As we enter the final stage of the college football season, NFL draft hopefuls have one final opportunity to put their hard work and production on tape to impress the NFL scouts and front office executives. Immediately after the bowl games, most prospects will be whisked away to some over-hyped and expensive training facility that will teach them how to run, lift weights and run around cones. A big time performance in a bowl game can dramatically improve a player's NFL draft stock.
Below are the New Year's Day bowl games and a few prospects to watch in each matchup.
Outback Bowl (Auburn vs. Wisconsin)
Sammie Coates (WR, Auburn) & Melvin Gordon (RB, Wisconsin): Coates, who dealt with a knee injury during the last few games of the season, is starting to regain his old form. He decided a few weeks ago to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL Draft.
Playing in a run-heavy offense has given Coates the opportunity to master his run blocking technique. He is often asked to block corners, linebackers or safeties and he shows a tremendous effort and technique in driving his man downfield. Few receivers come into the NFL ready to run block, but Coates has shown that he can be a huge asset in helping out the running game.
There is no denying Coates' ability to be a deep, downfield threat. With a career average of over 22 yards per receptions, he can take the top off the Wisconsin defense. Watch for Coates to have a big game and hopefully make a claim as one of the top wide receivers in this upcoming draft class.
Gordon doesn't have to cement his status as the top running back as he has owned that spot for the past two seasons of college football. He currently leads all FBS running backs in total rushing yards (2,336) and rushing TD's (26) this season.
Gordon is an electric offensive weapon each time he touches the ball. With a career average of 7.8 YPC and 504 career carries, he will be viewed as a dynamic runner who has little wear and tear on his body. He runs with great balance and a pad level that allows him to pick up the crucial yards after contact. He reminds me of current Kansas City Chiefs' running back, Jamaal Charles.
In a historic performance earlier this season, Gordon rushed for 408 yards on 25 carries against Nebraska in just three quarters of play. His ability to pick up yards after contact is what makes him a special runner. In the game against Nebraska, Gordon had over 151 yards after contact.
Auburn has the 46th ranked rush defense in college football, allowing 4.1 YPC and 149.5 YPG. Look for the Tigers defense to load the box and try to shut down the Badgers' rushing attack. If Gordon can dominate an SEC opponent, he could lock down his spot as a first round selection in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Cotton Bowl (Michigan State vs. Baylor)
Shilique Calhoun (DE, Michigan State) vs. Spencer Drango (OT, Baylor): This is a matchup that pits one of college football's best defenses against the nation's number one offense. Leading the way for the Michigan State Spartans is Shilique Calhoun, a physical specimen who has the speed and quickness to attack opposing quarterbacks.
Although Calhoun had a down season in terms of his overall numbers, he still was an active playmaker for the Spartans. With 6.5 sacks and 11 TFL on the season, he has been a consistent force along the defensive line.
Calhoun will need to utilize his speed to get after the Baylor Bears, and more specifically, apply pressure on a quarterback who gets the ball out his hands in less than 2.3 seconds on average. Calhoun doesn't have a pass breakup this season, but with his long arms and the short, quick-strike nature of the Baylor offense, look for Calhoun to gets his hands up to disrupt the timing and rhythm of his opponent's offense.
Spencer Drango has done an excellent job of holding down the left side of the Baylor offensive line all season long. At 6'6” and 310 pounds, he is a natural knee bender who can stay stout and hold his ground against power pass rushers.
His athleticism is evident in watching the quick-strike Baylor offense who regularly snaps the ball every 20 seconds. Drango is a top conditioned athlete who has the agility to get up into the second level for a block and the ability to take on a defender and not get pushed back into the pocket.
As a three year starter, there is some talk that Drango could return to school for his senior season. He was named as an Associated Press first team All-American earlier this month. If he were to declare, don't be surprised if he is one of the first three or four left tackles selected in the NFL Draft.
Citrus Bowl (Missouri vs. Minnesota)
Markus Golden (DE, Missouri) vs. David Cobb (RB, Minnesota): While his counterpart, Shane Ray, receives a lot of the attention and deservedly so, Markus Golden has a lot on the line and can answer a few questions that scouts have on the undersized defensive end.
A junior college transfer, Markus Golden has had to wait his turn with Kony Ealy and Michael Sam holding down the starter spots for the past two seasons. With the departure of Ealy and Sam to the NFL, Golden has made the most of his opportunities this season.
On a defense which utilizes a heavy rotation along the defensive line, Golden still managed 68 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 16 TFL, two PB, and two FF.
At 6'3” and 260 pounds, Golden doesn't possess the long arms and stout run-stopping ability of a traditional 4-3 defensive end. Going against one of the nation's top offensive rushing attacks will hopefully answer a few questions that scouts have on Golden's ability to hold his edge and be a consistent force against stopping the rush.
David Cobb rushed for 1,548 yards on 294 carries, with an average of 5.3 YPC and had 13 TD's this season. The stocky power back for the Golden Gophers has started to rise up the draft boards with his early season performances so far this year. At 5'11” and 229 pounds, Cobb is a load to take down and it usually takes two or three defenders to bring him down. He has a physical, punishing running style that some scouts have compared with a young Marshawn Lynch. Cobb is more suited to run in between the tackles, though he has good initial quickness and is a speedster who can bounce it outside quickly and get upfield.
Missouri's highly touted defensive line will have their hands full shutting down Cobb. The one area of concern for Cobb is ball security, he has five fumbles on the season. While he might not be a first round selection, look for Cobb to rise up the draft boards in the coming months.
Rose Bowl (Oregon vs. Florida State)
Hroniss Grasu (C, Oregon) & Rashad Greene (WR, Florida State): Oregon's high-powered offense will have their hands full with the Florida State defensive line. The leader for the Ducks along the offensive line is senior center, Hroniss Grasu. He is coming back from an injury to his ankle sustained against Utah earlier this season, but he returned to action for the Pac-12 Championship game.
Grasu will have to go against Eddie Goldman (DT, Florida State), a likely first round pick. At 6'3” and 297 pounds, Grasu has the quickness and speed needed in the Ducks offense. He can handle an interior bull rush and doesn't give up much ground. Goldman is a monster on the inside and a player who has consistently shut down an opponent's interior rushing attack.
Grasu could have declared last year and been a day two selection, but he decided to return in hopes of improving his draft stock and winning a national championship. He can achieve both goals if he and the rest of the Oregon team put on an impressive performance and come out victorious against the defending national champions.
On the opposite side of the ball, the Seminoles have a leader besides their quarterback whose level of play will go a long way to deciding the winner of this game. Rashad Greene is Florida State's all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. At 6'0” and 190 pounds, Greene doesn't offer the physically imposing size of a Calvin Johnson. What he does offer is some of the best route running abilities in college football and a set of hands that rarely drop a pass.
A critical third down target for the Seminoles, Greene has the knack to come up with the big catches during pivotal moments of the game. On third down this season, Greene has 21 receptions, 19 of which resulted in a first down.
Oregon lost their number one cornerback, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, to a torn ACL injury a few weeks ago. Scouts were curious to watch this matchup, but now with the injury to Ekpre-Olomu, Greene should see a substantially higher number of targets in this game. For Florida State to come away as champions they will need a big game from Greene.
Sugar Bowl (Alabama vs. Ohio State)
Arie Kouandjio (OG, Alabama) & Jeff Heuerman (TE, Ohio State): The Ohio State Buckeyes have one of the nation's most disruptive defensive front sevens in the nation. Led by defensive end Joey Bosa and defensive tackle Michael Bennett, the Crimson Tide will have their hands full trying to contain these two.
A two year starter for the Crimson Tide, Kouandjio has seen action in 39 career games. Last season, he only allowed two sacks and was part of an offensive line that allowed the fewest sacks per game in the SEC (1.3). This season, Kouandjio and the rest of the Alabama offensive line have allowed just 13 sacks all season and are first in allowing the fewest sacks per game (1.0).
At left tackle for Alabama is freshman Cam Robinson who will be matched up against Bosa throughout the game. Bosa is currently ranked 4th in FBS this season with 13.5 sacks. Look for Kouandjio to help Robinson in shutting down one of the nation's most feared pass rushers.
The Buckeyes have one of the youngest, most explosive offenses in the country. Down to their third string quarterback and a handful of freshman and sophomore wide receivers, they are full of speed and ability at almost every position.
That is why I believe one key critical matchup to watch out for is the Buckeyes' senior tight end Jeff Heuerman against Alabama starting safety Landon Collins. Heuerman has 17 receptions for 207 yards and two touchdowns this season. A quarterback's best friend can be the tight end and with a new quarterback under center for the Buckeyes, don't be surprised to see Heuerman targeted early and often.
Collins is most likely the top safety prospect in college football. He has the athletic measurable that jump off the chart. At 6'0” and 215 pounds, he is giving up some significant size and weight to the 6'5” and 255 pounds of Heuerman.
Heuerman looks to be a possible 3rd-5th round prospect, but with a breakout performance against one of the nation's top defensive units, he could see his draft stock jump.