1 Prospect from Each Team in College Football Playoff with the Most to Gain
The College Football Playoff is the culmination of monthslong work for the players on the field, the coaches who prepared them and even the scouts who traversed the country evaluating the young men for the 2023 NFL draft.
"For me, just watching our guys give it their very best every day," Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters when asked what it meant to lead his team to the semifinals. "Whether we were in offseason winter conditioning, whether we're in spring practice, weight room, fall practice, just a bunch of guys that wanted to give it their very best, and then feel good about what they accomplished. And they've accomplished a lot."
Some of the best talent college football has to offer will be on display during the upcoming New Year's Eve contests, when the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes meet the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs in the Peach Bowl and the No. 3 TCU Horned Frogs battle the No. 2 Michigan Wolverines in the Fiesta Bowl. In fact, 15 of the Bleacher Report Scouting Department's latest Top 100 will be featured.
The games will hold a significant amount of weight in their evaluations too. NFL general managers and scouts want to see how individuals react in the biggest moments against the best competition.
Standout performances will create positive momentum as the draft cycle continues, with specific prospects placed in a position to greatly enhance their standing. Four obvious candidates could see their stock skyrocket depending on how well they play in the biggest games of their collegiate careers.
1. Georgia: OT Broderick Jones
The incoming offensive tackle crop can be considered weak, particularly when compared to the last three classes.
Ikem Ekwonu, Evan Neal and Charles Cross all heard their names called among this year's top nine draft picks. A year earlier, Penei Sewell was one of the top tackle prospects of the last decade. In 2020, the position group ranked among the class' strongest, with four offensive tackles—Andrew Thomas, Jedrick Wills Jr., Mekhi Becton and Tristan Wirfs—coming off the board among the initial 13 selections.
Currently, Northwestern's Peter Skoronski is considered OT1, though some franchises may project him as a guard because of his squat stature (6'4", 315 lbs) and shorter arms. Surprisingly, Penn State's Olumuyiwa Fashanu chose to return to school for another year despite a strong possibility of being a top-10 draft pick.
Because of the position's setup, Georgia's Broderick Jones has an opportunity to secure a first-round grade and possibly be considered the top or second-best tackle prospect.
The matchup against Ohio State should be a good test with two future NFL defensive ends in the starting lineup. Zach Harrison is considered a Day 2 talent, according to B/R's Scouting Department. JT Tuimoloau, meanwhile, is a future draft pick once he's eligible to declare.
Jones is an easy-mover in protection. If the 6'4", 310-pound redshirt sophomore holds up against the Buckeyes' talented defensive front, particularly during deep pass sets, he should enter the same top-tier group as Skoronski, Ohio State's Paris Johnson Jr. and Tennessee's Darnell Wright (right tackle).
2. Michigan: DT Mazi Smith
Professional football is oscillating back toward more of a power game, with teams running the ball better than any time in league history (by average yards per carry) and a heavier reliance on gap-blocking (man) principles.
As a result, a reinvigoration of the nose tackle position is underway. Not long ago, space-eaters had lost most of their value as organizations tried to get lighter and more athletic to counteract prolific passing attacks.
Big, athletic interior defenders will become the counterpunch to the league's latest trend. No single prospect presents a better size/athleticism ratio than Michigan defensive tackle Mazi Smith.
Heading into the season, The Athletic's Bruce Feldman listed the 6'3", 337-pound Smith first on his list of players with "unique physical abilities that wow even those who observe gifted athletes every day":
"Smith does 22 reps on the bench press, but that's with 325 (not 225). He close-grip benched 550 pounds. He vertical-jumps 33 inches. He broad-jumped 9-4 1/2. Smith, who had 37 tackles last season, has clocked a 4.41 shuttle time, which would've tied the best by any defensive tackle at this year's NFL Scouting Combine, and it would've been better than any defensive tackle weighing 310 pounds or more in the past decade. His 6.95 3-cone time would've been by far the fastest among defensive tackles in Indianapolis. The fastest was 7.33. Smith's 60-yard shuttle time is 11.90."
Here's the problem: Those otherworldly physical traits don't consistently translate to on-field performance. Smith struggles with his pad level and lacks quickness off the snap.
A more urgent performance while facing an NFL-caliber guard in Steve Avila, a veteran offensive interior and TCU's top 25 rushing attack—which averages 200 yards per game—will go a long way to show he's not just raw mid-round talent and can be so much more at the next level.
3. TCU: RB Kendre Miller
TCU wide receiver Quentin Johnston is already considered a top-15 talent. Max Duggan is a Heisman Trophy finalist but a marginal quarterback prospect. Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson is LaDainian Tomlinson's nephew and the reigning Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation's top defensive back, though he's an undersized prospect at 5'9" and 180 pounds.
The Horned Frogs can't be construed as a pipeline program in the same vein as the other three squads in this year's playoff. Thus, options are limited when it comes to a prospect capable of leapfrogging up draft boards.
Yet running back Kendre Miller has more than enough potential to do the most damage against the Wolverines. His name isn't often brought up among the nation's best backs, even though he finished the regular season with 1,342 yards and ranks in the top seven with 17 rushing touchdowns, including at least one score in every game this year.
The 6'0", 220-pound junior is a slashing runner with good contact balance, a little wiggle and some burst to work through traffic and break big plays. The fact that he wasn't a heralded underclassman is likely why his name hasn't been brought up as often for the 2023 draft. Last season, Miller shared a backfield with Zach Evans. He still averaged 7.5 yards per carry and added seven scores.
As the featured back, Miller developed into a first-team All-Big 12 performer on a top-25 rushing attack. Michigan's defensive front is a different matter, though. The Wolverines rank third in run defense and allow a paltry 2.9 yards per carry. Jim Harbaugh's squad will pound opponents into oblivion. Miller needs to show he can do the same when the Horned Frogs need him the most against an elite defense.
4. Ohio State: QB C.J. Stroud
Unlike the previous three names mentioned, Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud is a rock-solid first-round prospect. However, his standing among the position class grew shaky over the last month, particularly after the Buckeyes' loss to the archrival Wolverines.
More weight is simply put on that performance. A pair of picks during Ohio State's final two drives didn't help matters. Granted, one bounced off the hands of tight end Cade Stover before being intercepted by Michigan safety Makari Paige. But the other was an inexcusable desperation flip on 3rd-and-10 with over four minutes still remaining.
Ohio State has lost its last two meetings with Michigan, and Stroud shouldered the majority of the blame, whether he was deserving of it or not.
With the Buckeyes claiming the final spot in the College Football Playoff, the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year has a chance to redeem himself, especially against Georgia's vaunted defense. A strong outing against the reigning national champion will expel the bad taste out of many mouths and assuage some of the concerns about his game.
The biggest negative centers on the 21-year-old's seeming inability to create from a muddied pocket or outside of structure. Stroud is a mobile and active quarterback, yet the vast majority of his damage is done within Ohio State's offensive scheme. Georgia will confuse with its looks, blur sightlines and create chaos. If Stroud still thrives, either in a win or loss, he can solidify himself as a top-five prospect.
Depending on how well he plays, he can once again enter the conversation as QB1 and possibly the No. 1 overall pick, since Alabama's Bryce Young seems to have overtaken Stroud throughout the process.