As top prospects Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey opt to skip their bowl games the league mostly shrugs its shoulders, but some brainstorm ideas for how to get the best playing in bowl games. Plus, the top NFL prospects in the upcoming bowls
Since this column looks at the college game through an NFL prism, I highlighted the best pro prospects in upcoming bowl games. But before we get to the bowl guide, a bit more on a minor controversy that just won’t go away…
The buzz surrounding Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey’s twin decisions to bail on their bowl games has continued, so I asked two members of NFL scouting departments for their take. The response was, essentially, a shrug.
“It’s all about the tone and tenor of their announcements,” one personnel man told me. “These guys left their team in good standing, with the graces of their coaches and teammates. They gave a lot to their schools over the last few seasons, they sacrificed a lot, and so we all understand this is a business decision.” In essence: I get it, and I’m not holding it against them.
For schools, it’s not a full-blown problem… yet. Only one position (running back) seems to be affected. The two faces of this controversy are unique cases; Fournette for being physically advanced, and in the spotlight, for so long; McCaffrey for his NFL pedigree, and a father with connections and past experiences to help shape his son’s opinion. (Baylor’s Shock Linwood, who announced he’ll pass on the Cactus Bowl, is viewed by NFL types as an ill-advised copycat dealing with mitigating circumstances.) Nonetheless, I gathered proposals of what colleges should do moving forward. While many cautioned against anything drastic, everyone agreed college athletics should be forward thinking, and perhaps a bit unconventional. Here are a few ideas, some more feasible than others.
• Allow schools to buy single-game loss of value insurance for its draft prospects. This idea was presented by NFLPA President Eric Winston in his conversation with Albert Breer for last week’s Game Plan, and I love it. We’ve heard of players taking out insurance policies on themselves, a trend popularized after Willis McGahee’s injury in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl. Notre Dame’s Jayson Smith collected $900,000 after slipping to the second round; Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, a potential 2015 first-round pick, collected $3 million after tearing his ACL in a practice before for a playoff game against Florida State. He fell to the seventh round.
Winston says if colleges are so concerned about financial losses when star players skip out on bowl games, take action. Surely someone could sell LSU an insurance policy before the season that would let the school recover its losses if Fournette decides not to play.
Says Winston: “Most schools could afford one game loss of value insurance if they really wanted these guys to play. Everybody’s making a decision, including the colleges, including the coaches who leave for the bowl game, but for some reason we’re demonizing players for making these decisions for themselves… Let’s not act like there aren’t other people that could take care of it, if this was such a desperate thing where we gotta have these guys play.”
• Change scholarship language where players must sign a clause saying they will not voluntarily sit out a bowl game. If they do, they will have to repay the school back a certain amount of money. This idea was presented by a college scouting director, partially tongue-in-cheek, as what an aggressive athletic department might attempt to curtail this trend. I could see an overzealous coach wanting to try it, and I could see it backfiring quickly. Among the plethora of issues here: It seems awfully tricky to regulate. For example, while McCaffrey was theoretically healthy enough to play in the bowl game, he could argue in court that there were lingering ailments that prevented him from participating fully. A third-party doctor would have to make the call.
• Incentivize bowl play by uncapping the gifts. This probably wouldn’t be enough to convince Fournette and McCaffrey to change their minds, but it’s a step closer to compensating college football players for what they’re worth. And hey, maybe the Citrus Bowl, and/or sponsor Buffalo Wild Wings, would be willing to shell out $40,000 to have Fournette grace the field. The NCAA allows bowl committees to spend $550 on each player. Contrast that to James Franklin, coach of my alma mater, Penn State, who gets a $200,000 bonus if his team plays in any bowl game. (That’s around the industry standard). If bowl games are so special, let’s give the players something a little bigger than an Apple Watch for their efforts.
• As a way to recoup excitement in non-playoff bowl games, a few people proposed a wholesale change, allowing bowl games to be a springboard into the next season: Let redshirts and transfers play, without the typical consequences. This idea was articulated by colleague Andy Staples of Campus Rush, who explains the benefits not only for the fan, but coaches managing depleted rosters at the end of the season. All around, people in football I talked to seem to celebrate this idea, though many wonder if the NCAA would ever allow it. There’s a counterpoint to this: As one well-respected agent reminds me, coaches already treat bowl games as a start to the next season. “I bet you can’t count how many seniors were replaced by younger players, happens all the time. Senior gets a lot less reps and feels demoted.” These seniors represent the draft’s middle to lower class, and for these players a bowl game is viewed as an NFL tryout. Is there a way to appease everyone? Probably not. That’s why this situation is so prickly.
• WHO IS MITCH TRUBISKY?: It’s the question evaluators across the league are scrambling to answer as the first-year UNC starter has established himself as the best draft-eligible quarterback in college football.
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WHAT I’M WATCHING
All times Eastern…
Everything! Well, I’m trying to. I love bowl season, and from now until the national title game (Jan. 9), there’s plenty of compelling college football on television. Consider this The Handy MMQB College Column Bowl Viewing Guide, with an emphasis on NFL draft prospects.
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Pinstripe Bowl: Northwestern vs. Pittsburgh
Wednesday, 2 p.m.
Wildcats junior linebacker Anthony Walker is an intriguing prospect. He could be the first Northwestern player to leave early for the NFL in 20 years. After a breakout 2015, Walker’s tape early this season wasn’t great, but scouts believe he was still battling nagging injuries, and he’s regaining momentum. Meanwhile Pittsburgh boasts a few pro prospects, notably running back James Conner. Offensive tackle Adam Bisnowaty should be an NFL starter. From The MMQB’s Anonymous Scout, in September: “Long arms and a powerful punch. Plays nasty. Nice kick slide. Some might consider sliding him to guard but I like him [in the NFL] as a tackle.”
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Russell Athletic Bowl: Miami vs. West Virginia
Wednesday, 5:30 p.m.
The big name here is Brad Kaaya, Miami’s big-bodied, pro-style passer. The junior has not yet declared his intentions for 2017, but you can bet NFL teams will be on hand to see how he preforms. On offense, Kaaya’s go-to receiver, Stacy Coley, and tight end David Njoku, are other names to watch. Look for cornerback Corn Elder and safety Rayshawn Jenkins as late-round picks. Center Tyler Orlosky is the Mountaineers’ best pro prospect. Defensive back Rasul Douglas is a borderline Day 2 pick (a good fit for teams who covet tall, physical corners).
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Foster Farms Bowl: Indiana vs. Utah
Wednesday, 8:30 p.m.
It’s a thin draft for offensive linemen, but Indiana guard Dan Feeney would stand out any year. A four-year starter, he was a big reason why Tevin Coleman and Jordan Howard thrived as Hoosiers. In September, The MMQB’s Anonymous Scout raved about Feeney for his long arms, good punch, and good agility for his size. Stay in the trenches because Utah’s defensive lineman, Lowell Lotulelei (brother of the Panthers’ Star Lotulelei) is a 6' 2", 310-pound force. The Anonymous Scout report: “Strong at point of attack, but often relies on sheer power and strength. Needs to improve handwork. Run stuffer, not every down player, future is nose tackle.” Utes junior safety Marcus Williams is also supremely talented, and a potential first-round pick if he declares.
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Texas Bowl: Kansas St. vs. Texas A&M
Wednesday, 9 p.m.
The marquee player here is Myles Garrett, the freakishly athletic defensive end who spent most of the season as the leading candidate to be the draft’s top pick. (He’ll definitely play in this game, after emphatically declaring himself not among the bowl-skipping crowd). Aggies strong safety Justin Evans has been a big riser since mid-season while defensive end Daeshon Hall (6' 6", 270 pounds) is an excellent pass-rusher and worth monitoring. Linebacker Jordan Willis is Kansas State’s top draft prospect.
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Birmingham Prime Bowl: South Carolina vs. South Florida
Thursday, 2 p.m.
It’s not a great year for Gamecocks entering the pros; Darius English, a defensive end, is likely a late-round pick. South Florida has a junior running back, Marlon Mack, receiving some NFL attention and could end up in the mid-rounds.
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Belk Prime Bowl: Arkansas vs. Virginia Tech
Thursday, 5:30 p.m.
Let’s call this the Tight End Bowl, presented by Belk. Earlier this season, this column examined an abnormally strong year for tight ends, and two of the top prospects will be pitted against each other here. For Arkansas, it’s Jeremy Sprinkle (who could slide to the fourth-to-sixth round range, if only because of the plethora of prospects this year). For Virginia Tech, Bucky Hodges is the hot name, should the junior declare. With the combination of size, strength, and freakish athleticism, Hodges creates the classic mismatches that you see with Travis Kelce or Rob Gronkowski at the NFL level.
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Alamo Prime Bowl: Colorado vs. Oklahoma St.
Thursday, 9 p.m.
The Buffaloes’ secondary features three draftable players in cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, strong safety Tedric Thompson and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon. Awuzie is the best of the bunch, a versatile defender who lines up everywhere—including some time rushing the passer. Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph is a polarizing prospect among scouts; the junior has yet to declare, and his performance in this game—against a terrific secondary—should be telling. Also look out for these Cowboys: defensive tackle Vincent Taylor, free safety Jordan Sterns and tight end Blake Jarwin.
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Arizona Bowl: Air Force vs. South Alabama
Friday, 5:30 p.m.
One of my favorite small-school prospects this year is South Alabama tight end Gerald Everett. The senior is a (6' 4", 240 pounds) transfer from UAB is a physical and willing blocker with excellent hands. Even in a deep year for tight ends, Everett holds up among the best. Weston Steelhammer, a safety, is Air Force’s best prospect. He’s a late-round pick.
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Liberty Bowl: Georgia vs. TCU
This is the Bulldogs’ least-impressive draft class in recent memory. Running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel both decided to stay for their senior seasons, meaning both are top prospects to watch for 2018. Offensive guard Greg Pyke could be a mid-round pick. TCU edge rusher Josh Carraway is the most promising prospect for the Horned Frogs; scouts project him as a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL.
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Sun Bowl: North Carolina vs. Stanford
Dec. 30. 2 p.m.
No Christian McCaffrey, but this still a must-watch game for scouts. The Sun Bowl has Mitch Trubisky to thank for that. I profiled the UNC quarterback last week, and NFL evaluators have tabbed him as the top draft-eligible quarterback. The biggest knock against Trubisky is that there’s limited tape—he’s a first-year starter—so a good showing against a traditionally good Stanford defense would resonate. Ryan Switzer, Trubisky’s favorite wide receiver, is worth watching as well. For the Cardinal defense, defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, a third-year sophomore, is a stud.
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Music City Bowl: Nebraska vs. Tennessee
Friday, 3:30 p.m.
Pass-rushers are always at a premium come draft time, and disruptive defensive end Derek Barnett is among the elite. Should the junior declare, he’ll be in the first round discussion—12 sacks this season plus 51 tackles for loss over his career. Also on Tennessee’s defense, cornerback Cameron Sutton and outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin are getting serious pro looks. For Nebraska, strong safety Nathan Gerry has intrigued NFL scouts with his strong tackling. He also has 13 interceptions over the last three seasons.
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Orange Bowl: Florida State vs. Michigan
Friday, 8 p.m.
In October, Jim Harbaugh predicted the number of players on his rosters to be drafted would be in the double-digits. The crazy part? He might be right. Jabrill Peppers is a potential Top 5 pick if he declares (there’s discussion of where the jack-of-all-positions would fit in an NFL scheme, but the consensus among scouts seems to be a safety). Other highly sought-after Wolverines include tight end Jake Butt, defensive end Taco Charlton, wide receiver Jehu Chesson, offensive lineman Mason Cole wide receiver Amara Darboh, defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow, cornerback Jourdan Lewis and defensive lineman Chris Wormley. Florida State’s roster is loaded too, highlighted by potential first-round running back Dalvin Cook and potential top 50 pick, defensive end DeMarcus Walker.
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Taxslayer Bowl: Georgia Tech vs. Kentucky
Saturday, 11 a.m.
Kentucky’s best prospect is center Jon Toth, a senior who has started in 47 consecutive games. There’s not a ton of talent on the Georgia Tech side, though senior center Freddie Burden has enough upside to be a late-round pick, or undrafted free agent.
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Citrus Bowl: Louisville vs. LSU
Saturday, 11 a.m.
Looking ahead to 2018, you can bet NFL scouts will be watching Heisman winner Lamar Jackson closely. Evaluators told me he has a future in the NFL but they are worried that he’s too skinny, and not terribly accurate (although he has made improvements). “I think right now he’s in the same stage that Dak Prescott was in around that age,” an evaluator said. “You’re an athlete, you’re a running athlete that can throw the ball, now learn to be a passer.” Back to guys eligible this year. For Lousiville, defense is the stronger side of the ball with safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and linebackers Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields all draftable in the fourth round or higher. Scouts also like wide receiver James Quick and have shown interest in tight end Cole Hikutini. LSU is loaded, even without Leonard Fournette (though let’s be honest, both viewers and scouts know what he’s capable of whether he plays in this game or not). Jamal Adams, the safety, could be a first-rounder. Right behind him: center Ethan Pocic, cornerback Tre’Davious White and linebacker Kendell Beckwith. Evaluators like two of the Tigers’ wideouts: Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural. Oh, and cornerback Ed Paris and defensive tackle Davon Godchaux should be late round picks. Yeah, this press box is going to be packed with NFL personnel.
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Peach Bowl: Alabama vs. Washington
Saturday, 3 p.m.
No doubt this bowl features the most future NFL talent; we’ll focus only on players expected to enter the 2017 draft, because Nick Saban’s forever replenishing machine is dizzying to keep up with. I count six potential first-round picks on the Crimson Tide Roster: Defensive end Jonathan Allen, linebacker Reuben Foster, tight end O.J. Howard, cornerback Marlon Humphrey, offensive lineman Cam Robinson and linebacker Tim Williams. Linebacker Ryan Anderson should be drafted not long after, and safety Eddie Jackson not long after Anderson. For Washington, the group is impressive as well. Wide receiver John Ross has vaulted into first-round conversation—slight, 5' 11" receivers have a place in today’s NFL. I’ve heard scouts comparing Ross to DeSean Jackson. Cornerback Sidney Jones could be in the first round as well. Other possible Top 50 Huskies: safety Budda Baker and defensive tackles Elijah Qualls and Vita Vea. And a final two to watch: cornerback Kevin King and offensive lineman Jake Eldrenkamp. Notice how many defensive backs there are in this group? This week Saban called Washington’s secondary “Seahawk-like.”
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Fiesta Bowl: Clemson vs. Ohio State
Saturday, 7 p.m.
This is an important assessment day for Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who had an up-and-down season. His top receiver, Mike Williams, is the top wideout on many draft boards. Jordan Leggett is yet another terrific tight end in this year’s loaded class, while offensive guards Tyrone Crowder, running back Wayne Gallman and wide receiver Artavis Scott are underclassmen to know. On defense, there’s a borderline first-round defensive tackle in Carlos Watkins and an excellent Top 50 cornerback in Cordea Tankersley. Center Pat Elflein is the surest Buckeye prospect (he could have declared in 2016). This team won’t have a group of NFL exports like last year (after all, there are more than 40 players with freshman eligibility on the roster). Redshirt sophomore safety Malik Hooker appears poised to return to Columbus for 2017, but will be a first-round candidate next draft cycle. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan has not yet decided on his 2017 intentions, but he will be an NFL star. Four very talented underclassmen who could declare: cornerback Gareon Conley, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, defensive end Tyquan Lewis and wide receiver Curtis Samuel.
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Outback Bowl: Florida vs. Iowa
Monday, 1 p.m.
There’s a lot to like about Iowa’s defense, led by cornerback Desmond King. He’s a ballhawk and scouts gush over his tape; I think he’s a potential first-rounder. Defensive lineman Jaleel Johnson is getting serious looks. Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard entered the year with hype due to his pedigree (he is the grandson to longtime NFL GM Bobby Beathard) and prototypical size, though scouts have cooled on him and project him to the late rounds. Florida cornerback Teez Tabor is a first-round candidate. There’s more to like in the Gators defense, including linebacker Jarrad Davis, defensive tackle Caleb Brantley, safety Marcus Maye and defensive end Bryan Cox Jr.
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Cotton Bowl: Western Michigan vs. Wisconsin
Monday, 1 p.m.
Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis has been on the NFL’s radar for some time (I profiled him in September) as a potential first-round pick. Don’t sleep on other Broncos, especially offensive lineman Taylor Moton who could be plucked as high as the second round. Wisconsin’s offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk is highly regarded. Also look out for running back Corey Clement and outside linebacker Vince Biegel. He may not declare this year, but linebacker T.J. Watt is fun to watch—he has an attitude and style that will remind you a lot of his older brother, J.J.
• FROM WESTERN MICHIGAN TO ROUND 1: He nearly missed out on college altogeher, but now record-setting wideout Corey Davis could join Randy Moss as the only MAC receivers ever taken in the NFL draft’s first round.
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Rose Bowl: Penn State vs. USC
Monday, 5 p.m.
Two skill players fascinate NFL scouts very much on Southern California’s roster: wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and defensive back Adoree’ Jackson. Both players have teased a return to USC for their senior seasons but will still be heavily monitored by NFL evaluators. On the offensive line, Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner should go within the first four rounds. I featured Banner in November; he’s 6' 9" and once weighed nearly 400 pounds but has slimmed down—and his NFL future depends on him keeping it off. As for my alma mater? It’s not a great year for Nittany Lions in the draft. I’ve heard some buzz about linebacker Brandon Bell, who had an excellent second half. If you really want to get excited though, watch stud running back Saquon Barkley. He’s not eligible until 2018, but he’s flashing all the qualities of a first-rounder.
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Sugar Bowl: Auburn vs. Oklahoma
Monday, 8:30 p.m.
With Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield announcing he will return for his senior season—a move generally applauded by NFL types, who felt he would slide in the draft—the big name for Oklahoma is fellow Heisman finalist, wide receiver Dede Westbrook. Here’s an NFL evaluator’s take on Westbrook from my column earlier this month: “Right now I’d say he’s a third- to fourth-round guy, who could move to be a second-round guy based off what he does in the Senior Bowl and combine… I love his body control, you watch that touchdown in the Baylor game, where he somehow stayed in bounds, that was one of the most unbelievable touchdowns I’ve seen this year. The average athlete does not stay in bounds.” Junior running back Samaje Perine is still deciding whether or not to go pro while Joe Mixon has already decided to return in 2017. Not featured in this game is defensive lineman Charles Walker, who left the program in November to begin his draft preparations. Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson flashes first-round talent and defensive tackle Montravius Adams improved his draft stock immensely by returning for his senior season. The Tigers may actually have the best draft-eligible kicker in the nation in Daniel Carlson. Two other Tigers with mid-round grades: offensive lineman Braden Smith and safety Jonathan Ford.
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