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How 49ers' potential NFL draft QBs fared in big games

/ by Alex Didion
Presented By Big O Tires
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Jimmy Garoppolo's struggles down the stretch of Super Bowl LIV are one of the major black marks against his legacy since taking over as the 49ers' franchise quarterback. Now that he is set to be replaced by the 49ers' choice with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, how have the draft's top quarterbacks done in similarly high-stakes contests? 

Obviously no college game can match the pageantry and profile of the Super Bowl, but all three of the 49ers’ likely choices at QB played in national championship games during their college careers.

For the sake of time, we'll rule out Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson from this discussion. Those two seem likely to be the first two signal-callers off the board on draft night, plus Wilson's time at BYU didn't feature a plethora of championship or primetime contests, especially with the Cougars no longer being in a conference.

We'll start with the player experts continue to link most often to the 49ers, Mac Jones. We'll exclude his mop-up duty at the end of Alabama's blowout loss to Lawrence and the Clemson Tigers in the 2019 National Championship game, as Jones didn't attempt a pass.

The first game Jones started in his Alabama career in primetime was the Iron Bowl rivalry between Alabama and Auburn in 2019. Jones threw for 335 yards and four touchdowns on 26-of-39 passing, but also had two interceptions, both of which the Tigers returned for touchdowns.

Jones led the Crimson Tide down deep into Auburn territory with a chance to win the game, but Alabama's kicker missed a 30-yard field goal in the final minutes to seal a 48-45 loss.

 

His final start of that season came in the Citrus Bowl against the Michigan Wolverines. Jones completed 16-of-25 passes for 327 yards, tossing three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Four games from his final season as Alabama's starting QB stand out as being high-profile. College players often get the chance to pad stats against inferior opponents a number of times a year, but it is the games against the top competition that truly define a pro-quality player.

Against the No. 3 ranked Georgia Bulldogs, Jones racked up four touchdowns and one interception on 417 yards passing, as the Crimson Tide rolled to a 41-24 win in Tuscaloosa. After being down four at the half, Alabama outscored the Bulldogs 21-0 in the second half, which included two touchdown passes from Jones.

Fast forward to the SEC Championship Game, when Alabama took on the Florida Gators. Jones was able to match Kyle Trask and the high-powered Gator offense punch for punch, eventually holding on for a 52-46 win. He completed 76.7 percent of his passes and ended with five touchdowns and one interception.

Finally, the College Football Playoff was where Jones solidified his status as a potential first-round QB. His completion percentage was above 80 percent in both games despite averaging 37.5 attempts. He totaled 761 yards and nine touchdowns with zero interceptions, while lining up against two defenses for Notre Dame and Clemson that were chock full of NFL talent.

He arguably had his two best games against the two toughest opponents he faced all season.

Next, we'll look at the QB many 49ers fans have been clamoring for of late in Ohio State's Justin Fields. We'll ignore his first college season at Georgia where he was not the starter and mostly served as a wildcat option.

He and the Buckeyes took on eighth-ranked Penn State late in his first season at Ohio State, and in a matchup of top-ten teams, Fields connected on 16-of-22 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns. The speedy QB also ran for 68 yards as Ohio State won 28-17.

The following week against archrival Michigan, Fields completed just 56 percent of his passes but ended up with 302 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. Ohio State easily won 56-27.

Fields then went and hit on 19 of 31 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns, overcoming a 21-7 halftime deficit to win the Big Ten Championship Game over the Wisconsin Badgers.

The culmination of Fields' 2019 campaign came the following week in the Fiesta Bowl against Lawrence and Clemson. After Lawrence and the Clemson offense got a touchdown and two-point conversion to go up 29-23 with 1:41 remaining, Fields and the Buckeyes drove deep into their opponents' territory.

But Fields made a costly mistake, as he and wideout Chris Olave had a miscommunication and Clemson picked the ball off in the end zone with 37 seconds left, sealing up the defeat.

RELATED: Schefter: 49ers would draft Jones today but keeping open mind

Ohio State's 2020 season was full of cancellations due to COVID-19, but prior to the College Football Playoff, Fields perhaps had one of his toughest collegiate games against the Indiana Hoosiers. Fields threw three interceptions and completed only 60 percent of his passes, but the Buckeyes escaped with a 42-35 win. As Niners Nation's Akash Anavarathan pointed out in early March, Fields' effort against Indiana wasn't all bad.

 

Ohio State got to the playoff, and again drew Clemson in the semifinal. This time, Fields delivered against the Tigers. He threw six touchdowns against one of the nation's best defenses, including three in a single quarter as Ohio State won 49-28 over Lawrence.

He also displayed his undeniable toughness in this game, as four of those touchdowns after this brutal hit from Clemson linebacker James Skalski, which makes my ribs hurt just looking at it.

Fields fought through significant pain but was just 17-33 and threw one touchdown in the following game as Alabama and Jones crushed the Buckeyes 49-24 in the National Championship.

Finally, we'll take a look at Trey Lance, who didn't face nearly the same level of competition as the two QBs listed above with North Dakota State in the FCS. However, recent struggles aside, Carson Wentz has proved to be a capable NFL QB coming from the same school and competition level.

Lance threw for 2,491 yards (66.8 percent completion rate) with 25 touchdowns and zero interceptions in the 2019 regular season, but we'll focus on the final two games of the FCS Playoffs where he and the Bison faced their stiffest competition.

Against Montana State, Lance had 223 yards and three touchdowns, adding two on the ground to go along with no interceptions as NDSU advanced to the championship game.

Lance's ground game was the focus in the season finale, as he carried the ball 30 times for 166 yards while attempting just 10 passes. The Bison beat James Madison 28-20 to claim the school's eighth national title in nine years.

So where does all of that leave us?

Jones and Lance both won national championships in their lone full seasons as starters, while Fields was able to lead his team to back-to-back playoff appearances. We saw Jones shine against the best competition, while Fields got some revenge the second time around against mighty Clemson.

Lance's tape doesn't offer as many outstanding outings in prime time, but the young QB's physical attributes and maturity have him in the conversation to be the 49ers' choice with the No. 3 pick.

You can bet that Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have dissected each and every one of the games listed above, and we'll find out whose ability ultimately wins out on April 29.

Whoever the QB is, with the 49ers' roster full of talent and the championship window wide open, he will be expected to perform under the bright lights and bring a Lombardi Trophy back to the Bay Area.

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