The national media are already making their way to One Buccaneer Place.
NFL schedule makers set ‘em up by sending Tennessee to Tampa Bay in Week 1 and both organizations knocked ‘em down by using the first two draft picks on high-profile quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston (respectively, but not in that order) less than two weeks later.
Last year’s combined 4-28 record makes no difference now.
It’s Jameis versus Marcus. Heisman versus Heisman. A quarterbacking rematch of last year’s College Football Playoff Semifinal.
It piques the interest of people outside the Tampa Bay and Nashville metro areas and keeps the game from being a 4:25 p.m. afterthought for everyone without Bucs or Titans on their fantasy rosters.
The chatter is going to only grow louder as Sunday approaches, but don’t expect either rookie or those around them to act like the head-to-head debut’s a big deal.
“It’s not about us, it’s about our teams,” Winston said during his Wednesday press conference. “The Bucs vs. the Titans. I’d rather the headline be the score than something about individual players.”
Mariota took questions over the phone Wednesday and responded almost identically when asked about Sunday and how the two quarterbacks’ careers will be forever linked by their draft selections.
“That’s for you guys. That’s you guys’ opinion. I learned a long time ago not to compare myself to anyone else,” Mariota said during his telephone interview with the media Wednesday. “I think people will continue to debate whether [being drafted] one and two is really important to Jameis and I.”
That discussion will finally get to heat up for real Sunday night once both players turn in their initial regular-season stat lines.
As for the preseason, Mariota’s limited action gets the edge. He completed 70 percent of his passes (21 of 30) for 326 yards, one touchdown and one interception while being sacked twice for 19 yards lost. The former Oregon Duck didn’t show off much of his dual-threat potential, though, rushing five times for 17 yards.
Winston finished with a sub-50-percent completion percentage (48.9), hitting 23 of his 47 targets for 311 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions. The so-called less athletic of the two did find the end zone twice with his legs, rushing for 24 yards on six attempts.
When asked why the Bucs liked Winston over Mariota in this spring’s draft, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter didn’t take the bait by praising both rookies equally and vaguely.
“Nice try,” Koetter said. “I think Lovie [Smith] had a great point the other day. There’s nothing to say both these guys can’t be good. They’ve got their quarterback, we’ve got our quarterback. All that stuff’s water under the bridge. How it all shook out it really doesn’t matter at this point.”
Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt voiced a similar opinion Wednesday but acknowledged the inherent intrigue that comes along with a Winston vs. Mariota storyline.
“Do I get it? Yeah, I get it,” the second-year Tennessee coach said. “They’re both very success college quarterbacks, both won the Heisman, both have performed at a high level in big games. So regardless of where they were drafted there’s a lot of tension that comes with that. When you go one and two that even creates more attention. I certainly get it.
“They’re both good football players. I know in doing our work on these guys we liked both of them. It is definitely going to create a lot of interest about this game.”