When Arkansas' Ryan Mallett faces top-ranked Alabama this weekend, the Jacksonville Jaguars will be watching how he handles the vaunted Crimson Tide defense.
All things considered, it's practically a job interview for Jacksonville's first-round pick in 2011.
Look past the numbers. Yes, Mallett enters the game with the fifth-highest passer rating (186.5) and the most passing yards (1,081) among FBS quarterbacks. And yes, Alabama's defense ranks 11th nationally against the pass and second in points against.
Both teams are ranked in the top 10 of the AP Top 25—the Razorbacks are 11th in the coaches' poll—but even that's not what makes this game a must-see for Jaguars GM Gene Smith and his scouts.
More often than not, NFL talent evaluators must project where amateur prospects will fit into pro-style offensive and defensive schemes. Their college playbooks, techniques, and keys pale in comparison to the complexities of the professional game.
Bobby Petrino's Arkansas offense and Nick Saban's Alabama defense are two top-notch exceptions to that rule.
With Mallett at the helm, the Razorbacks' spread attack works nothing like the dink-and-dunk, five-receiver stereotype built to compensate for collegiate throwing arms.
Whether operating out of the shotgun or from a five-step drop under center, Mallett makes aggressive downfield reads and throws.
Arkansas' up-tempo style, like the no-huddle employed by the Indianapolis Colts, is designed to keep opposing defenses from changing their personnel—and, like the Colts' offense, it requires nothing short of mastery to operate smoothly.
For years, Jacksonville's goal has been to build a team capable of beating Peyton Manning. In Mallett's grasp of Petrino's playbook, the Jaguars might see shades of their All-Pro nemesis.
On the other sideline, the Tide's recent championship run has sparked a rash of copycat 3-4 schemes.
Saban's teams employ an attacking three-man front similar to the NFL's Dallas Cowboys, using big, athletic ends like preseason All-American Marcel Dareus as penetrating five-techniques.
Behind them, Alabama's linebackers have pro-style versatility. As proof, the Oakland Raiders drafted former 'Bama MLB Rolando McClain eighth overall to key their transition to a 3-4 scheme this year.
Between confusing coverage zones and pipe-busting pressure, it's a scheme that has given Manning and Atlanta's Matt Ryan hell—and they're franchise-caliber pro passers.
Jacksonville will look for Mallett to avoid turnovers and attack the soft spots between those zones.
In any case, the clash between Arkansas' offense and Alabama's defense might be the closest scouts get to NFL-style action in this college season.
The Jaguars' need for new blood at Mallett's position is well-documented. Current starter David Garrard will be 33 years old in 2011, and the last quarterback Jacksonville drafted was Byron Leftwich in 2003.
Factor in Garrard's week-to-week inconsistency, the importance of the passing game in modern football, and laggard ticket sales, and you've got a recipe for total franchise instability.
As beat writer Vic Ketchman observes, it's a perfect storm of reasons to pick a signal-caller in April.
Standing 6'7" and weighing 238 pounds, it's not a stretch to liken Mallett to Manning. He's a bit taller and slimmer—Manning's 6'5" and 230 pounds—but both have "laser-rocket" arms and work better in the pocket than on the run.
To get up to speed, he'd have big targets in Mike Sims-Walker and Marcedes Lewis. Bookend tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton would be steady third-year pros, and Jacksonville's ground game (i.e. Maurice Jones-Drew) has been taking the heat off Garrard for years.
Six years ago, the Jaguars made the mistake of drafting an Arkansas quarterback to breathe life into their offense.
As bitter a disappointment as Matt Jones was, Saturday's nationally-televised game between the Hogs and Alabama might convince Jacksonville to go back to that well one more time.