Tyrann Mathieu, CB (LSU); Sophomore
2013 NFL Draft Grade: Top 10
Typically, the most explosive playmakers on the field are quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers, but the most dangerous playmaker in the nation this season has been LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu.
Known by the nickname "Honey Badger," Mathieu is a playmaking threat whenever he is around the football. Not only is he a threat to take the ball away, but when he ends up with the ball in his hands, he is a threat to take the ball back to the end zone.
Mathieu has tremendous athleticism, ball skills and instincts. He leads LSU with 70 tackles, has two interceptions and ranks fourth nationally with six forced fumbles this season. Mathieu has returned two fumbles for touchdowns this season.
Mathieu is also one of the nation's most dangerous punt returners; he ranks fourth nationally with an average of 16.2 yards per punt return and has returned two touchdown for punts.
In one way or another (and usually multiple ways), Tyrann Mathieu makes his impact upon every football game in which he plays. If the LSU Tigers are to win the BCS National Championship Game, expect Mathieu to make a big play that helps to turn the game in their favor.
Morris Claiborne, CB (LSU); Junior
NFL Draft Grade: Top 10
While Tyrann Mathieu is the best defensive playmaker in the nation, he is not even the best pure cover corner on his own team. That is why two LSU cornerbacks make the Players to Watch for this game, and the second cornerback is Jim Thorpe Award winner Morris Claiborne.
For all the hype that LSU's Patrick Peterson received as the top cornerback in the 2011 NFL draft, Claiborne may be an even better prospect for the 2012 NFL draft. Claiborne has it all: great size, great speed, fluid hips and tremendous ball skills.
Claiborne is not quite the playmaker that Mathieu is, but he is tied for sixth nationally with six interceptions and has scored two non-offensive touchdowns this season: a 99-yard punt return for a touchdown against West Virginia and a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown against Georgia.
Claiborne is expected to declare for the 2012 NFL draft, and if he does, he will be the best defensive prospect—a nearly certain top-10 draft choice. In fact, his closest competition for top defensive player would be Tyrann Mathieu, and he is not even eligible for the upcoming draft.
The Alabama offense should game-plan for the impact of Mathieu, but it must also be prepared for Claiborne's ability to take Marquis Maze, the receiver he will match up against, out of the game by consistently locking him down in coverage.
Courtney Upshaw, LB (Alabama); Senior
NFL Draft Grade: Top 15
A game between the two best defensive teams in the nation should feature some of the best defensive prospects in all of college football—and that is certainly not only the case for LSU.
Alabama has up to five potential first-round draft picks on defense if cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower and free safety Robert Lester all declare, along with senior strong safety Mark Barron. That said, the impact player of the Alabama defense—and the best prospect among them—is outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw.
There may be no other player on any defensive front seven in the nation who can wreak havoc the way Upshaw can. He is a perfect fit as a hybrid 3-4 outside linebacker, but he has the versatility to also line up as an inside linebacker or as a down lineman. Upshaw is big and strong and is a tremendous athlete who has tremendous instincts and playmaking ability.
Upshaw leads the Crimson Tide with 17 sacks and eight tackles for loss. The LSU offense must game-plan for Upshaw because of his abilities to line up in so many different positions and be an impact player from any one of them.
While Kirkpatrick and Hightower usually receive the hype on this defense, Upshaw is the player who most deserves it. He has been the star of the nation’s most prolific defense; expect him to finish out his career with a big performance in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game.
Trent Richardson, RB (Alabama); Junior
NFL Draft Grade: Round 1
Considering neither of these teams found the end zone in their first matchup of the season, the defensive players are the big-impact players in this game. That said, Alabama has a true game-changer on its offense in running back Trent Richardson.
Richardson is the most talented running back in the nation. He has tremendous size and power, making him a terrific between-the-tackles runner, and he has tremendous burst and speed that shred defenses. He is the perfect back to pick up a few tough yards when they are needed, but he's also a threat to go the distance any time he gets an opening.
Richardson ranks fourth nationally in rushing yards per game with a total of 1,583 rushing yards this season. He is also sixth nationally with 20 rushing touchdowns and is a good receiver out of the backfield with 327 receiving yards on the season.
Like Claiborne, Richardson is expected to declare for the 2012 NFL draft, where he will be a high draft selection. While he was held out of the end zone in the Crimson Tide's first matchup with LSU, I expect him to score a touchdown and really make his impact felt in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game.