The college football postseason begins as several conference championship games take place between Friday and Saturday night, and there's plenty to be excited about with Bowl season on the horizon, the All-Star Game circuit picking up buzz, and the non-stop rumors of underclassmen declaring for the draft. 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 in this weekend's action.
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson vs Virginia Tech Defense
Camping World Stadium, Orlando, FL - 8:00pm - ABC
Considered by many as a slam dunk top-five pick entering the season, some of the shine has worn off of Deshaun Watson. He's thrown 14 interceptions this season, including three in their upset loss to Pittsburgh three weeks ago, and overall the offense just hasn't looked as crisp as it did a year ago. The Tigers are hoping that Watson can build off of last week's regular-season finale against rival South Carolina, when the junior threw for 347 yards and six touchdowns against their cross-state SEC foe. The physical tools aren't the question with Watson, but rather can he stay poised in the pocket when things start to get muddy? That will be a test against a Bud Foster defense.
The Hokies aren't as stacked on defense as we are accustomed to, but there are a handful of prospects that you should be aware of in this game. Up front, Ken Ekanem leads Tech with 6.5 sacks from the defensive end spot, and is probably the best senior defensive lineman on this team. In the secondary, cornerback Brandon Facyson reminds me a bit of former Eagles cornerback Byron Maxwell because of his size and ability to disrupt early in the down, and he paces the team with 11 pass breakups on the season. Safety Chuck Clark, a former corner, is an interesting player as well for this defense, but we'll get to him in a bit...
San Diego State RB Donnel Pumphrey vs Wyoming RB Brian Hill
War Memorial Stadium, Laramie, WY - 7:45pm ET - ESPN
Alright, so this isn't the traditional 'running back vs linebacker' or 'running back vs safety' matchup that I typically save for this piece, but you should know about the two running backs facing off in this Mountain West Conference Title Game. San Diego State's Donnel Pumphrey is downright tiny at 5'8, 170 pounds, but he plays with a real edge out of the backfield as both a runner and a receiver. Pumphrey has good vision, is willing to work in between the tackles, and has consistently stepped up his game against the best teams on the schedule throughout his career. That being said, Pumphrey's been in a bit of a slump lately, failing to reach 100 yards rushing in consecutive games for the first time since September of 2015, a streak that started when the Aztecs faced Wyoming a couple of weeks ago in a last-second loss.
On the other sideline, Wyoming running back Brian Hill has generated plenty of buzz as well. The junior is built bigger than Pumphrey at 6'1, 219 pounds, and has the ability to run through first contact at a pretty high rate. Hill is a good pass protector, protects the football, and ironically plays for offensive coordinator Brent Vigen, who coached Carson Wentz when he first arrived at North Dakota State, so there's your Eagles connection! Both running backs are considered Day Three selections for when they enter the draft, and are certainly players that should be spotlighted in Saturday night's game.
Oklahoma WR Dede Westbrook vs Oklahoma State CB Ashton Lampkin
Memorial Stadium, Norman, OK - 12:30pm ET - FOX
One of the hottest receiving prospects in the country comes from Oklahoma's high-powered offensive attack— senior Dede Westbrook. At 5'11 and under 175 pounds, Westbrook will be knocked for his slight frame but has explosive speed to help make up for it. As one of the most dynamic players in the country, the senior from Texas will look to make one more stand before the Sooners' bowl game before heading to the Senior Bowl in January, but this is a matchup that should tilt in his favor. What Westbrook lacks in size he makes up for with his speed, quickness, and route-running abilities, a skill set that should come in handy against the Cowboys defense.
The senior cornerback from Oklahoma State, Ashton Lampkin, will be one of the players primarily assigned to Westbrook on Saturday afternoon. At 5'11, 190 pounds, Lampkin is a scrappy corner that's probably a better fit in an off-coverage scheme in the NFL, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if some felt he was a safety upon transitioning to the league, but he's a good run defender and a smart player. The question is – will he have the speed to keep up with Westbrook down the field?
Clemson TE Jordan Leggett vs Virginia Tech S Chuck Clark
Camping World Stadium, Orlando, FL - 8:00pm - ABC
One of the most exciting prospects in a stacked tight end class, Clemson's Jordan Leggett has a chance to be a breakout player in this game. Sure, Mike Williams is arguably the best receiver in the country and Wayne Gallman has been a reliable runner out of the backfield for Clemson, but Leggett has the ability to change outcomes of games because of his combination of athleticism and receiving skill. The senior reached the end zone for the first time since his game-winning score against Florida State in late October when he reeled in a touchdown vs South Carolina last week. At 6'5, 260 pounds, keep an eye for Leggett in the short and intermediate area of the field when the Tigers have the football.
Virginia Tech has a couple of players that will be charged with defending Leggett on Saturday night, but one of them that intrigues me most is safety Chuck Clark. At 6'0, 202 pounds, Clark is a former corner that transitioned to the safety spot as a junior in 2015 and never looked back, lining up in the slot, in the box and in the deep part of the field. Clark will stick in the NFL in some facet because of his instincts, toughness, versatility, and ability to play special teams, but having a big game against the high-powered Clemson offense will go a long way towards his stock.
Alabama C Bradley Bozeman vs Florida DT Caleb Brantley
Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA - 4:00pm ET - CBS
Redshirt junior center Bradley Bozeman had a big task in front of him this season, and he took the bull by the horns from the jump. Replacing a former first-round pick is tough, which is what Bozeman did for the departed Ryan Kelly, but all the Alabama native has done since has been one of the most effective blockers in the entire conference for the Crimson Tide, who boast one of the most versatile offenses in the country. With Bozeman and star left tackle Cam Robinson blocking up front, the Tide has their eyes on a National Title.
Before they raise a trophy at the end of the College Football Playoff, the Tide has to first worry about the SEC Championship on Saturday afternoon and the Florida Gators. The defense in Gainesville has been decimated by injuries this season, particularly in the front seven, but defensive tackle Caleb Brantley has been a rock up front. The junior has a strong first step, a solid anchor in the run game, and he leads the Gators with 8.5 tackles for loss on the year. With players like Jarrad Davis, Bryan Cox, and Alex Anzalone out for Florida, the Gators need a big game out of Brantley, one of their top prospects on the defensive side of the ball.
Labeled by our friend Tony Pauline from DraftInsider.net as a 'Sleeper' in the upcoming draft just this past week, Western Kentucky tackle Forrest Lamp is certainly getting a lot of buzz right now. A four-year starter at left tackle for the Hilltoppers, Lamp projects best to guard in the NFL because of his size (6'3, 295 pounds), but he is one of the most intriguing linemen in the draft. Just six years ago, Lamp was a 210-pound high school junior that coaches convinced to add weight, knowing full well that he was capable of being a college offensive linemen. Since that point, Lamp has committed to the position, and the two-time captain at WKU has developed into quite the prospect after being well off of most people's radar entering the season. Against Alabama, Lamp shut down edge rusher Tim Williams and stonewalled defensive lineman Jonathan Allen throughout the afternoon, and he dominated opposing defenders throughout conference play all season long. In one last bit of irony, the same high school coach that convinced him to make the switch? None other than John Peacock from Venice High School in Florida, who Chris McPherson and Alex Smith talked to for the Eagles Insider Podcast thanks to his involvement with the development of tight end Trey Burton.
Small School Spotlight
A player from the 'Group Of Five' schools outside of the power conferences that has been making a lot of noise this season is Temple defensive end Haason Reddick. The senior from Camden, New Jersey leads Temple with 9.5 sacks on the season and leads the country with 21.5 tackles for loss. At 6'1, 225 pounds, Reddick showed up on North Broad Street as a walk-on cornerback, moved to linebacker, then to defensive end in 2015, though his NFL future may require a need to move back to the linebacker spot. Still, his athleticism, motor, and undeniable toughness make him a really interesting player to watch. Keep a close eye on Reddick at the Senior Bowl in January.