With the first games of New Years Day in the books we move to the two biggies: The College Football Playoff semi-finals.
Not only are these two prestigious bowl games all on their own, but the winners of these two games will go on to play for the National Championship. Predictably, with four of the best teams in the nation playing, there will be a huge number of future NFL players in action tonight.
The New York Giants will be watching, so let’s take a look at who could catch their eye.
Rose Bowl Game: Oklahoma (2) vs. Georgia (3)
ESPN - 5pm
The Rose Bowl could be one of the most entertaining games of the season. Interestingly, this is the first ever meeting between Georgia and Oklahoma, which just seems wrong considering how storied both of these programs are.
Georgia is favored to win the game, and they have the majority of NFL prospects. So I’m going to start with Oklahoma.
You simply have to start by talking about Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield. Mayfield finished the season at the top of our weekly Top-10 list, and after (arguably) the best season by a quarterback in college football history, it isn’t hard to see why. He lead FBS in completion percentage, completing 262 of 369 passes (71 percent) for 4,340 yards and 41 touchdowns to just 5 interceptions. He also added another 85 carries for 310 yards and 5 touchdowns. All told, he had an astounding 202 QB rating on the season.
Mayfield is undersized, but he makes up for it with the mobility to find passing lanes (if necessary), accuracy, and plenty of arm strength to drive the ball downfield.
He is incredibly passionate and competitive, which shows in everything from his history of walking on and becoming the starter at both Texas Tech and Oklahoma to his play on the field. Mayfield could have declared for the draft last year, but returned to school, and the extra year showed in his play this year.
He showed improved polish and consistency in his mechanics, and impressive maturation as a passer in dissecting and manipulating defenses. Mayfield is usually aggressive with the ball, but rarely reckless and it shows in his 8 to 1 touchdown to interception ratio.
Georgia’s defense will be a tough test for Oklahoma, and Mayfield has been criticized for facing Big XII defenses. However, he twice shredded TCU’s stout defense this season, and overcame Ohio State’s defense (which frustrated Sam Darnold and USC) in Ohio State.
There are definite concerns regarding his personality and an off-field run in with law enforcement last offseason, and given the New York media, the Giants would have to carefully interview him before drafting him. It should also be noted that he has been very ill this week, but (as of this writing) will play through it.
Next up for the Giants is Oklahoma left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. Brown is an absolutely mammoth tackle, listed at 6’7”, 350 pounds, and he plays to every ounce of it. Despite his size, Brown is remarkably fluid — almost graceful — in his movements, and easily gets into his pass sets. When it comes to run blocking, if Brown gets his hands on a defender, it’s all over for that play. However, his sheer size means that Brown’s range is very limited. While he is light-footed in pass protection, asking him to pull or play in space can be painful to watch and he looks to be running in wet cement. If a coach recognizes and accommodates his limitations, Brown should be able to be an NFL offensive tackle.
On the defensive side of the ball, Oklahoma’s only real threat is linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. Okoronkwo has dealt with injuries over his career, but when healthy he is a disruptive playmaker for the Sooners. At 6’1”, 240 pounds Okoronkwo is adept at using his low center of gravity to play with leverage as well as uncommon bend for a player with his frame. After playing in just 9 games in his first two years, he played in 24 the last two seasons, compiling 141 tackles, 29.0 for a loss, 17.0 sacks, 5 forced fumbles (2 recoveries), and 5 passes defensed.
Georgia’s top prospect is unquestionably linebacker Roquon Smith, an undersized inside linebacker who is now (generally) considered to be the top linebacker in the draft. Smith may be undersized at 6’1”, 225 pounds, but he is instinctive and athletic, flying around the field to make plays in the running and passing games. Smith finished the season with 113 tackles, 10.5 for a loss, 5.5 sacks, 2 passes defensed, a forced fumble, and 2 recoveries.
Alongside him is edge rusher Lorenzo Carter. Carter is long and athletic with a frame and athleticism reminiscent of Leonard Floyd. He has the ability to fire off the edge as a pass rusher, play the run, and play in space in pass coverage.
On the offensive side of the ball, the story for Georgia is running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
Chubb, like his predecessor Todd Gurley, blends power and speed, and like Gurley he has had to overcome a potentially devastating knee injury suffered at Georgia. But back to being fully healthy, Chubb uses his combination of explosive power and speed to run through arm tackles and turn them into big gains.
Michel, on the other hand, is a bit smaller, 5’11”, 215 to Chubb’s 5’10” 225, but he is the more agile runner and is a definite threat as a receiver out of the backfield. There is a legitimate debate raging over which of the two will be a better NFL player. Both have scored 13 rushing touchdowns this year, but Michel out-gained Chubb by a yard per carry, despite carrying the ball 60 fewer times.
Playing an important role in both of their success is left tackle Isiah Wynn. Wynn is a strong blocker with great feet, but at 6’2”, 302, he is simply too small to remain at left tackle in the NFL. However, he is an excellent candidate to transition inside to guard or center and could be very effective there, particularly in a scheme that takes advantage of his athleticism.
Sugar Bowl: Clemson (1) vs. Alabama (4)
ESPN - 8:45pm
This is the third consecutive year that Clemson and Alabama will meet in the college football playoffs. But in a change, this year they’re playing for the right to play for the National Championship, not the championship itself.
We’ll start with the reigning national champion Clemson Tigers.
Their best prospects are on the defensive side of the ball — specifically the defensive line. Defensive end Clelin Ferrell has risen up boards after a strong campaign. He is a classically built 4-3 defensive end, listed at an athletic and long-armed 6’5”, 265 pounds. A third-year sophomore, Ferrell has been a factor on defense in each of the last two years, notching 106 tackles, 29.5 for a loss, and 14.5 sacks (as well as 3 passes defensed and 2 forced fumbles). If he declares for the draft, he will likely rank highly on most defensive end depth charts. He could even vie with NC State’s Bradley Chubb for the title of best defensive end in the draft.
Across from Ferrell is Austin Bryant, who is Clemson’s fourth-best defensive lineman but would still probably be a Day 2 pick if he declares for the draft this year. Bryant isn’t as long as Ferrell, nor is he quite as athletic. However, he is still a talented defensive end and has upside as both a pass rusher and run defender. He will need to work on honing his craft at the next level, but the tools are there.
Inside is defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, who is in the conversation for the best interior defender in the draft. Wilkins has been on many peoples watch lists since his freshman year and could be a top 10 pick come April’s draft. He is very athletic, who regularly plays both tackle and end for the Tigers despite being 6’4”, 300 pounds. But, given his size and ability to disrupt behind the line of scrimmage (9 tackles for a loss, 5 sacks), the NFL will likely view him as a high-upside 3-technique.
The Tigers also have one of the more intriguing left tackle options in the draft. Mitch Hyatt. Hyatt will come out as an experienced and athletic tackle with experience both run and pass blocking. He needs to work on his consistency and will likely also have to add some mass and strength in the NFL (he is listed at 6’5”, 290), but he has the tools to intrigue NFL teams, especially considering the dearth of offensive tackles in the NFL.
Defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick is generally considered to be Alabama’s top prospect. There are still questions regarding where he will play at the next level — which will likely be answered by his combine performance and the scheme into which he is drafted — but none about his talent. Fitzpatrick has drawn rave reviews for his football IQ and work ethic, going so far as to spend his last high school spring break on the Alabama campus watching practices and talking to coaches. He has also been a consistent playmaker for the Alabama secondary, with 163 tackles, 14.5 for a loss, 5 sacks, 9 interceptions (4 touchdowns), 23 passes defensed, and a pair of forced fumbles over the last three seasons.
Next up is defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne. Payne might not be the clear-cut best defensive tackle in the draft, but he certainly has a solid claim to the best (and most apt) name in the draft. As we have come to expect from Alabama defensive tackles, he is a big, powerful lineman who can utterly dominate the point of attack and shut down interior runs. He doesn’t have the pass rushing upside of some other DTs, but he does have the upside to push pockets at the next level.
Behind Payne and in front of Fitzpatrick is linebacker Rashaan Evans. Evans took over the middle of Alabama’s defense after the departure of Reuben Foster in last year’s draft, and he has had a great senior campaign. Evans athletic but also has the size the Giants have typically coveted at 6’3”, 235 pounds. Over the last two seasons he has totaled 109 tackles, 15.0 for a loss, 9.0 sacks, 4 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, and a pair of fumble recoveries.
On the offensive side of the ball, Calvin Ridley is Alabama’s best prospect and most dangerous playmaker. The 2018 wide receiver class lacks an obvious top option, and there are several players who could be the first wide-out off the board — and Ridley is one of them. He hasn’t been featured in the Alabama offense since the departure of Lane Kiffin, but he is an explosive receiver with the ability to blow the top off a defense and turn a sliver of daylight into a big gain or touchdown.
Bo Scarbrough is the next biggest name on the Alabama offense, and he is certainly an intimidating runner. Listed at 6’2”, 235 pounds he is a freight train of a running back. Once he gets going, he is difficult to stop, runs through arm tackles, and only very rarely brought down by a lone tackler. However, like a train, he can’t change direction and if an offense forces him to cut, his run is usually over. He also has significant injury concerns, including a pair of torn ACLs and two broken legs.
Alabama’s other runningback, Damien Harris, might just be the better pro prospect. He reportedly put in work this past offseason to improve his body composition and athleticism, and it apparently paid off. Boasting more speed and quickness than last season, Harris has averaged 8.2 yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns on 110 carries in 2017.
Thanks their recruiting machine, thorough coaching, and Pro-adjacent (if not strictly Pro Style) offense, Alabama has become known as an offensive line factory for the NFL. They don’t have any highly touted prospects coming out this year, but guard Ross Piersbacher could be a player to keep an eye on. Despite not being widely talked about, he is a classic “Alabama” lineman with an NFL frame, solid fundamentals, playing with power and a definite “nasty” streak.