Oregon and Ohio State could not have arrived to the College Football Playoff national championship game in any more different fashions at the quarterback situation. The preseason hype started with legitimate and worthy Heisman Trophy buzz for the starting quarterbacks at Oregon and Ohio State, the Ducks with Marcus Mariota fulfilling that hype with the first Heisman Trophy in school history and Ohio State with Braxton Miller, who never played a down for the Buckeyes this season due to a shoulder operation just before the start of the season. No Braxton was thought to derail the championship hopes of the Buckeyes before the first kickoff of the season, but now Ohio State has a chance to complete the mission with its third-string quarterback, Cardale Jones, leading the offense.
It is probably unfair to continue referring to Jones as a third-string quarterback. It is not as though Jones arrived to Ohio State without talent or potential to make things happen. Rivals only rated him a three-star prospect, recruited by Jim Tressel, but he was also the 12th best pro-style quarterback in the nation in the Class of 2011. A couple of years on the sideline have actually served Jones well for taking on the incredible task he was handed at the end of the regular season.
Jones was thrown into the starting job following the season-ending injury to star freshman J.T. Barrett, who himself had seemed to defy the odds against him in replacing Miller to lead Ohio State to a division title to keep the Buckeyes in the playoff conversation. Questions about whether or not Jones could make his first career start in the Big Ten championship game and avoid costing Ohio State a Big Ten title were put to rest in blowout fashion. There are many reasons why Ohio State roughed up Wisconsin to the tune of 59-0, but Jones played a key role in shrugging aside any concerns by showing off what he is capable of doing. The coaching done by Tom Herman and Urban Meyer in preparing Jones for the opportunity should not go unnoticed, of course, but Jones still had to execute on the field. And boy has he.
If there is pressure on Jones, he does not show it. He appears to have the poise of a three-year starter, not a three-game starter. If he has to run, he does so with enough power to push forward when needed. He can air it deep down the field as well as throw a dart to his receiver. With the way Jones has taken on the role of starting quarterback the past two games, there is little reason to believe he is not the quarterback that can bring this bizarre season under center to a celebratory close for Ohio State.
Oregon’s quarterback story is far less intriguing, but no less impressive. While Meyer has been able to turn in one of the better coaching jobs of his career by working down the quarterback depth chart to reach the College Football Playoff national championship game, Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich has had far less to worry about with his quarterback. Marcus Mariota started the season already a household name, somewhat of a rarity for a player on the west coast not playing in Los Angeles. Mariota was a Heisman frontrunner from the start of the season with few questions to answer during the season. When Mariota did have something to prove, he did.
Going into the season the biggest question or reason for doubt Oregon or Mariota was what would happen when up against a team built on defense, which has been a crux for the dynamic offensive stylings of Oregon over the years. Michigan State? It wasn’t pretty for a while, but Mariota delivered in the clutch. Stanford? Mariota managed to chop down the tree this time. Arizona tripped Mariota and Oregon up in the regular season, but the Ducks charged past the Wildcats in the Pac-12 Championship Game with revenge on the line.
In a showdown of Heisman Trophy quarterbacks, Mariota came out on top of Florida State’s Jameis Winston. Mariota may not have been automatic against the Seminoles, but he was a big reason why Oregon managed to blow away the defending national champions in the Rose Bowl semifinal.
Mariota is a much more polished player than Jones is heading into the championship game, but that may not matter much. Mariota will be put to the test by an aggressive defensive front from the Buckeyes, but he has the experience to respond on the fly more often than not. Mistakes will be at a minimum when Mariota has control of the football. Will the Buckeyes be able to say the same about Jones?