Although the 2014 Sugar Bowl matchup between Oklahoma and Alabama may not be ideal in the eyes of some college football fans, there are plenty of reasons to tune in. Chief among them is the fact that several players will have their final chance to impress NFL scouts in a game situation before entering the draft.
The Sooners have thrived despite a surprising lack of NFL-ready prospects. That isn't the case for the Crimson Tide, however, as several 'Bama players figure to be taken in the draft's first few rounds should they decide to declare.
For those who aren't necessarily worried about who wins and who loses the Sugar Bowl, here are three NFL prospects that you should keep tabs on as draft banter starts to heat up.
Alabama's defense gets a ton of credit for the team's success, but the offense was excellent in 2013 as well. Quarterback A.J. McCarron was barely touched, and running back T.J. Yeldon ran wild. The offensive line had a lot to do with that, and offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio was the anchor. Kouandjio would almost certainly be a first-round pick in the 2014 draft, but he is still torn when it comes to whether or not he wants to declare, according to Cecil Hurt of the Tuscaloosa News.
My Sunday column on Alabama and the NFL draft. Cyrus Kouandjio said today he was "50-50" on leaving early. http://t.co/YC90hKTEJC— Cecil Hurt (@CecilHurt) December 29, 2013
As things currently stand, Kouandjio is definitely behind Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews in the rankings, but he is in the mix with Greg Robinson of Auburn and Cameron Erving of Florida State. If Kouandjio can stifle a solid Oklahoma defense in the Sugar Bowl, it is entirely possible that he can solidify himself both as the No. 2 offensive tackle prospect as well as a prospective top-10 pick in the draft.
The decision ultimately lands on Kouandjio's shoulders, and it would be tough to blame him for returning to 'Bama in hopes of winning another national title next year. However, he also has a great opportunity in the NFL. Provided Kouandjio doesn't have an uncharacteristically awful performance against the Sooners, look for him to throw his name into the hat for the 2014 draft.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
There is no question that the 2013 season was a trying one for Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but he managed to persevere and have a productive campaign. Clinton-Dix was a force on the field with 45 tackles and two interceptions in nine games, but he faced trials and tribulations as well. They included a two-game suspension for receiving improper benefits, per Andrew Gribble of AL.com.
'I think I handled it very well, but it was my teammates, coaches and family members that kept me motivated and kept me calmed down and humble about the whole situation,' Clinton-Dix said. 'I really give them a big thanks to my coaches and teammates and family for doing that.'
Since Clinton-Dix has seemingly put that incident behind him, he can now focus on preparing for the NFL. Clinton-Dix is a junior like Kouandjio, so the Sugar Bowl doesn't necessarily have to be his final collegiate game, but it's difficult to imagine him improving his draft stock much by returning to Alabama for another season.
Returning would put another year between him and the improper benefits scandal, but it's likely that NFL teams will be understanding and will instead focus on his production instead. Clinton-Dix is easily the best draft-eligible safety, and he is a likely first-round pick. He can sew up that distinction by having a strong Sugar Bowl.
Which player will have the best NFL career?
Although inside linebackers don't often receive much respect heading into the NFL draft, they tend to become impact players at the next level. Buffalo Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso is the perfect example, as he fell to the second round of the 2013 draft despite having first-round ability. He went on to have a spectacular season and is now the favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
This is relevant because Alabama happens to have an elite inside linebacker in the form of C.J. Mosley. He is a senior who has led the defense for the past few seasons, and it can be argued that he is the heart and soul of the team. Mosley led the Tide with 88 tackles and nine tackles for loss this season. He has been so good that he has drawn comparisons to a future NFL Hall-of-Famer, according to Jason Kersey of The Oklahoman.
Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell compares Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley to Ray Lewis http://t.co/AhVdAFjnbA— Jason Kersey (@jasonkersey) December 30, 2013
While it's way too early to compare Mosley to Ray Lewis, the comparison is certainly well taken. Mosley is a playmaker and a leader, and any NFL team would be lucky to have him. It isn't easy for inside linebackers to crack the first round of the NFL draft, but it shouldn't be a problem for Mosley. Since the Sugar Bowl will be Mosley's swan song at Alabama, expect all-out effort and perhaps one of the best games of his collegiate career.
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