ESPN

Championship Drive

We knew all eyes would be on Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota entering the College Football Playoff era, but don't even try to pretend that you saw Blake Sims or Cardale Jones (or J.T. Barrett) coming.

close

ALABAMA (1)

(12-1)
video
ESPN The Magazine: Blake Sims

Blake Sims highlight reel.

Beyond a Shadow

by Alex Scarborough | ESPN.com

BLAKE SIMS WAS cracking. Even as he led Alabama downfield on its opening drive against Texas A&M, his eyes were as wide as saucers, and he looked agitated in the pocket. On third and goal, he stared through the coverage before firing a pass into the chest of a defender. If not for some bad hands by the Aggies, it would have been a pick six. Instead, Bama settled for a field goal as Sims dodged yet another bullet. But the groan from the crowd said it all.

The past two weeks had been an indictment of Sims. At No. 11 Ole Miss on Oct. 4, he threw an interception in the end zone with less than a minute left to give Alabama its first loss. The next week, against Arkansas, while trying to protect a one-point lead in the fourth quarter, he executed one of the worst quarterback sneaks you'll ever see, essentially jumping in place. Alabama's befuddled offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin, could be seen on the sideline asking, "What was he doing?" Now, back inside the crowded fishbowl of Bryant-Denny Stadium, more than 100,000 fans stood in judgment. Was Sims a fraud fully exposed?

He was certainly no AJ McCarron. Alabama's golden boy had said so himself. After the Ole Miss loss, the QB who had led the Tide to two titles didn't just hint at Sims' inadequacy, he came out and said it, throwing his supposed friend under the bus. McCarron told a Tuscaloosa radio station that he didn't believe the team had any "true leaders like we had last year." The defense surely had them, he said, "but they have to find that leader on offense." He mentioned linemen Austin Shepherd and Ryan Kelly, then finally reached a third option: the quarterback. "Blake needs to step up and do it," McCarron said. "It's going to be a tough road."

Pouya Dianat for ESPN

BEFORE THE SEASON, the only memorable thing about Sims' four years 
at Alabama was the series of crotch-pointing "suck it" gestures he delivered from the bench to a 2012 LSU crowd after teammate T.J. Yeldon scored a last-minute go-ahead touchdown. Otherwise, the promising 2010 recruit from Gainesville, Georgia, was a nonfactor, seeing time mostly at running back. Early on, the only snaps he took under center were mimicking opposing dual-threat quarterbacks on the scout team.

When he finally did become the backup QB, it was with the tacit understanding that he was a placeholder until a worthy successor to McCarron was found. Three weeks after McCarron's final game in January, Jake Coker announced he would transfer from Florida State. But Coker struggled in practice, and coach Nick Saban named Sims the starter just hours before Alabama's season opener.

At barely 6 feet tall, Sims didn't look the part. And it didn't make sense to have a mobile quarterback like him running Saban's pro-style system. But his play through the first four games silenced the critics -- the redshirt senior led Alabama to an undefeated record and the No. 1 ranking in the coaches poll. In his first SEC start, he amassed nearly 500 total yards and four touchdowns in a blowout win over Florida.

But then he had to go on the road to Ole Miss. That's when everything started to fall apart, with McCarron's comments revving the national media spin cycle into high gear.

Although Sims would never admit to feeling insulted, those closest to him said they were caught off guard by the betrayal. His family was used to hearing it from talking heads and fanboys calling in to radio shows. "Some of it has brought me to tears," says his grandmother Joyce Richardson. But this was different. This was AJ, someone they thought they could trust.

"It was ragging Blake," says Sims' father, Sonny. "I was surprised, and the only thing that straightened me out was the way Blake accepted it."

Teammates rallied around Sims, but Bama was on edge as a one-loss team in the hypercompetitive SEC West, and Sims shouldered the brunt of the blame. Heading into the week of Texas A&M, he continued to shut out the criticism. Those close to him said he was aware of what others were saying, but he used it as motivation -- all the while asking his teammates to relax. "Let's go out there and have a good time," he told them that bright Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa. "Play for one another because we're brothers."

John Loomis for ESPN

After that first possession ended in near disaster, everything started to click for Sims. During a TV timeout, he strode into the huddle, clapping his hands together furiously. He then led a 72-yard touchdown drive. Two drives later, he put an exclamation point on the turnaround: On first and 10, he tucked the ball on a zone-read and faked the entire front seven inside before cutting back to his right. Then, in a move that set him apart from every "game manager" in Alabama history, he cut back a second and third time, sending the secondary tripping over itself as he sprinted 43 yards into the end zone.

The rout was on: 300-pound linemen danced between kickoffs, and Alabama won by a dizzying 59-0 score. Sims grinned widely on the sideline. The doubters could shove it, and he didn't have to say a word -- or make a gesture. He wasn't playing the role of confident leader any longer; he was inhabiting it. "We had one motto: Be better than we were last week," Sims said afterward.

He isn't the demanding presence of a McCarron, getting into others' faces. Instead, the way Sims quietly went about his job earned him the respect of everyone in the program. He'd managed to unite a locker room that was charged with pressure under McCarron. One source close to the team described it as the People's Champ vs. the Golden Boy.

"I don't know that I've ever seen a player go through any more than Blake went through for four years," Saban would later say. "As a coach, you love to see guys that go through what he's gone through, work so hard, always persevere and then have success."

Alabama rolled through the remaining six weeks of the season. During a 25-20 win over No. 1 Mississippi State, Sims helped seal the deal with a 76-yard march Saban described as "one of the greatest drives in Alabama history." The SEC championship game was a formality -- except that Sims broke McCarron's school record for passing yards in a single season, finishing with 3,250.

The next day, after Alabama was handed the No. 1 seed in the playoff, Sims thanked McCarron for helping him reach this point, whether it was explaining the playbook or pointing out coverages in the film room years earlier.

"I really don't think he meant how he said it," Sims says of the infamous comment. "He just -- he knows how Bama is, and he's probably frustrated because he's a man that likes to win."

That much they have in common.

"I had some hard times; I had some down days," Sims says. "But I wouldn't want to end my last year any other way."

That way is clear: When Alabama faces Ohio State on New Year's Day, there will be no doubt who's leading the Crimson Tide into battle.

close

OHIO STATE(4)

(12-1)
video
ESPN The Magazine: Cardale Jones

Cardale Jones highlight reel.

Back Up On Top

by Brett Forrest | ESPN The Magazine

J.T. BARRETT IS on the ground, staff and teammates surrounding him. Even Michigan QB Devin Gardner has taken a knee by his side. Soon, with an air cast in place, arguably the best player in the Big Ten is loaded onto a cart and driven off the field. Barrett's season is suddenly, shockingly, done. But the game against archrival Michigan in Week 14 is not, so Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman can probably be excused for his in-the-moment tunnel vision. "At the risk of sounding callous," Herman says, "we had to convert a third down. I was worried about getting a first down."

That first down didn't happen. But Barrett's replacement, Cardale Jones, would guide the team to a win, Ohio State would cruise into the Big Ten championship game, and Herman and coach Urban Meyer would end up with a familiar puzzle: how to win the Big Ten -- and more -- with yet another backup quarterback.

In August camp, Braxton Miller, a preseason Heisman contender and a three-year starter at quarterback, tore the labrum in his right shoulder, terminating his season before it began. Barrett, a redshirt freshman who hadn't played a down since high school, more than filled in, setting the Big Ten record for touchdowns in a season (45), held previously by Drew Brees ... until Barrett's year ended against the Wolverines with a fractured right ankle. When the quarterback job fell to onetime third-stringer Jones, with just a week to prepare for Wisconsin in the conference title game, Ohio State's coaches and players approached the situation with composure. By now, upheaval is simply part of the routine for them.

Cal Sport Media/AP Images

"We teach our guys to compartmentalize what's going on in your life," Herman says. "I told our guys we could feel bad for J.T. that his really good season has ended. But we couldn't let the two compartments bleed into one another."

During the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, Ohio State's compartments appeared watertight. "We put all our faith in preparation leading up to that game," Jones says. "There's nothing we can't do with the proper preparation." He might be right. Ohio State accomplished its most complete game of the season, hanging 59 points on Wisconsin, surrendering none. Jones averaged just three completions per quarter (going 12-for-17 overall), but he maximized their effect, throwing for 257 yards.

Unlike his predecessor, Jones had the luxury of relying on a strong supporting cast. When Barrett took over before the team's first game, against Navy, there were only four returning starters on offense and doubts galore. After an uneven performance, those doubts intensified in a two-touchdown Week 2 home loss to Virginia Tech. But by the time Jones stepped in and beat Wisconsin, an entire season had passed in which Ohio State averaged 45.2 points, good for fourth in the country. "The team around [Jones] is so much better than J.T. had to deal with," Herman says. "The only real adjustment we made was to take as much off Cardale's plate mentally in the run game, with all of the checkdowns. This time around, you kind of knew, 'hey, as long as he doesn't wet the bed ...' "

On the contrary, Jones exhibited poise. On just his third pass against Wisconsin, off a fake quarterback draw, Jones threw the first of three long touchdown passes to Devin Smith (39, 44 and 42 yards). So much for redacting the playbook for a first-time starter. "I knew he had the talent to throw the ball and execute, but I figured there would be first-game jitters," Meyer said at the news conference following the win. "There was none of that."

In the wake of Ohio State's undoing of Wisconsin, and with the Buckeyes now preparing to face Alabama in the first College Football Playoff, the question remains: How can Meyer and Herman plug in different quarterbacks and keep rolling?

Beyond the talk of "buying in" and "the system" and "the culture," which permeated the postgame locker room in Indianapolis, there might be -- for this year's team at least -- a more tangible explanation. Take former Ohio State QB Kenny Guiton, who played this past season with the LA Kiss of the Arena Football League and filled in for an injured Miller in several games during the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Guiton helped keep Ohio State's perfect 2012 season intact; in 2013, when he started two games, he set school records for passing efficiency and completion percentage. "I talked to KG, knowing he had been through that situation," Barrett says. "We all definitely have the ability -- but are you good enough? KG prepared each week like he was the starting quarterback, making sure that he was ready individually at any given time."

John Loomis for ESPN

This season Jones played that part, ready and waiting. When Barrett sprained the MCL in his left knee in the first half against Penn State in Week 9, his thoughts drifted from his welfare to that fact. Barrett says, "I started thinking to myself for a hot second before halftime, 'Is it better for me to stay in the game and have a tweaked knee, or would it be better for the team that Cardale comes in to play, knowing that he's healthy?' " He remained in the game, leading Ohio State to a double-overtime win. But the fact that he considered removing himself, and that he's forthcoming enough to share those thoughts, may shed light on how Ohio State has been able to overcome challenges that could short-circuit many talented teams. After all that's happened, there's little doubt another redshirt freshman, Jalin Marshall, an H-back for the Buckeyes but a quarterback in high school, will be ready should Jones need a backup against Alabama.

Still, however tightly knit, a team is a collection of individual strands that may fray on occasion. After his injury, Miller was away from the team during Barrett's crash course in starting. Not only did Miller have to endure surgery and the challenges of recovery, but he also had to deal with the added uncertainty of his NFL prospects. Without Miller to mentor him, and days away from his first start, Barrett struggled to fully grasp the challenge at hand. "There's a lot going through your mind being the starting quarterback for a top-five team," he says. "Braxton wasn't there, which was cool because everybody has their own problems, and his were bigger than mine. Braxton was going into his senior year. He was this Heisman hopeful. I have no idea what that was like for him."

But Barrett had a better idea of what it was like for Jones and knew how a sudden starter could use a sympathetic ear. "When I got hurt, I was bummed," Barrett says. "But I'm a redshirt freshman. I have more time. I just wanted to be a person to listen to Cardale." The day before the Wisconsin game, the two quarterbacks had a lengthy talk. Barrett politely declined to elaborate on the specifics.

After that game, all three quarterbacks gathered in the locker room, Jones cradling the MVP trophy. As photographers documented the moment, one had to wonder: How is this situation going to sort itself out next fall, when all three presumably will be healthy?

The Ohio State offense has operated most productively with Barrett under center, his decision-making and throwing ability appearing most suitable to Meyer's system. But Miller, a two-time Big Ten MVP, is the most dynamic athlete in the conference and has three years of starting experience. And if Jones guides Ohio State to two more wins, he will be impossible to disregard. Recovery schedules will play their part, and Barrett appears to have the edge there too; he should be ready for workouts a couple of months earlier than Miller.

There is already speculation that Miller might be asked to fill the Percy Harvin role that Meyer carved out at Florida, taking advantage of Miller's running ability, getting him the ball in space. Meanwhile, equally voluble conjecture has Miller transferring. Scheduled to graduate with a degree in communications this month, he would be eligible to play elsewhere next season.

All this is little more than end-of-season gossip, with few hints forthcoming from the principals. Herman asserts that he and Meyer haven't discussed next fall yet. ("I literally have given it zero thought," he says. "I don't want to deal with hypotheticals.") And it looks as if he, at least, won't have to. Thanks in part to the performance of his three quarterbacks, Herman won this year's Broyles Award as the country's top assistant, making him a valuable commodity on the coaching market. His next stop will be Houston, where he'll get his first crack at a headcoaching job.

Back in Ohio, one person who is contemplating next year is Barrett. "Me and Braxton, we talk about it," he says. "This is a unique deal. It's rarely seen. We're deep at quarterback. When I think about spring ball or fall camp, I just think about trying to outwork those guys." He'll have his chance. And assuming Miller stays, Ohio State will move forward with the best three QBs in the Big Ten. A precarious embarrassment of riches.

close

OREGON(2)

(12-1)
video
ESPN The Magazine: Marcus Mariota

Marcus Mariota highlight reel.

Playing Against Type

by Brock Huard | ESPN The Magazine

THE MINUTE MARCUS MARIOTA decided not to become the 2014 No. 1 overall pick (I think Texans coach Bill O'Brien wanted him bad), my attention turned to Oregon's matchup with Michigan State. Not only did it have the makings of the season's premier nonconference showdown, but the Spartans, defending Rose Bowl champs, personified the doubts that had adhered to Mariota and had caused him to return to Eugene.

Jed Jacobsohn for ESPN

Before Week 2, the junior had lost only three of his 27 starts -- one to Arizona in a blowout and two to Stanford by a combined nine points. Both losses to the Cardinal had derailed the Ducks' BCS title game hopes and created the narrative that Mariota couldn't win "the big ones."

I never bought into that, not after spending three years around Mariota -- at games, in spring ball and even during midsummer workouts. Still, some analysts fear that St. Mark displays almost too much humility, that he doesn't have the killer instinct to take over a game (see the Oct. 2 home loss to Arizona); scouts also question his accuracy, with Mariota having played in a system that hasn't asked him to settle in the pocket and pick apart defenses. Several evaluators I've spoken to think Jameis Winston could step into an NFL huddle tomorrow, while Mariota must land where he can acclimate to the equalizing speed of elite defenses. That learning curve from a breakneck spread with an oversimplified passing tree to a pro system has exposed the decision-making of Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick.

And so, as the Spartans marched into Eugene in Week 2, many experts assumed Mariota would be exposed. MSU was seen as Stanford in green, a hard-nosed, no-nonsense D with a scheme and personnel to keep him in the pocket and force throws into tight, NFL-like windows. Instead, he exposed MSU (as he would Stanford on Nov. 1) not only with speed and agility but with surprising strength and precision.

It was an auspicious start to his junior season, and if there are those who still believe Mariota can't win the big one on Jan. 1 against FSU, or that he lacks the attributes of a franchise quarterback, then a review of the following four plays from Oregon's 46-27 win over Michigan State should remove all doubt.


First Quarter: Strength

First and goal at the 6, no score

While this Mariota scramble is listed as "no gain," the play-by-play doesn't capture the nine brutal yards he gained to get back to the line of scrimmage. Folks underestimate Mariota's size, but I'm 6-5, and I can confirm Mariota is every bit of 6-4. And he still has plenty of room to add to his 219 pounds.

1 DT Joel Heath (6-6, 285) penetrates but hits Mariota too high. Having added about 30 pounds since arriving in Eugene, Mariota shrugs off Heath nine yards deep. 2 Next up: Mariota meets Marcus Rush, the aptly named DE who gets his mitts on the QB's legs. But once again Mariota is too powerful for the 250-pounder. 3 Finally, Mariota employs a stiff-arm to get back to the line. A late hit moves the Ducks to the 3, and after three more downs, they punch in their first score.


Second Quarter: Elusiveness

Second and five at own 18, Oregon up 8-0

Playing instinctively and smoothly in confined chaos has been a major part of Mariota's development. This 64-yard pitch and catch is indicative of that growth. Even last season, a flash of green and white barreling toward him would have prompted Mariota to make a mad dash to the perimeter.

1 DE Shilique Calhoun bears down on Mariota, who jump-cuts but still looks downfield. That quickness is why just two of his 372 passes get picked in '14, putting Mariota on pace to top Kellen Moore's record INT rate (3 of 431, 2009; minimum 350 attempts). 2 With the pocket collapsing, Mariota climbs into the face of the rush and hits WR Darren Carrington with a dart -- one of his 54 completions this season on throws of 15-plus yards downfield, most among Power 5 QBs (minimum 30 attempts).


Third Quarter: Creativity/Awareness

Third and 10 at own 41, Oregon down 27-18

Rarely do we remember Heisman-worthy moments from the first week of September, but this one will stick with me. Down two scores midway through the third, Oregon must convert -- and Mariota delivers one of the 207 first downs he was responsible for this year (58 percent of the Ducks' total).

1 Facing a passing down, MSU brings a six-man pressure, and LB Darien Harris comes free up the middle. But Mariota does what he often does: He makes the initial blitzer miss. 2 LB Riley Bullough can't corral Mariota, whose career-best 3,783 pass yards are more impressive if you consider he was sacked 29 times, as opposed to just 18 in 2013. 3 Mariota, sensing the backside pressure, finds his safety valve, RB Royce Freeman, with a Brett Favre-like flip for a 17-yard gain to keep the eventual touchdown drive alive.


Fourth Quarter: Explosiveness

Second and 17 at own 17, Oregon up 39-27

"This is the strongest team I have been a part of in Eugene," head coach and former OC Mark Helfrich told me this summer. But speed remains a Ducks necessity, so I ask who has the lightest feet. "In pads, on game day, the fastest may just be our quarterback," he says. This 40-yard dash made me a believer.

1 The tackle fires out, leaving the safety and DE unblocked. But they freeze long enough on the zone-read mesh to give Mariota a hint of daylight -- all he needs. Talk to scouts and analysts who've seen him live and they reiterate Helfrich: "FAST!" 2 Mariota finds the alley and breaks free up the sideline as the sucked-in safety can't recover. Will that play in the pros? RG3, Newton and Kaepernick have cast doubt, but Russell Wilson is proof that a QB with out-of-pocket presence can revive a team.

close

FLORIDA STATE(3)

(13-0)
video
ESPN The Magazine: Jameis Winston

Jameis Winston highlight reel.

Upon Further Review

by Tim Keown | ESPN The Magazine

BACK AT THE beginning, when a four-team playoff felt like freedom and Kenny Hill was bound to become a household name, Jameis Winston took off running inside AT&T Stadium.

It was first down at Oklahoma State's 28-yard line; Florida State led 20-17 with less than six minutes left in the third quarter. On a quarterback draw, Winston sidestepped a defender at the 26, hurdled his offensive tackle Josue Matias at the 10 and ran into cornerback Kevin Peterson at the goal line. The ball came loose, a slight bobble as Winston's knee hit the turf, the kind of inconclusive, maybe/maybe-not moment that Ultra HD and super X-Mo have turned into an endless series of Zapruder-like examinations. As Winston landed and an official signaled touchdown, the ball came out and OSU safety Larry Stephens picked it up, showing it off as if he'd found something important after a long search.

When the Pac-12 officiating crew announced that the ruling on the field was upheld, OSU coach Mike Gundy doubled over in disgust, and FSU took a 10-point lead in a game it would win by six -- a touchdown, an escape, a reminder of how tenuously the pieces hold together.

Rob Tringali for ESPN

And so, if you take your symbolism with a side of sledgehammer, you can say the Seminoles' drive for back-to-back championships began with a wandering, determined run that had a messy, controversial ending.

Football is a dissector's dream. Every game can be mined for one or two plays that could have changed everything. A downfield block here, a cutback there, a holding call somewhere else -- or, as coaches might say, anywhere else -- and a six-point loss becomes a one-point win. The variables are staggering, which is why coaches often find themselves with no choice but to double over.

How different would FSU's perilous drive to the College Football Playoff have been if Winston's touchdown had been overturned, if that seven-point swing had turned a win into a loss? Would the Seminoles have been even more motivated to win, and win big, just to stay in the hunt? Would the committee have deemed one loss reason enough to dismiss the defending champs?

Back there at the beginning, on the second-to-last day of August, when Florida State was everybody's No. 1, nobody knew how the committee would go about hacking its way through the brush in search of the top four. One criterion would become clear: the inherent hollowness of polls, which used to mean everything and now -- with the solitary exception of the committee's final rankings -- mean next to nothing.

"The committee felt it was asked to be different," says Arkansas AD Jeff Long, who was tasked with being the committee chair and the voice of the members' reasoning. "They were asked to bring the human element into this."

FSU's season took on the appearance of an experiment, a 13-game Rorschach to test the committee's powers of perception. Off the field, Winston was a source of constant conjecture and meme-spewing befuddlement. On the field, the Seminoles performed with underwhelming dominance, as if refusing to live up to expectations: beating Notre Dame only after offensive pass interference erased a go-ahead Irish touchdown; overcoming a two-touchdown halftime deficit to beat Louisville on the road; needing a field goal with three seconds remaining to defeat Boston College in Tallahassee; slipping past Georgia Tech by two for the ACC title. There was an air of inevitability to each. They were going to win, but they were going to take their sweet-ass time. You might say FSU went undefeated in the worst possible way.

Were the Noles simply good enough to toy with every single opponent or lucky enough to survive? After all, they survived not only their weak schedule but also the committee, which remained resolutely uncharmed. (FSU never appeared atop the CFP rankings.) Their playoff spot felt obligatory, as if the committee couldn't ignore that zero, no matter how it ended up there.

"In the past, undefeated meant you were No. 1," Long says. "And if there was more than one undefeated team, then they were 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. Now if you're an undefeated team and you're not playing very well, we're going to look at the body of work. It's fair to say there were committee members at different times who felt Florida State wasn't one of the top four teams."

Somewhere inside that explanation lies the rough beauty of the new system. The fact that a defending champ started the season No. 1, finished as the only undefeated team in the FBS and ended up as the third-seeded playoff team is the surest evidence that college football has entered a new era, one in which loyalty -- to preconceived notions or the undefeated -- no longer applies.

More Stories