BALTIMORE -- As the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award ceremony came to a close on Friday night, a throng of admirers formed in front of the stage on which the best college football player in the country was standing.
One after one, they requested photographs with Marcus Mariota. He posed and smiled each time and, after it was over, left the hotel ballroom to complete another day on the award circuit.
On Thursday, Mariota took home a trio of accolades: the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award, the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award. And the Oregon quarterback will win the sport’s most prestigious individual honor, the Heisman Trophy, on Saturday in New York City.
Given the unreasonably high expectations Mariota faced to start the season, it’s astonishing to realize that he has met virtually all of them. Consider the storylines surrounding Mariota and the Ducks before they played their first game.
An 11-2 record with a bowl win the previous season was considered a “down year” when measured against the program’s recent standards. What’s more, the Oregon offense, productive though it was, had come to be viewed in some quarters as a flashy gimmick that couldn’t cut it against tough teams like Stanford.
Meanwhile, after a somewhat surprising decision to return for his redshirt junior campaign despite generating considerable NFL buzz, Mariota was tabbed as one of the top prospects in the 2015 draft class, and perhaps its best quarterback. His every throw and scramble would be picked apart by NFL scouts, his attitude scrutinized for deeper meaning.
While Jameis Winston, the 2013 Heisman winner and starting quarterback from another national title contender was under the spotlight for reasons not strictly related to football, Mariota faced an entirely different challenge: delivering a dream season. Anything less than a national championship, a bundle of awards and a top-five draft selection would not meet the exceedingly high bar the college football world expected him to clear.
For Mariota, the pressure was more imagined than real.
“I was more concerned with achieving team goals, and more focused on that,” Mariota told SI.com on Friday. “Outside pressure is stuff that other people make, and we weren’t focused on that at all.”
It was a daunting task, one that others before him had failed to complete. Here are some others who entered recent seasons with best-player-in-the-country hype:
In 2013, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel was upstaged by Winston and the Seminoles’ dominant national title run. A year earlier, Manziel so captivated fans and media with his electric playing style that Matt Barkley’s decision to return for his senior season was reduced to a mere footnote. Then there was Robert Griffin III’s magical 2011 campaign, in which he took the Big 12 by storm with his captivating dual-threat skill set and outshined Stanford star Andrew Luck.
All of which is to suggest that despite Mariota’s vaunted preseason stature, it was entirely possible that someone unexpected would pull the carpet from under him. Instead, Mariota has managed to eclipse even the most bullish preseason forecasts.
Entering Oregon’s matchup with Florida State in one College Football Playoff semifinal, Mariota has completed 68.3 percent of his pass attempts for 3,783 yards and 38 touchdowns. He leads the Football Bowl Subdivision in passing efficiency (186.33), yards per attempt (10.2) and is the only quarterback in the nation to throw for at least 2,100 yards with fewer than three (2) interceptions.
Mariota’s progression as a passer has distracted attention from his running prowess. The 6-foot-4, 219-pounder excels at evading oncoming rushers, making defenders miss in the open field and keeping plays alive outside the pocket. On a team that ranks first in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per attempt, Mariota is the second-leading rusher behind only prodigious freshman tailback Royce Freeman, and 14 of his Pac-12 record 53 touchdowns have come on the ground.
The total package -- the ability to stand in the pocket and deliver accurate throws as well as rip off big plays with the ball in his hands -- is what makes Mariota such a terrifying prospect for opposing defenses.
“He does everything really well,” Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost told SI.com on Friday. “I think one of the overlooked parts of his game is his mental acuity and how quick he can make decisions. It’s not an accident he has that many touchdown passes and that few interceptions, cause he sees the field and makes the right decision so fast, and that’s a rare trait.”
The one blemish on Mariota’s (and Oregon’s) resume that blipped the national radar, a seven-point home loss to Arizona in early October, registered as a not-terrible stumble against a division champion. Mariota managed to exact revenge on the Wildcats by delivering five touchdowns and 346 yards of total offense in a statement-making, 38-point win in the Pac-12 title game.
The only remaining questions for Mariota are how large his margin of victory will be over Heisman finalists Melvin Gordon and Amari Cooper and whether he can lead the Ducks to a national championship
“I’m excited to be a part of that,” Mariota told SI.com of participating in college football’s new postseason system. “This team has set that as one of our goals, and to achieve that and to be part of it – it’s a whole lot of fun and we’re excited for it.”
It would be easy to look back and say that Mariota was expected to reach such lofty heights. But at the same time, the fact that he managed to maintain his proverbial spot atop the college football mountaintop all season is a huge accomplishment in itself.