Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston: The Darling Duck vs. The Scorned Seminole

Dream matchups between two elite star athletes come few and far between in the sports world. It’s why a rare meeting of two premier players at the peak of their sport who clash for superiority always brings about a special mixture of intensity, anticipation, hype and excitement.

Whether it’s current day must-see matchups like Brady-Manning, LeBron-Durant, or Tiger-Mickelson, or past legendary showdowns such as Magic-Bird, Ali-Frazier, Sampras-Agassi or Palmer-Nicklaus, throughout history, showdowns between standout stars have routinely managed to elevate simple sporting events into captivating spectacles.

Sports fans—at their core—are simply spectators who are hoping to witness something meaningful and memorable. Nothing else can provide that special thrill as individual greatness meeting individual greatness on a grand stage.

The much-anticipated college football playoff semifinal matchup, pitting Oregon against Florida State in the Rose Bowl, is the latest example of two stars squaring off in a showcase that has a pronounced pizzazz. As if making history as the first ever game in the long-awaited college football playoff system wasn’t enough, the matchup will also feature the two most recognizable and polarizing players currently in the collegiate ranks: Oregon QB Marcus Mariota and Florida State QB Jameis Winston.

More than just another ordinary showdown of well-known signal-callers, Mariota vs. Winston has a heavyweight fight feel in large part due to the contrasting roles each player has stepped into this season.

America loves itself a good hero vs. villain story, and you’re not going to find a better one in the sports realm anytime soon than what you’ll see in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.

Mariota—the freshly appointed golden boy and newly crowned 2014 Heisman-winner—has calmly slid himself into the role of college football’s new beloved media darling this season. Good-hearted folks can’t use the word “humble” enough to praise and appreciate the “down-to-earth” and “respectful”  young leader who seemingly embodies all that is good and right with mankind.

Winston, on the other hand, has somehow managed to take his reputation to the extreme other end of the spectrum, dissolving from a once celebrated championship-winning, trophy-raising freshman phenom into a vilified, oft-criticized outcast.

The divergent destinies of the two transcendent young star athletes is what makes their meeting so fascinating and intriguing. It’s the culmination of a slow-burn storyline that’s been a year in the making.

Coming into the 2014 season, Mariota—who had made the surprising decision to bypass being a surefire top-10 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft in order to return to Eugene, and Winston—who had risen to superstar status after remarkably leading the Seminoles to a national title and hauling in a Heisman Trophy during his first ever season as a starter, were the two most decorated and talked-about players in college football.

They entered the 2014 campaign as the two clear-cut top quarterback prospects in the 2015 NFL draft class, the two top contenders for the Heisman Trophy and the two collegiate athletes that would top every social media/google trend that you could quantify in this digital day and age.

So how did they both respond?

By embracing the spotlight and expectations and excelling under the intense amount of scrutiny that comes along with being the face of a title-contending team.

After seeing so many highly touted preseason cover boy quarterbacks like Jake Locker, Matt Barkley and Logan Thomas falter in recent years, it’s been refreshing to see both Mariota and Winston stare down the pressure and guide their respective teams to the championship doorstep.

Though each has experienced a bump in the road this year (Oregon’s rain-soaked loss to Arizona; Winston’s four-interception performance against Florida), overall, their performances in 2014 have been excellent.

Mariota’s demeanor off the field may be humble, but his numbers on it are nothing of the sort. The redshirt junior’s 38-2 touchdown:interception ratio is the best in the country, as is his 186.3 passer rating and 10.2 yards per pass average. Most importantly, he now finally has those once elusive Heisman and Pac-12 championship trophies to add to his mantle.

Winston’s numbers during his second year as a starter certainly don’t look as pretty on paper (the surprising 17 interceptions especially stick out like a sore thumb). The one number that matters most, though, is 12, as in the 12 wins he recorded as a starter this season to add to the 14 W’s he compiled during his dazzling debut campaign in 2013.

His record as a collegiate starter now stands at an unblemished 26-0.

His record in the court of public opinion, though, is far from unscathed.

Victories and vitriol have been the story of Winston’s sophomore season.

After dealing with a sexual assault allegation in the latter part of the 2013 season, Winston did himself no favors during the offseason to help repair his torn reputation. Knowing all eyes were on him, the star quarterback still made the bizarre decision to steal crab legs from a local supermarket. It was a story that instantly incited a litany of clever memes and photo shops, a wave of criticism and it aroused plenty of questions about his maturity, or lack thereof.

winstoncrab

Unfortunately, he didn’t save the dumb decision-making skills for just the offseason. In the week leading up to the Clemson game—the biggest and most important contest on Florida State’s schedule—Winston showed off his goofball, sophomoric sense of humor when he reportedly got up on a table in front of hundreds of fellow students at the student union and uttered the profane phrase, “F**k Her Right in the Pussy!

The incident led to a suspension for the crucial primetime matchup with the Tigers and it gave the vilified quarterback’s detractors even more fuel to add to an already fiercely burning firestorm of criticism.

Since then, “Famous Jameis” has become simply infamous, as his antics off the field have begun to overshadow his accomplishments on it.

It’s almost unfathomable that a defending Heisman-winner could return to school, lead his team to an undefeated season, a top-3 national ranking and a playoff berth and not even be invited back to the following year’s ceremony. But that just goes to show how far Winston has fallen out of favor with the media and how he’s become persona non grata in a sport it seemed like he was destined to reign over.

His bizarre behavior has pushed many analysts to leave the Winston fan club, hop on the Mariota bandwagon and begin pushing the 2014 Heisman winner as the new favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.

Still, when you compare the two as pro prospects, there really is no comparison. If you go down the checklist of key traits, the scales tip heavily in favor of Winston, who has a definitive edge in size, athleticism, arm strength, late-game poise, passing prowess and overall physical ability. Nowadays in the NFL, though, after the PR nightmare that the league has dealt with this season, any player’s personality and behavior is going to be intensely scrutinized.

The microscope has been focused firmly on Jameis since his debut as a starter back at the beginning of the 2013 season. While he’s succeeded on the field and shown scouts he has the skills it takes to be a franchise quarterback at the next level, the jury is still out as far as the all-important “mental makeup” part of the evaluation is concerned.

Luckily, he’s got at least one more opportunity to quiet the growing number of pundits who have panned his potential as a pro prospect.

The stage is set for an epic battle between college football’s new beloved big man on campus and its fleeting, fading star.

In order to realize the significance of where the two dynamic playmakers are now at this point in their collegiate careers, you first have to understand the two opposite worlds they each came from.

Over 4,300 miles separate Mariota’s hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii from Hueytown, Alabama—Winston’s former stomping grounds, but the dramatic difference in distance doesn’t begin to properly convey just how distinct the two places truly are.

Honolulu—Hawaii’s capital and the state’s most populated city—is a sun-filled, beautiful beach-laden tropical paradise that’s long been considered one of the top tourist destinations in the world, while Hueytown is the proverbial “Just another spot on the map” — an average middle-class town in the greater Birmingham area with a population hovering around 16,000.

Back in the winter of 2011, when it came time for most major college football programs to hit the recruiting trail and find a potential star quarterback of the future to invest in, they all circled Hueytown on the map, not Honolu. That’s because Hueytown was the place where a burgeoning young high school junior named Jameis Winston had emerged as one of the premier prospects in the country.

A two-sport star who excelled both on the gridiron and on the baseball diamond, the All-American QB displayed the type of raw talent that made coaches salivate.

Mariota, on the other hand, didn’t draw nearly as much attention from evaluators and recruiting sites. As a scrawny high school senior from a state that’s not known for producing many blue-chip football players, the former 3-star prospect was the quintessential overlooked and unheralded recruit in the class of 2011. The dual-threat playmaker obviously isn’t underappreciated anymore, though. He’s become yet another in a long line of examples of why recruiting rankings should always be taken with a very large grain of salt.

The record-breaking and acclaimed award-winner has reached nearly every goal that he set for himself when he made the decision to return to school— with the exception, of course, of one: a national championship.

To reach the pinnacle and make it to the peak of the mountain, Mariota must first beat Winston, the same young man he’ll likely be battling it out with to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.

Destiny? Fate? Coincidence?

Though it may not be a clash in a championship game setting, the Mariota-Winston matchup has a very similar feel as Matt Leinart vs. Vince Young did when USC met Texas in the 2006 championship game.

Since Leinart and Young both became failed flame outs in the NFL, many fans may forget that there was a time when the two players were once the ruling class of the college football world back in the 2005 season.

That year, their two tremendous individual campaigns culminated with a much-hyped meeting in Pasadena in what turned out to be one of the greatest college football games in history.

Mariota vs. Winston has all the ingredients, all the storylines and all the stakes to be just as good, if not better, than that historic affair.

If the Darling Duck and the Scorned Seminole both bring their A-games on New Year’s Day, the 2015 Rose Bowl could very well be the game that catapults both stars to the level of legends.


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