LOS ANGELES -- In a game with so much on the line, there's been surprisingly little chatter around the Rose Bowl about quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.
OK, that's seemingly all the media, players and coaches have been discussing in the run-up to the first ever College Football Playoff semifinal. The hype is easy to understand, considering it's only the third time two Heisman Trophy winners have been on the same field together. While there's plenty on the line for each team -- a chance at a national championship next month in Dallas -- the stakes are much higher for the two quarterbacks.
A lot of that has to do with the 2015 NFL Draft order and the fact that half of the teams picking in the top six have a significant need at quarterback. Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht and a number of other front office and coaching staff members are reportedly headed to Pasadena to take in the game Thursday, and they won't be the only team to start forming opinions on both Mariota and Winston based on how they play on the sport's grandest stage.
Which of the two has the most to lose? There's a case to be made for both, but it is Mariota, who has yet to declare for the 2015 draft but is considered by many to be this year's top quarterback prospect, who has the most to lose. Skeptics will always doubt his ability to translate to the next level because there is a perception that he's a product of Oregon's offensive system. The Ducks coaching staff has been quite vocal in combating that viewpoint the past month, but Mariota's play on the field against a fast defense loaded with future pros would go even further in helping his case.
"Some of the experts that try to pick apart his game a little bit with, 'Oh, he's not a pocket passer,' or 'He doesn't get to his third or fourth read' -- those guys must not have video," Ducks offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "Staying this year was a great decision, and I think coming back to have the kind of year he's had is a dream come true for him.
The system concerns are not there with Winston in FSU coach Jimbo Fisher's system. He's made the reads scouts want to see time and time again on tape, and while his numbers are down this year -- something he attributes to purposefully forcing more throws -- there are few who have exhibited what Winston has the past two seasons while remaining undefeated as a starter. Winston's issues going forward aren't about his talent; they stem wholly from his actions off the field, an aspect each team will view through a different lens.
"At the end of the day, both of us are good players on the football field, and that's what we focus on," Winston said. "I'm not facing him, I'm facing his defense. It's going to be a Florida State team versus Oregon, and not Jameis Winston versus Marcus Mariota."
"From a technical standpoint, what (Winston) can do with his eyes and what he can see is amazing," FSU defensive coordinator Charles Kelly said. "Being able to convert what you see with your hands and know where to go with the ball is impressive."
As much as the Rose Bowl means personally for Mariota's future hopes, it will also go a long way toward impacting Oregon's national reputation. Even before Chip Kelly's tenure as head coach in Eugene, the Ducks were thought to be soft and the product of Phil Knight's donations that afford the program the use of every resource imaginable. The team has shaken that reputation some by being one of the most successful teams in the country the past decade, but the fact that they're the only playoff team that has never won a national championship isn't lost on many.
Great quarterbacks thrive under pressure and in big moments. Luckily for the Ducks, the moment isn't too big for their calm and collected signal-caller despite being on the grandest stage imaginable this week.
"I'm just excited to play the game. I'm excited to be a part of the Rose Bowl," Mariota said. "This team has had a great year, and hopefully, we can continue to play within our season and really have fun. It's going to be a great game, and I'm excited."
But make no mistake -- on New Year's Day, Mariota will have a lot more riding on the Rose Bowl than his counterpart in garnet and gold.
Stat of the week
Fifty-two of Oregon's 59 victories since 2010 (88.1 percent) have been by 14 or more points. Thirty-nine of Florida State's 58 victories (67.2 percent) in the same span have been by 14 or more.
Tweet of the Week
Gold medal:*Kalani Sitake*, Utah's defensive coordinator, helped shut down Colorado State's high-powered offense in the Las Vegas Bowl and promptly got a big contract from Oregon State not long after.
Silver medal:*Brent Venables*, Clemson's defensive coordinator and a former Oklahoma assistant, helped shut down his old school in the Russell Athletic Bowl, embarrassing the Sooners to cap off a great year for the Tigers defense.
Bronze medal:Head coach Doc Halliday guided Marshall to a 13-1 record this season and closed it out by winning the "Mid-Major Super Bowl" by throttling a solid Northern Illinois team in the Boca Raton Bowl.