s like the most amazing feeling," redshirt sophomore safety Tyvis Powell said. "I’m really grateful for the players and the coaches that we have that we were able to get that done and the focus that we had.”