Prospect Watch: Top players to watch in upcoming conference title games
The holiday season arrives early for college football fans, thanks to a weekend packed with conference title games. The first-ever playoff field will be sorted out following the action on Dec. 5 and 6, as well, so there's even more reason to tune in than usual.
From an NFL draft perspective, the move into December means we are just one month from postseason all-star games like the Senior Bowl and two months away from the 2015 scouting combine.
Our latest lookahead to the draft picks out one player from each of the conference-title participants:
MAC (Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Dechane Durante, S, Northern Illinois
Under the radar for most of his college career, mainly thanks to playing alongside 2014 draft pick Jimmie Ward, Durante (6-foot-2, 193 pounds) could soon join his ex-teammate in the NFL. Durante has 73 tackles and two interceptions this season, the former number up from 55 last year. He's not the same caliber prospect that Ward was, but Durante carries a nice size/speed combo and makes enough plays to warrant draft consideration.
Gabe Martin, OLB, Bowling Green
Bowling Green has had just one draft pick in the past six years -- Chris Jones, a 2013 sixth-rounder. Martin (6-1, 229) may have the best chance to buck the trend, though it's more likely he lands somewhere as a free agent. His production is tough to ignore: 100 tackles, 15.0 tackles for loss, two interceptions, 1.5 sacks and six pass break-ups. His size won't help his cause. Neither will a 2013 ACL injury, one that seemed to hold him back some early on in '14.
Pac-12 (Friday, 9 p.m. ET, FOX)
Mickey Baucus, OT, Arizona
Friday night will mark Baucus' 51st consecutive start at left tackle for Arizona, a streak dating back to his freshman year. He has progressed rather steadily along the way, too, recently earning himself a Shrine Game invite. Baucus is not necessarily a technician on the edge -- DE and OLBs with a variety of moves have challenged him in the past -- but he's an athletic presence.
Jake Fisher, OT, Oregon
The spotlight in every Oregon game falls on QB Marcus Mariota, who could be a top-five pick in April. Protecting him up front is Fisher (6-6, 299), an Outland Trophy semifinalist and really the anchor of Oregon's line. When he missed two games earlier in the season, Mariota was sacked 12 times. There is definitely Day 2 draft potential here.
Conference USA (Saturday, noon ET, ESPN2)
Houston Bates, OLB/DE, Louisiana Tech
A transfer in from Illinois, Bates (6-3, 255) has been a key contributor for Tech's defense this season. He will enter the conference title game with the team lead in sacks, at 4.5. Bates may have to scratch and claw his way onto an NFL roster, but he does offer some upside as a scheme-versatile pass rusher, having filled the Leo role with the Illini.
Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall
Take advantage of these last couple opportunities to see Cato in college. The exciting Marshall QB has topped 3,000 yards passing for the third straight season (he had 4,201 his sophomore year) and has averaged 37 TDs since 2012. His size (6-1, 176) will scare off some teams; shaky throwing mechanics might push him into the undrafted free agent ranks. Last week vs. Western Kentucky was a full highlight reel's worth of the good and bad in Cato's game -- he threw for 417 yards and seven touchdowns but also had four interceptions.
SEC (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, CBS)
Landon Collins, S, Alabama
Just how high will Collins climb? That's the question for Collins right now, a physical threat at an important position. The 6-0, 215-pound DB is sitting on 84 tackles and a team-leading three interceptions this season. He may be best off as an in-the-box NFL safety, paired with a rangy teammate. Something to note: NFL Network draft guru Daniel Jeremiah recently praised Collins' special-teams work, an added plus that will add to Collins' draft appeal.
Markus Golden, DE, Missouri
Golden (6-3, 260) is not far behind his more heralded teammate, Shane Ray, in terms of production this season -- Golden has 16.0 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks; Ray is at 20.0 and 13.5, respectively. Could he outproduce Ray at the next level? Don't count out that possibility. Ray's incredible burst off the edge has labeled as a top-10 pick right now. Golden may have to wait as long as another round or two before he goes, but he's ready to play a three-down role at the next level.
ACC (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC)
Mario Edwards Jr., DE, Florida State
The buzz on Edwards, who still could opt to return for his senior season in Tallahassee, is not quite what it was headed into 2013. There are times when the bulked-up 6-3, 294-pounder Edwards looks rather slow, both in terms of getting off the ball and chasing down quarterbacks. We've also seen what he can do when he is on: dominate off the edge with impressive raw power.
Isaiah Johnson, S, Georgia Tech
A knee injury cost Johnson (6-2, 213) his 2013 season, so strictly from a confidence standpoint he might be better as an NFL rookie than a Tech senior. That's not to say he is having a bad season -- Johnson has 61 tackles to go along with an interception and five pass break-ups. Johnson has been at his best in big games, too, like a 10-tackle, forced-fumble effort vs. Georgia.
Big Ten (Saturday, 8:17 p.m. ET, FOX)
Rob Havenstein, OT, Wisconsin
Melvin Gordon is having a transcendent season but, hey, someone has to block for him. Leading the charge there is the 6-8, 333-pound Havenstein, who is approaching 40 career starts at right tackle. Havenstein will head to the Senior Bowl next month, and he may not be far from pinning down a starting RT spot in the NFL. His size alone gives him a leg up, plus he has consistently displayed the ability to move defenders off their spots.
Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
Mel Kiper tabbed Bennett as his "faller" this season, writing, "The senior is far more likely to go in the second [round]" than the first -- a change in outlook from the start of the season. If a team is able to wait until Round 2 or 3 to nab Bennett, it might go down as a colossal steal should the coaching staff coax more consistency from the 6-3, 285-pound lineman. There are times when Bennett is unblockable up front, dicing through the line to make plays in the backfield.
Mountain West (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET, CBS)
Josh Harper, WR, Fresno State
Even with a substantial drop-off at quarterback, from current Raiders starter Derek Carr to Brian Burrell, Harper is approaching his 2013 stats. He finished last season with 79 catches for 1,011 yards in 11 games; this year, he's up to 76 grabs for 941 yards in 12 outings. The main difference: touchdowns -- Harper has seven in '14, down from the 13 he posted with Carr. Stats aside, the Senior Bowl invitee appears destined to be a Day 2 draft pick, thanks to his catch-and-run abilities. More of a burner than former teammate and current Packers WR Davante Adams, Harper does not mind going into traffic for a catch.
Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State
Running backs face a little different situation when deciding whether or not to turn pro. Few, if any, are drawing first-round picks these days and teams are extremely wary of drafting running backs who had heavy collegiate workloads. So there may not be a better opportunity for Ajayi, a junior, to head to the NFL than now -- he has more than 2,100 yards from scrimmage and 28 touchdowns this season. Ajayi really sees the holes well, then explodes through them to the second level.