Last weekend’s inaugural College Football playoffs featured four fantastic teams that all had one thing in common: a quarterback of color. Florida State’s Jameis Winston, Alabama’s Blake Sims, Ohio State’s Cardale Jones and Oregon’s Marcus Mariotta starred in the NCAA’s biggest weekend to date, ushering in a new era while leading their teams into the much anticipated first semi-finals in the post-BCS era.
The new format brought an elevated sense of anticipation and excitement to each of this season's weekends, with all of the country’s elite teams jockeying for one of the precious berths into the tournament that will, for the first time, determine the eventual national champion.
Winston and Mariota were the known, established quantities, the two most recent Heisman Trophy winners who are vying to be selected with the #1 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. There’s nothing left for either one of those guys to prove on the college level.
Winston’s leadership ability, within the construct of the team cocoon at least, is unquestioned. His size, calm in the violently collapsing pocket, field vision, strength, accuracy and sense of anticipation on his throws, especially the ones he uncorks when his receivers don’t seem to be open, have had pro scouts salivating for the last two years.
Mariota’s athleticism, ability to scamper in the open field, speed, agility, trigger-release, humility, precise passing and smart decision-making have translated into 4,121 passing yards, 40 touchdowns through the air against only three interceptions, 15 rushing touchdowns and a passer rating that is higher than a giraffe's booty.
If he manages to lead Oregon to its first football national title in school history one week after the Ducks' 59-20 clobbering of the defending champs Florida State in the semi-finals where he surgically dismantled the Seminoles defense with 338 passing yards and two touchdowns, Mariota will go down as one of the most decorated signal callers in history. With his squeaky-clean off-field image, he walks away from the college game in the same esoteric esteem as former college great and NFL Hall of Famer Roger Staubach, the player who I see him as a modern day facsimile of.
Sims, a fifth-year senior who’d previously played running back at Alabama, surprised many when he won the starting position for the Crimson Tide during fall practices. He added a few new wrinkles to his team’s pro-style attack that allowed the former smash-mouth offense to diversify and become less predictable.
Sims emerged from obscurity to become one of this season’s most exciting and efficient quarterbacks while throwing for a school-record 3,250 yards and 26 touchdowns. Having a bone-crushing running attack and all-world receiver Amari Cooper, who caught 16 of those scoring tosses, the most in the SEC since Reidel Anthony caught 18 in 1996, didn’t hurt.
But no player had a more miraculous emergence from anonymity than Jones, who began the season as Ohio State’s third-string QB.
Braxton Miller, the two-time Big Ten Player of the Year, was a preseason Heisman favorite after throwing for 2,094 yards and 24 touchdowns last year. When he severely injured his shoulder in an August practice and was lost for the season, many assumed that the Buckeye’s championship aspirations limped right off with him. That thought that was given further credence after the Scarlet and Grey flopped like Kevin Costner in Draft Day, and lost 35-21 to Virginia Tech in their second game of the season.
Redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett stepped in and led his own improbable Heisman campaign while reeling off 10 straight wins by an average margin of 25 points before breaking his ankle in the regular season finale against Michigan.
Jones’ first start was in the Big Ten Championship game, where he completed 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns in Ohio State’s heavy-handed 59-0 bullying of Wisconsin.
In last week’s Sugar Bowl, which became an instant classic the moment the last second ticked off the clock, the ploddingly fast, massive redshirt sophomore, who runs through tackles like Icky Woods celebrating an order of cold cuts at the deli counter, began asserting himself with the Buckeyes trailing 21-6. Augmenting running back Ezekiel Elliot’s herculean 230-yard rushing performance, Jones threw for 237 yards and a touchdown while running for 43 more in the shocking 42-35 come-from-behind victory, propelling Ohio State into Monday evening's National Championship game.
I'll remember these teams and their quarterbacks during this 2014 season as the Funky 4 Plus 1. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, Florida State's Jameis Winston, Alabama's Blake Sims and Oregon's Marcus Mariota delivered a season that we'll fondly recollect in years to come while leading their squads to college football’s first Final Four.
On Monday, one of them will be a National Champion. Unbeknownst to them, they’ll be paying homage, by their mere presence and acumen, to the legacies of some wonderfully talented players who paved the way for them.
In 1952, Willie Thrower played quarterback for the Michigan State Spartans as they captured the title. He was one of the original duel-threat QB’s that shed some light on what a dynamic player, one who could run and throw with equal aplomb, could accomplish at the position.
It took over 30 years for Thrower to have some company, when Jamelle Holieway led Oklahoma to the promised land in 1985, followed by Tony Rice leading Notre Dame to the championship in 1988.
Darian Hagan won it all at the helm for the University of Colorado Buffaloes in 1990, sharing that year's title with Co-Champion Georgia Tech and their African-American quarterback Shawn Jones. Charlie Ward followed suit for Florida State in 1993, as did Nebraska's Tommy Frazier at the apex of the Cornhuskers reign as a college football power in 1994 and 1995.
Tee Martin joined them when Tennessee won it all in 1998, as did Texas’ Vince Young in 2005 and Florida’s Chris Leak in 2006. Cam Newton joined the esteemed list when he led Auburn to the 2010 championship in his lone season of college football. Jameis Winston became a member of the excluisve fraternity last year when the Seminoles dominated en route to Florida State's first title since 1999.
On Monday, someone else will join this exclusive fraternity.
I can’t wait to see if Ohio State, offensively, can torment Oregon at the line of scrimmage, allowing their stud running back Ezekiel Elliot to continue his torrid pace of running for 450 years over the last two games. I’m wondering if Cardale Jones can continue to successfully throw downfield with his canon of an arm and create big plays with their passing game.
I’m excited to see if Oregon’s true-freshman running back Royce Freeman can mash his way through the behemoth scrum at the line of scrimmage, and if Mariota can continue to compile video game-like stats and engineer sudden scoring drives with the elusive and explosive pass-catching weapons at his disposal.
With Ohio State’s stud Defensive End Joey Bosa, who leads the Big Ten with 13.5 sacks, I’ll be watching to see if Mariota can do what he’s done all year by avoiding the rush, quickly scanning the field and determining the best matchup, getting the ball out of his hands quickly, and making teams pay with his fleet feet in the open field if the opportunity presents itself.
It should be a great game. And whatever way the pendulum swings, and whoever hoists the trophy, I’ll be happy either way, knowing that we were treated to some magnificent college football along the way, higlighted by some superb play at the most difficult and scrutinized position in all of sports.