The College Football Playoffs are here! The national semifinal matchups take place on Saturday along with a handful of other big-time bowl games around the country. Here are some players you should keep your eyes and ears on as the process continues to unfold toward the offseason and the NFL Draft.
Draft Buzz: Michigan EDGE Chase Winovich
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.
Chase Winovich is one of the few big-name prospects suiting up in this game for the Wolverines. He made headlines this week when he told reporters that he was putting off surgery for an undisclosed injury to not only participate in the Senior Bowl and in the NFL Scouting Combine, but also to take part in this weekend’s matchup. It’s low-hanging fruit to say that this example of toughness and competitiveness exemplifies the way that Winovich plays, but it’s the truth. He’s a high-motor pass rusher who attacks every rep with consistent effort and intensity. He can get a bit better with his hands, and he’s not a high-level athlete, but there are traits there to be a pass rusher in the NFL. He’ll be a fan favorite for many this spring.
Prediction: Michigan takes on Florida in the Peach Bowl on Saturday afternoon, and with all of the players who will be out of the lineup for the Wolverines it’s tough to see them winning the game. I have a lot of faith in Dom Brown and his defense, but something tells me Florida ekes this one out. One Wolverine to keep an eye out for is junior running back Chris Evans, who should get the lion’s share of the reps with Karan Higdon sitting out of this game while prepping for the NFL Draft.
Best Pro Comparison: Virginia S Juan Thornhill
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.
I’ve been a fan of Juan Thornhill for a long time, going back to his sophomore season as a corner that the coaching staff talked about potentially moving to safety. That discussion continued into his junior year until injuries forced him to stay outside. Finally, in his senior season, the 6-1, 212-pounder slid inside for good and has been a playmaker for the Cavaliers all season long.
The ball-hawking safety was an impact player for the UVA defense, and the way he patrols the secondary reminds me of another former corner who made the transition to the back end midway through his college career – Chicago Bears safety and former Alabama star Eddie Jackson, who the Eagles could use some big plays from this weekend, coincidentally. I like Thornhill a lot, and view him as a player who could hear his name called in the first round next spring.
Prediction: Virginia faces off with South Carolina in the Belk Bowl early on Saturday afternoon. South Carolina will be missing star wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who is prepping for a trip to the Senior Bowl on his way to the NFL Draft, but I expect the Gamecocks to come away with a victory. Virginia’s hope for a win here is to keep it a low-scoring affair, but I think SC comes away with the W.
Philly Connection: Missouri DT Terry Beckner Jr.
This is a player with a special tie to the City of Brotherly Love or to the Eagles who you should keep a close eye on.
Terry Beckner was named second-team All-SEC this fall, his third season as a starter for the Tigers in their 4-3 scheme. An attacking player who wins with quickness off the ball, the senior is not a finished product but could be seen as an intriguing developmental player in a scheme like the Eagles’ defense. A former five-star recruit who was viewed by most as the top defensive tackle in the country coming out of high school, Beckner will be at the East-West Shrine Game next month, but has one more college game to try and impress scouts. His connection to Philadelphia? His defensive line coach, Brick Haley, coached former Eagles third-round pick Bennie Logan at LSU.
Prediction: Missouri takes on Oklahoma State in the Liberty Bowl on Monday, and I’m taking Mike Gundy and the Cowboys here. Missouri started fast and limped to bowl eligibility this fall. Quarterback Drew Lock may be the best prospect on the field (and he’s got some explosive pass catchers to boot), but I’m not sure that the Tigers have enough firepower to match OSU. Give me the Cowboys in a shootout.
Watching From The Sidelines
There are two prospects who won’t be on the field on Saturday but will be watching their teams from afar as they prepare for the NFL Draft.
Stanford RB Bryce Love
Bryce Love entered the season coming off a Heisman finalist campaign in 2017 and was viewed as a potential first-round pick. However, he suffered through a tough senior year and now has the buzz of a Day 3 selection. Love won’t be at the Senior Bowl, at least he has not yet been invited, and is sitting out the team’s bowl game, but will reportedly be at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in mid-January. The question with Love will undoubtedly be his size. Can he take a beating in the NFL? I think, to a certain extent, that he can. I was never as high on Love as most analysts, but now I believe I’m a bit higher on him than what is viewed as the consensus. I like him as a secondary ballcarrier in the NFL.
Prediction: Stanford takes on Pitt in the Sun Bowl on Monday afternoon. Pitt has impressed in the last couple of months on its way to the ACC Championship Game, but I think Stanford comes in and takes the win. The Cardinal have too much firepower on offense, even with Love out, and I think David Shaw’s defense wins the battle in the trenches more often than not.
Michigan State CB Justin Layne
As a corner, you’re going to earn yourself some money if you have size, speed, and ball skills. Justin Layne doubled as a part-time wide receiver during his time with the Spartans, but led the Big 10 in pass breakups (15) and stands at 6-3, 185 pounds. The junior, who declared for the draft a couple of weeks ago, decided to sit this game out against Oregon. If he has a good workout at the Combine, he could see his name rise into the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. I’m excited to dig into his film after the Senior Bowl.
Prediction: Michigan State squares off with Oregon in the Redbox Bowl on Monday afternoon, and I like the Ducks here. The drama following quarterback Justin Herbert is gone. He’s officially staying in school, giving this team a boost emotionally going into this game. The Spartans come into this matchup a bit short-handed on both sides of the ball. I think Oregon wins this one, and relatively easy to boot.
Three Matchups To Watch
One of the first things NFL evaluators do when scouting college prospects is watch them against the best competition. These are the first games scouts will look at, and here are three matchups that fit the bill this week.
1. N.C. State C Garrett Bradbury vs. Texas A&M DT Daylon Mack_
TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville, Florida – Monday 7:30 p.m. – ESPN_
I’m always watching offensive linemen and thinking about it from an Eagles perspective. Who would fit in this scheme? Garrett Bradbury. The senior molds together a blend of quickness, toughness, and hand-use to form a really nasty offensive lineman on the interior. Bradbury is a very athletic player who excels at reach blocks in the zone run game and getting out in space as a puller and blocker in the screen game. Bradbury, who has experience at both guard and center, is going to be a starter for a long time in the NFL.
A freshman phenom who burst on the scene back in 2015, Daylon Mack is now a fourth-year player for Texas A&M. He hasn’t quite lived up to the early hype he earned on campus, but he’s an intriguing prospect for sure. At 6-1, 325 pounds, he’s got a stout frame of a nose tackle but has the quick first step that one-gap defenses like Philadelphia's look for inside. That’s how he wins both as a pass rusher and as a run defender. How his first step matches up with Bradbury’s will be one of the intriguing storylines to follow in this game.
Prediction: Who wins the Gator Bowl? I’m going with Jimbo Fisher and the Aggies, a team that has historically struggled in the postseason. Fisher is a big-game coach and I think he is itching to go out on a high note in his first season at the helm and gain some recruiting momentum going into the offseason. The Aggies put up a fight against both Alabama and Clemson this year. Give me A&M by at least a touchdown.
2. Notre Dame LB Dexter Williams vs. Clemson DT Christian Wilkins_
AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas – Saturday 4 p.m. – ESPN_
Dexter Williams is one of the most explosive running backs in the country, and he’ll get another chance to prove that on a national stage this Saturday in the College Football Playoff semifinal against the Tigers. Williams, who backed up Eagles running back Josh Adams last year, has breakaway speed and, like Adams, displays impressive patience in the hole. He also has the athleticism to be a threat out in space and get to the outside on perimeter runs. There are some off-field and medical things to work through with Williams when it comes to his draft stock, but on the field he’s a very intriguing prospect who is integral to the Irish’s success in this game.
Christian Wilkins is my favorite senior prospect in the entire country. It will be up to Wilkins and the rest of that Clemson front to keep Williams from breaking the big one. How hard has that been? Well, only once this season has Williams not busted off at least a 19-yard run in a game – he ran for a long of 13 yards against Pitt. And only twice did he not run for at least a 32-yard gain – he had a 19-yard run against Northwestern. The senior back has averaged 6.6 yards per carry this year after averaging 9.2 a year ago, so Wilkins and the rest of his linemates will have to keep him in check. I’m a big fan of Wilkins’ game. He’s an extremely active, disruptive force on the inside who can win with quickness, effort, and technique as a pass rusher. A former defensive end who can do a perfect backflip at over 300 pounds, Wilkins seems to be a lock for the first round in next spring’s NFL Draft.
Prediction: The Cotton Bowl should be a pretty fun game to watch and, honestly, it’s the toughest game for me to pick this weekend. I’ve gone back and forth here because this is a battle of two tough defenses. Notre Dame’s unit, led by tackle Jerry Tillery and linebackers Te'von Coney and Drue Tranquill, is extremely active and flies to the football. Clemson’s group, led by a dominant defensive line, has squashed opponents by winning the line of scrimmage battle week in and week out. The difference comes on offense, where I think Clemson is better coached and, while younger, has more firepower. Give me Clemson here in a tight game that should go down to the fourth quarter.
3. Oklahoma LG Ben Powers vs. Alabama DL Isaiah Buggs_
Hard Rock Stadium, Miami – 8 p.m. – ESPN_
The "game within the game" to study in this matchup is the Oklahoma offensive line against the Alabama defensive line. The Sooners’ group won the Joe Moore Award as the top offensive line in the entire country and, once again, Alabama boasts an extremely talented defensive front loaded with prospects. For OU, both of its guards, Ben Powers on the left side and Dru Samia on the right, will be at the Senior Bowl next month. I can guarantee you that, after an entire season of beating up on Big 12 defenses, the first tape that evaluators plug in for this offensive line will be their matchup with the Crimson Tide.
Isaiah Buggs, the lone senior starter in that ‘Bama front seven, plays mostly at right defensive end in the 3-4 scheme, giving him most of his reps against left tackles and left guards. He’ll see plenty of Powers in this game. Buggs isn’t the typical 6-5, 315-pound rock you see up front for the Tide, as he instead goes about 6-2, 294 pounds. The senior wins with quickness and sound hands at the point of attack, and like his former teammate Jonathan Allen now in Washington, he’s got a bit more "penetrator" to him as a defender than "stalemater" in the run game. Buggs isn’t the most talented player on that front, but don’t sleep on him as a prospect.
Prediction: In the game of the weekend, I like Alabama to come out on top in the Orange Bowl. Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray is a phenomenal athlete. He’s the type of player who typically has given Saban’s defenses trouble over the last few years, but this Alabama offense is going to be tough to stop. It has never been this dynamic on that side of the ball. Usually, if Oklahoma makes this a shootout the Sooners should feel good about it, but I don’t know if that's the case this year. There’s too much speed offensively for Alabama, and I think that defensive line will win the line of scrimmage more often than not. Roll Tide in this one.
What fun is making predictions if we’re not keeping score?
Last Week: 2-1
Season Record: 84-29
I correctly predicted Army soundly beating Houston last week, but Buffalo came up short for me against Troy. I’m feeling good about my picks this weekend. Let’s see how it goes.
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.