I know how this is going to sound, so I’ll get it out of the way right up front: At this point, any assessment of Ohio State’s Cardale Jones has to account for the fact that he might be one of the truly great college quarterbacks of our time. I mean, he might be. Don’t get me wrong: After just two games as the starter, the data obviously isn’t really in. Jones might instead turn out to be a third-string, three-star talent who, having enjoyed his fleeting and fortuitously timed moment in the sun, recedes into obscurity as quickly as he emerged from it. We’re just projecting here.
While the jury remains out, though, consider the limited evidence available so far. In light of Jones’s first two starts — resounding, upset victories over Wisconsin and Alabama in the Big Ten championship game and the Sugar Bowl, respectively, in which Ohio State racked up 101 points against two of the stingiest defenses in the nation — it’s impossible to say with any conviction that he isn’t a truly great college quarterback, at least within the confines of Urban Meyer’s offense. And a victory in Jones’s third start, in Monday night’s national championship game against Oregon, would only add to the luminescence of his burgeoning supernova of a career. You know the old chestnut “The most popular player on every team is the backup quarterback”? Jones was the backup to the backup, yet at this rate he’s going to go down as one of the most beloved Buckeyes ever within a few weeks of most fans learning his name.
Strictly speaking, of course, if there’s anyone on the field Monday night vying for the sheen of perfection, it will be Jones’s counterpart, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who will arrive in Dallas as one of the most documented and decorated college quarterbacks of his or any other generation. At this point, he’s as known a quantity as he can possibly be: 36-4 as a starter, a three-time All-Pac-12 pick, a Heisman Trophy winner, and, as of New Year’s Day, the man who finally snuffed out Florida State’s 29-game winning streak in front a gleeful (and huge) national audience. In a few months, he’ll likely be the top pick in the NFL draft. Securing his school’s first national championship would be the most perfect possible ending to what can only be described as a near-perfect college career. His is a trajectory eminently worthy of the championship stage.
By contrast, Jones’s skimpy résumé, with his 2-0 record and scattershot stat line against Alabama, doesn’t even rate. In fact, given Ohio State’s advantages in so many other respects, it’s safe to assume that the perceived gap between the quarterbacks is the sole reason the Buckeyes are listed as six-point underdogs. When the stakes are this high, inexperience is the ultimate liability.
On the other hand, in the context of this particular 2-0 record, it’s precisely that vast, tantalizing swath of white space that threatens to swallow the perception whole. Who is this Brobdingnagian wild card who emerged from nowhere just in time to bomb the Badgers into oblivion and confound the mighty Crimson Tide with championships on the line? Had Jones, a redshirt sophomore, stepped into the vacancy created by Braxton Miller’s preseason shoulder injury rather than the equally undistinguished J.T. Barrett, a redshirt freshman, would the subsequent season have unfolded any differently? If Barrett was a kind of college version of Tom Brady, emerging as a full-fledged star in his own right following an injury to an established veteran starter, who does that make Jones in the wake of the broken ankle Barrett suffered in the regular-season finale? As far-fetched as it would have been to suggest a few weeks ago, might the Buckeyes have been even better if Jones had been in the lineup all along?
The answer to these counterfactuals and more is an enthusiastic maybe! But with so few legitimate factuals to go on, a certain degree of unknowable potential is Jones’s greatest asset. Right now, the void in his track record still lends itself to every conceivable career trajectory, some of which, in some timeline, may very well exceed Miller’s or Barrett’s — or even Mariota’s. And given what we’ve seen so far, wouldn’t that timeline look a lot like the one we’re actually residing in?
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If that strikes you as a case of irrational exuberance over a guy who’s played in two games, well, OK. You’re probably right. (I refer you back to the beacon of rationality in any sport, the point spread.) There aren’t really any one-to-one precedents for what Ohio State is trying to accomplish with Jones at the helm. In the BCS era, only two quarterbacks in 16 years, Florida State’s Marcus Outzen in 1998 and LSU’s Jordan Jefferson in 2011, started the championship game after having replaced the original starter at some point during the season, and they both fared miserably in the final test.1
In Jefferson’s case, he wasn’t even new to the starting lineup: Before his senior season, he’d started nearly every game for the Tigers in 2009 and 2010, and was demoted to open 2011 only because of his involvement in a bar fight just before the season.
Before the BCS, the last ostensible backup to lead his team to a national title claim was Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway, who took the reins from injured starter Troy Aikman in 1985.2 NFL backups have fared a little better in the Super Bowl, most notably Brady in 2002, but also Jeff Hostetler, Doug Williams, and Jim Plunkett (twice). If Jones is Ohio State’s answer to any of those guys against Oregon and never takes another snap for the Buckeyes beyond that, he won’t have to buy another drink in Columbus for the rest of his life. Hell, the Buckeyes will settle for the second coming of Craig Krenzel if that’s what it takes.
Aikman, unhappy with the Sooners’ transition from the I-formation to the wishbone to suit Holieway’s ability as a runner, responded by transferring to UCLA the following year.
But Ohio State’s season hasn’t exactly abided by the strictures of rational expectations to this point, has it? When news of Miller’s injury broke in August, the Buckeyes’ odds of winning the national championship instantly plummeted in Vegas, and seemed to vanish entirely after a 35-21 flop against unranked Virginia Tech in their second game. Barrett, displaying none of the potential that would soon flourish, was 9-of-29 passing against the Hokies with three interceptions; Jones never saw the field.
From there, OSU ripped off 10 consecutive victories by an average margin of 25 points per game, only to find itself listed as a slight underdog sans Barrett in the Big Ten title game; at that point, the Buckeyes’ new starting quarterback for the postseason was a largely anonymous third-stringer whose only notable moment since arriving in Columbus was a regrettably honest tweet in 2012 that read, “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS.” After dispatching Wisconsin in grisly fashion anyway and subsequently leaping TCU in the polls to land the fourth and final spot in the playoff, the Buckeyes were matched against Nick Saban’s top-ranked Bama Death Star as nine-point dogs.
Ohio State may be a blue-chip, name-brand powerhouse with an idolized, multimillionaire head coach, but at no point between mid-August, when Miller was injured, and last Thursday, when OSU rallied from a 21-6 deficit to unseat Alabama, did it seem rational to consider them participants in the national championship game. And yet, with the exception of the forgotten Virginia Tech debacle, the Buckeyes have continued to look the part every step of the way. At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, Jones isn’t a carbon copy of his predecessors in the lineup — he’s slower than Miller, less accurate than Barrett, and much more of a plodding, Tebowesque presence between the tackles than either of the two3 — but the offense has looked no less itself following the latest transition. Quite the opposite: Considering the competition, Jones’s two starts have been Ohio State’s most productive outings of the season.
Predictably, the best description of Jones’s performance in the Sugar Bowl came courtesy of Grantland colleague Brian Phillips on Twitter, who likened Jones vs. the Alabama defense to “construction equipment vs. the weather.”
In the long run, it’s very likely that Jones will never amass the body of work necessary to distinguish himself as anything other than an unusually effective stopgap who happened to catch the wave of a great team at its crest; in fact, with Miller and Barrett both on schedule to return next season,4 it’s very likely that Jones will begin next fall in the same place he began the last one: on the bench. In the past decade alone, Meyer has made a no. 1 draft pick out of Alex Smith, a national champion out of Chris Leak, and a Heisman-winning icon out of Tim Tebow, to say nothing of his success with Miller and Barrett since taking over at Ohio State; finishing off a championship run with a third-string footnote who is never heard from again would fall squarely within Meyer’s quarterback-whispering canon.
Unsurprisingly in light of his backups’ success, transfer rumors have swirled around Miller, but for now he’s slated to be a Buckeye as a senior.
But a safe, stay-within-the-offense kind of performance from Jones won’t be nearly enough to get the Buckeyes past the amazing Mariota, and nothing about his bombs-away mentality in the wins over Wisconsin and Alabama suggests Jones (or Meyer) is prone to, or even capable of, playing it safe. To finish the job in the short term, Jones will have to be as great as arguably the greatest college quarterback of his era, if only for one more night.