NEW ORLEANS - Cardale Jones strolled into the hotel ballroom as if he owned the place. Decked out in a gray Ohio State sweatsuit, he took a seat on the podium and smoothly answered every question that came his way, throwing in a charming smile here, a well-timed quip there.
By all indications, he was made for this moment.
Looks can be deceiving, though.
Jones never expected it to go down like this, the guy who started fall practice as Ohio State's third-string quarterback suddenly the man of the moment, leading the Buckeyes (12-1) into college football's first playoff against top-ranked Alabama (12-1) at the Sugar Bowl.
The coaches told him "to always be ready, anything can happen," Jones said Sunday. But it was all so far-fetched, nothing more than "little pep talks . . . that you just brush off when you're not the guy, when it seems like you never play."
So, while he always tried to carry himself like a starter-in-the-making, he never allowed himself to actually believe it was possible. "Deep down," Jones conceded, "no."
With one whole start on his resume, Jones is the most intriguing - and mysterious - figure in the Big Easy this week. That lone start was a thing of beauty, a 59-0 rout of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, a performance so over the top that, some 3 weeks later, it still seems like a bit of aberration.
Now, he's preparing to face the mighty Crimson Tide and its defensive mastermind of a coach, Nick Saban, an imposing combination that many believe will expose Jones as a one-and-done phenomenon, at least for this season.
But no one really knows what to expect on New Year's Day.
"The unknown is there of how he's going to respond to certain situations," said Kirby Smart, Alabama's defensive coordinator. "They jumped out on Wisconsin. They had a big lead, so he played really confident. How he's going to respond? I don't know. If it's tight? If it gets a long way into the game? I don't know. There are a lot of things you just don't know."
Braxton Miller was supposed to be the Buckeyes' starter, one of the nation's top quarterbacks until he went down in August with a season-ending shoulder injury. J.T. Barrett took over the job and wound up fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting, a brilliant replacement indeed, but he sustained a broken ankle in the regular-season finale against Michigan.
Enter Jones, who finished off the win over Michigan and guided the Buckeyes to their stunning triumph over Wisconsin, throwing for 257 yards and three touchdowns to earn the MVP award.
"Let's not anoint the kid just yet," cautioned Tom Herman, Ohio State's quarterback coach and the future head coach at Houston. "I told him the other day, 'Don't be a one-trick pony.' You've got to go out and prove yourself worthy on a big stage on a consistent basis . . . We've got him on magazine covers and he's got shirts in the book store and stuff like that, and I'm like, 'Whoa.' "
Anyone can see that Jones has the skills to lead a major college program, with a rifle of an arm attached to a 6-5, 250-pound body. But a serious lack of maturity forced him to spend a year at a military prep school, and he showed no signs of growing up when he fired off a foolish tweet questioning the need to go to class at Ohio State.
"It's really over the last year he's just kind of grown up, because he's always been a goofball," said offensive lineman Taylor Decker. "Seeing his poise and his savvy in that [Big Ten championship] game in a pressure situation, it was awesome. I think he's going to carry that into this game."
Alabama, of course, will try to rattle Jones as much as possible.
Saban is a master of giving the opposing team something it's never seen before - a different coverage, perhaps, or a blitz that seemingly comes out of left field. Even the most experienced of quarterbacks have looked downright foolish against the Crimson Tide.
Jones is 3 years removed from high school, so he's more seasoned than most guys in his situation, but his only significant experience - when something was really on the line - came in those last two games.
"He's going to have to do a lot of processing and a lot of thinking," said Alabama defensive back Landon Collins, "because we're definitely going to confuse him as much as possible."