College Football: 10 Individual Bowl Matchups That Will Affect the NFL Draft
The bowl games are not only the last game of the season, but they are also the last chance soon-to-be-pro players have to impress scouts in a real-game situation.
Often, those bowl-game situations leave matchups that are the first things scouts look at when evaluating a player's worth in the NFL draft.
For example, a potential first-round left tackle has a great opportunity to showcase his skills when he lines up against a potential first-round defensive end.
The following slideshow breaks down some of the most interesting individual matchups in this season's bowl games.
Kirk Cousins vs. Georgia Defense in Outback Bowl
Cousins' Current Draft Projection: Third-fourth round. Ninth-best quarterback.
Michigan State's quarterback, Kirk Cousins, has a history of poor showings in big games.
In his three seasons as the starter, the Spartans were 3-8 against ranked teams and 0-3 in bowl games.
Cousins had an efficiency rating of 130.24—almost 20 points under his career average—in the games against ranked teams and a pathetic 108.58 in bowl games.
This is glaring when one considers that MSU is a run-first team. Thus, the pressure has rarely been on Cousins to carry the Spartans except in games against upper-echelon talent.
Cousins will have an opportunity to erase past failures when Michigan State meets Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
UGA is the fourth-best passing defense in the country (opponents' efficiency rating) and the No. 17 scoring defense.
The defense buckled down after the Dawgs' early-season flop against Boise State and has not allowed any individual team since to have a passer-efficiency rating higher than 123.57.
Moreover, that 123.57 was against New Mexico State, against whom UGA cleared the bench.
If Cousins can perform against Georgia and lead his team to victory, he could solidify his place among the middle-round quarterbacks and quietly move into the early third round.
Michael Floyd vs. Xavier Rhodes in Champs Sports Bowl
Floyd's Current Draft Projection: First round. No. 3 receiver.
Rhodes' Current Draft Projection: Second-third round. No. 10 cornerback.
Notre Dame senior Michael Floyd had a strong senior season, but not quite what was hoped for.
Overall, his production has been erratic, and he has had issues finding the end zone when his team needs it.
A good deal of that had to do with quarterback play—that is the bane of being a receiver, which is unlike a running back's situation.
Floyd finished the season with 95 receptions for 1,106 yards and eight touchdowns.
However, it was his disappearance in the USC game—four receptions, 28 yards, zero touchdowns—as well as his single end-zone appearance against Notre Dame's four ranked foes that leave questions.
Ultimately, Floyd will not surpass top receivers Blackmon and Jeffery in the draft, but in order to hold his place as No. 3 and to perhaps increase his stock, he will need to have a big game against an NFL-caliber corner.
Meanwhile, FSU's Rhodes had a strong junior season but would probably be well advised to stay in college. With a strong senior year, he could push himself into the first round in 2013.
If he chooses to come out—or even if he doesn't—this will be one of the key pieces of tape that scouts will look at.
Andre Ellington vs. Carries in the Orange Bowl
Ellington's Current Draft Projection: Fifth-sixth round. No. 18 running back.
The West Virginia defense—No. 7 rushing defense in the Big East—is unlikely to shut down Ellington and the Clemson running game.
The question concerns Ellington's durability.
His 2011 stats are impressive: 213 carries, 1,062 yards, 10 touchdowns.
However, the 5'10", 190-pound junior has a history of injuries and has never had more than 25 carries in a game.
If he decides to come out this season, the Orange Bowl would be an opportune time to step up and demand playing time.
His durability could be the difference between the early fourth round or possibly slipping out of the draft and into the free-agent pool.
Frank Alexander/Ronnell Lewis vs. Riley Reiff/Markus Zusevics in Insight Bowl
Alexander's Current Draft Projection: First-second round. No. 5 defensive end in a 4-3 defense.
Lewis' Current Draft Projection: First-second round. No. 4 outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
Reiff's Current Draft Projection: Top 20 pick. No. 3 offensive tackle.
Zusevics' Current Draft Projection: Fifth round-free agent.
Oklahoma boasts two defensive ends that had strong seasons but were perhaps hurt by the underwhelming performance of the Sooners defense.
The only tackle that either of them faced that could possibly be called elite was Oklahoma State's Levy Adcock—and we know how that game went.
Of course, Lewis missed the OSU game with an injury, while Alexander was not 100 percent. Both are expected to be ready to go for the Insight Bowl.
If Alexander has a big game, he could solidify a place in the first round.
Meanwhile, Lewis is a junior who would probably do well to retain his amateur eligibility, but if he opts to go pro, he is in much the same situation as Alexander.
Much as the Big 12 was lacking elite tackles this season, the Big Ten was short of elite defensive ends. In effect, the best individual player that either Hawkeye tackle matched up against this season was Pitt rush linebacker Brandon Lindsey.
A big game for Reiff, a junior, could push him into the top 15 if he chooses to come out.
On the other side, Zusevics finished strong and could vault himself from free agency up to the fifth round, provided he has a strong showing in the combine and against Oklahoma in the bowl.
Chase Thomas vs. Joseph Randle and Oklahoma State Slot Receivers in Fiesta Bowl
Thomas' Current Draft Projection: Second round. No. 4 outside linebacker.
Thomas had a strong season, but though his sack and tackle-for-loss numbers were up, his tackle numbers were down.
This was despite the loss of fellow starting linebacker Shane Skov early in the season.
Thomas will be a pure rush linebacker at the next level. Consequently, he doesn't have to be great in coverage.
Nevertheless, that is what separates the good outside linebackers from the great ones.
Needless to say, he'll have plenty of opportunity to put on a show against Oklahoma State's high-octane offense.
As this is not a particularly strong year for outside linebackers, he could elevate himself into the late first round with a strong bowl game.
Case Keenum vs. Penn State Defense in TicketCity Bowl
Keenum's Current Draft Projection: Fourth-fifth round. No. 12 quarterback.
Keenum hasn't played many high-end defenses in his time at Houston.
In fact, in four seasons as a starter, he has played exactly one top 20 scoring defense—TCU in 2007.
Individually, he had a decent game—143.27 passing efficiency—but he was a freshman, and the Cougars only scored 13 points in a losing effort.
The best defense he's played this season—Southern Miss, the No. 29 scoring defense in the country—handed him his worst game of 2011 by far.
He will have a chance to redeem himself in the TicketCity Bowl.
PSU is the No. 5 scoring D in the country.
There are a slew of quarterbacks that are currently in the same fourth-fifth round pool. Keenum could push himself to the top of the pack and maybe into the late third round with a big showing against the Nits.
Cordy Glenn and Ben Jones vs. Jerel Worthy in Outback Bowl
Glenn's Current Draft Projection: First-second round. No. 2 guard.
Jones' Current Draft Projection: Second-third round. No. 3 center.
Worthy's Current Draft Projection: Second round. No. 5 defensive tackle
Junior Cordy Glenn came into the season with the potential to slip into first round.
Meanwhile, Jones, a senior, was one of the top centers in the country.
Both Glenn and Jones had an awful showing in the first game of the season against Boise State.
Since then, Jones has played a solid season and has improved his draft stock. Meanwhile, Glenn has been inconsistent. He has gone up against top-notch talent—LSU, South Carolina—and had some wins and losses.
With a strong bowl game and combine, Jones could push himself past Ohio State's Michael Brewster and into position as the No. 1 center in the draft (depending upon whether Wisconsin's Peter Konz declares himself eligible).
On the other hand, Glenn will need to stay in school if he wants to get looks as a tackle, but if he comes out this season, a strong bowl game could help push him into the end of the first round for a team that is willing to take a chance.
Meanwhile, Worthy has been inconsistent this year. He came into the year as the top defensive tackle prospect in the country. Now, he's not even No.1 in the Big Ten. His conditioning has been a big issue.
If he can make a big splash in the bowl game to go with an impressive combine, he could push himself back into the first round.
Jerry Franklin vs. the Kansas State Rushing Attack in Cotton Bowl
Franklin's Current Draft Projection: Third-fourth round. No. 6 inside linebacker.
Franklin is one of the more versatile players in this season's draft.
He could be a middle linebacker or a strong-side linebacker in a 4-3.
He could be an outside linebacker in a 3-4.
He could also put on a bit of weight and be a defensive end in a 4-3 that values small, fast ends.
It will depend on which team drafts him, and what schemes the team in question runs.
As for his college career, Franklin started for four years, switching between the outside and the middle.
He had a solid 2011, compiling 93 tackles, 10 TFL and .5 sacks.
However, he disappeared during big games. Specifically, in Arkansas' only two losses of the season—to No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Bama—he totaled eight tackles. And remember, LSU and Bama are run-first teams.
He will have plenty of opportunity to make plays against KSU's rushing attack. In fact, the Wildcats have averaged more than two rushing plays for every passing play they've had this season.
If Franklin can step up in the bowl game, he could push himself into the early third round.
Vontaze Burfict vs. Doug Martin and Boise State's Offense in Maaco Bowl
Burfict's Current Draft Projection: First round. No. 2 inside linebacker.
Martin's Current Draft Projection: Third round. No. 7 running back.
Burfict, much like Arizona State, hasn't had the season for which some might have hoped.
As a junior, he can stay in Phoenix for another year, but it would seem unlikely, given that ASU will undergo a coaching change.
The top senior inside linebacker in the 2011 draft—North Carolina State's Audie Cole—has four juniors that will, in all likelihood, get picked ahead of him. One of those linebackers is Burfict.
All of those underclassman inside linebackers are valued at about the same level, so depending upon which ones declare themselves eligible, Burfict will have a good chance in the bowl game to give himself an edge over his cohorts.
If he has a really good game coupled with a strong combine, he could push himself into the top 15.
Meanwhile, Martin had a solid senior season, picking up 1,148 yards for 4.95 YPC and 15 touchdowns. He also picked up 25 receptions for 229 and two touchdowns.
Martin is well-rounded and could be a steal for a team looking for a third-down back or a developmental player. A strong bowl game against ASU will help his cause.
Kendall Wright vs. Desmand Trufant in Alamo Bowl
Wright's Current Draft Projection: First-second round. No. 5 receiver.
Trufant's Current Draft Projection: Second round. No. 9 cornerback.
Wright had a great season, posting eye-popping numbers: 101 receptions, 1,572 yards, 15.56 YPR, 13 touchdowns.
Not a single team stopped him, and he was just as good in losses and against top defenses as he was in wins and games against weak Ds.
The only issue was that the Big 12 doesn't boast any elite cornerbacks this season. In effect, his play against Trufant will be the first tape scouts look at.
Wright could vault himself into the late first round with a big game against Washington.
On the other hand, Trufant is a junior who would be better served staying in college. He will have a chance to be the top corner in next year's draft if he has a big senior season.
However, this will be a key game for him if he does come out. Having played Stanford and Southern Cal, Trufant has gone up against elite receivers and passing teams.
Nevertheless, it will be a significant accomplishment if he can shut down Wright and Baylor's passing game.