While the regular season may be over, football is far from finished. On the NFL level, there are still plenty of teams fighting in the playoffs that were such a wonderful hope for the Buccaneers when the season began. After a messy finish, Tampa Bay’s focus shifts to a different playoff. For over a decade, NCAA Football has dealt with the largely scrutinized BCS system. This year they break ground with the completely different, and unsurprisingly still largely scrutinized, College Football Playoff. The name sounds simple enough, and the teams who made the cut will be providing pure unadulterated offense on New Year’s Day to ring in 2015.
Most important for the Buccaneers, and fans, will be the Rose Bowl featuring the Oregon Ducks and Florida State Seminoles. The Rose Bowl, which I have renamed The WingHouse Heisman Bowl in honor of one of many faithful WTB? supporters and the trophies won by each team’s respective quarterbacks, will be a game for the ages. One simple fact makes this game important for Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers are on the clock. The draft itself is nearly four months away, but the Tampa faithful get to see the two hotly debated quarterback choices square off with everything on the line. While Tampa Bay picking a quarterback is not a done deal, it can be expected that it will be one of the men playing in this game if they do.
Historical and recent quarterback issues have pushed much of the fanbase to feel that the only decision to be made on draft day is whether the Bucs pick Oregon Quarterback, and 2014 Heisman Trophy Winner, Marcus Mariota or Florida State Quarterback, and 2013 Heisman Trophy Winner, Jameis Winston. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lovie-Licht Connection already have their spots set to watch from a suite inside the Rose Bowl. There’s still plenty of offseason to go, but nothing talks like film, and film like this will still be fresh on the mind come April. The outcome of the game may or may not be the deciding factor if the Buccaneers decide to pick a quarterback, but several things will be key in evaluating these two players against one another.
Marcus Mariota Under Pressure
One of the huge questions going into the game is how Oregon’s injury-laced offensive line will hold up against the Noles’ deep defensive front. Oregon has had six separate injuries of varying severity along the line and that struggle was a huge factor in Oregon’s single loss against Arizona. All but one of the Ducks’ lineman looks to be healthy come New Year’s, but they’ll need to settle in for the long haul against Florida State. The Ducks have taken commanding leads in many of their games this season, and the stamina of players who haven’t been playing recently could be an issue going up against arguably the strongest fourth quarter team in the nation.
Florida State’s defensive line is also struggling with injuries, but depth and the returns of Eddie Goldman and Nile Lawrence-Stample could be key in providing significant pressure against Mariota. While they may not have the stamina to go full force all game, dynamic schemes and consistent rotation within the Noles’ defense will be working overtime to keep the lightning fast offense of Oregon in check to prevent FSU from facing an insurmountable lead. This opportunity to see how Mariota reacts to potentially significant and constant pressure from the Florida State defensive front will be key for evaluation.
Significant work will be put in during the offseason to revamp Tampa’s broken offensive line, but it would be a bit farfetched to expect them to leap forward enough for the idea of “quarterback pressure” to vanish. Mariota has thrown only two interceptions all season, while Bucs’ starter Josh McCown has matched that in a single afternoon four different times this season. Mariota has thrown 12 in his entire collegiate career, which is still less than Jameis Winston’s 17 this season alone. Decision making is a huge plus for Marcus Mariota, and how that shows up against a defensive front like Florida State with such huge implications will be well remembered on draft day.
Jameis Winston With Less Options
First off, I’m not saying Winston doesn’t have options within the Seminole offense. However, the Oregon secondary will no doubt be looking to limit or shut down Winston’s main weapons. The obvious standout at wide receiver is senior Rashad Greene. Greene’s 1,306 receiving yards on the season dwarf tight end Nick O’Leary’s second place total of 614 yards. Greene leads the team in receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, and even has the longest reception of the season at 74 yards (which ended with one of his seven touchdowns). O’Leary is key for Winston, especially in the redzone, but he doesn’t have the same overall impact that Green does.
Oregon’s secondary has suffered a major setback in losing standout Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Freshman Chris Seisay will have enormous shoes to fill and his talent suggests he’ll hold his own, but he’ll have other solid players assisting him. While the Noles will look to focus on this potential flaw, Oregon will aim to shut down Greene and limit O’Leary. If the defense can hold, and keep the running game in check, Winston will have to get creative in utilizing lesser known weapons. Many of Winston’s interceptions this season have come in those pressure moments using less reliable targets. By magic or muster, none of the mistakes have cost him a game, but they still happened.
Despite obvious struggles, Winston has found a way to win throughout his entire career. Without the same dominance on defense they saw last season, or the same production on offense, they’ve still walked away from the regular season undefeated. That “clutch gene” is important, but it’s going to take more than fourth quarter magic tricks for Winston to gain an edge over Marcus Mariota. Winston has the hurdle of bad decision making on and off the field, on top of declining production in every category except wins. Mariota seems to only get better, and has far less behavioral and moral hurdles to leap. Winston’s performance against Oregon, and ability to avoid mistakes, could directly influence a potential springtime draft decision.
At its core, New Year’s Day will be a time for entertaining college football. Many could argue that defense is dying a slow death in the college ranks, but how defenses handle Mariota and Winston will be incredibly important going forward. The winner between the Ducks and Seminoles will not only benefit from the resume booster, but the opportunity to perform on the tape one more time before the season ends. Whether you’re an Oregon fan, a die-hard Nole, or tend to forget about college football, this game will be worth watching. As a Bucs fan, you can’t deny the possibility of ending up with Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston come the 2015 season. You might as well enjoy a good game while getting to know the men who could be leading the team next fall.
Final Verdict: Who wins?
While much of this will be about singular evaluation of each player, there’s still a winner and a loser. The way these teams are as a whole, it looks like Jameis Winston is going to have to learn how to react to a loss. Oregon is a more complete team and Marcus Mariota is a better quarterback. This game will be a bit of a shootout (only a bit by college standards), but I expect Oregon to gash the Noles so hard they can’t recover. Winston will lead a stunning route near the end, but it won’t be enough to make up for the deficit. Ducks win, 42-38.