It was the first day of 2015. Fireworks still popping in the distance, but not nearly as often as the evening prior. College football fans were preparing for the first annual College Football Playoff after the BCS system was discontinued after 15 years. In the Sugar Bowl, the #1 seed Alabama Crimson Tide, led by Blake Sims and Amari Cooper, faced the #4 seed and eventual National Champion Ohio State Buckeyes, led by 3rd string quarterback Cardale Jones and Ezekiel Elliott. A very intriguing matchup, yet it was the least exciting game played that night. In the 101st Rose Bowl, the #2 seed Oregon Ducks, led by reigning Heisman winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, faced the #3 seed and undefeated Florida State Seminoles, led by 2013 Heisman winning quarterback Jameis Winston. It was a dream matchup that included two Heisman winners facing each other for a chance at a National Championship. In fact, it was only the third time that two Heisman winners had faced off in a college football game (Matt Leinart of USC vs. Jason White of Oklahoma in 2005, Sam Bradford of Oklahoma vs. Tim Tebow of Florida in 2009).
After leading 18-13 at halftime, the Mariota-led Ducks outscored the Winston-led ‘Noles 41-7 in the second half. Mariota won the Offensive MVP award; completing 26 of 36 passes for 338 yards while throwing two touchdown passes and one interception. He also ran for 62 yards and a score on 8 carries. Winston completed 29 of 45 passes for 348 yards, throwing one touchdown pass and one interception. He ran for -15 yards which included the infamous slip and fumble that was returned by Oregon DE Tony Washington for a 58-yard touchdown. Mariota’s Ducks advanced to the National Championship Game against Ohio State, but fell 42-20. So the debate began.
Putting aside the Rose Bowl, the overall accomplishments for each quarterback in college were incredible. Mariota and Winston are arguably the greatest quarterbacks at their respective alma maters. Mariota led the Ducks to a 36-5 record in three seasons, including three postseason wins. Winston led the Seminoles to a 26-1 record in two seasons, including an undefeated season ending in a BCS National Championship win against Auburn in 2013. The only loss of Winston’s college career came against Mariota’s Ducks.
The number one thing that people bring up when arguing for one quarterback against another is the stats, so here are the college stats of each quarterback:
Mariota in 41 career games at Oregon: 66.8% completion, 10,796 yards, 105 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions, 2,237 rushing yards on 337 attempts and 29 rushing touchdowns. Mariota is Oregon’s all-time leader in completions, attempts, completion percentage (min. 100 attempts), passing yards, passing touchdowns as well as rushing attempts, yards and touchdowns for a quarterback.
Winston in 27 career games at Florida State: 66.0% completion, 7,964 yards, 65 touchdown passes, 28 interceptions, 284 rushing yards on 145 carries and 7 rushing touchdowns. Winston does not hold any career records at FSU, considering he only played two seasons. He does rank 3rd all-time in passing yards and 2nd all-time in passing touchdowns.
The debate was as hot as any in the sports world as to which was the better quarterback: Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota? Both were entering the 2015 NFL Draft and both were expected to be taken very early. As the draft approached, Winston seemed to be a lock for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had the first selection in the draft. Mariota drew interest from a handful of teams, including the San Diego Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles and the Tennessee Titans, who held the second selection in the draft. As most expected, Winston was the new face of the Buccaneers and Mariota was the new face of the Titans. The two quarterbacks were projected to change the direction of their respective franchises quickly and bring their teams back to the postseason.
To heat up the debate, the Buccaneers and Titans were scheduled to face each other in the first week of the 2015 season, meaning the two rookie quarterbacks would face each other once again. Winston struggled in his debut, completing just 16 of his 33 attempts for 210 yards with two touchdown passes and two interceptions, while also fumbling twice (both were recovered by the Bucs). Mariota, however, tore up the Bucs secondary en route to a 42-14 blowout win. Marcus completed 13 of his 15 pass attempts with 209 yards with four touchdown passes and no turnovers. Winston posted a 64.0 passer rating, while Mariota became the first quarterback in NFL history to earn a perfect passer rating of 158.3 in his NFL debut, also becoming the youngest quarterback to ever achieve that feat as well. Mariota improved to 2-0 in his lifetime against Winston in head-to-head matchups.
Both Mariota and Winston broke franchise records in their rookie seasons. Mariota in 12 games before suffering an MCL sprain: 62.2% completion, 2,818 yards, 19 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions, 252 rushing yards on 34 carries and 2 rushing touchdowns. He broke the Titans rookie passing records of most completions, attempts, passing yards and passing touchdowns. Winston in 16 games: 58.3% completion, 4,042 yards, 22 touchdown passes, 15 interceptions, 213 rushing yards on 54 carries and 6 rushing touchdowns. Winston recorded the 3rd most passing yards by a rookie QB in NFL history, trailing just Andrew Luck and Cam Newton, as well as 4th most passing touchdowns by a rookie QB in NFL history, behind Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson and Luck. Winston broke Bucs rookie passing records for most passing yards, passing touchdowns, rushing touchdowns by a quarterback and passer rating, while also finished in 2nd place behind Todd Gurley for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. The Titans finished 3-13 while the Buccaneers finished 6-10.
In the 2016 season, both quarterbacks and their respective teams improved mightily. Mariota recorded 3,426 yards and 26 touchdowns to just 9 interceptions in 15 games before breaking his leg in Week 16, and Winston recorded 4,090 yards and 28 touchdowns to 18 interceptions. Both teams finished 9-7 in 2016, just short of making the postseason. Tennessee and Tampa Bay had subpar offensive lines through Marcus’ and Jameis’ first two seasons, making it difficult for them to stay in the pocket and off of the turf. Their receiving cores, with the exception of Mike Evans in Tampa Bay, were mostly mediocre as well. Mariota’s top targets were Delanie Walker and Rishard Matthews.
In 2017, however, things could get even better for both teams. The Titans signed Eric Decker and drafted Corey Davis with the 5th pick in the 2017 Draft. They also drafted Taywan Taylor from Western Kentucky in the 3rd round and signed veteran Eric Weems. Tajae Sharpe is also a trendy pick to have a breakout season. The Buccaneers made a splash in the offseason as well, signing DeSean Jackson and drafting OJ Howard and Chris Godwin.
So which quarterback is better to this point? In my opinion, I would rather have Marcus Mariota as my starting quarterback if I was a general manager for a team. He is less turnover-prone and can hurt defenses with his arm and his legs when healthy. Give him Mike Evans and we’ll see what kind of numbers he can put up. I expect the Titans to qualify for the postseason this year for the first time since 2008, when their starting quarterback was Kerry Collins. They have a great chance at winning the AFC South as well. The NFC South is a lot stronger, so the postseason may have to wait another year for the Buccaneers. NFL fans should be excited to see these two young stars compete for a long time coming, because Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston are just getting their feet wet.
Stats via NFL.com, ESPN.com, ProFootballReference.com and SportsReference.com/CFB