First, they watched their brethren and drew inspiration. Then the Ohio State Buckeyes did what oddsmakers gave them little chance to do - defeat top-ranked Alabama 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl on Thursday and advance to the national championship game.

NEW ORLEANS - First, they watched their brethren and drew inspiration.

Then the Ohio State Buckeyes did what oddsmakers gave them little chance to do - defeat top-ranked Alabama 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl on Thursday and advance to the national championship game.

These Buckeyes, who will play Oregon in Arlington, Texas, on Jan. 12, are a confident football team. They have fought through coach Urban Meyer's crucible and expected - no, demanded - to perform. But they are also 18- to-22-year-olds. They are impressionable.

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They could not escape the talk that they were kings of a diminished dominion. The Big Ten's reputation has been in free fall since January 2007, when Meyer's Florida Gators ruined Ohio State's expected coronation and ushered in a period of unprecedented dominance by the Southeastern Conference.

The Big Ten had become bowl fodder in recent years, and little was expected of the conference on Thursday. But the new year marked a resuscitation, and it had a ripple effect. The Buckeyes watched as Wisconsin stunned Auburn in the Outback Bowl. They soaked it in when Michigan State rallied for an improbable win over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.

"That definitely gave us more confidence," safety Tyvis Powell said. "We were like, 'We dominated Wisconsin, and Wisconsin beat Auburn.' Auburn was up on Alabama three scores (before losing)."

So the Badgers' victory reinforced the Buckeyes' belief that they could defeat Alabama in a College Football Playoff semifinal.

"We noticed that, trust me," cornerback Doran Grant said. "We were the last ones to (play). So it was our turn, and we had the big-boy job because it was the big game."

With Alabama's loss, the SEC West Division went 2-5 in bowl games. This was after it had four teams ranked in the top six of the initial playoff rankings.

Other than a vacated victory over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl four years ago, Ohio State had never beaten an SEC team in a bowl game. And Alabama is the king of its league, just as the Buckeyes are kings of theirs.

But the Buckeyes were unfazed.

"We talked about it coming in, that there's perception and there's reality about the whole SEC," tight end Jeff Heuerman said. "The perception is that they're the top. The reality is that these other teams in the country are just as good, if not better."

And to think that on Sept. 6, many observers were ready to shovel dirt on the Big Ten's 2014 grave. On that date, Michigan was blown out by Notre Dame, Michigan State faded badly in a loss to Oregon, and Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech. Heck, Nebraska almost lost to McNeese State.

The hopes for a Big Ten team in the four-team playoff seemed remote. Even entering the eve of announcement day, Ohio State's chances looked bleak until it steamrolled Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and got the fourth spot.

Still, as a nine-point underdog, the Buckeyes were not expected to win on Thursday. Then again, none of the 10 Big Ten teams were - each was an underdog in its bowl game. So for the Big Ten to finish 5-5 and for the Big Ten East to go 4-1 is a major step toward repairing the reputation of the conference.

Given that Penn State's Jerry Sandusky-related suspensions have ended and Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh as coach, optimism that the Big Ten as a whole is on the rise seems warranted.

"I knew our conference was good," Grant said. "It's hard to win in the Big Ten in November because, 1) everybody is getting better, 2) the weather, and 3) it's a tough conference. You have great players and great coaches. You see who the team up north just got. It's a serious conference. It's no joke."

Not after Thursday it's not. Now comes the biggest test of all - high-powered Oregon with Heisman Trophy quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Buckeyes are one-touchdown underdogs. Fine with them.

"If we go out and win this championship game," Powell said, "maybe - just maybe - people will start saying the Big Ten is the best conference. … As far as everybody is concerned, it's the SEC, ACC, Pac-12 and the Big Ten, or maybe flip the last two. Maybe the Big Ten is coming back to being on top again."

One redemptive day doesn't erase years of futility, but it's a heck of a start.

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch