The annual college bowl season means many things to many people.
To the people employed at Pro Football Weekly with a 24/7 eye on the NFL draft, it means watching many of the most noteworthy players expected to be available in the draft performing in what figures to be the most meaningful of circumstances.
Big-time bowl matchups.
With bowl overdrive upon us, PFW takes a look at five particular draft-heavyweight confrontations in chronological order that NFL scouts most definitely will be evaluating. The likely draft-eligible players expected to receive most of their attention in these games are listed in bold.
Chick-fil-A Bowl, Dec. 31
LSU vs. Clemson
Pitting the nation’s speediest offense in Clemson against an LSU defense featuring the most star-studded group of NFL draft prospects in the country will create plenty of intrigue.
Clemson true sophomore Sammy Watkins, though not eligible for the draft, is the nation’s most explosive big-play receiver, and along with junior WR DeAndre Hopkins, he will challenge an LSU secondary led by FS Eric Reid, who could answer questions about his athletic limitations with a strong showing vs. Clemson.
Three junior pass rushers — speed-rushing DRE Barkevious Mingo, high-motor DLE Sam Montgomery, and the gem of the front, big, strong, athletic DT Bennie Logan — all could be playing their final college game.
LSU junior LBs Kevin Minter (MLB) and Lamin Barrow (WLB) also can prove they are ready for the NFL by containing Clemson’s dynamite senior RB Andre Ellington.
Defensively, Clemson senior DE Malliciah Goodman is the Tigers’ top draft prospect of note, with exceptional length (nearly 36-inch arms), outstanding power and a good motor.
Outback Bowl, Jan. 1
South Carolina vs. Michigan
Arguably the top college matchup of the bowl season will pit sensational sophomore South Carolina pass-rushing ace Jadeveon Clowney vs. Michigan junior OLT Taylor Lewan, who is expected to depart for the NFL following the contest. How the aggressive Lewan can handle matching up with Clowney’s unique blend of size, speed and power could dictate how highly he is drafted.
In addition, South Carolina hard-hitting senior FS D.J. Swearinger will get the chance to contain the crazy legs of Wolverines senior QB Denard Robinson.
Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1
Georgia vs. Nebraska
Joining the charge alongside LSU in the way of featuring legitimate defensive NFL draft prospects is Todd Grantham’s Georgia defense, featuring standout junior LBs Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree. They are two very good athletes who are capable of keeping Nebraska’s athletic QB Taylor Martinez in the pocket and limiting the big-play ability of Nebraska speedy sophomore RB Ameer Abdullah.
Five Georgia seniors — NT John Jenkins, DE Cornelius Washington, CB Sanders Commings and safeties Shawn Williams and Bacarri Rambo — all potentially could fit into the top three rounds.
Rose Bowl, Jan. 1
Stanford vs. Wisconsin
The strength of Stanford’s defense is in its linebackers, as desired in any 3-4 front, beginning with senior ILB Shayne Skov, who has taken time to recover from a season-ending knee injury last season.
Skov and OLBs Chase Thomas (senior) and OLB Trent Murphy (junior) will be presented with the challenge of stopping the nation’s top senior runner, Montee Ball, who is featured in one of the nation’s top power running attacks led by junior C Travis Frederick.
With Barry Alvarez returning to the sideline to coach the Badgers in place of the departed Brett Bielema, the Rose Bowl will be a throwback, old-school battle won in the trenches, where Stanford’s TE tandem of Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo can both play a pivotal role.
Despite inking a long-term extension, Stanford skipper David Shaw also will be watched closely by NFL brass as one of the top college coaching prospects with NFL pedigree.
BCS championship, Jan. 7
Alabama vs. Notre Dame
In the highly anticipated showdown between two of the nation’s top defenses, Alabama holds an edge in the way of NFL draft-caliber talent, a key reason why Nick Saban has been able to build the Crimson Tide into a perennial national contender.
The Irish feature the most high-profile, decorated marquee performer in the game in inspirational leader Manti Te’o, the winner of numerous awards this year — Butkus, Nagurski, Maxwell, Rotary Lombardi, Bednarik, Lott Impact and Walter Camp Player of the Year. The hammering inside ’backer will have his work cut out trying to stop the nation’s most physical back, junior Eddie Lacy, who should benefit from running behind a powerfully built offensive line featuring a bevy of first-round talent, including the nation’s best guard, Chance Warmack, the most gargantuan right tackle, junior D.J. Fluker, and supersavvy C Barrett Jones.
Te’o will not be without help in the form of two standout bodyguards — junior NT Louis Nix III and true sophomore DE Stephon Tuitt. Also bringing a physical presence on the back end and helping lead the Irish charge is senior S Zeke Motta, who could follow in the path of Vikings 2012 first-round pick Harrison Smith and will be needed to make a big impact keying Alabama junior QB AJ McCarron.
Offensively, the Irish lack the same amount of horsepower as Alabama boasts, with only Tyler Eifert, the nation’s top tight end, profiling as a first-round talent. He can be expected to see extra coverage rolled his way and be the frequent target of one of the nation’s top covermen, physical ’Bama junior CB Dee Milliner. Irish junior RB Cierre Wood has a knack for finding daylight behind a solid offensive line led by steady senior C Braxston Cave and junior OLT Zack Martin.
The quickness of Alabama senior NG Jesse Williams and instinctive junior WLB C.J. Mosley and the overall speed of the SEC champions easily could be the difference in this game.