For a moment, stop staring at the Transformers uniforms, the straight-from-the-Nike-lab shoes and the carbon-fiber helmets that really shouldn’t be called the “Sonic Boom” line amid football’s concussion crisis. Instead, when watching an Oregon game, focus on the quarterback.
His name is Marcus Mariota (pronunciation: Mar-ee-oh-TAH). He is still a babe, 19. As a dual-threat dynamo created by Chip Kelly and fine-tuned by Mark Helfrich, he has accounted for 25 touchdowns and committed zero turnovers this season. And without a single Tweet, Instagram photo, NCAA investigation, meeting with Drake, shoutout to LeBron or Vegas wager laid down by Floyd Mayweather, Mariota has become more central to the developing college football drama than Johnny Manziel or any other player.
If Johnny Football is an expert in self-promotion, Mariota is a relative bore. I don’t care. His performances are blowing away the Manziel mash. “We had to go out there and do our thing, just go out there and execute,” Mariota said after Oregon’s 45-24 dismantling of No. 16 Washington, per USA Today. “I just told our guys, `Relax, we’ll be fine. Take it one play at a time and we’ll be successful.’ ”
That he has become the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy is only part of the trove. On the night of Jan. 6 in Pasadena, in the final installment of a Bowl Championship Series that has become a pox on sporting Americana, Mariota could pull the trigger that ends Nick Saban’s dynasty. It isn’t too soon to ponder such an epic collision, in that Oregon and Alabama are the two constants in a season now wobbling with upsets and uncertainty in other precincts. Stanford, the one Pac-12 power that seemingly could puncture the Oregon turbojets in early November, was upended by Utah. Florida State could beat Clemson this weekend, or vice versa, but despite the advancements of the Atlantic Coast Conference, neither will have the resume to trump perfect regular seasons by Oregon and Alabama in the BCS rankings. Urban Meyer could run the table and win the Big 10 title game — giving him a 25-0 record in his first two Ohio State seasons — and still miss out on a national-title shot because he’s in a weak league.
Do not give yourself a migraine figuring all this out. If the Ducks and Crimson Tide win out, they’ll play for the championship. Much as some people are tired of Alabama and Saban, it is precisely the matchup we’d want: the futuristic, high-tech, super-octane blur vs. the old-man football shop that, somehow, still works in 2013. The uniforms alone — Alabama is wearing the same scheme, with numbers on helmets, from the Bear Bryant era — make it special. For it to happen, Saban has only two serious tests to survive: an LSU passing arsenal that could cause trouble for his vulnerable secondary, though you can be sure HaHa Clinton-Dix’s suspension will be lifted by that Nov. 9 home game; and an Southeastern Conference title game that, lookie here, could involve the Missouri Tigers, who not only found their way to Athens from Columbia but beat injury-ravaged Georgia, making them shocking frontrunners to win the SEC East and play Alabama in Atlanta in early December. OK, I’ll also mention that the Auburn game is on the road, but though his team is far from perfect — secondary issues, a work-in-progress offensive line, under performances by key players who aren’t named AJ McCarron and C.J. Mosley — Saban is coaching them up in weekly increments.
“We need to improve and try to dominate the competition, and I think we did that tonight,” Saban said after a rout of Kentucky. “But I also think we made a lot of mistakes. We turned the ball over a couple of times, dropped some passes. If you want to be the best, you can’t be satisfied with that, so there are some things we definitely need to improve on.”
And he will. But if this isn’t the best of Saban’s teams in Tuscaloosa, Mariota certainly is the best quarterback of Oregon’s spread-offense era. Finally required to play in the fourth quarter after a series of earlier blowouts, he threw for 366 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 88 yards and another score, foiling thoughts of a road upset in Washington’s renovated waterside palace. He has been better than Manziel because he doesn’t commit turnovers; in Texas A&M’s loss to Alabama last month, Johnny Football threw two critical interceptions, including a dagger Pick-6 after intermission. Mariota hasn’t turned the ball over in six games.
“He was awesome,” said Helfrich, who hasn’t missed a beat as head coach after Kelly fled to the Philadelphia Eagles. “He played really smart and very productive. A bunch of guys made a bunch of plays for him, too.”
And just wait until De’Anthony Thomas, merely a decoy at the moment while recovering from an ankle sprain, revs up at full speed. Without him, the Ducks still amassed 631 yards and a 7.8 yards per touch against a defense that had been ranked No. 3 nationally and was allowing only 3.9 yards a play. “We’re just trying to beat ourselves, day after day. We always say, `It’s you vs. yesterday,’ ” said Helfrich, per USA Today, meaning the Ducks approach each week striving to top their previous performances. That’s how potent they are, with or without Kelly. Sure, tough tests await against UCLA, Stanford, Utah in successive weeks, then against Oregon State and quarterback Sean Mannion, then in the Pac-12 title game. My guess is, no one is beating the Ducks and their buzzworthy quarterback.
“We just unfortunately had a hard time containing Marcus Mariota,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. “He threw the ball extremely well and when we covered him, he ran. We tried to catch him. We tried to spot him. We tried to blitz him. We tried to contain him.
“I don’t have a Heisman vote, but I’d be hard-pressed to say we’ll see a better quarterback this year. That guy is special. I don’t know when he is planning on going to the NFL, but when he does, I think he’ll be a top five draft pick.”
Johnny Football is old, stale news. Marcus Mariota may not be too cool for school or even trending on Twitter, but this is his season, his time. He creates his own Sonic Boom, every Saturday, in his Sonic Boom helmet.