It feels a lot like the San Fransisco 49ers' situation two years ago. Star Quarterback goes down at the end of the season and new guy gets his shot on the biggest stage possible. Colin Kaepernick was far from a household name and two weeks prior would have been considered an infant going up against a Ray Lewis-led defense and veteran QB like Joe Flacco. But coming into the Super Bowl, everyone had seen what Kaepirnick brought to the table and the doubters were few.
Cardale Jones coming into the Big Ten Championship had the confidence and trust of very few outside of the Ohio St locker room. He was a third-stringer who was about to go into the game that could propel his team into the College Football Playoff but had to win-and win decisively-against the best running back in the nation and a tough Wisconsin defense that had led the Badgers to being BIG champions 3 of the last 4 years. Needless to say, things were looking up for the Big 12. Few people believed Jones could put together a performance spectacular enough to convince the committee to bump the Buckeyes ahead of TCU and stave off Baylor, who also played a top opponnent in Kansas St. It would have taken nothing less than 59 points and a shutout from the defense.
But that was nothing. People wrote off Ohio St and their invite to the final four as an "easy out" for the committee in avoiding the TCU-Baylor debate altogether. Alabama was heavy favorites, and it wasn't going to matter much who was playing them, they would just be the first victim in Nick Saban's path. While few believed Jones could get them to the playoff, nobody believed he could get them past 'Bama. But he did.
All eyes up to this point have been on Marcus Mariota in his heisman season who has literally accomplished everything for the Ducks in his illustrious career except win a title. Now all of the sudden, the focus has shifted to the new guy. But this new guy happens to be 6'5"250 from Cleveland. He has a killer instinct to close out games and win in tough venues, and is now 2-0 against some of the nation's best. And of the three Buckeye Quarterbacks, he may have the best arm. He has averaged 250 yards and has thrown 4 TD to 1 int in two starts. Like Kaepernick, he has won over his Coach-for this game-and has silenced any talk of a disadvantage Ohio St may have at Quarterback.
Now, looking at Mariota, it is pretty hard to compare anyone to him without making them look silly. He leads the most high-powered offense in the nation and he does it with a dual-threat, read option offense that has proven impossible to stop this season. He puts fear into his opponents and takes them out of the game almost always before the game is ever in question, and then scores 4 more touchdowns just to remind everyone he's on top. He gives the Ducks the clear edge at Quarterback.
The only chance the Buckeyes have is if this game lasts four quarters. Top 10 opponents have looked like FCS schools against Oregon more than once (try 4 times) this year. The game is usually decided by halftime, but occasionaly a team will take it to three quarters. However, when the game is tight, because it is so rare, the Ducks have tended to panic. Mariota's demeanor changes. Against Arizona this year and last year and against Stanford in 2012 and 2013, there was something noticeably different about Mariota in the fourth quarter. He made mistakes. He fumbled. He threw completely uncharacteristic interceptions. He even took sacks. Every game that Oregon has lost the last three years, Mariota has in-coincidentally had his very worst performances.
So most likely, Mariota will have the upper-hand against Cardale Jones. He will make a lot more plays with his feet. He will complete a lot more of his passes. He will throw more touchdowns than Jones will. Oregon in all likelihood will win by two scores or more. But if Oregon's defense allows this game to be close, and Mariota has key drives to make in the second half, Urban Meyer just might be able to have his way against him.