The Top 5 NFL Prospects to Watch in the Pac-12 Championship Game
When No. 11 Arizona State tries to avenge an early-season 42-28 loss to seventh-ranked Stanford in Saturday night's Pac-12 Championship Game, several top NFL prospects will be showcasing their talents on a supersized stage.
Although both the Sun Devils and Cardinal made it to the conference championship game without a slew of pro prospects who will be eligible for the 2014 NFL draft, the players who will be in this marquee showdown are high profile.
Lots of money can be made—or lost—in games where the spotlight shines the brightest, and this matchup certainly qualifies.
From the heart and soul of an upstart ASU defense to a pair of stalwarts from Stanford's rugged defense, key players whose names will be called on Sundays next season will have the final say in who gets the Pac-12's automatic BCS bid.
Let's take a look at five of the top NFL prospects who'll be featured in Saturday's tilt at Sun Devil Stadium.
Trent Murphy, Outside Linebacker, Stanford
The fifth-year senior outside linebacker may not be the best athlete on the football field, but he has a relentless approach to the game and is routinely the toughest dude between the white lines.
That high effort has led Trent Murphy—who may project better as a defensive end on the next level—to an All-America-type season. He has registered 51 tackles this season for David Shaw's Cardinal, and he leads the team with 19.5 tackles for a loss and 13 sacks.
The onus will be on him to pressure Taylor Kelly and slow the Arizona State offense on Saturday night. If he excels, he should see his draft stock rise even further than it did after he helped shut down Oregon.
Currently, Bleacher Report expert Matt Miller has Murphy projected to go in the first round—29th overall to the New Orleans Saints in his latest mock draft. A ceiling that high has Murphy as likely the top pro prospect on the field at the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Will Sutton, Defensive Tackle, Arizona State
The reigning consensus All-American has seen a dip in production this season thanks to being the focus of extra attention, but the fifth-year senior defensive tackle is still the centerpiece of the Sun Devils defense that ranks third in the conference.
After bursting onto the national scene with a 13-sack season in 2012, Sutton has just three sacks this year. However, he has still been disruptive with 10.5 tackles and has shown his versatility with 42 tackles and even an interception. Those are big numbers for a defensive tackle.
The terrific senior season earned Sutton the 2013 Pac-12 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year honor for the second consecutive year.
His massive production puts him solidly in the second round. According to Matt Miller's latest mock draft, the athletic defensive tackle could go to the Atlanta Falcons, who have the third pick in the second round.
With a great showing on Saturday and a productive NFL combine, Sutton can play his way into the first round. With Marion Grice not expected to play on Saturday, he is also pretty much the only ASU prospect to watch who is NFL ready.
Shayne Skov, Linebacker, Stanford
Few players in college football look more menacing than Stanford middle linebacker Shayne Skov with his Ultimate Warrior eye black and mohawk.
The heart and soul of the Cardinal defense was a menacing force against Oregon, almost single-handedly shutting down the Ducks' high-flying attack. People who see him play scoff at the knock on him that he doesn't have the best foot speed.
He is simply a playmaker, and he'll be all over the field on Saturday night.
The 6'3", 245-pound linebacker is a perfect fit for a 3-4 inside linebacker on the next level, and whichever team drafts him will be getting a player who will step right in as a rookie and contribute.
First thing's first, however: Skov wants to have a little devil for dinner on Saturday night. Although the NFL draft is probably the farthest thing from his mind, another good showing against a speedy offense can continue to dispel the whispers and help him improve his stock.
Matt Miller has Skov going in the second round at 42nd overall to the Baltimore Ravens, in his latest mock draft.
David Yankey, Offensive Guard, Stanford
Stanford offensive guard David Yankey has been a versatile lineman who has anchored the Cardinal's offensive line for the past three years.
Although he's listed as a senior, he could return for another season and has not yet declared for next year's NFL draft.
But according to Stanford head football coach David Shaw, Yankey is "good enough" to head for the pros after this season if he chooses to do so, according to NFL.com's Dan Greenspan. Before he makes any ultimate decision on his future, Yankey has some unfinished business with at least two games remaining in his college career.
The first of those games comes on Saturday night, and Stanford's run-first offense will be depending on Yankey to have another big game, as will quarterback Kevin Hogan.
Though Bleacher Report expert Matt Miller doesn't have him listed in his first two mock draft rounds, Yankey most likely projects as a mid-round talent who has the size and intangibles to have a long, solid NFL career.
Tyler Gaffney, Running Back, Stanford
Tyler Gaffney isn't flashy. But the fifth-year senior running back is a hard-nosed, tough-yards back who has a future on the next level.
Generally considered among the top eight running backs on this year's draft board, Gaffney almost assuredly will get drafted, even if he doesn't have the pizzazz of some of the other top runners in the nation.
One thing is for certain: The 225-pound runner will have his hand prints all over Saturday night's game. He ran for 1,485 yards and 17 touchdowns this year, emerging again as the Cardinal's most consistent offensive playmaker.
With Arizona State's Marion Grice sidelined with an injury, Gaffney will be the only runner on the field who will hear his name called next June. How high will he go in the draft? He will have to play his way up the ladder, and that begins on Saturday.