Sugar Bowl: Cardale Jones can set his Ohio State legacy in two games

NEW ORLEANS — If not for the name card in front of him during interviews here this week, unfamiliar media members might have mistaken Ohio State’s Cardale Jones for a defensive lineman. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Jones is not a typical-looking quarterback, nor is the grown-faced 22-year-old a typical third-year sophomore.

But his budding career arc is the most unusual part of all.

Pinch-hitting in the Buckeyes’ Big Ten championship rout of Wisconsin was one thing. Thursday night in the playoff semifinal against Alabama, a guy with one career start is going to etch his name into Ohio State lore one way or the other. Either he’ll be the improbable hero who led the Buckeyes to their biggest win in more than a decade, or he’ll become the answer to a future barstool trivia question.

Hey, what was the name of that guy who beat Wisconsin that one time?

“He was on the cover of two magazines. … I kind of liked it when he was the underdog,” Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman joked of Jones’ newfound fame. 

While the playoff game itself is uncharted territory for college football, it’d still be hard to find a comparable recent example of such an inexperienced quarterback starting a game with so much at stake. There have been backups who took over for an injured starter during the season and wound up playing for a national championship, like the late Brook Berringer did in place of Nebraska star Tommie Frazier in 1994 or Florida State’s Marcus Outzen for future Heisman winner Chris Weinke in 1998. Freshman Garrett Gilbert came in for fallen star Colt McCoy during Texas’ 2009 BCS title game loss to Alabama.

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But Ohio State had to lose not one but two Heisman-caliber quarterbacks (Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett) before Jones got his call. And when he did, his first start didn’t come in a late-season conference game. It came in the conference title game, which the Buckeyes went into as four-point underdogs only to win 59-0 and grab the fourth spot in the playoff. Jones went 12-of-17 for 257 yards and three touchdowns against the Badgers

“A little shocked,” Jones said of his performance that night. “But you know, our coaches did an unbelievable job in preparing me and my teammates to play on that stage. It was the biggest game of the season, and we [were] down to our third quarterback. So all that credit goes to the coaches and the guys around me.”

For his second act, Jones, a Cleveland native and Fork Union (Virginia) Military Academy alum who spent much of his earlier career in the coaches’ doghouse (thanks in part to moments like his infamous “classes are POINTLESS” tweet), will be charged with handling Alabama’s highly skilled and notoriously confusing defense, not to mention a raucous Superdome crowd.

“Cardale’s an interesting character,” said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. “He’s a guy that three years ago was not equipped to handle this kind of situation. A year ago he wasn’t equipped. I started to see a gradual change. [Herman] has done an excellent job with him. Spring practice, one day we walked off the field, I was like, my God, he acts like a quarterback now. He’s not acting like a child that’s never been in a big arena.”

Herman notes that Jones has been in plenty of big arenas — Penn State’s Beaver Stadium, Michigan’s Big House and Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium among them. “Has he been on the field performing? No,” said Herman. “But I think being around that for all the years he has been is an advantage.”

Jones will have plenty of help Thursday. His loaded supporting cast includes 1,402-yard rusher Ezekiel Elliott, game-breaking receivers Devin Smith and Michael Thomas, speedy all-purpose threat (and now Jones’ backup) Jalin Marshall and a vastly improved offensive line.

The national championship

“It’s hard to be nervous when you’ve got some of the unbelievable athletes around you,” said Jones. “It’s not like we’re playing with one top guy.”

Jones has certainly seemed comfortable with this week’s media crush, especially considering reporters had little reason to talk to him prior to this month. He’s unquestionably physically mature. Alabama’s defenders, having solely the Wisconsin tape to scout him, rave about his arm and mobility.

But you can certainly understand why fans outside of Ohio might have their collective doubt. If he and the Buckeyes struggle, there may be a moment of buyer’s remorse on the part of the playoff selection committee. As in, did we really put in a team with a third-string quarterback?

But if Jones helps Ohio State slay the SEC’s reigning juggernaut and send the Buckeyes on to the Jan. 12 national championship game, it’ll be time to remove that unflattering third-string prefix.

Miller may be a two-time Big Ten MVP and Barrett a top-five Heisman finisher, but neither has had an opportunity to beat as nationally respected an opponent as Jones does Thursday. It took him only two starts.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, "The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff," is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.