The first edition of the College Football Playoff rankings is released on Tuesday. This weekend's slate of game can wreck the plans of those hoping for an invite to the tournament. From an individual standpoint, we cover who helped themselves the most so far this week on the Journey to the Draft podcast, but it's time now to look ahead. Here's who you should be watching this weekend!
Game Ball: Virginia FS Juan Thornhill
This is a player who had a strong performance a week ago and helped his stock because of it.
As Tony Pauline wrote about in his weekly Risers & Sliders column, Virginia safety Juan Thornhill had himself a day against Duke and star quarterback Daniel Jones. Thornhill, a personal favorite of mine, racked up eight tackles and an interception against the Blue Devils. A former corner, I think Thornhill has definite starting traits as a free safety in the NFL with his coverage ability and physicality against the run. I expect to hear his name billed as a "riser" throughout the pre-draft process this offseason coming off a year where he currently leads the Cavaliers in tackles and sacks.
Prediction: UVA hosts North Carolina this week, and I expect the fighting Chris Longs to come out on top. Bronco Mendenhall's squad has won two straight, including a win over a ranked team in Miami before beating Duke despite entering the game as a touchdown underdog. UNC, however, has lost three straight and is just 1-5 on the year. I like Virginia to win by at least two touchdowns.
Draft Buzz: Stanford WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside
This is a player who continues to generate positive attention and has the arrow pointing up with his draft stock at this point in the process.
Senior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside has put up big numbers this year as the primary pass catcher in the Cardinal offense, leading Stanford in catches and yards to go along with a whopping nine touchdowns. He has been getting steady first-round buzz as a result. Arcega-Whiteside is a fun player to watch, as he uses his basketball bloodlines and experience to win "above the rim" as a contested-catch weapon in all areas of the field. The Combine is going to be extremely important for Arcega-Whiteside as he strives to prove how athletic he is to NFL teams.
Prediction: Stanford hosts No. 14 Washington State this week in one of only a couple of battles this weekend featuring two ranked teams. Believe it or not, the Cougars have actually won the past two meetings. Both teams gutted out gritty wins over Oregon this year and this figures to be one of the closest games of the weekend. With a healthy Bryce Love, I might be leaning toward Stanford, but I'm going to go with the hot hand and Mike Leach's squad. Washington State wins.
Best Pro Comparison: Arizona State DT Renell Wren
Comparing draft prospects to NFL players is tough, but here's a player with an easy picture to paint when looking at their NFL future through my eyes.
A couple of weeks ago on the Journey to the Draft podcast, I asked Tony Pauline which seniors have helped themselves the most. One of the two players he mentioned was Wren, the star defensive tackle for the Sun Devils who has been a constant disruptor in opposing backfields. I've studied Wren, and his first step allows him to change the line of scrimmage and cause headaches for opponents early in the down. With the ability to wreck the play on any given snap, Wren looks like a potential first-round pick at times. On other plays where his questionable motor comes into play, I begin to wonder how teams will view him long term. Ultimately, the more I watched him, the more I realized he reminded me a lot of former Mississippi State defensive tackle Chris Jones, a first-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs who had similar flashes -- and flaws -- as Wren. I think the two compare very favorably, and that's a reason why I think Wren could hear his name called sooner than many think on draft weekend.
Prediction: Arizona State goes on the road to take on USC, a young team with talent, for sure, but one that enters this weekend banged up. I like the Sun Devils in an upset here, as quarterback Manny Wilkins and some of the young talent at wide receiver make big plays on offense to get things going quickly against USC.
Small-School Standout: Northern Colorado WR Alex Wesley
This is a player who comes from a lower level of competition but has a very bright future in the NFL.
I asked Dane Brugler to name some receivers around the country who brought a level of speed and explosiveness to the perimeter on this week's Journey to the Draft podcast. We talked a bit about Ohio State's Parris Campbell, of course, but then he went off the radar with Alex Wesley, a player I had yet to watch. Well, since the conclusion of the podcast, I went and watched a couple of games of Wesley, and he's an intriguing prospect. Wesley is undersized, but the track star has good speed in the open field, shows a feel for creating separation as a route runner, and can be used in multiple ways to stress defenses both vertically and horizontally. He's probably not a true starter in the NFL, but I think he can be an impact role player who defenses must account for at the next level on a weekly basis.
Prediction: The Bears just got their first win of the year last week as they trudge through a very tough season. They take on Southern Utah on the road this week, and I expect them to return home with a loss. I'll take Southern Utah in this matchup.
Philly Connection: Wisconsin LB T.J. Edwards
This is a player with a special tie to the City of Brotherly Love or to the Eagles that you should keep a close eye on.
T.J. Edwards is one of my favorite linebackers in the country. A four-year starter in a pro-style defense, Edwards can do a little bit of everything. An extremely instinctive player against the run, Edwards is physical downhill, uses his hands well, and navigates through traffic at a high level. Moving in reverse in coverage, Edwards may not be the best athlete in the world, but he's got great instincts and ball skills in that area and has made some great plays on the ball over the course of his career. I think he's a three-down player in the NFL. So what's his connection to the Eagles? Edwards is taught by Bob Bostad, the linebackers coach at Wisconsin. Earlier in his career, Bostad was in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans, where he coached on the other side of the ball along the offensive line. While he was there, the Titans picked an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft out of Alabama, current Eagles guard Chance Warmack.
Prediction: Wisconsin goes on the road to Evanston, Illinois this weekend to take on Northwestern, a tough team to figure out this season. The Wildcats have played everyone on their schedule very tough -- the good teams and the bad ones -- so we don't know which version will show up this weekend. Wisconsin should win this game, and I like the Badgers by at least a touchdown.
Three Matchups To Watch
One of the first things NFL evaluators do when scouting college prospects is watch them against the best competition. How did a wide receiver fare against the best cover corner on his schedule? How did a pass rusher do when he faced a top-flight left tackle? How did a quarterback perform against the best defenses on the schedule? These are the first games scouts will look at, and here are three matchups that fit the bill this week.
1. Florida LT Martez Ivey vs. Georgia DL D'Andre Walker/Jonathan Ledbetter_ TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville, Florida -- 3:30 p.m. -- CBS_
In the highest-profile game of the week, the Gators and Bulldogs face off in a battle for the top of the SEC East. Florida is led by its run game (keep an eye on senior Jordan Scarlett), so they need the offensive line to come to play against arguably the toughest front seven it'll face in the regular season. At left tackle, Martez Ivey is a name to know. A big-bodied blocker with heavy feet, Ivey may not have the lateral movement to play tackle in the NFL but he could transition to guard and at the least should project to be a swing backup at the next level.
Ivey has one of the toughest matchups he'll face this year with the Bulldogs, namely their two defensive ends, and they have complementary skill sets. D'Andre Walker is a versatile defensive end/linebacker hybrid who can defend the run, cover, and get after the quarterback. Jonathan Ledbetter is an oversized defensive end who some see as being able to slide inside at the next level. Both Ledbetter and Walker are violent, competitive players who use their hands at the line of scrimmage at a high level. Ivey is in for a fight.
Prediction: Georgia had a week at home to ponder its disappointing loss to LSU, and I think the Bulldogs will come back with a vengeance this week. I like the Dogs by a couple of scores, though Florida keeps it close for three quarters.
2. Mississippi State C Elgton Jenkins vs. Texas A&M DT Daylon Mack_ Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Mississippi -- 7 p.m. -- ESPN_
Elgton Jenkins is a fascinating prospect because he's 6-4, 310 pounds with very long arms and excellent position versatility. Jenkins has posted starts at four of the five offensive line positions during his career in the SEC, starting the last two and a half years for the Bulldogs. At center, Jenkins is a stout blocker who is tough to move off of his spot, and he's got light feet to match up with interior rushers at defensive tackle. He's not naturally powerful and can be a bit slow with his eyes to pick up stunts and blitzes up front, but Jenkins has next-level ability and I think he'll be a starter in the NFL, most likely at guard.
On the other side of the line of scrimmage, the Aggies have two seniors at defensive tackle with Daylon Mack and Kingsley Keke. I talked about Mack in-depth with Ben Fennell on this week's podcast. The nose tackle started as a true freshman after signing with Texas A&M as a five-star recruit and he made noise early on. He's got a quick first step with the ability to change the line of scrimmage in a hurry, so it will be up to Jenkins to keep the integrity of the pocket and prevent Mack from disrupting the action.
Prediction: I like Jimbo Fisher's team in this one. The Aggies have won three straight games and four of the last five, with their only defeat coming at the hands of Alabama (who they "only" lost to by 22 points). Meanwhile, MSU head coach Joe Moorhead has to answer questions about benching his senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald after his team has lost three of four games and failed to reach double digits in points each of those losses. I'll take Texas A&M by a touchdown.
3. Missouri TE Kendall Blanton vs. Kentucky FS Mike Edwards_ Memorial Stadium, Columbia, Missouri -- 4 p.m. -- SEC Network_
Missouri is a big "12 personnel" team, as the Tigers use senior tight end Kendall Blanton as well as junior Albert Okwuegbunam, a quality NFL prospect in his own right. Blanton is a big-bodied kid with excellent size, soft hands, and the ability to line up on the line of scrimmage and impact the game as a blocker both in the run game as well as in pass protection. I think he'll transition well as a backup in the NFL as a mid-to-late-round draft choice in the spring.
The Tigers face a tough Kentucky defense this week. Wildcats safety Mike Edwards will see a good amount of both Blanton and Okwuegbunam. I like Edwards a lot as a player. He's undersized but he moves really well in the secondary and has the versatility to play both in the post as well as over the slot as a nickel player in the NFL. Run defense is a bit of a concern, but against the Tigers, I don't think that will be an issue. This will be a fun matchup.
Prediction: Any time one team has a good quarterback in college football, it is a threat to win any game and Missouri has one in Drew Lock. However, I think Kentucky wins this game with defense. With players like Edwards and Derrick Baity in the secondary, Jordan Jones at linebacker, and Josh Allen at defensive end, I think UK will be too much for the Tigers.
What fun is making predictions if we're not keeping score?
Last Week: 7-1
Season Record: 42-17
Oregon falling to Wazzou was my only misstep last week. If the Ducks could have found a way to NOT start the game 0-for-8 on third down, they'd have given me a chance to go 8-0. Better luck this week ...
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. 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.