With the recent announcement that USC and UCLA are moving to the Big Ten, the FBS conferences are a mess. In light of that news, this week’s 2023 NFL Draft matchup preview takes a peek at an often-overlooked set of conferences: the Group of Five. While we can expect the Power 5 conferences to yield most of the early-round talent in the draft, the Group of Five boasts some diamonds in the rough.
These five conferences—the American, Sun Belt, Mountain West, Mid-American, and C-USA—promise to give us plenty of good football to watch this season. For those interested in getting acquainted with the top 2023 NFL Draft prospects, tune into the five games below.
The matchups are listed in the order in which the game in question appears on the calendar. This piece does not include the independent teams, and each matchup includes a Group of Five team on each side. I tried to represent each of the five Group of Five conferences.
Player to Watch: Boise State S J.L. Skinner
Key Matchup: October 8 vs. Fresno State
Skinner may be the most promising pro prospect in the entire Group of Five. This Boise State defender is going to play safety for the Broncos this year, but if he adds some weight, he could also end up as a linebacker at the next level. Skinner is a massive defensive back, but he combines great size with impressive athleticism, great instincts, and a relentless motor. He hits about as hard as any safety in next year’s class, too. It looks like he’ll garner consideration in the second round (or first!), though the third round might be likelier.
The game to watch is Fresno State. Those who have done a deep dive on the 2023 quarterback prospects know that Fresno State’s Jake Haener is a potential late-round pick. Although Haener is a bit smaller than the average signal caller, he’s a gamer who racked up stats in the Bulldog offense last year. But it’s not just Haener. Fresno State also has Jalen Cropper, a versatile wide receiver who could also make a push to get into the late rounds. Put simply, the Bulldogs will have an NFL-caliber passing duo with Haener and Cropper; Skinner will need to slow these two down.
Player to Watch: Bowling Green TE Christian Sims
Key Matchup: October 8 vs. Buffalo
The 2023 draft class has a few good tight ends—Michael Mayer from Notre Dame, Arik Gilbert from Georgia, and Jahleel Billingsley from Texas, to name a few. But one player who isn’t getting as much attention is Christian Sims, a big-bodied pass catcher at Bowling Green State. Sims has not put up gaudy numbers, but he was the best tight end in the MAC last season (garnering first-team all-conference honors and leading all tight ends in the conference in receiving yards). If he can do it again, Sims could end up as a mid-to-late rounder.
Sims has a great matchup coming up against Buffalo. Bulls linebacker James Patterson is also a potential mid-rounder. We’ll see if the two will actually match up against one another, but Buffalo’s hopes this season rest on Patterson’s shoulders. He is going to have logged a lot of starts by the end of this season, and he is a team captain. Patterson’s brother, running back Jaret Patterson, joined the Commanders as an undrafted free agent last year. Sims vs. Patterson will be fun to watch.
Player to Watch: Louisiana Tech EDGE BeeJay Williamson
Key Matchup: October 15 at North Texas
Williamson enters the season as one of the most enticing 2023 NFL Draft prospects in Conference USA (better known as C-USA). On the field, he’s a standard-fare safety: average size, solid athleticism, good range. At the least, he’ll be a contributor on special teams, and he could develop into a starter at the next level. Williamson has developed as a leader on his own team and has a knack for forcing turnovers. He’s potentially a later-round pick.
Against North Texas, he’ll face off against a couple of solid offensive players who could sign on as undrafted free agents after the 2023 draft. Quarterback Grant Gunnell, who just transferred from Memphis, is one of the most intriguing prospects in the Group of Five. He is a massive quarterback who has had statistical success in the past and plays with great footwork. Now, he is going to have a chance to get a fresh start at a program that will let him shine. Meanwhile, people in Denton are excited about wide receiver Jyaire Shorter, a well-built athlete who is coming off an injury but has the talent to play at the next level. We’ll see how Williamson matches up. If you’re tuning into this game, be sure to take a look at Louisiana Tech linebacker Tyler Grubbs as well.
Player to Watch: Coastal Carolina QB Grayson McCall
Key Matchup: October 29 at Marshall
The McCall hype is real. Coastal Carolina’s redshirt junior quarterback is getting attention as a possible first-round pick. The Chanticleers are pretty good, too. Last season, the team went 11-2, and they should be able to push for a prime bowl game this season as well. As for McCall, he’s a remarkably efficient quarterback with a quick release who rarely makes mistakes. His ball placement is impressive—the kind you wouldn’t ordinarily see from a quarterback who plays in a conference with larger windows in which to place throws.
Picking a matchup for McCall was no easy task. The Sun Belt does not have all that many defensive prospects projected to hear their names called in next year’s draft. I ultimately landed on Marshall, a talented team that should challenge Coastal Carolina when they play each other near the end of the season. In particular, cornerback Steven Gilmore should end up on an NFL roster, even if he goes undrafted. He’s fluid yet explosive, and he is willing to make plays in the run game. The way he quickly diagnoses offensive plays makes it clear that he regularly studies film. Linebacker Charlie Gray is also a menacing presence at the second level, while Purdue transfer Anthony Watts will make plays along the defensive line for the Thundering Herd. Their NFL futures are less certain, but either could enter the NFL mix with a strong season.
Player to Watch: Tulane C Sincere Haynesworth
Key Matchup: November 26 vs. Tulane
Good centers are hard to find. It’s not enough for the player to be a talented blocker; a good center has to have a high football IQ and anchor the offensive line. Haynesworth has it all. Nicknamed “The Terminator,” Haynesworth is going to be a three-year starter by the time he leaves Tulane. He’s a decorated offensive lineman who has earned all-conference recognition, and he has the size to play center in the NFL. He is probably a sixth-round pick right now with the potential to rise.
The Cincinnati game is going to test Haynesworth. The Bearcats feature a few NFL draft prospects on what promises to be a vaunted defense. Headlining the pack are linebackers Ivan and Deshawn Pace, a duo of brothers who should wreak havoc on opposing offenses this year. Neither Pace grades out higher than the fifth round right now, but keep an eye on both players as the season goes on. Experienced safety Ja’von Hicks should also make some plays and could catch on in the NFL. Haynesworth will try to clear the way for running back Tyjae Spears, who could get NFL looks if he continues to rack up touchdowns.