On the surface, the biggest mismatch of the first College Football Playoff would have to be Ohio State's third-string quarterback against No. 1 Alabama's voracious, physical defense. But as Cardale Jones showed in winning his first career start, 59-0, over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship, he's no ordinary third-stringer.
When he was recruited out of Cleveland's Glenville High School, where he played under Ted Ginn Sr., father of the former great Buckeyes receiver and kick returner Ted Ginn Jr., Jones was rated by Rivals.com as the No. 12 player in the country. But he lost his way while languishing on the depth chart and nearly lost his scholarship two years ago thanks to an ill-advised tweet during the spring of his redshirt freshman year.
Angered by a 'B' grade on a sociology exam, Jones tweeted: "Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain't come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS."
It was a reaction he quickly regretted, and it led to a sitdown with Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer. "It was really tough and uncomfortable," Jones said Tuesday at Sugar Bowl media day. "I was never on the spot like that. It was almost a 'do or die' decision at that time.
"Coach said, 'It's time to show why you're here and to stop acting like a clown off the field.' I had to change somewhat the person I am, but it's what I had to go through to be at this stage."
That confrontation was just the beginning of the maturation process for Jones, who hopes to become a financial planner and said he achieved a 3.0 GPA during the fall semester. He found it difficult to sit last year behind Braxton Miller and former backup Kenny Guiton.
After Miller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in training camp, redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett passed Jones for the starting job and played well enough to be mentioned in the Heisman Trophy conversation before breaking his ankle in the regular-season finale against Michigan.
"It seems like you're never going to play," said Jones, who briefly considered transferring. "It's seemed like light years, actually."
When the call came, Jones finished the Michigan win, then played flawlessly against Wisconsin, completing 12 of 17 for 257 yards and three touchdowns to earn Big Ten title game MVP in his first college start.
"I'm a little shocked," he said of his instant success, "but our coaches did an unbelievable job of preparing me and my teammates to play on that stage."
Jones is on a much bigger stage now against a defense he said is the best Ohio State has seen over the past two seasons. Alabama safety Landon Collins on Tuesday expressed his respect for the 6-5 Jones' arm strength but suggested the Tide can take advantage of his inexperience.
"This is a big stage, a win-or-lose moment," Collins said. "I mean, there's going to be a lot of anxiety in his system because of what's going on. We're going to try to confuse their quarterback and make him make bad judgments and bad plays."
Unfazed by such predictions, the upbeat Jones believes in the players around him. "The lack of experience is something I make up in the film room," Jones said. "It helps to see myself and the team in practice. It's been on another level so far."