Against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship, Justin Fields played like a quarterback that could cost Ohio State a shot at their first national championship since 2014. Against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, Justin Fields played like a quarterback that could single-handedly deliver Ohio State’s first national championship since 2014.
In the Buckeyes’ eventual 22-10 win over Northwestern, Fields set career-lows (as a starter) for completion percentage (44.4), passing yards (114), and passer rating (65.1). He failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time, threw his fourth and fifth interceptions in the last three games, and looked like an overwhelmed walk-on freshman in his first career start, not a junior in his 20th career start after an All-American and Heisman-finalist sophomore season. Even with the return of leading receiver Chris Olave for the Sugar Bowl, Fields’ performance vs. Northwestern suggested the Ohio State offense may struggle against Clemson in the national semifinal.
Ohio State didn’t struggle, scoring 49 points in a blowout win, and enters the national championship (as underdogs national championship odds) with a red-hot quarterback opposite Alabama’s Mac Jones. Where do Justin Fields and Mac Jones sit among the 23 national championship quarterback matchups in the BCS and playoff era?
|23||2011||Jordan Jefferson (LSU) vs. A.J. McCarron (Alabama)|
|22||2002||Ken Dorsey (Miami, FL) vs. Craig Krenzel (Ohio State)|
|21||2001||Ken Dorsey (Miami, FL) vs. Eric Crouch (Nebraska)|
|20||1998||Tee Martin (Tennessee) vs. Chris Weinke (Florida State)|
|19||2012||Everett Golson (Notre Dame) vs. A.J. McCarron (Alabama)|
|18||2007||Matt Flynn (LSU) vs. Todd Boeckman (Ohio State)|
|17||2009||Greg McElroy (Alabama) vs. Colt McCoy (Texas)|
|16||1998||Chris Weinke (Florida State) vs. Michael Vick (Virginia Tech)|
Don’t let the Heisman Trophy fool you; Eric Crouch wasn’t a great quarterback. Nor was Jordan Jefferson, the worst championship quarterback since 1998, or Craig Krenzel, who, like Crouch did a year earlier, pulled down former Miami star Ken Dorsey.
A.J. McCarron’s 2012 season will never be appreciated enough. His numbers weren’t eye-popping but he was remarkably efficient (10:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio) and was flawless in Alabama’s Iron Bowl win. And Michael Vick was simply a better, more electric version of Eric Crouch. Dangerous outside the pocket, Vick was never a good passer, and is too often overrated as an all-around quarterback.
|15||2017||Jake Fromm (Georgia) vs. Jalen Hurts (Alabama)|
|14||2006||Chris Leak (Florida) vs. Troy Smith (Ohio State)|
|13||2003||Matt Mauck (LSU) vs. Jason White (Oklahoma)|
|12||2000||Josh Heupel (Oklahoma) vs. Chris Weinke (Florida State)|
|11||2015||Deshaun Watson (Clemson) vs. Jake Coker (Alabama)|
Alabama’s overtime win over Georgia to cap the 2017 season will forever be remembered as the Tua Tagovailoa game but it was Jalen Hurts, a very good Jalen Hurts, who led the Crimson Tide to that point. Hurts was horrific in the first half of the eventual championship win but efficient until then, throwing just one interception in 247 attempts in their first 13 games. Neither Hurts nor Jake Fromm played well in Atlanta on Jan. 8, 2018, but both were good quarterbacks all year.
Chris Weinke’s third and final appearance is his best appearance when he topped 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in winning the Heisman before facing runner-up Josh Heupel in Miami Gardens.
|10||2013||Nick Marshall (Auburn) vs. Jameis Winston (Florida State)|
|9||2014||Marcus Mariota (Oregon) vs. Cardale Jones (Ohio State)|
|8||2016||Deshaun Watson (Clemson) vs. Jalen Hurts (Alabama)|
|7||2004||Matt Leinart (USC) vs. Jason White (Oklahoma)|
|6||2020||Mac Jones (Alabama) vs. Justin Fields (Ohio State)|
It’s easy to see why Nick Marshall’s 2013 season is often overlooked: Gus Malzahn was atop the world after transforming Auburn from a three-win team who lost all eight conference games in 2012 to a championship contender. And Chris Davis delivered the best play in college football history, the Kick Six, to win the Iron Bowl. That’s understandable but Marshall deserves more credit as an elite dual-threat quarterback who led Auburn to 12 wins.
Six years later, I still don’t know how to evaluate Cardale Jones’ 2014 season. He was unbelievable against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship, bad against Alabama in the semifinal, and good enough against Oregon in the national championship. Jones deserves credit as a third-stringer who had 18 career pass attempts entering the Wisconsin game but he wasn’t that good. But I do know how to evaluate Marcus Mariota as an all-time great capable of carrying even Jordan Jefferson or Craig Krenzel into the top 10.
Entering the semifinals, Mac Jones had done his share to warrant a top-10 ranking. But it wasn’t until Fields’ demolition of Clemson that the Jones-Fields matchup approached the top five. Jones has the two best weapons in the country at their respective positions in Najee Harris and DeVonta Smith but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t the best quarterback in the country all season.
|5||2010||Darron Thomas (Oregon) vs. Cam Newton (Auburn)|
|4||2018||Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) vs. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama)|
|3||2005||Matt Leinart (USC) vs. Vince Young (Texas)|
|2||2008||Tim Tebow (Florida) vs. Sam Bradford (Oklahoma)|
|1||2019||Joe Burrow (LSU) vs. Trevor Lawrence (Clemson)|
Dennis Dixon is revered in college football history and his 2007 injury remains one of the sport’s biggest what-ifs. Darron Thomas was better. Thomas was a better quarterback and is one half of the best national championship dual-threat quarterback matchup of all time.
In leading the best team in college football history, Joe Burrow had the best season from a quarterback in college football history. That’s just enough to put Burrow-Lawrence over Tebow-Bradford for the best-ever national championship matchup.
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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor, a college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @adoughty88.