College football's brightest star hits the game's biggest stage

— -- FADE IN: The sun drops behind the San Gabriel Mountains on the horizon, a radiant prelude that makes the Rose Bowl a vacation postcard come to life every New Year's Day.


Baker Mayfield will swagger in from off-screen, taking a moment to admire the picturesque pregame scene unfolding before him and his Oklahoma teammates. There will be a crowd of more than 90,000 people, almost evenly split between fans covered in red and black and those clad in the same crimson and cream as his helmet and uniform.

DISSOLVE TO: A glimmer of recognition will sweep across his face, an understanding of why this game -- the oldest and biggest of all the postseason college football games -- is called The Granddaddy of Them All.

Mayfield, as per usual, can probably improvise from there.

The rest of the script is in his hands.

Like so many before him, Mayfield has gone west for the bigger stage and brighter lights. The Rose Bowl isn't quite Hollywood -- it's only 15 miles away via the 101 freeway and the 110 -- but it's the closest that college football has to a blockbuster event.

A game that has historically pitted the top team from the West Coast against a powerhouse from the Rust Belt will instead boast a marquee featuring Mayfield against the rugged Southern inhospitality of the Georgia defense, which ranks second in the nation in efficiency. It is arguably the most compelling matchup in college football this year, an encounter that will determine which team gets a shot at the national championship in Atlanta a week later.

And it will likely hinge on the performance of Mayfield, a guy who has long thrived on the tension and pressure that comes with being at the center of attention.

He is the sort of protagonist that America -- though probably not in the southeast U.S. and little to none of Georgia -- can get behind.

And why not? Mayfield has the scruffy-cheeked, rugged good looks of a leading man. As a former walk-on at both Texas Tech and Oklahoma, he has an underdog origin story many fans can relate to. He has recently come into possession of the Heisman, probably the most-recognizable trophy in the country.

At this point, he even has the sort of one-name recognition reserved for only the headliners: Rihanna. Magic. Madonna. Tebow. Baker.

And for the next week, until Georgia and Oklahoma kick off on Monday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App), Mayfield will be covered as they are, with reporters hanging on every word and action, hoping for another headline from the quotable quarterback.

After all, he even has, shall we say, a past? He was arrested in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in February and pleaded guilty to public intoxication, disorderly conduct and fleeing from police. He apologized for planting a flag at the middle of Ohio State's field after a win there in September. And most recently, Mayfield was forced to sit out the start of his home finale against West Virginia after taunting and making a lewd gesture to Kansas fans during the game there.

But here's a secret: That doesn't have to be a problem, and might even work to his advantage.

"Give me a break, so he grabbed his crotch and all of that? It was a reaction to an action," said Barry Switzer, the Sooners coaching legend. "But it's that kind of stuff that brings to the team a charisma, an excitement, a confidence that permeates the entire team and raises their play."

It was clear Mayfield had that kind of effect on his teammates and the game dating to his very first varsity football action in 2011 at Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas, where he started his junior year on the sideline behind a senior who'd beaten him out for the job. When that senior went down with an injury on the fourth play of the season opener, Mayfield entered the lineup and never left it again.

"All of a sudden Baker comes in and lights [the stadium] on fire," said David Collins, then Mayfield's offensive coordinator and now head coach at Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas.

"It was awesome from the first time he stepped on the field."

Mayfield was responsible for three touchdowns in that blowout win of Lake Travis' crosstown rival Westlake High at the home field of the University of Texas, a debut that served notice that he was unafraid of the big moments.

"I was not happy that I played because [the starting quarterback] got hurt, but I was prepared just in case," Mayfield told the Austin American-Statesman after the game. "Everything kind of clicked."

It was that captivating brew of intensity and excellence, coupled with a nobody-believes-in-me chip on his shoulder that would characterize the next six years of his career.

Mayfield would go on to help Lake Travis win a state championship that year, its fifth straight. The next year he turned down scholarship offers from Rice and Florida Atlantic to become a preferred walk-on at Texas Tech. A year later he left Lubbock after bristling at being forced to compete for the starting job. Then at Oklahoma, as a preferred walk-on again, Mayfield beat out incumbent starter Trevor Knight, who had led the Sooners to an upset of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl a few months earlier.

Nothing, it seemed, was too big for a quarterback written off a number of times because of his less-than-ideal height.

Mayfield, listed at 6-foot-1, will enter the Rose Bowl in much the same situation: a legend in name and numbers but not necessarily highly regarded at the next level.

It's a situation reminiscent of another undersized Texas schoolboy legend who swaggered his way through college football. However, that QB -- Johnny Manziel -- came up short in the NFL. One NFL Network analyst even tabbed Mayfield as "Manziel 2.0" before settling on another, more favorable comparison to a Texan in much the same mold, Colt McCoy.

The comparisons with Manziel are so inevitable that Sandy Sandoval, a longtime athlete marketing and branding consultant, couldn't help but make them after initially brushing them off. Asked to compare Mayfield's playing style and gamesmanship to any player in recent memory, Sandoval couldn't resist.

"Well, when you put it that way, the closest guy would be Johnny," Sandoval said. "But Johnny took it to another level. Baker does kinda have that kind of arrogance, that very high confidence level about the way he plays and carries himself."

He paused to come up with someone else.

"I can't think of anybody else who was like that."

Going back to high school, when Manziel was regularly in the headlines, Mayfield himself was careful to pick other role models.

"Look at Russell Wilson and Drew Brees," he told the American-Statesman after failing to sign with a school on national signing day in 2013.

Both Wilson and Brees finished college careers that started with doubts about their ability -- and their height -- by going to the Rose Bowl. Brees went to Pasadena with Purdue in 2001 and Wilson led Wisconsin there in 2012.

Now Mayfield will have his chance.

It's a narrative arc that would seem predictable if it hadn't once seemed so improbable.