One of the first things NFL scouts do when looking at draft prospects in the spring in preparation for the NFL Draft is watch them against the best competition they faced in the previous season. 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? This fall we're going to take a look at the best head-to-head matchups in that week's slate of college football games, and give fans a preview of the top names around the country off the field in the process. Every week I'll give you look at some key matchups to keep an eye on across the country, highlight a prospect that's on the rise, profile a small-school player outside of the Power 5 conferences to watch for next year's draft, find a Philly connection, and give out a well-deserved game ball to a prospect that stood out in a big way for his play in the previous week.
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.
Five Matchups To Watch
(1) Notre Dame T Mike McGlinchey & Miami DE Chad Thomas
Hard Rock Stadium, Miami, FL - 8:00 pm ET - ABC
This Notre Dame offensive line is worth the price of admission on its own, but the player to watch if you're an Eagles fan is Philadelphia native, left tackle Mike McGlinchey. At 6'7, 311 pounds, McGlinchey (who went to Penn Charter High School, the same as his cousin, Matt Ryan) has prototypical size with feet to match. A patient pass protector with experience playing both tackle positions, McGlinchey looks to me like a future first-round pick and an early NFL starter. Next to him, junior left guard Quenton Nelson continues to generate a ton of buzz as a potential Top 10 pick as well.
The string of dangerous pass rush threats continues for Notre Dame. It started three weeks ago with USC and senior Uchenna Nwosu, which lead to NC State and Bradley Chubb, followed by Wake Forest and Duke Ejiofor (the Irish won each game by two scores or more). Now comes Miami and their senior defensive end Chad Thomas. At 6'5, 278 pounds, Thomas has a pro-ready frame and a deep toolbox of pass rush moves to attack opposing blockers with. He's got long arms and with the way he uses his hands, he's one of the better technicians in the country. I wish Thomas would use his size more to his advantage as a bull rusher, but this is still a challenge for this Irish offensive line. A good amount of Thomas' reps will likely come against the Irish's right side with guard Alex Bars and tackle Tommy Kraemer, but the Canes have a slew of other young defenders to keep an eye on for future years up front, including their duo of junior defensive tackles, Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh.
PREDICTION: Miami is one of only a couple of unbeaten teams left in the college football landscape, but I think they go down on Saturday night. The Irish are running the ball extremely well, thanks in large part to Nelson, McGlinchey and that offensive line, and Miami has had some issues on the ground defensively. Notre Dame's defense has been opportunistic as well, and I expect them to generate a couple of turnovers. If Miami did happen to win this game, then that would signal the official return of 'The U', but I think the Irish come away with a double digit victory on the road.
(2) Georgia RBs Nick Chubb / Sony Michel vs Auburn LB Tre' Williams
Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, AL - 3:30 pm ET - CBS
I've been a fan of Georgia's Nick Chubb for a long time, and while he's not the most explosive runner in the country, I think he has the mentality of a feature back in the NFL. He's got very good instincts inside, displays good contact balance between the tackles, and can be a three-down back in this league as long as he checks out medically. His backup, Sony Michel, is a good prospect in his own right. While some bill him as a 'change of pace' option akin to a Kenyan Drake-type of player, I see Michel as more of a box runner than a perimeter playmaker. He's got to take better care of the football, but Michel can catch the ball out of the backfield and displays the feel and patience to be a reliable backup option in the NFL based off what I've seen so far.
The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs have the best one-two punch of senior running backs in the country, and that will be at the top of the list for Auburn's defense to stop in this game. Leading the way for the Tigers at the linebacker will level will be senior Tre' Williams, who will be flanked by two juniors in Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams as well. Tre Williams' game is based on strength and physicality, and he's one of the better run defenders at the linebacker spot that I've studied in the SEC this year. I don't know that he'll be the rangy kind of sideline to sideline playmaker that the NFL is looking for these days, but in this game, a player like Williams could mean the difference. The Tigers need him to have a big day.
PREDICTION: Auburn has only lost two games this year, both were on the road (at Clemson and at LSU). In those games, the Tigers did an admirable job against the run, and I think that this game is going to be very, very close. Auburn is the highest-ranked two-loss team in the nation for a reason, and that's because they're prone to score points in bunches against any team on any given Saturday, and because that defense can be very disruptive up front. Barring a complete let-down from Auburn's offense, I'm going to go out on a limb and predict an upset for the Bulldogs in a tightly-fought slugfest. Chubb runs for 85 yards, Michel for another 65, with one touchdown between the two of them.
(3) Clemson G Tyrone Crowder vs Florida State DT Derrick Nnadi
Memorial Stadium, Clemson, SC - 3:30 pm ET - ESPN
The best future prospect for this Clemson offensive line is the left tackle, Mitch Hyatt, but don't forget about the long-time starter at left guard, Tyrone Crowder either. A bulldozer at 6'2, 340 pounds, the senior blocker for the Tigers was named first-team all-ACC a year ago and is known as one of the more powerful players at the point of attack in that conference. That moniker will be put to the test on Saturday afternoon against the Noles.
I love this Florida State defensive line, particularly the two guys on the inside. Derrick Nnadi is one of my early man crushes in this draft class, and if anyone is going to be able to go belly to belly with Crowder and win, it's him. A violent, powerful defender who is strong with his hands and nearly immovable in the run game, Nnadi projects as a prototypical nose tackle in the NFL. Senior defensive end Josh Sweat may also get matched up against Crowder based on alignment on certain plays, so keep a close eye on him as well. He reminds me a bit of Eagles defensive end Vinny Curry.
PREDICTION: Typically one of the best games to watch in college football all season long, this game has lost some of it's luster with Florida State having a down year and with Clemson ushering in new, young talent on offense. I expect the Tigers to win this game pretty easily, winning by three scores or more.
(4) TCU LT Joe Noteboom vs Oklahoma DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo
Memorial Stadium, Norman, OK - 8:00 pm ET - FOX
All eyes will be on Baker Mayfield (who I break down more in-depth below), but let's go to the other side of the ball. TCU quarterback Kenny Hill has been productive this season and he'll need to have a big game if the Horned Frogs want to go into Norman and come away with the upset, and in order for him to be effective he'll need to stay upright. That's where left tackle Joe Noteboom comes in. At 6'5, 319 pounds, Noteboom, whose first year as a starter came opposite of current Eagle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, has NFL size, pretty good feet, and like Vaitai I think coaches will look at him as a moldable ball of clay with the ceiling of a starting NFL tackle. Noteboom isn't perfect with his hands at this stage of his career, and he looks a bit stiff in his lower body, but the Frogs need a big performance from him this week against the Sooners.
One of the most productive pass rushers in the country, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo has racked up three sacks in the last four games for a total of eight on the season. At 6'1, 240 pounds, he plays with consistent leverage and is able to run the hoop to test opposing tackles off the edge. He'll try to stress Noteboom on Saturday night turning the corner. Watching Okoronkwo in years past, however, I'm not sure that his best position in the NFL will be off the edge. Due to his lack of ideal size, his future may be pointed more towards an 'off the ball' role on the inside, similar to what former Temple first-round pick Haason Reddick did this spring. Still, as a pass rusher on Saturday, he'll be a huge challenge for TCU.
PREDICTION: This game could very well be the first of two on the year if both teams advance to the Big 12 Championship game, and it seems to be a close bout every year. Both teams have suffered tough losses at the hands of Iowa State, and both bounced back strong to beat the Texas Longhorns the following week. I think this is a typical Big 12 shootout, with Oklahoma coming out on top by a touchdown. If TCU has any hope, coach Gary Patterson will need to pull some defensive wizardry out of his hat.
(5) Wisconsin TE Troy Fumagalli vs Iowa LB Josey Jewell
Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, WI - 3:30 pm ET - ABC
I don't think Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli will be a star in the NFL, but I do think he sticks for the long time as a solid role player in a pro offense. A sure-handed target who runs decent routes and gives effort as a blocker, Fumagalli hasn't reached the end zone since mid-September, and has dealt with some nagging injuries this year, but I expect him to be a factor in this game.
I think Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell is one of the top seniors in the country at his position, if he's not at the top of the list. He doesn't have great athletic upside (in fact that may be the biggest question mark), but he's tough, instinctive, and a really reliable run defender. That run defense will come in handy against Wisconsin and their dynamic freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, who Jewell will have a huge task in defending as well, but I'm interested to see how he matches up with Fumagalli in this game as well.
PREDICTION: Wisconsin is unbeaten, but one of the reasons many won't consider them as being in the picture for the College Football playoff is because of their schedule. Their biggest wins are likely against Northwestern (6-3) and Lane Kiffin's FAU squad (6-3). Iowa, on the other hand, is coming off a huge upset at home against Ohio State, and the Hawkeyes nearly upset the then-unbeaten Penn State team led by Saquon Barkley. If this game were at home for the Hawkeyes, I'd confidently predict an Iowa victory behind impressive sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley and senior running back Akrum Wadley (who I'm a big fan of). That being said, I've already got two other unbeatens going down in Miami and Georgia….why not a third? Let's go with Iowa in the upset! Stanley goes on the national radar and Jewell is the defensive star in the win.
After leading his team to a thrilling victory over arch-rival Oklahoma State in the famed 'Bedlam' game last week, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield is seen by some as a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy. More importantly, to others in the NFL Draft media community, he's seen as the potential No. 1 quarterback in the upcoming draft. Time will tell if things play out that way, and Mayfield certainly has some admirable qualities (his quick release, escapability, and great touch at all levels of the field being at the top of the list for me), but I'm not quite ready to buy into him as a top-flight NFL prospect at this stage of the game, and if you look at a two-play sequence in that game against the Cowboys last week I can explain why.
With just over four minutes left in the game with the Sooners up by a field goal, Mayfield has his offense down in the red zone. It's second-and-six, and he lines up under center in a two-back set, something you don't often see in the Big 12 these days. The playcall is a play-action bootleg to the right. The concept is a simple high-low read (with a flat route from the fullback and a corner route from the tight end) with a crosser coming backside as his third option. It's a very basic concept that we see in all levels of football (and it's actually almost the same concept Carson Wentz hit Alshon Jeffery on against the Denver Broncos a week ago). The ball is snapped, and instead of getting to the flat first (which most times is the primary read in this kind of situation), Mayfield started on the corner route, which was taken away by double coverage. He hung on that route a tick too long, and by the time Mayfield checked the flat, in his eyes that was taken away as well (though I'd have liked to see him pull the trigger on that). Instead of getting to his next progression, the crossing route from the backside (the route run by Jeffery on this touchdown last week), Mayfield dropped his eyes and thought about taking off, but the damage had been done. The pass rush closed in and he was sacked for a loss of six yards.
That brought up third-and-12. Again, the Sooners are up by a field goal in a game that was a shootout, so while a touchdown would be nice here, you definitely want to get at least a field goal to force the Cowboys to read the end zone on the next drive. This time, Oklahoma spreads it out with Mayfield in the shotgun in a 3 x 1 set. The playcall is basically the same exact 'Stutter Post' concept that Wentz hit Nelson Agholor for on a touchdown against Washington (the final play in this breakdown). The basic idea of this play is to create what amounts to a one-on-one situation for the No. 2 receiver, in this case it's future NFL tight end Mark Andrews, one of Mayfield's favorite targets. The Sooner outside of Andrews, the No. 1 receiver, is going to run a vertical route to hold the backside cornerback. The Sooner inside of Andrews, the No. 3 receiver, is going to run a crossing route. By running that crossing route in front of the underneath defenders in the middle of the field, the hope is at least two defenders will be removed from the middle, creating a wide open passing lane for Mayfield to squeeze this ball into Andrews for the game-sealing touchdown. The problem? Linebacker Chad Whitener. The senior linebacker for the Cowboys is sitting right in the middle of the field and he's watching Mayfield's eyes. The quarterback has locked onto Andrews in the slot, he hasn't done anything to force Whitener to honor that crossing route from the No. 3 receiver. This is a 20-plus-yard throw for Mayfield after the sack, so it has to travel some distance and Mayfield doesn't have a gun for an arm. The ball is coming out just as Andrews has left his break, but that's too late in this situation. Whitener read it the whole way, stepping into the passing lane and picking off Mayfield, returning it back to the 35-yard line. This sets up Oklahoma State with favorable field position and just under three minutes left to march down the field and win the game or at least kick a field goal to tie. Luckily for Mayfield, the Cowboys would turn it over (after a similarly bad sequence from their senior quarterback Mason Rudolph), and Oklahoma would go on to win the game.
Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy watching Mayfield play. Who doesn't? He's a self-made kid who has now walked on to his team TWICE (once at Texas Tech and again at Oklahoma) and earned a starting job in both spots. He's a captain. He throws a really nice deep ball thanks to that great touch. He's able to escape and create outside of structure, which is basically a necessity in today's NFL game. All that being said, Mayfield is going to have to prove that he can play within structure at the NFL level. Can he get through progressions faster? Can he recognize underneath zone coverage at a higher rate (something that has plagued him throughout his career). He's taken a lot of sacks and a lot of hits during the last three years at OU. For all of his production and all of his highlight plays, there are significant areas that he will need to improve (which is something you can say about any quarterback prospect). Here's to hoping he can do that with his future NFL team.
Small School Spotlight
It's that time of year, and invitations to the Senior Bowl have begun to filter out. I would expect official announcements to come as early as next week, but we've seen some unofficial announcements start to trickle in. One of those has come from a small-school cornerback prospect out of Murray State in D'Montre Wade. Listed at 6'0, 192 pounds, Wade has NFL size and has been one of the most productive cover-men in the country this year with six interceptions and four pass breakups in eight games. A four-year starter for the Racers, Wade looks like a smooth athlete with enough speed and quickness to play reliable man coverage at the NFL level, and while he may not project as a starter at the next level I think he has the talent to stick in the league. I'm excited to see him in person in Mobile in a couple of months.
Wade only recently popped on my radar, but one prospect that I've been watching closely for the last few years is Rutgers pass rusher Kemoko Turay. An under the radar recruit who didn't play football until mid-way through high school, Turay arrived at Piscataway from nearby Newark, New Jersey (just over an hour north of Philadelphia) as a 210-pound track athlete. Now, he's developed into one of the most explosive edge rushers in the country. Known for his first step and freaky flexibility turning the corner, Turay is now up to around 250 pounds. He has never been a full-time starter for the Scarlet Knights, which is a bit of a red flag, but pass rushers with his physical tools don't often fall too far in the draft. Expect Turay's name to get more steam as the process plays out.
My favorite college game of the year was played last Saturday night between Alabama and LSU, and while the Tide rolled in a game that was really never in doubt, the Tigers did a good job of keeping it close enough that the game was still intriguing. I've got to give a lot of credit to LSU's defense for selling out to shut down the Alabama run game, but the matchup I highlighted in this space focused on Alabama's linebackers, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans. Hamilton left due to a season-ending knee injury (his second in two seasons), but Evans ended up with ten tackles and a sack on the day. At 6'3, 234 pounds, Evans has very good size for the linebacker spot and has pass rush versatility (he was an outside linebacker in their 3-4 scheme before this season). He made his debut recently on Mel Kiper's Big Board, and has continued to get more buzz as the season has worn on as he continues to get healthy after an early-season injury. Keep a close eye on Evans down the stretch as he closes out his college career.