The most fascinating position battle in college football next season presented itself over the final few games of the college season.
Who starts at quarterback for Ohio State next season?
For the sake of argument, let’s say Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones return. The case for each is strong.
Miller, a two-time Big Ten offensive MVP, missed this season recovering from a shoulder injury.
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Barrett took over and was effective enough to finish fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting before fracturing a bone in his ankle.
Then there’s Jones. All he did was lead the Buckeyes to victories in his first three starts, the latest a 42-20 victory over Oregon on Monday in the first College Football Playoff title game.
Ohio State’s embarrassment of riches might sort itself out. Miller is eligible for a free transfer, and he could become the next Russell Wilson, who left North Carolina State and led Wisconsin to a Rose Bowl in his one season at Madison.
Barrett has two years of eligibility remaining and seems a likely candidate to return to Ohio State.
Jones presents the most unique case. He’s been such a revelation in the three games, and is such an imposing figure at 6-5 and 250 pounds with such athleticism, that the NFL Draft doesn’t seem out of the question for the third-year sophomore.
His stock may never be higher than it is right now.
Jones got plenty of help Monday against the Ducks. Running back Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 246 yards and four touchdowns, a monster game on college football’s grandest stage.
The offensive line was dominant, and safety Tyvis Powell led a defense that didn’t allow Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Marcus Mariota to have his way.
But Ohio State crushed Wisconsin in the Big 12 title game, blew past Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and pulled away from Oregon with a third-team quarterback who played like a star.
“Having this clown, this goofball step in was key,” Elliott said.
That was in reference to Jones’ light-heartedness, which has had him described as goofy by teammates and immature by coaches.
He’s also fun. When Elliott was asked about a potential Heisman candidacy next season, Jones put his name card in front of Elliott, and when the running back was finished, said, “Thank you, Cardale.”
Yes, Cardale, you can be a Heisman candidate, too.
It will help to cut down mistakes. The Buckeyes had four turnovers, with Jones and Elliott muffing an exchange for one and the ball slipping from Jones’ hand for another.
“They were mistakes that could have been avoided,” Jones said. “They didn’t force us to commit them. No disrespect to Oregon, but we felt like we could score any time we wanted.”
After Oregon went ahead 7-0, that’s how it appeared. The Buckeyes went 97 yards on one scoring drive sparked by completions of 26 yards on successive attempts that pulled Ohio State out of the hole.
The Buckeyes scored again, committed their first two turnovers, and added another touchdown to make it 21-10 at halftime.
Mariota and Oregon got nothing from those mistakes, once coming up short on fourth and goal from the 3, but the Ducks cashed in when Ohio State opened the second half with turnovers on its first two possessions.
Suddenly, it was 21-20. That was when Elliott and the offensive line assumed command of the game as the margin swelled and the Buckeyes’ defense was at its best. Jones was the facilitator, and seemed fine with that role.
Now, what will that role be next season?
Has a player ever led his team to a conference and national championship as a starter and returned to the bench the next season?
There have been some shared experiences over the years. In 1994, Nebraska’s Brook Berringer started seven games for injured Tommie Frazier, and they both played in the Orange Bowl victory over Miami for the national championship.
Chris Leak was Florida’s starter on the 2006 national title team, but freshman Tim Tebow was the effective change-of-pace sub for Urban Meyer’s first national championship team.
But this is different. The possibility of any of the three not in an Ohio State uniform next year has been expressed only in speculation. It would seem crazy to have that much proven talent at the position for 2015.
Whatever happens, whoever is the starter, Ohio State figures to enter the season where this one left off, as the team to beat for the national championship.