The college football season keeps getting better and better every single week. The SEC is still the premier conference in the country, and it keeps flexing its muscles. The Tide kept on rolling, this time against Tennessee, but it was Florida that impressed with a blowout victory over seventh ranked South Carolina. Meanwhile, LSU and Notre Dame squeaked out wins, and Kansas State dismantled West Virginia, while some ranked teams tasted bitter defeat.
The landscape is taking shape as we hit the stretch run, and this is the time of year teams start to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. Who are the contenders, and who are the pretenders? With all that in mind, let’s take a look at some players to watch this week, with an eye towards the NFL Draft.
Ohio State @ Penn State
Penn State LB Michael Mauti
Ohio State is undefeated, but due to NCAA sanctions, are not eligible for any post season play or conference title. After losing its first two games, Penn State has won five straight, including knocking off Northwestern when it was undefeated. Ohio State likes to run the ball early and often, with a variety of option runs being the main weapon, and they are very good at play action. Fellow LB Gerald Hodges gets the most attention, and rightfully so, but so far this season it has been Michael Mauti who has been the defenses best player.
Mauti (6’2, 232lbs.) has really played well this season, making plays all over the field. He not only leads the team in tackles, but he also leads in interceptions. His stock has gone up with the way he has been playing and helping his team overcome the adversity they faced this offseason. This season, he has 65 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, three picks, two deflections, and two forced fumbles.
North Carolina State @ North Carolina
UNC DT Sylvester Williams
UNC has been very inconsistent so far this season, beating Virginia Tech by two touchdowns, but losing to Wake Forest. UNC had been riding a five game winning streak before losing to Duke last week. N.C.State is coming off two straight wins, including a win over then top five ranked Florida State, but come into this game with the backup quarterback starting due to injuries to starter Mike Glennon. UNC’s defense is allowing only 19.3 points per game this season, led by a very good and aggressive front seven. The D-Line, headed by Sylvester Williams, will be counted on to put pressure on the new quarterback.
Williams (6’3, 305 lbs.) came into the year ranked as one of the best defensive tackle prospects in the nation, and he is having a great year. He has the size to hold up well against the run and the quickness to collapse the pocket and get after the quarterback. He constantly draws double teams inside, freeing up his fellow defensive linemen to make plays, and he is looking like a solid day two pick in the NFL draft. Thus far, he has racked up 22 tackles, 8.o tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, and three QB hurries.
TCU @ Oklahoma State
Oklahoma St. RB Joseph Randle
After losing a tight game shootout against Texas, the Cowboys have won two straight conference games, but now begin a brutal stretch that features the best of the Big 12, beginning this week against TCU and ending in back to back road games at Oklahoma and Baylor. Winning this game will be huge for momentum, as Oklahoma State visits Kansas State next week, and Joseph Randle will be featured heavily in this contest to try and soften a stiff defense.
Randle (6’1, 200 lbs.) has been very consistent all season and will look to run for over 100 yards for the sixth time this season. It will be a tough out though, as TCU is holding opposing running backs to 3.13 yards per carry and 92 yards per game. Randle has shown the breakaway speed and hands to be a weapon on the next level and has proven he can be an every down back. So far this year, Randle has 128 carries for 765 yards and eight touchdowns, and he has 117 yards receiving on 15 catches.
Texas A&M @ Auburn
Texas A&M OT Luke Joeckel
Texas A&M offensive tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews have had some tough head to head matchups this season, having gone against teams with NFL caliber defensive ends in Florida, SMU, Arkansas, LSU, and now Auburn, and they have the stout Alabama defensive front on tap still. In all of those games, however, both tackles held up well, opening holes in the running game and helping their QB stay clean for the most part.
Joeckel (6’6, 310 lbs.) is the better prospect of the two, as he is the full time left tackle and he has been dominant. Against LSU, both Matthews and Joeckel handled Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo throughout the game, with Joeckel absolutely dominating Montgomery all game, holding the future top ten pick to only two tackles and no sacks. This week, Joeckel will be tested by Auburn DE Corey Lemonier, one of the top defensive end prospects in the country.
Fresno State @ New Mexico
Fresno State S Phillip Thomas
Although Fresno State hasn’t been consistent so far this season, the offense and the defense have had their respective moments. The highlight of the team this year has been the improvement of the defense as the season goes on, with Fresno State allowing the second fewest points per game in the Mountain West Conference behind only one loss Boise State. Safety Phillip Thomas has been the star of the defense and its top playmaker on that side of the ball.
Thomas (6’1, 215 lbs.) has been a ballhawk and playmaker all year. He leads the nation in interceptions and picks returned for touchdowns, and he leads the Fresno State defense in tackles. He also has shown to be a safety who can play behind the line of scrimmage and make plays, and is an excellent open field tackler. On the year, Thomas has 52 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, three forced fumbles, seven interceptions with three touchdowns off those picks, and four pass breakups.
Notre Dame @ Oklahoma
Notre Dame TE Tyler Eifert
This is the ever intriguing matchup of high scoring offense going up against stingy lockdown defense. The mantra has always been defense wins championships, but will defense win this game? Oklahoma averages over 44 points a game, while Notre Dame’s defense allows just under 10 points a game. Oklahoma allows just over 15 points per game, while Notre Dame averages over 25 points per game. Something has to give. It should be a good game, but if Notre Dame is going to do anything offensively, Tyler Eifert is going to have to get the ball more than he has been.
Eifert (6’6, 251 lbs.) is one of, if not the best tight end in the nation. His production doesn’t really reflect that, but he is big, with good hands, good enough speed, and he is a willing blocker. The first couple of weeks of the season, Eifert was getting the ball and putting up stats. Then the next couple of games he was ignored in the passing game, but in the past two games he has been more involved and he has touchdowns in back to back weeks. Oklahoma has solid linebackers and safety’s, so it should be an interesting matchup. On the year, Eifert has 19 receptions for 319 yards and three touchdowns.
Mississippi State @ Alabama
Alabama CB Dee Milliner
This is a heavy weight matchup between two undefeated teams, and it has huge National Title implications. Mississippi State is getting by with solid defense and a balanced offense that doesn’t turn the ball over. I think Alabama will be able to shut down the Bulldogs ground game, but Mississippi State has an all senior wide receiver corps and QB Tyler Russell has only thrown one interception to 15 touchdowns this year. That’s where a talent like Dee Milliner will come in.
Milliner (6’1, 200lbs.) has been a legitimate shut down corner this season, as he has constantly made plays on the ball and rarely gets tested. He also has shown that he can come up in run support and make the tough open field tackle. He started the year as the second or third best corner in the class, but with such a strong season he has vaulted himself up to the top and a potential top 10 pick. For the season, he has 23 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 13 pass breakups, and one forced fumble.
Game of the Week: Georgia vs Florida
Georgia NT John Jenkins
Another week, another tough game for the Florida Gators. Florida has handled this stretch as well as they could’ve hoped, having beaten LSU and South Carolina, and now have to go through the Bulldogs on a neutral site. This will be another smash mouth game for the Gators as they attempt to lock up the SEC East with a win. Though Georgia has been unable to run the ball well or stop the run consistently the past couple of games, they are one of the better teams in the nation at both running the ball and stopping the run.
On the flip side, Florida is pounding the rock and has been stifling opponent’s ground games all season, and that has been they’re calling card en route to being the #2 team in the nation. There are NFL prospects on both sides of the ball for both of these teams worthy of being deemed “the player to watch”, but the most important player might end up being Georgia NT John Jenkins.
Jenkins (6’3, 360 lbs.) is a mountain of a man and will be held responsible for eating up blocks inside and holding down the interior, forcing runs outside. Other than South Carolina last week, no team has been able to shut down Florida’s potent rushing attack; will Georgia be able to control the line of scrimmage and force the Gators and QB Jeff Driskel to try and win through the air? Jenkins’ stats aren’t impressive, but he has been an integral part of the defense, and so far on the year he has 26 tackles, 1.0 tackles for loss, four QB hurries, and has blocked one kick.