The 2015 Cotton Bowl might not have anything to do with the National Championship, but that doesn't mean it isn't an interesting game.
Not only does it feature two teams who could have made good arguments for being in the championship playoffs themselves, but this game features a classic battle of strength on strength. Connor Cook is a good quarterback, but if Michigan State is known for one thing, it is their defense. They are aggressive, physical, and very efficient. Baylor, on the other hand, has one of the most potent offenses in the country. They are fast, aggressive, and very efficient.
Adding to the intrigue, Michigan St's defensive coordinator was hired away to be the new head coach for Pittsburgh. It remains to be seen how much the loss of Pat Narduzzi's mind will affect that defense. But, that doesn't mean Sparty doesn't boast some good prospects.
Starting up front is defensive end Shilique Calhoun. Calhoun is a trim, athletic DE, with decent size at 6-4, 254 pounds. He is a fluid athlete with a nice first step and plenty of flexibility to bend around the edge. Calhoun is a fringe first rounder right now, and needs to show teams that he has the power to consistently hold up in the trenches at the next level. His frame and athleticism suggest that he could find a home at outside linebacker in the correct scheme -- Something like Terrell Suggs in Baltimore, or DeMarcus Ware in Wade Phillips' scheme.
Behind Calhoun are defensive backs Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond. Waynes might not be the best cover corner in the draft, but thanks to some attrition at the position -- namely Ifo Ekpre-Olomu's knee injury, PJ Williams' legal troubles, and Marcus Peters being dismissed from Washington -- he finds himself as the highest rated. Waynes has great length for the position, but is only listed at 180 pounds, which could make matching up on big NFL receivers difficult. Like all Michigan State defensive players, Waynes is well coached, aggressive, and tough. He is a willing tackler and active in run support, but his lack of girth holds him back a bit.
Drummond is one of the better safeties in the draft. He has a nice build for a free safety at 6-1, 200 pounds, and is a well rounded player. He shows good feet, fluid hips, and an understanding of angles and route concepts in pass coverage. Like Waynes, he is aggressive, and willing in run support and tackling. He's smart, experienced, and very consistent.
On the offensive side of the ball, running back Jeremy Langford and wide receiver Tony Lippett could interest the Giants. Langford is a bit smaller than Ben McAdoo seems to prefer at running back at 6-0, 205 pounds, but he is a very well rounded back, who could be an excellent 3rd down back in the NFL. Langford has great vision, good balance, and very quick feet, and is one of those backs who seems to get stronger as the game wears on. And unlike many college running backs, Langford is a polished pass protector. The sheer depth of this running back class means that Langford could find himself being a late Day-3 pick despite being a very good running back.
Tony Lippett could prove to be an intriguing prospect for Ben McAdoo. He is a polished route runner, able to use his precision and quickness to get separation, while using his strong hands and large catch radius to pluck the ball out of the air. He plays on either side of the formation as well as the slot. He has good length at 6-3, and appears to have long arms. However, he is built like a whip at 190 pounds, and could struggle with press coverage in the NFL. He doesn't have breakaway speed, and that will likely hold his draft position down, but somebody is going to get a good receiver in the middle of the draft.
On the Baylor side of things, the prospect to talk about is Shawn Oakman.
And not all the talk is about Oakman himself. He has said recently that he is considering returning to Baylor. He seems to want to continue to improve himself and his game with the objective of being drafted No. 1 overall. That being said, he is a rare physical specimen at 6-9, 285 pounds, and shows some seriously rare athleticism, able to beat offensive tackles with speed and bend around the edge. If he decides to return, it could be a good decision. Oakman reminds of a rookie Jason Pierre-Paul: rare and exciting physical gifts, but little understanding of technique and how to use them. Oakman's technique and functional strength are inconsistent, and another year in college could help him develop that.
After Oakman, offensive tackle Spencer Drango is Baylor's best prospect. He is a powerful and athletic offensive tackle, who gets some renown for his football IQ. He shows fluid feet and heavy hands when blocking, and has the frame to play outside -- likely right tackle -- or inside at guard. Drango suffered a ruptured disc in 2013, and NFL teams will need to take a long, close look at his medical reports before committing to him.
Finally Antwan Goodley intrigues at wide receiver. Goodley has a very unusual frame for a receiver at 5-10, 225 pounds. He is built more like a running back, and acts like one when he gets the ball in his hands. While he doesn't have breakaway speed, he shows good acceleration and quick feet. He is a dangerous receiver when he gets the ball and a bit of space to move. It will be interesting to see how NFL teams view his unique tools.
Odds: Baylor -1.5
TV: January 1, 12:30 p.m. EST, ESPN