An unlimited future
Talk to any coach in the SEC who has had the displeasure of game planning for Johnny Manziel and you basically get the same response when you ask how to defend him.
Some coaches pause, while others sigh. But none fail to mention "do everything" and "contain."
For a player who never took a college snap until the second weekend of the 2012 season, Manziel has taken on a superhero persona, while playing the ultimate villain for defenses. If you leave him with room to run, he'll gut your defense with his speed and agility. Give him too much time to throw and he'll kill your spirits through the air.
Manziel might not have the prettiest form and his ad-libs can drive his coaches crazy, but with the way he has grown and with the way he stood tall inside the home of the nation's No. 1 team and stole more than just the show, it's hard to not want Manziel running your team.
And I like Mariota. He has been fantastic with his 2,164 passing yards and 516 rushing yards. He also has torched defenses for 28 passing touchdowns and three rushing touchdowns. I'd take him any day just not over Johnny Football.
See, Manziel plays in the SEC, where defense matters and quarterbacks are flattened by ferocious defensive ends and linebackers. In 2012, Manziel hasn't been flattened, he has flourished.
He is averaging 379.4 yards of total offense a game (364 in SEC play), is third in the SEC with 2,780 passing yards and leads the conference with 1,014 rushing yards. He also has combined for 33 total touchdowns and has just six interceptions. He might be 1-2 against top-10 defenses, but his lone victory spoke volumes about his growth.
In the three games since the LSU loss, he has averaged 378.3 yards of offense with nine total touchdowns to zero interceptions. But he saved his best for Alabama.
Manziel made Tide defenders look foolish with the awkwardly elusive moves he put on guys. He sliced up one of the nation's best defenses for 150 total yards in the first quarter and three touchdown drives.
While he might not have the best mechanics -- yet -- he delivered two of the prettiest passes you'll see when he zipped a ball between defenders to find Ryan Swope for 42 yards before tossing a perfect flag pass to Malcome Kennedy for the eventual game-winning score.
He finished A&M's 29-24 upset of the tide with 253 passing yards, two touchdowns and 92 rushing yards.
Manziel and Mariota are both great, but I see Manziel growing more and more with each week, even as the coaches dump more on his plate.
If this is what Manziel is doing now, imagine what the future holds.
Poised in the pocket
I talked to a guy who knows quarterbacks -- really, really knows quarterbacks -- about this very topic and his response was this:
"Mariota versus Manziel? That's like saying do you want to go on a date with Miss January or Miss February? Take your pick."
So yes, a huge part of it comes down to personal preference. Would you like the prime rib or the filet mignon? Extra bacon? Or extra, extra bacon? Both are phenomenal. Both are exciting. Both will be in the Heisman conversation in years to come.
However, the folks I've talked to tend to think Mariota is a more complete quarterback at this point in both of their young but spectacular careers. And by complete, they mean Mariota is a little better at sitting in the pocket and waiting for his plays to develop. He'll hang in there longer and wait for his second and third reads to open up, and then if it's not there, he'll either make a play with his feet or dump it off.
Manziel tends to look at his first read and if it's not there, he's gone. And there's nothing wrong with that, because he's so freaking nimble and elusive, as evidenced by his 1,014 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns. But if we're talking about building a team around a quarterback, I'll take the guy who is a little more poised in the pocket.
Manziel has also failed to throw a touchdown in three games this year and has failed to score in one. Mariota has at least one touchdown pass in every game and has a 28-5 touchdown to interception ratio.
The knock against Mariota will be that he hasn't played the same kinds of defenses that Manziel has. And that's fair. Manziel has faced three teams currently ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense -- and for the record he's 1-2 in those games with two passing touchdowns and three interceptions. Mariota will get his chance in the next few weeks to face some upper-echelon defenses. Stanford ranks No. 12 nationally and Oregon State isn't far behind at No. 23. Both have aggressive fronts and will apply a healthy amount of pressure.
But for what it's worth, Mariota is 3-0 against teams ranked in the Top 25. And in those games he's completing 67 percent of his throws with 10 touchdowns to two interceptions. Oh yeah -- he also sat out the second half of six games this year, so we can conservatively tack on about 10 more touchdowns and 1,000 yards to his totals if we want.
But I think we can both agree at the end of the day, you really can't miss with either guy.