NEW ORLEANS - The Sugar Bowl will go one of two ways for Ohio State's 250-pound sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones.
His inexperience will cost the Buckeyes a shot at the national championship. Or, his international-man-of-mystery status will surprise Alabama coach Nick Saban, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and a defense that has no idea what to expect from a player with only one game of film.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer probably wants something in between. He wants Jones protecting the football, dumping it off to a cavalcade of talented offensive weapons and stepping back into the offensive shadows. But that won't be good enough to defeat the No. 1 team in the nation.
To pull off one of the biggest upsets in national championship history, Meyer knows he will have to take risks with his unproven quarterback.
The Bucks head coach must turn Jones' weakness into a strength. Flip his inexperience and underexposure into an advantage. After all, the biggest unknown for two head coaches who seemingly know everything about one another is No. 12 in Scarlet and Gray. The unpredictable nature of the Buckeyes quarterback situation might be Ohio State's best chance to upset the heavily favored and much more experienced Crimson Tide.
It appears Smart and Co. agree across the board.
"You don't know how he's going to react in certain situations," Smart said. "We haven't seen enough tape to know."
This is where Meyer and Ohio State coordinator Tom Herman have an opportunity against one of the great defensive coaching tandems in the country. Jones' skillet is somewhat of known commodity for Saban and Smart. He's massive, standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 250 pounds, and he's got a huge arm and isn't likely to run around much. But beyond that, there is nothing concrete Saban or Smart can prepare for when it comes to the opposing signal caller. The playbook is somewhat of a blank canvas and Ohio State needs to empty the tool box on offense to win.
"He's a mystery," Alabama defensive back Nick Perry said. "We really don't know exactly what he can do or what kind of offense they're going to have come game time, so we're just preparing for everything and anything."
One thing the Buckeyes know that the Tide is sure to find out is that Jones isn't lacking in confidence. His path from middle-of-the-pack recruit from famed Cleveland (Ohio) Glenville to starting in the first college football playoff is evidence.
Listed at just 215 pounds coming out of high school, Jones enrolled in Fork Union Military Academy and added 35 pounds in one year. He became the No. 1 prep school quarterback prospect in the nation and signed with Ohio State in Meyer's first class in Columbus. He didn't attempt a pass in 2012 as he redshirted and only attempted two passes in 2013. It would have been easy for a player of his talent to consider going elsewhere as Heisman candidates Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett showed that there was little room for his 250-pound frame on the field. Jones could quarterback Ohio State to a national championship and enter next season as the third-string quarterback.
But Jones got his chance with the Big Ten Championship hanging in the balance and he delivered in a big way. He completed 12-of-17 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions while leading his team to a 59-0 stomping of the Badgers.
"I think the confidence that he showed in himself, the confidence that we had in him as a staff and then for him to go out and put forth the performance he did really just reinforced it," Herman said. "The confidence was put to the test and he answered the test."
His ability to step into the huddle and execute has not only won over his coaches but also his teammates as well.
“I definitely think he is going to be ready for any and all situations that he is going to face in the game," Ohio State left tackle Taylor Decker said. "I think he is getting really comfortable with his checks and reads. He's gotten all kinds of reps since training camp and I think the way he performed in the Big Ten Championship Game is a testament to how he has taken those reps seriously throughout the season.”
The compusure in a high-pressure situation against Wisconsin, a game not only for the Big Ten title, but also an opportunity to seal the final playoff bid, also spoke to the Alabama defense.
"[Jones] is very unflappable and not affected easily," Smart said. "He does a good job in the pocket and really threw the deep ball well in the Big Ten championship game. He's done everything he's been asked to do and done it at a really high level."
Added Alabama's middle linebacker and defensive leader Trey DePriest: "We saw what he did against Wisconsin. How he handled himself. Coming into the Big Ten championship and showing that type of composure and putting up the numbers that he did was impressive."
There is no doubt Jones was impressive against Wisconsin. But he was thrust into the fire without any time to think against a team that was significantly outmatched. Facing the No. 1 team in the nation and its elite defense on the floor of the Superdome with the entire universe watching and a national championship on the line is a totally different animal all together.
Will the month off help Jones and Ohio State, giving Herman and Meyer time to concoct a bizarre secret strategy that will allow OSU to shock the college football world? Or is four weeks enough time for a four-time national championship coaching guru to devise a gameplan complex enough to confuse a player who has attempted 19 career passes?
Smart knows the lay-off and the unknown commodity under center could help Ohio State.
"It's who takes advantage of that time better. It could pay off for either one of us," he said.
Cardale Jones gets it, too.
“Nick Saban and Alabama’s coaches have seen it all. We’re not trying to fool anybody here. We’re trying to come out and play football," Jones said. "It’s humbling, because this is a point in my career that I always wanted to be at. Personally, this is the biggest game, hands down. It’s a one-game season, the first ever college football playoff. This is the game that goes to the national championship, so it is the biggest game.”