It's Rivalry Weekend in College Football and it's unbelievably the final weekend of the 2018 regular season. As the NFL Draft starts to come into focus, there are still a lot of matchups with postseason implications. Here's who you should be watching in all of the key games!
Game Ball: Washington State QB Gardner Minshew
This is a player who had a strong performance a week ago and helped his stock because of it.
One of the best stories in college football this year is the team out of Pullman, Washington, and senior quarterback Gardner Minshew is a big reason why. A transfer from East Carolina who was in and out of the lineup for the Pirates, the mustached signal-caller decided to join the team with the pirate-loving coach in Mike Leach with the Cougars and has since proceeded to torch defenses on a weekly basis. Last Saturday, Minshew threw for a school-record seven touchdowns (completing 78 percent of his passes) against Arizona. Does he have the tools to be an NFL quarterback? The jury is out on that one (in my court, anyway) until I do my due diligence, but there's no arguing the fact that he's one of the top passers in the nation this year.
Prediction: Wazzu takes on cross-state rival Washington in the Apple Cup this Friday night in a game with huge implications. If Minshew and Leach pull this one out, they'll go on to face Utah in the Pac-12 title game. Even though the Huskies have owned this matchup (coach Chris Peterson is 4-0 against Leach since taking over the Washington job) and have a lot of talent on defense, I'm going to go with the pair of Pirates to pull this one out. Give me Washington State.
Draft Buzz: Notre Dame LB Drue Tranquill
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.
I've written a lot about Notre Dame's star defenders Te'Von Coney and Jerry Tillery in this space. Tillery has been one of the most productive defensive tackles in college football this year while Coney has been the leading tackler for the Irish. Lining up next to Coney at linebacker though is fellow senior Drue Tranquill, a redshirt senior who is in his second year at the position after beginning his Notre Dame career at safety (where he started all 12 games in 2016). A dynamite special teamer who is known as one of the team leaders away from the field, Tranquill is 6-2, 235 pounds, and was announced as one of the first acceptances for January's Senior Bowl. Keep an eye out for Tranquill as the process continues.
Prediction: Notre Dame travels to La La Land to take on USC at the Coliseum on Saturday night. Typically billed as one of the biggest matchups of rivalry weekend, this game has plenty of prestige but some of the luster has worn off with the Trojan's down year. That being said, it's a long way to go for Notre Dame, who is in a must-win scenario if they're going to make the College Football Playoffs. Unlike the other teams in the Top 4 right now (Alabama, Clemson, and Michigan), the Irish don't have a conference championship game to fall back on if they lose this game. They have to close their season out with a win to secure their spot, and I think they'll do that. Give me the Irish by a couple of touchdowns.
Best Pro Comparison: Utah S Marquise Blair
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 junior college transfer in just his second season on campus with the Utes, Marquise Blair wasn't really on the radar as a top safety in the country entering the season, particularly because his first season got cut short due to injury. That changed, however, as the Utes started winning more games and people began to take notice of one of the biggest hitters in college football. Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy went out of his way to praise Blair when I had him on the Journey to the Draft podcast a few weeks ago.
Blair is 6-2, but is under 200 pounds, so his size will be a concern to some teams. Don't let the wiry frame fool you, however, because this guy packs a punch. A former high school track star, he's explosive in a short area and will pop anyone who comes in his direction in the run game or passing game. As I watched him, there was a former Philadelphia safety that came to mind. I was a kid when Andre Waters was patrolling the Eagles' secondary in the early 1990s. I've gone back and watched that legendary defense on film over the years for our Old School All-22 feature and I've seen enough where I see some of those same traits in Blair. Waters was a wiry safety as well, but the way he flew around the field and looked to strike ballcarriers on a consistent basis, he was an intimidating force on the back end of the Eagles' defense. Blair would obviously love to reach that kind of pedestal, but he has similar traits and is that type of enforcer for the Utes.
Prediction: Utah already has its division in the bag and will represent the Pac-12 South in the Pac-12 title game in a couple of weeks, so that makes predicting this game against rival BYU a bit of a hairy proposition. However, I like the Utes to win with relative ease. I don't feel great about it, but I think they'll look to finish the season strong.
Small-School Standout: Appalachian State RB Jalin Moore
This is a player who comes from a lower level of competition but has a very bright future in the NFL.
One of the top prospects in the country outside of the Power 5 conferences entering the season, Appalachian State running back Jalin Moore saw his senior year cut short due to a foot injury. While he ferociously rehabs as he tries to bounce back for the Senior Bowl (where he was the first prospect to accept his invitation), the Mountaineers have forged on without him. Here is a look at what he'll bring to his future NFL team. Moore is an explosive athlete with impressive straight-line speed. He does have some lateral stiffness and there's concern about his ability to make the first man miss but I think he can fill a role in an NFL backfield thanks to that short-area burst, his flashes of functional power, and abilities as a solid receiver out in space. He's not going to be a high pick, and I don't necessarily think he'll be an NFL starter, but I like Moore's ability to transition to the NFL.
Prediction: App State hosts Troy on Saturday, and this is one of the biggest games of the weekend, as the winner will go on to the inaugural Sun Belt Conference Title Game. Troy won this battle last year, and is undefeated in conference play this season, but App State is undefeated at home and nearly shocked Penn State on the road back in Week 1. I really like Troy head coach Troy Brown, and that offense is going to be a tough out, but App State's defense is playing well. This is actually the toughest game for me to pick this weekend. Give me App State in a nail-biter.
Philly Connection: Delaware S Nasir Adderley
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.
One of the other initial acceptances to the Senior Bowl in January, Delaware safety Nasir Adderley is one of the top safeties in college football. A former corner who is athletic to go along with cover man skills on the back end, there are questions about Adderley's ability to come up and defend the run at a high level. He should definitely be able to find a role in the NFL as a coverage safety, either in a starting role or as a key complement in a defense's subpackages. A four-year starter for the Blue Hens, Adderley grew up in Philadelphia and went to Great Valley High School in Malvern, Pennsylvania.
Prediction: Delaware goes on the road to James Madison this week, and I expect the Hens to come away with their third straight loss. Give me JMU in this one as they prepare for its playoff run in the FCS postseason.
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. Ohio State T Isaiah Prince vs. Michigan DE Chase Winovich
Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio – Noon – FOX
The Buckeyes came away with a tough win on the road in Maryland last week, when I spotlighted senior tackle Isaiah Prince, the starter on the right side for OSU. Well, Prince and the rest of that Buckeyes offensive line will be under the microscope once again this week in a big game against Michigan. Standing at 6-7 with a freakish wingspan, Prince had scouts excited heading into the fall and there's still plenty of buzz about the three-year starter. I'm not as high on him as others, but this guy can come downhill and crush a defensive tackle on a double team in the run game as well as anyone I've watched. With that body type, Prince will almost surely hear his name called in this year's draft.
Senior defensive end Chase Winovich's status is up in the air for this game as of this writing after suffering an "upper body" injury last week, but they'd love to have him on the field for this matchup. An energizer-bunny type of pass rusher who keeps going and going and going, Winovich wins with effort and technique, two keys to pass rush success in the NFL. He doesn't have the physical gifts that his linemate Rashaan Gary has, but he makes up for it in other ways. This is a matchup to watch if Winovich can will his way onto the field.
Prediction: I like Michigan here. People are waiting for Jim Harbaugh and his team to stub their toe, and with Ohio State entering this game looking like a wounded animal this seems like the opportunity for that to happen, but I don't think so. I think Michigan wins convincingly as people really start to buy into the Wolverines as national title contenders after the victory.
2. South Carolina G Zack Bailey vs. Clemson DT Christian Wilkins_ Memorial Stadium, Clemson, South Carolina – 7 p.m. – ESPN_
South Carolina has one of the top offensive lines in the SEC, and Bailey is a big part of that. The senior left guard doesn't always look the prettiest with his feet, but he's tough as nails, has strong hands, can move people in the run game, and has a veteran savvy about him that will serve him well in games like this one. Bailey announced his intentions to attend either the East-West Shrine Game or the NFLPA All-Star game in January. He should be a mid-to-late-round pick in April's draft.
Clemson has one of the top defensive lines in all of college football, and for my money the best player on that line is senior tackle Christian Wilkins. A versatile disruptor who started his career as a 300-pound defensive end, Wilkins has the athleticism to impact the quarterback and the skill set to defend the run inside. He can do a better job holding up against double teams, something he'll certainly face at times from the likes of Bailey and SC left tackle Dennis Daley, but Wilkins' athleticism and motor as a pass rusher have me excited about his NFL future.
Prediction: Clemson has absolutely owned this matchup, and I expect that dominance to continue on Saturday night. Give me the Tigers with ease.
3. Louisville WR Jaylen Smith vs. Kentucky CBs Derrick Baity/Lonnie Johnson_ Cardinal Stadium, Louisville, Kentucky – 7 p.m. – ESPN 2_
Coming into the year, Jaylen Smith had some buzz as a potential first-round pick as one of the former top targets for quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Louisville offense. Some of that stardust has worn off a bit, and I think the film matches that, but the senior wideout does have some intriguing traits, namely his size (6-2 and nearly 230 pounds) and strength at the catch point. Like Jordan Matthews coming out of Vanderbilt, I think Smith could transition well as an inside-the-numbers possession receiver in the NFL.
I have written a lot about Kentucky's defense as they have talent at all three levels of the field. I like the upside of their two starting corners on the outside in seniors Derrick Baity and Lonnie Johnson. Baity (6-2, 190 pounds) is long, quick, and flashes the ball skills to be a starting corner in the NFL. Johnson (6-2, 207 pounds) has even better size and his competitiveness in all areas will pique the interest of many a defensive coordinator this spring. Baity is the better prospect overall, in my opinion based off what I've seen so far, but don't sleep on Johnson, either.
Prediction: I like Kentucky to roll in this one. This matchup got HEATED last year with several scuffles as Louisville flew to a 27-point victory. I don't think Kentucky will take this one lightly and I don't think the Wildcats take it easy on the cross-state rival.
What fun is making predictions if we're not keeping score?
Last Week: 5-1
Season Record: 66-23
Georgia Tech burned me twice in a row with a win over Virginia last week and a victory over Miami the week before. I won't curse Georgia by picking that game this weekend!
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.