We’ll have The Road to the Playoff column each Friday, previewing the college football weekend. Also, for the third year in a row, we’ll take a peek at future NFL players suiting up Saturday that you’ll want to keep an eye on.
Michigan State at Oregon, 6:30 pm, Fox Sports
OREGON – Marcus Mariota, QB, Redshirt Junior: I’ve got him as the top QB prospect for the 2015 entering this season. I still believe he would have been the 1st QB taken in the 2014 draft. There’s a lot to love – 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, gifted runner, accurate passer, good pocket presence, he totally looks the part. What doesn’t he do? Beat Stanford. The Cardinal are the two best teams he’s faced in the last two years, and this is how he’s done: 58% completions, -16 yards rushing, loss in 2013; 56 percent completions, interception, loss at home in 2012. Mariota completed 68 percent of all his passes in 2012 and 63 percent last year, and it’s evident he has something to prove against a tough defense led by a great coach.
MICHIGAN STATE – Connor Cook, QB Redshirt Junior: I won’t soon forget someone tweeting that Cook would have good value as a Heisman contender back in January early in the Rose Bowl. My first thought: Lunacy! Cook had a nice performance against Ohio State a month earlier (60 percent completions, 304 yards, three TDs in an upset) but Stanford was a completely different animal. And then … Cook was poised and made good decisions (except this one) and finished with 332 yards on 61 percent completions and two TDs in an upset. Then I started asking around to NFL scouts and Cook began to check the boxes: above average arm, good pocket awareness, not a statue when he drops back despite being 6-foot-4 … is Connor Cook a 1st round candidate in 2015? Yes. Naturally, a word of caution: He’s only got 12 starts since winning the job in week two. One comparison I heard: He’s Andy Dalton with a better arm and more mobility.
MICHIGAN STATE – Jeremy Langford, RB, Redshirt Senior: The Big 10’s 5th leading rusher last year (1,422 yards) has come a long way since being primarily a special teams player in his first two seasons, sitting behind stars Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell. Langford turns 23 in December, and he falls somewhere between those two as a pro prospect. Baker was a 5-foot-8 speed merchant; Bell was a 240-pound workhorse. With good vision but average speed, right now Langford is a late-round prospect. There’s no way he’ll be running through holes this big against Oregon. [Spartans fans: I’m aware the defense is peppered with pro prospects. Relax. Gotta save some folks for the Nebraska and Ohio State games.]
OREGON – Arik Armstead, Defensive End, Junior: Intriguing pro prospect because at 6-foot-7, 295-pounds, he’s a freakish athlete. As in, suited-up-for-the-Ducks-basketball-team. As such, he’s raw on the football field, and put up modest stats last year (three tackles for loss, one sack). It matters not. When you’re that big – he could measure taller; some reports say he’s 6-foot-8 and have great feet/speed/athleticism, you’re going to be coveted. The Oregonian wrote last year that a scout said he’s the 2nd best pro prospect on the Ducks. Now that he’s turned his attention to football, Armstead is one or two big games away from declaring for the pros on a limited reel and “potential.” I don’t think he’ll run a sub 4.5 at the Combine like Mr. Clowney, but even a 4.7 would be impressive.
Stanford at USC, 3:30 pm, ABC
USC – Leonard Williams, DT, Junior: There’s a chance he could be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. Actually had better stats as a true freshman (13.5 TFL, 8 sacks, vs. 12.5 and 5 last year), but the Trojans were in disarray in 2013 and Williams was banged up. If you want to see two guys who will play on Sundays next Fall, keep an eye on Williams (6-foot-5, 300 pounds) vs. Stanford’s hulking Andrus Peat (6-foot-7, 320). It has the feel of The Incredible Hulk colliding with The Thing, assuming they go head-to-head.
USC – Nelson Agholor, WR, Junior: Blazing fast, explosive in the return game (see Cal, last year) and potentially one of the five top wide receivers eligible for the 2015 draft. Born in Nigeria, Agholor is 6-foot-1 and 190, and could take advantage of the one weakness on the Stanford defense – no elite cornerbacks. How high he could rise in the 2015 draft could depend on whether or not other elite WRs (Amari Cooper, DeVante Parker, Dorial Green-Beckham) stumble, don’t heal from injury, or get in more trouble with the law.