In the blink of an eye, here we sit for Week 9 of the 2016 college football season. As we enter the final quarter of the year, teams are desperately trying to clinch bowl eligibility and further propel themselves toward their conference title games or, in some cases, a berth in the College Football Playoff. This week on the College Draft Podcast with Ross Tucker, I broke down all the best matchups from some of the top games of the week, but let's look at five more matchups that fans should keep their eyes on.
1. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett vs. Northwestern LB Anthony Walker
*Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio - 3:30 PM - ESPN *
Entering the season, many pundits had J.T. Barrett tabbed as one of the top underclassmen quarterbacks, and for good reason. He had already put forth a Heisman-worthy campaign before he got hurt in his freshman season of 2014 when the Buckeyes won the National Championship. He split reps a year ago with Buffalo Bills third-round pick Cardale Jones, and showed flashes of that talent once again in 2015. So what's happened this year? He's been efficient, completing 64 percent of his pass attempts for 17 touchdowns and just four interceptions, but bouts with inaccuracy have plagued him throughout the season. Last week in the upset loss to Penn State, Barrett didn't throw an interception for the first time in over a month, but still had trouble with consistent and proper ball placement. We will see if he can bounce back against a Northwestern team with a star of its own.
That star for the Wildcats is junior linebacker Anthony Walker. Like his team (that started 1-3), Walker's numbers out of the gate weren't eye-popping, but during their three-game win streak he's racked up 28 tackles and a sack. At 6-1, 235 pounds, Walker is instinctive, relentless and fundamentally sound as a linebacker. He missed some tackles a year ago, and he'll be put to the test this week not only against Barrett, but also by underclassman running back Curtis Samuel. This will be a good stage against a strong opponent for Walker to jump into the limelight as one of the top linebackers in the country.
2. Tennessee RB Jalen Hurd vs. South Carolina LB T.J. Holloman
*Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia, South Carolina - 7:15 PM - ESPN2 *
Tennessee's defense has been decimated by injuries. Now, that theme has transitioned to the offensive side of the ball. Junior Alvin Kamara is out indefinitely with a knee injury, leaving Jalen Hurd as the lone star in the backfield for the Vols. Hurd, Tennessee's primary ball carrier, has only started four games this season due to injuries of his own, but he's a different kind of back than you'll find on most college teams. At 6-4, 240 pounds, he has rare size, but doesn't lack the lateral movement and straight-line burst to eliminate him from being a top prospect. Hurd is a natural receiver, is very decisive downhill and has a running style that reminds me a bit of former Vol Arian Foster. This could be a huge game for Hurd, who hasn't rushed for more than 100 yards since the first week of the season. Something tells me he'll reach that (and potentially more) against the Gamecocks.
South Carolina's linebacker corps took a huge hit before the season started when it was announced that star prospect Skai Moore (neck) would miss the season. The Gamecocks still have one senior prospect worth noting in T.J. Holloman. He is a thumper inside who has to improve as a tackler in order to stick in that role in the NFL. Holloman isn't the kind of athlete Moore is, but a quality outing against a prospect like Hurd will be imperative for him to boost his stock as the postseason draws near.
3. Miami WR Stacy Coley vs. Notre Dame CB Cole Luke
*Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Indiana - 3:30 PM - NBC *
Miami receiver Stacy Coley is one of those college football players who it feels like he has been starting in Coral Gables for a decade because of the fact he's been a playmaker since his freshman year. Now a senior, Coley is still making plays for the Canes as their leading with receiver with 29 catches, 352 yards and six touchdowns with junior quarterback Brad Kaaya throwing him the ball. On tape, Coley is a receiver who shows very good quickness in and out of breaks, a polished route runner with reliable hands and a viable deep threat downfield. He is always a threat to score in this Miami offense.
Miami faces a Notre Dame team that has left most wanting more this season, and after making a change at defensive coordinator not much has changed. Still, there is some talent on the roster, and senior cornerback Cole Luke is one of the top prospects in the program. At 5-11, 196 pounds, Luke has good size, and when you combine that with his instincts and natural ball skills you have an intriguing prospect. Still, his biggest issue throughout his career has been allowing big plays down the field. In 2015 as a junior, Luke gave up six plays of 20-plus yards and three total touchdowns to go along with five penalties downfield. He is prone to the big play, something that Coley could take advantage of in this matchup.
4. Louisville TE Cole Hikutini vs. Virginia S Quin Blanding
*Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, Virginia - Noon - ESPN2 *
With a Heisman Trophy candidate in Lamar Jackson, the Louisville offensive attack has been thrust into the spotlight, and when you look closely there are some really interesting storylines. Senior receiver James Quick was a five-star prospect and maybe the most decorated recruit to sign with the school in any sport in the school's history. Wideout Jamari Staples transferred to the Cardinals after UAB folded its football program after the 2014 season. Then you have tight end Cole Hikutini, who joined the program from the City College of San Francisco after failing to qualify academically out of high school. Hikutini was named to the Senior Bowl Watch List this summer. As a receiver, he brings the ability to win one on one in the middle of the field as well as reliable hands, but he must improve greatly as a blocker to prove that he's worth even a mid-round selection in the upcoming draft.
Hikutini loves to get down the seam and excels on option routes in the intermediate area. He could be matched up against Virginia safety Quin Blanding in those two situations. At 6-2, 215 pounds, the former cornerback has pretty good size and has been very productive this year in a young Cavaliers secondary. The Virginia Beach native has had 29 tackles in the last two weeks against teams with quality quarterbacks, so figure to hear his name early and often in this matchup versus Hikutini, Jackson and the rest of the Louisville offense.
5. Michigan G Kyle Kalis vs. Michigan State DT Malik McDowell
Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Michigan - Noon - ESPN
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh made headlines this week when he said that the Wolverines could reach double digits in terms of how many players get drafted this April. He's absolutely right. With at least five draft-eligible defensive line prospects, two stud second-level defenders in Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis, two senior receivers, a big-time tight end and a potential NFL feature back, there's a lot for teams to pick through on this roster. With so much blue-chip talent, it may be easy to overlook a player like Kyle Kalis, a four-year starter at right guard for the Wolverines and a mainstay along the line. At 6-5, 306 pounds, Kalis has NFL size and a toughness that's hard to teach at the next level.
Kalis will have one of his toughest matchups in the year with junior defensive lineman Malik McDowell. The junior from Detroit, Michigan is a bit of a freak at 6-6, 276 pounds, and with his athleticism, range and burst in a short area he is able to make plays up front that most can't. McDowell lines up at every spot along the Spartans' defensive line, so he won't be matched up against Kalis on every play. When he is, though, I would expect the potential Top 10 pick to give the redshirt senior all he can handle inside.
There are always players every year who come seemingly out of nowhere that end up being huge storylines as big-name prospects for the NFL Draft.
Wisconsin left tackle Ryan Ramczyk isn't quite there yet, but the junior has blossomed into one of the best linemen in the entire country right before our eyes. The first-year starter at left tackle has been on a very strange journey to this year's potential All-America season. As a senior in high school, he was recruited hard by Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst, who was then at Pitt. Chryst had good relationships with the coaches at Ramczyk's high school in Stevens Point, Wisconsin because of his days as the offensive coordinator for the Badgers under Bret Bielema. He saw a potential stud tackle and wanted to get him to Western Pennsylvania.
Ramczyk (pronounced "Ram-Check") didn't want to leave his hometown, however, and instead enrolled at Winona State, a Division II school closer to home. He never played a down for the Warriors, however, instead transferring briefly to Mid-State Technical College (which does not have a football program) and then eventually back home to UW-Stevens Point. Chryst eventually took the Wisconsin job, Ramczyk saw his chance, and transferred up to the Big Ten. After sitting out the 2015 season due to transfer rules, he stepped in as a starter in Week 1 against LSU at Lambeau Field and was nearly flawless against one of the best pass rushers in the entire country in Arden Key. Ramczyk has continued at that pace, winning week in and week out with his combination of size, toughness, athleticism and sound technique. With his limited experience, Ramczyk should stay at Wisconsin for even more seasoning and starting reps, but if he were to declare he likely would be one of the first linemen off the board in this draft.
With all of the big-name running backs in this draft class like Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey, Nick Chubb and Jalen Hurd, it's easy to forget one of the most productive backs in the entire country over the last two seasons. Senior Donnel Pumphrey has been ripping up defenses for the last three years for San Diego State. The Las Vegas native ran for over 1,800 yards as a sophomore and nearly 1,700 as a junior. On Friday night, he recorded his fourth 200-yard performance of the 2016 season. No one else in the country has more than two. In a Week 2 upset of Cal, Pumphrey went off for 281 yards and three scores. He's quick, has excellent vision, is extremely competitive and is always fighting for extra yardage. Seemingly a lock for January's Senior Bowl, Pumphrey will certainly be one of the top prospects outside of the Power 5 conferences in the upcoming draft.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.