Unfamiliar rivals: a brief history of Alabama football vs. Ohio State

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

Despite their storied histories and routine trips to prominent bowl games, Alabama and Ohio State have only met four times on the football field. All three of the meetings since 1985 have been settled by seven points or fewer.

The College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday will pit traditional powers that have managed to largely avoid each other despite comparable levels of success. The latest chapter of Buckeyes vs. Crimson Tide could deliver yet another close game, as BetMGM lists UA as an eight-point favorite.

Here is a look at their previous meetings:

Jan. 2, 1978; Alabama 35, Ohio State 6

The lone exception to the close-game rule may be the most iconic meeting in series history: the only time Paul W. “Bear” Bryant and Woody Hayes coached against one another, in the Sugar Bowl following the 1977 season. If not for Notre Dame convincingly beating No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl to jump from No. 5 to No. 1 in the polls, it may have been the final game in a national championship season for Alabama.

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Ozzie Newsome was a consensus All-American in 1977, but he took a back seat to fullback Johnny Davis running 24 times for 95 yards and a touchdown, plus a defense that nearly forced as many interceptions (three) as it allowed completions (seven).

The win capped a season in which UA won all seven of its SEC games by at least two possessions and claimed a win over then-No. 1 USC at The Coliseum in Los Angeles. A road loss to Nebraska in its second game proved costly to its ranking, although that year’s Fighting Irish were able to win the national championship despite losing to an Ole Miss team UA beat 34-13 the week prior.

Ohio State Buckeyes running back Jalin Marshall (17) loses his helmet as he is hit by Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland (19) in the third quarter of the 2015 Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Aug. 27, 1986: Alabama 16, Ohio State 10

The Crimson Tide entered the season No. 5 and the Buckeyes No. 9 before a Kickoff Classic game at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, and went into the game with heavy hearts. It had two players die before the season began, George Scruggs in an automobile accident and Willie Ryles of a blood clot in the brain.

UA trailed 7-6 at halftime and 10-6 after three quarters. Mike Shula’s touchdown pass to Albert Bell gave UA the lead and a 28-yard Van Tiffin field goal — his third successful attempt of the day — got the game to its final score. Ohio State nearly won the game in the final seconds on a pass to the end zone to Cris Carter that fell incomplete.

Three weeks later, UA would go to The Swamp to beat No. 13 Florida 21-7, a win that moved the Crimson Tide up to No. 2, where it would stay before closing three of its final five regular-season games, all of them either at Bryant-Denny Stadium or Legion Field: 23-3 to Penn State, 14-10 to LSU and 21-17 to Auburn.

Neither coach in that game would keep his job much longer. UA coach Ray Perkins coached the Sun Bowl win over Washington that season and became the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Ohio State coach Earle Bruce was fired in the final week of a 6-4-1 season the following year.

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Jan. 2, 1995; Alabama 24, Ohio State 17

Alabama ended up in the Citrus Bowl after its lone loss of the season, in the SEC Championship Game, to Florida. It needed a Michael Proctor 27-yard field goal and a 50-yard touchdown pass from Jay Barker to Sherman Williams, all in the final five minutes, to finish its season 12-1. The game experienced a, “lengthy delay,” when a stray dog wandered onto the field.

Playing a close game was true to the character of that year’s Crimson Tide, which beat Arkansas by seven, Southern Miss by eight, Tennessee by four, Mississippi State by four and Auburn by seven before the one-point loss to Florida.

Jan. 1, 2015: Ohio State 42, Alabama 35

The first Buckeyes win in the series doubled as the first year of the College Football Playoff, the two playing the second ever CFP game after Oregon and Florida State started off earlier in the day. 

On the Ohio State side, the legend of previously third-string quarterback Cardale Jones would continue as he passed for 243 yards and ran for 43. Ezekiel Elliott did not crack the top 10 in Heisman Trophy voting that year, but he ran for 230 yards and two touchdowns against the Crimson Tide to pave Ohio State’s way to the national championship.

The common complaint on the Alabama side was a lack of usage of running back Derrick Henry, who averaged 7.3 yards per carry over 13 attempts, scoring once. The next season, usage would be no issue: he ran 395 times, 26.33 times per game, on his way to the Heisman Trophy and the national championship.

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson