Bucs’ season of hope: Rose Bowl matchup between Winston, Mariota a sight for sore eyes

If they opt to leave college early, Oregon's Marcus Mariota (left) and FSU's Jameis Winston will likely be the first two quarterbacks selected in the NFL draft.

Mark J. Terrill/AP

TAMPA, Fla. — A 2-14 season has been dead less than a week, but that body has long turned cold.

The possibility of life, warm and comforting life for the troubled Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was showcased under the southern California sun on New Year’s Day, when everything was more petal than thorn.

Should old acquaintance be forgot? Already done.

Welcome to the season of hope.

Those two quarterbacks at the Rose Bowl, one Florida State’s Jameis Winston and the other Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, one a winner of 26 consecutive games before the calendar flipped to 2015 and the other a soft-spoken Hawaiian who dazzled in darkness to most of the country east of Denver before Thursday, did more than kick off the inaugural College Football Playoff with a delicious matchup between the last two Heisman Trophy winners. They represented a reason to believe in the NFL draft season for long-suffering Bucs fans, the same weary souls who approach April 30 with the fervor of a child before Christmas morning.

It should be mentioned that neither Winston nor Mariota have announced their intention to turn pro, neither have fallen at the feet of Bucs general manager Jason Licht, neither have scouted housing possibilities in Avila or on Davis Islands or along Bayshore Boulevard. (Perhaps Joe Maddon will be renting.) Many unknowns remain between now and draft day, and their availabilities stand as the largest questions of all.

But don’t blame a fan base scarred by Josh McCown’s 14 interceptions or the NFL’s 29th-ranked scoring offense for dreaming about either Winston or Mariota being tapped to hold a Bucs jersey on draft night, the smiles large and the optimism grander. Don’t blame a fan base that has lived one winning season since 2009 and no playoff berths in seven campaigns for wanting to believe that either quarterback would give them a fighting chance to lift themselves off the sidewalk after sustained losing for so long.

Yes, realists, we hear you.

Defining moments

The Bucs still must hire an offensive coordinator. They still must remake the offensive line, especially at left tackle. They still have more leaky parts on their roster than a $5 plumbing job.

But for this week, excuse the starry-eyed visions before all the pre-draft inspection begins. The sight of Winston and Mariota on the same field — the mere possibility of "What if?" after too many weeks of "Why care?" — produced more Bucs-related excitement than anything since Lovie Smith’s first season faded to black with a 1-8 start.

As for the game itself, Mariota’s Ducks were filet mignon and Winston’s Seminoles the empty sizzle in a 59-20 trouncing. Oregon wowed and Florida State was plowed as a 25-20 third-quarter score swung the Ducks’ way in wild fashion.

Mariota was the star by completing 26 of 36 passes for 338 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He also showed fine awareness as a runner in Oregon’s read-option scheme by rushing for 62 yards with one touchdown on eight carries. He had the look, the feel and the stats of a difference-maker, one the Bucs sorely need.

Still, even in defeat, Winston was no Jeff Driskel in the pocket. He completed 29 of 45 passes for 348 with one touchdown and one interception. Already, many gurus consider him to be a better pro prospect than Mariota, and it’s hard to see how he did too much damage to his professional future in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, if he chooses to call it a garnet-and-gold career.

Setting goals

Whatever happens in the coming months before the draft, it’s hard to imagine life getting better for Bucs eyes than New Year’s Day. There was Winston, who entered with all that size at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds and all that fourth-quarter moxie that allowed the Seminoles to claim seven victories of six points or fewer this season. There was Mariota, who entered with all that poise behind center and all that speed in the open field that makes him look like another coming of Colin Kaepernick.

There was all that wonder in both, that maybe, just maybe, one could deliver Tampa Bay from the NFL’s Death Valley.

There will be time for both to make choices about their NFL futures, and if they enter that bright new world, there will be study, interviews and decisions made by the Bucs’ front office about whether to take either player or go another route. Selecting an offensive lineman. A trade down for more picks. Anything seems possible.

But this early in 2015, with a wretched year barely over, the past never felt so far away. Hope was found in watching Winston and Mariota play under the glow of a New Year, in one of college football’s glamour sites, the stage worthy of their reputations on the field.

In that moment, everything for the Bucs was coming up roses.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.