Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins will face a tough test against Florida State's loaded defense
Saturday night's huge ACC showdown, pitting No. 3 Clemson against No. 5 Florida State in Death Valley, is not only the biggest game of Week 8, it's one of the most important battles of the entire college football season. Not only will it have conference championship implications, it will also have an effect on the overall national title race.
Last year's meeting between these two teams featured 15 players who were ultimately selected in the 2013 NFL draft, including four first-round picks. This year's game will also feature plenty of star power and a few prospects that have evident first-round potential.
Though the best overall player in this year's game—Florida State QB Jameis Winston—may not be eligible for the 2014 draft, there are still plenty of other players who scouts will be examining closely.
Here's a look at the 2014 draft prospects to watch out for on Saturday night.
Note: Grades are based off my current midseason prospect rankings.
Current Grade: No. 1 Senior QB
Tajh Boyd entered the 2013 season with plenty of buzz after putting together a tremendous junior campaign in which he totaled over 4,400 yards of offense and accounted for 46 touchdowns.
So far, through six games, Boyd has lived up to the hype. He's completed 66 percent of his throws, averaging over nine yards per pass, thrown 15 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions and added another five scores with his legs.
Though the 6'1'', 225-pound senior has been one of the most productive playmakers in the country, it's not as if the caliber of competition he's faced so far has been top-notch. The only defense of note that he's faced was Georgia's, which was breaking in plenty of new starters in the season-opener.
We should get a good feel for just how good Boyd really is when he squares off against a Seminole secondary which currently ranks second in the country in pass defense.
After a strong first-half performance in last year's meeting with Florida State, the dynamic signal-caller failed to get the job done in crunch time, as he finished with just a 55 percent completion percentage and a 6.6 yards per attempt average.
It will be very interesting to see if Boyd can step up when it counts the most late in the game against the Seminoles this time around, and if he can answer some of the questions scouts have about whether he can handle the big-game spotlight against big-time opponents. If he can, it will go a long way toward solidifying his superior spot as the top senior quarterback in the 2014 NFL draft class.
Current Grade: No. 2 Underclassmen DT
Florida State lost its two standout defensive ends from last season, Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine, who were both top-40 picks in the 2013 NFL draft. Luckily, though, the Seminoles now have a new budding star in the trenches: DT Timmy Jernigan, who has stepped up in a big way this season.
In five games of action, Jernigan has already totaled 10 solo stops, three tackles for loss and a sack, and he's been a big reason why the Seminoles have allowed just 3.3 yards per rush.
The former heralded 5-star recruit has thrived in his new leadership role as the veteran elder statesman of the Seminoles defense line, and he's making a big statement to scouts with his play.
While the 6'2'', 292-pound junior may not be the biggest defensive tackle in the country, he's without a doubt one of the quickest and most explosive interior defenders that you'll find in college football.
Jernigan had a rather quiet performance in last year's meeting with Clemson, totaling just two tackles, so you can bet he'll be looking to make a much larger impact in this year's game.
Current Grade: No. 3 Underclassmen WR
Back in the early part of the 2011 season, when he was still a relatively unproven freshman, Sammy Watkins initially began his rise to stardom by putting together a fantastic performance against Florida State, in which he caught seven passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns. Unfortunately, Watkins was not able to replicate that success in last year's meeting with the Seminoles, as he was held to just six catches for 24 yards and was basically a non-factor.
The explosive junior receiver can make up for that poor performance and reclaim his status as one of the most dangerous players in the game by putting together a big showing in the spotlight showdown with the Seminoles on Saturday night.
Following a disappointing sophomore slump last year, Watkins has seemingly started to revert back to his freshman form early on this season. With DeAndre Hopkins gone, he's stepped up and been the focal point of the passing game, hauling in 36 catches for 582 yards and four touchdowns.
The Tigers will need the speedy receiver to stretch the field and create big plays in the passing game against the 'Noles. However, that will be easier said than done as he'll be facing a secondary that has allowed just 28 passes of over 10 yards, which is the fewest in the nation.
Current Grade: No. 4 Senior CB
Lamarcus Joyner is one of the Florida State defenders who will be given the tough task of slowing down Sammy Watkins.
After making the switch from strong safety to cornerback during the offseason, Joyner has looked right at home at his new position thus far. He currently ranks second on the team with 25 tackles, including 17 solo stops, and two sacks.
The 5'8'', 190-pound senior may not have the type of size that will jump out at NFL scouts, but he makes up for his lack of height with his instincts, toughness and awareness in coverage.
Joyner is coming off an impressive performance against Maryland, in which he helped hold the Terps' dangerous sophomore star receiver Stefon Diggs to just two catches for 24 yards. Now he'll be looking to contain Watkins and limit the threat he poses.
Current Grade: No. 3 Underclassmen DE
Clemson has produced plenty of notable pass-rushing prospects in recent years such as Da'Quan Bowers, Andre Branch, Malliciah Goodman, Phillip Merling and the late Gaines Adams. Vic Beasley is the latest Tigers defensive end that has captured the attention of NFL scouts.
After putting together a breakout sophomore campaign last season, in which he totaled eight sacks and eight tackles for loss, Beasley has managed to take his game to an even higher level in 2013. In six games, the explosive edge-rusher has already totaled nine sacks, 12 tackles for loss, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles.
The 6'3'', 225-pound junior obviously doesn't have the prototypical size that scouts look for in a 4-3 defensive end. But he clearly possesses the skill set to make a seamless transition to a 3-4 rush linebacker in the pros.
Beasley has caused plenty of chaos so far this season. Now, he'll be looking to prove himself with a statement performance against a Florida State offensive line, which is one of the most talented front-fives in college football.
Current Grade: No. 1 Underclassmen OT
Fortunately for Florida State, the Seminoles have a tremendously talented blind-side protector: left tackle Cameron Erving, who's capable of controlling Vic Beasley and keeping him from harassing QB Jameis Winston.
Unlike his former fellow tackle Menelik Watson, who didn't start to gain serious attention until late in the draft process, Erving has already generated some serious buzz among NFL draftniks.
It's easy to see why scouts and analysts love Erving's game. Though the former defensive tackle, who made the switch to the offensive side of the ball before the 2012 season, is still figuring out all the nuances of the position, he's got all the natural tools and skills to develop into an elite prospect. The nimble-footed 6'6'', 320-pound giant is incredibly agile and athletic for his size, and it's scary to think about just how good he could be once he fully figures things out.
Though Sammy Watkins vs. Lamarcus Joyner may be the sexy, high-profile individual matchup in this game, scouts will be just as eager to see who ultimately prevails in the bout between Erving and Beasley.
Current Grade: No. 3 Senior S
With former safeties Lamarcus Joyner moving to cornerback and Karlos Williams switching sides to running back, the pressure is now fully on free safety Terrence Brooks to keep the back end of the Florida State defense locked down.
So far this season, Brooks has done his part and helped prevent opposing offenses from creating big, explosive plays. The Seminoles have allowed just 12 plays of over 20 yards or more, which ranks first in the nation. However, Brooks and the Seminoles D have yet to face an offense that has the type of big-play potential as the one they'll see on Saturday.
The senior safety knows full well how quickly the Tigers can strike. You can bet that Brooks remembers how bad it felt to get beat by DeAndre Hopkins for a home-run 60-yard touchdown pass on Clemson's first drive in last year's meeting.
Brooks should be motivated by the thought of avenging that embarrassing blown coverage, and he should be much more vigilant of stopping the Tigers from producing big passing plays this time around.
Current Grade: No. 5 Senior LB
After leading Florida State's defense last season with 95 total tackles, including 48 solo stops and seven tackles for loss, Christian Jones was expected to be the standout star of the Seminoles defense in 2013. So far, however, Jones has yet to look as good as advertised, and he hasn't exactly fulfilled his obligations as a team leader, considering he was suspended for the team's game against Bethune-Cookman for a violation of team rules.
Jones needs to have a big performance against Clemson to salvage his sliding draft stock.
The 6'4'', 232-pound senior, who slid over from weak-side linebacker to middle linebacker following the departure of Vince Williams, possesses the desired measurables that will intrigue NFL scouts. The big question is, though, can he finally step up and be a true defensive difference-maker in such a crucial game?
This is the type of game that gives Jones a chance to leave a lasting impression in the minds of scouts. Let's see if he can make the most of it.
Current Grade: No. 9 Senior LB
Though Christian Jones may be Florida State's most talented linebacker so far this season, Telvin Smith is the Seminole 'backer who's made the biggest impact. Smith currently leads the team with 32 total tackles, including 21 solo stops, four tackles for loss and a sack.
The 6'3'', 218-pound senior is a terrific athlete who has the speed and lateral quickness to fly around and make plays all over the field.
The Tigers will likely be looking to spread out the Florida State defense with three- and four-receiver sets, just as they did last year, which means Smith will be asked to make plays in pass coverage. He should be up for the challenge, though.
The explosive weak side 'backer is putting together a breakout campaign this year, and he's certainly a prospect who scouts have taken notice of this season. If Smith can put together an impressive showing against Clemson, it will only further enhance his already booming draft stock.
Current Grade: No. 8 Underclassmen DT
Vic Beasley may be the star of Clemson's defensive line, but the Tigers also have another junior lineman, DT Grady Jarrett, who is making quite a name for himself this season.
After showing flashes of his potential as a sophomore last year when he totaled 8.5 tackles for loss, 20 solo stops and two sacks, the 6'1'', 295-pound Jarrett has looked even better in the first half of the 2013 season.
The son of former Falcons LB Jessie Tuggle is an agile and powerful tackle who can pose plenty of problems for opposing offensive linemen in one-on-one blocking situations.
Though Beasley will be the Clemson defensive lineman everyone focuses on, Jarrett will play just as critical of a role in slowing down Florida State's powerful rushing attack, which is averaging six yards per carry.
Florida State OC Bryan Stork (Senior)
Florida State RB James Wilder Jr. (Junior)
Florida State WR Rashad Greene (Junior)
Clemson LT Brandon Thomas (Senior)
Florida State TE Nick O’Leary (Junior)
Clemson RB Roderick McDowell (Senior)
Florida State DL Demonte McAllister (Senior)
Florida State RB Devonta Freeman (Junior)
Florida State OG Tre Jackson (Junior)
Clemson K Chandler Catanzaro (Senior)