10 NFL Draft Prospects with Most to Gain During CFB's Championship Weekend
Competition breeds excitement. In regards to the NFL draft, those prospects who show up and show out during the biggest moments against the very best they've faced gain an edge over others in the class.
Scouts and front office executives tend to place a greater emphasis on those examples when incoming talent plays its stiffest competition, whether it be rivalry games, top-ranked opponents, other heralded prospects, or, in this particular case, championship contests.
This weekend's emphasis will be placed on 20 squads vying to capture a conference title. Within those games, opportunities arise for prospects to answer questions and solidify themselves as top talents.
With that in mind, the following players aren't necessarily the top-rated prospect from their particular contest. However, they're the ones with the most to potentially gain based on a standout performance in the biggest moment of their season to date.
SEC Championship: WR Kayshon Boutte, LSU
LSU vs. Georgia; 4 p.m. ET, Saturday
As always, the SEC Championship Game will be littered with future pros.
Between LSU and Georgia, the two powerhouse programs currently have 13 prospects in the Bleacher Report Scouting Department's latest top-100 draft board. Multiple options have plenty to gain.
Georgia left tackle Broderick Jones has impressed and could move into the first-round conversation with a strong effort against LSU's pass-rushers, BJ Ojulari and Ali Gaye. The Tigers' junior quarterback, Jayden Daniels, could boost his stock, depending on if and how he plays on an injured ankle. These are just two examples.
A need exists to drill down on one specific option.
LSU wide receiver Kayshon Boutte entered this season in the conversation as the class' WR1, but things haven't gone to plan.
The campaign started very slowly for the Tigers' supposed top target. He even scrubbed his social media accounts after LSU's season-opening loss to the Florida State Seminoles. Drops plagued his performance, though his hands have been better as of late.
Even so, a talented target still appears now and again. The 6'0", 205-pound junior, who excelled as an explosive threat the last two seasons, caught 25 passes for 301 yards in his last five appearances.
A strong effort against a stout Georgia defense that features the likes of Kelee Ringo at cornerback and B/R's top-rated safety prospect, Christopher Smith, can go a long way to reestablish Boutte as a premier target.
Big Ten Championship: QB Aidan O'Connell, Purdue
Purdue vs. Michigan; 8 p.m. ET, Saturday
The Purdue Boilermakers have nothing to lose. They're not even supposed to be in the Big Ten Championship Game. The east side of the bracket featured the elite programs, with Michigan emerging as the head of the table.
Purdue can play fast and loose and see what happens because no one expects them to win. In fact, the current spread, per DraftKings Sportsbook, in this contest is by more than two touchdowns. The team made it to this point mostly because of the play from quarterback Aidan O'Connell.
During the Boilermakers' three-game winning streak down the stretch, the senior signal-caller completed 62.8 percent of his passes with a 7-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He's thrown 50 scores compared to 22 picks over the last two seasons.
The two-time second-team All-Big Ten performer is a strong-armed and poised pocket passer with a history of making NFL-caliber throws, though he lacks the mobility now common among NFL quarterbacks.
The 24-year-old O'Connell will get a look from the professional level. He's already accepted an invitation to the Shrine Bowl.
Purdue's quarterback is currently away from the team as he and his family deal with the unexpected death last week of his oldest brother, Sean. O'Connell still suited up to face Indiana on Saturday and is expected to face Michigan in the title game.
"He's back home now visiting with family and processing all that," Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm told reporters Tuesday. "He'll come back when he's ready. It was amazing what he did last week. I'm sure he'll be ready to go in this game."
Pac-12 Championship: TE Dalton Kincaid, Utah
Utah vs. USC; 8 p.m. ET, Friday
The USC Trojans are back under the direction of head coach Lincoln Riley. But the resurgent program lost one game this season to the Utah Utes, whom it now faces in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid's staggering performance during that contest served as the catalyst to USC's unexpected downfall, catching 16 passes for 234 yards and a score in a near-unstoppable performance. His stat line ended just one reception short of tying a single-game record by a tight end at the FBS level.
Can he repeat the effort?
"It's just a matter of continuing to maximize his skill set and understanding how incredible that skill set is. … He's a terrific talent," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham told reporters this week. "He is a guy that every week we need to target a bunch of times."
Kincaid is arguably the class' most well-rounded tight end prospect. The 6'4", 240-pound target has Velcro for hands, an ability to create after the catch, the toughness to control the middle of the field and legitimate blocking prowess both in-line and out in space. He's currently dinged up coming out of last week's meeting with the Colorado Buffaloes.
Yet another standout effort against the Trojans, who have a trip to the College Football Playoff on the line, can propel Kincaid into the first-round round conversation and provide some push to Notre Dame's Michael Mayer for the top spot at their position.
Big 12 Championship: WR Quentin Johnston, TCU
Kansas State vs. TCU; noon ET, Saturday
TCU's Quentin Johnston doesn't need to show he's an elite talent. He's already recognized as a first-round target, a gifted athlete and the class' top-ranked wide receiver prospect, per B/R's Scouting Department.
Johnston being on the field, healthy and performing congruently with his status is a big deal, though. The Horned Frogs need a big effort against Kansas State to capture a perfect regular season, a Big 12 title and a berth in the College Football Playoff. In doing so, he can cement his status as WR1 and as a top-10 talent.
Johnston started slowly this season before bursting onto the scene with a total of 386 receiving yards in back-to-back games against the then-ranked Kansas Jayhawks and Oklahoma State Cowboys.
Unfortunately, he injured an ankle during the first series of the Nov. 5 contest against the Texas Tech Raiders and reaggravated it two weeks later during a matchup with the Baylor Bears. As a result, he didn't play this past weekend against the Iowa State Cyclones.
However, Johnston should be at full speed for this championship tilt, as TCU head coach Sonny Dykes told reporters Tuesday that the Horned Frogs' top target looks like his "old self" this week. When healthy, the 6'4", 215-pound Johnston fits the profile of an elite X-receiver but has the feet and explosivity of a much smaller target.
ACC Championship: LB Trenton Simpson, Clemson
Clemson vs. North Carolina; 8 p.m. ET, Saturday
The ACC Championship Game has a different feel this year, even though the Clemson Tigers return to the contest after a one-year absence. Clemson's roster remains loaded with plenty of NFL talent, but this squad isn't in the mix for a national championship, as it had been in six of the previous seven campaigns.
Plenty can still be gained during the contest. Clemson excels on defense, where two of the top-10 prospects in the class can be found along the Tigers' front in edge-rusher Myles Murphy and defensive tackle Bryan Bresee.
Behind them, linebacker Trenton Simpson can earn his status as the class' top off-ball linebacker, particularly after the Oregon Ducks and linebacker Noah Sewell struggled during their rivalry contest against the Oregon State Beavers.
The two fall on opposite sides of the linebacker spectrum. Sewell is a 6'2", 253-pound battering ram who's at his best when playing a downhill, physical style. Simpson is an athletic 6'3", 240-pound defender who excels working in space and contributing in a variety of roles, including as a pass-rusher.
"You don't see many guys who are his size, almost 240 pounds, that can just accelerate like him,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney told reporters last week. "He's just a natural guy in space. … He can come off the edge. He can run people down. He can cover. Just a unique talent."
With Simpson's transition from Will back to Sam linebacker at the end of the season, his dynamic skill set can be featured, thus allowing him to shine.
American Athletic Championship: RB Tyjae Spears, Tulane
UCF at Tulane; 4 p.m. ET, Saturday
The Tulane Green Wave is the nation's highest-ranked non-Power Five program for a reason. Willie Fritz has next-level talent at multiple spots, including linebacker Dorian Williams, who will attend next year's Senior Bowl, and defensive end Darius Hodges.
Running back Tyjae Spears serves as the engine for the team's success. The junior prospect has yet to garner national attention, though. A spotlight game and a standout performance will go a long way to changing that perspective.
The reigning AAC Offensive Player of the Year has been on a roll over the last month and a half. Spears ran for 121 or more yards in six straight contests. In total, Tulane's lead back finished the regular season with 190 carries for 1,177 yards and 14 touchdowns.
In Tulane's biggest game, the 195-pound back loomed large. Tulane rode its workhorse to the tune of 35 carries for 181 yards and two scores against the Cincinnati Bearcats' top-25 defense.
Spears' slender frame isn't ideal, but his footwork, feel for pressing the hole, excellent balance and top-end speed will make him a weapon, if not a starting possibility, for some running back rotation.
Another productive outing will help the Green Wave potentially reach a New Year's Six Bowl game to help raise the awareness of his game on an even grander stage.
Mountain West Championship Game: S JL Skinner, Boise State
Fresno State at Boise State; 4:00 p.m. ET, Saturday
Boise State's JL Skinner isn't your typical safety. At 6'4" and 220 pounds, he's far from it.
To steal from the iconic Dick Vitale, Skinner is a stat-sheet stuffer. The defensive back's combination of size, length, athleticism and instincts allow him to play multiple roles all over the field.
Last season, he led the Broncos with 92 total tackles. He tied for the team lead with two interceptions and two forced fumbles. His seven tackles for loss and five pass breakups were tied for second-most. This season, he has 59 tackles and four interceptions.
Some will automatically project Skinner as a linebacker-convert at the professional level. He very well could become a nickelback or a heavy box safety. However, his ability to fill in as a modern hybrid shouldn't be overlooked. This argument isn't to say Skinner is the next Derwin James Jr. But the collegiate safety does present some flexibility in what he can do.
The first-team All-Mountain West performer isn't purely an oversized hang defender. He can play deep or split safety with enough range to track down passes or become a human missile when playing downhill with the ball in front of him. Skinner's size and aggressiveness can work against him at times since he is always at risk of targeting penalties.
A matchup against the Fresno State Bulldogs serves as a chance for Skinner to shine as a multilevel defender. Their offense features Jake Haener, one of the nation's most efficient quarterbacks, 1,000-yard runner Jordan Mims and a first-team All-Mountain West wide receiver Jalen Moreno-Cropper.
Conference USA Championship: WR Zakhari Franklin, UTSA
North Texas at UTSA; 7:30 p.m. ET, Friday
A real commitment to the game from UTSA wide receiver Zakhari Franklin should be on display when the Roadrunners meet the North Texas Mean Green in this year's Conference USA championship game.
A season ago, the then-underclassmen led the squad with 1,027 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. Despite his production, the first-team All-Conference USA performer underwent a metamorphosis this offseason.
"His run after catch is fantastic," UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor told the San Antonio Express-News' Greg Luca in September. "His body is finally in shape. He's actually got muscles now. He's always been a real natural ball catcher. … [strength and conditioning coach Ryan Filo] finally has him strong because he's bought into the weight room, and he's bought into the triangle of toughness culture."
Franklin is a slender target at a listed 6'1" and 185 pounds. But a newfound interest in shaping his body to withstand the physicality found at the NFL level can help with his draft status and potential success at the next level.
The senior continues to produce, of course. Franklin once again leads the team in receiving yardage and touchdown grabs. He's well on his way to securing a second-straight 1,000-yard campaign. He and Joshua Cephus form a dynamic duo in UTSA's passing game.
A high-flying attack on Friday could give the Roadrunners' their first-ever pair of 1,000-yard receivers in the same season.
MAC Championship: CB Quinyon Mitchell, Toledo
Toledo vs. Ohio; noon ET, Saturday
The single most impressive game of the season may belong to Toledo's Quinyon Mitchell. The 6'0", 200-pound cornerback snagged four interceptions, including a pair of pick-sixes, in an Oct. 8 contest against the Northern Illinois Huskies.
"Instincts and play calls," Mitchell explained when asked about the performance, per the Toledo Blade's Kyle Rowland.
The third-year sophomore's ball skills are exceptional. Currently, he leads the FBS with 22 passes defended. His five picks are only one behind the nation's leaders. The underclassman could have had a couple more if he showed better hands overall.
An intriguing matchup could present itself Saturday depending on how often Mitchell and Ohio's leading receiver, Sam Wiglusz—an Ohio State transfer—lines up in the slot. Wiglusz tied the Bobcats' school record this year with 11 touchdown receptions.
Mitchell will have a decision to make after this season. He still has two years of eligibility remaining, but it's hard to imagine the defensive back putting a better season together than the one he's experienced this year. His size and ball skills are an intriguing combination for a league always in search of quality cover corners.
Sun Belt Championship: DL Jerrod Clark, Coastal Carolina
Coastal Carolina at Troy; 3:30 p.m. ET, Saturday
Football is a cyclical game. For the past two decades, aerial attacks dominated at all levels. This season, we're seeing trends where physical running games are making a comeback after years of NFL teams building their defenses to be lighter, faster and more capable of working in space against passing attacks.
Overall scoring is down, and average rushing yards per attempt is up. The eventual counterpunch to this approach is getting bigger and more physical in the trenches.
Coastal Carolina's Jerrod Clark should benefit from the shift. In recent years, massive interior defenders held little value unless they could consistently collapse the pocket as pass-rushers.
The 6'4", 340-pound defender posted four sacks over the last two seasons. However, he demands attention from multiple blockers as a powerful performer at the point of attack. Clark is tied for the Chanticleers' team lead with nine tackles for loss.
Troy's offense, meanwhile, runs the ball very well. The duo of Kimani Vidal and DK Billingsley split 314 carries for 1,605 yards coming into the contest. Vidal posted back-to-back 200-yard efforts leading into the conference championship.
A dominant performance up front by Clark will go a long way toward raising his profile and draft status as a true nose tackle.