There is a lot more riding on tonight's Big East showdown between Cincinnati and South Florida than the lead in the conference standings.
National title implications, as well as the draft stock of several prospects are on the line.
Both teams enter the game with sparkling 5-0 records, thought they've accomplished their undefeated seasons in different ways. Cincinnati has been led by the high-flying offense led by senior quarterback Tony Pike and Mr. Versatility (and a former Player of the Week honoree in Draft Slant), wideout Mardy Gilyard. USF, on the other hand, has been led by their traditionally stingy defense, with seniors end George Selvie and safety Nate Allen earning most of the attention from scouts.
The 6-6, 225 pound Pike has been flying up boards this season. Quite honestly, I'm lower on him than most seem to be. He certainly has the size scouts are looking for, but his accuracy has been less consistent that his impressive production (1,493 yards, 66.7% completion rate, 13 TDs-3 INTs) would lead one to believe. He was often late across the middle last week, for example, against Miami (Ohio) and will be making the same adjustment to a traditional pro-style offense that all spread quarterbacks have to make -- learning to take the snap from center, read defenses more quickly, etc. He also has been helped greatly by Gilyard, who might be the country's best run-after-the-catch threat at the receiver position. In this spread offense, built on timing-based slants and post-corners, Gilyard (7 of Pike's 15 TD receptions) has been virtually unstoppable. I certainly recognize Pike's talent as NFL caliber, but so far I've seen a prospect worthy of mid-round consideration and not a true challenger to the Colt McCoy's and Tim Tebow's (and a host of underclassmen) at the top of the draft board.
Pike could shut me up quickly, however, with a strong game tonight against what is clearly the most talented defense he's seen thus far this season.
The Bearcats would be wise to focus their blocking assignments on pass rusher George Selvie. The 6-4, 245 pounder has exceptional burst off the snap and will easily chase down Pike, though his mobility is an underrated component to his game. Selvie broke out as a sophomore to post 14.5 sacks in 2007, but an ankle sprain last year and cease-less double and even triple-teams have shadowed him since. He enters this game with only 2.5 sacks, but is capable of matching that total in just this game if single-blocked by the Bearcats. Selvie has tried to add weight throughout his career, but hasn't been able to do so, prompting plenty of concerns from NFL scouts who question where he'll fit in an NFL defense. He has the burst off the edge to earn a first round grade from some teams, but others question if he'll be able to contribute on running downs at all.
Perhaps the defender who may have the most impact on this game is USF safety Nate Allen, an instictive, ball-hawking sort who already posted a two-interception game in the Bulls' only other Big East game of the year (a win over Syracuse). If Pike is late passing over the middle in this contest, Allen could make him pay. Some scouts feel he is a more reliable pass defender in the middle than USC superstar Taylor Mays.
There are certainly other prospects to keep an eye on tonight and plenty of other story-lines (not the least of which is the inspiring play of backup turned star freshman QB B.J. Daniels for USF), but these four are the ones NFL scouts will be keeping the closest eye on...
As such, you should be too...