|Clowney (No. 7) is the nation's best NFL prospect but he'll face the stiffest test of his short career in the Outback Bowl. (US Presswire)|
Bowl games provide talent evaluators with a wonderful opportunity to gauge prospects in a unique setting. Not only are many of the prospects healthier than they've been in months, in most cases they're facing opponents they've never seen and in an environment in which they've never played. Simply put, bowl games take players out of their comfort zone.
There are literally hundreds of individual matchups scouts will be analyzing over the bowl season. For those unable to take in every one of this year's 35 bowl games, NFLDraftScout.com has you covered.
The following, ranked from intriguing to absolutely must-see, are the top 10 matchups of the 2012 bowl season, from an NFL draft perspective. All game times are listed in the eastern time zone.
10. Vanderbilt WR Jordan Matthews vs. North Carolina State CB David Amerson: The 6-3, 205 pound Matthews (who ranks as NFLDraftScout.com's No. 9 receiver in the 2014 draft class) finished the regular season sixth in the country with just over 105 receiving yards per game. At 6-2, 194 pounds, Amerson has the length to matchup nicely with Matthews and is reportedly considering taking his talents to the NFL. Amerson is the NCAA's active career leader with 18 interceptions. The Commodores and Wolfpack will face off at noon (Eastern) December 31 in the Music City Bowl.
Few headlining prospects throughout the country play the Rodney Dangerfield role more ably than Ball or Skov. Despite bouncing back from a tough off-season and beginning of his senior campaign, Ball rushed for more yards this season than any FBS running back playing out of a traditional pro-style attack. Oh, by the way, he also set the career record for the most touchdowns (83) scored by a running back despite being the focus of every defense the Badgers faced this season, among the reasons he's my top-rated back. Skov looked like a future first round pick early in his career but hasn't played with the same fluidity in 2012 after missing all but the first three games last season due to tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee. He's played better as the season has gone on and could use this game as the decisive factor in determining whether he's heading to the NFL or petitioning the NCAA for a fifth year of eligibility due to the 2011 injury. The Badgers and Cardinal will face off at 5:00 pm January 1 in the Rose Bowl.
Quarterback Collin Klein got most of the credit for KSU's spectacular season but in reality the Wildcats' defense – the Big 12's stingiest in terms of points allowed – deserved equal praise. Much of this should go to their senior linebacker Brown, a 6-1, 228 pound heat-seeking missile with more straight-line speed than any linebacker Barner and the explosive Quack Attack have faced this year. Barner, of course, has plenty of speed, himself, but the 5-11, 192 pound back hasn't always played with the physicality scouts would like to see. Some might be surprised by the fact that NFLDraftScout.com views him as just a third day prospect. A big Fiesta Bowl against a disciplined, hard-hitting Wildcats' defense could boost that grade. The Wildcats and Ducks will face off at 8:30 pm January 3 in the Fiesta Bowl.
In most “one on one” battles of the bowl season, quarterbacks often have to worry most about pass rushers or defensive backs than middle linebackers but neither Thomas nor Greene are your typical athletes. The 6-6, 260 pound Thomas has spectacular upside but remains quite raw as a passer and, frankly, the Hokies relied more on his team-leading 532 rushing yards and nine touchdowns than they did his 52.6% completion percentage much of the year. As such, the instinctive, playmaking Greene should play a huge role if Rutgers is to slow down the Hokies' attack. Greene, a former safety, has created 19 turnovers (12 forced fumbles, six interceptions, one fumble recovery) over his career and is projected by NFLDraftScout.com as a second round pick. The Hokies and Scarlet Knights will face off at 5:30 pm December 28 in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
6. Georgia LB Alec Ogletree vs. Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead:
Judging by their wholly opposite performances in their conference championship games, some believe the Capital One Bowl could be a mismatch. I find it one of the more compelling evaluation opportunities of the bowl season in large part due to the one on one battle between Ogletree, arguably the country's most athletic linebacker and Burkhead, a tough, determined back with better overall athleticism than most given him credit for. The 6-3, 234 pound Ogletree ranks as NFLDraftScout.com's No. 2 ILB in the 2014 draft class due to his upside but he is not yet a great open-field tackler. Burkhead has slipped to NFLDraftScout.com's No. 15 rated back as he missed much of the year with a sprained knee but, when healthy, he's shown the elusiveness and vision to make defenders miss. The Bulldogs and Cornhuskers will face off at 1:00 pm January 1 in the Capital One Bowl.
5. Oregon State WR Markus Wheaton vs. Texas CB Carrington Byndom:
|Wheaton's big play ability has earned him an invitation to the Senior Bowl. (US Presswire)|
Having jumped from one receiving touchdown in 2011 to 12 this season, there may not be a senior receiver in the country who has boosted his stock more than Oregon State's Wheaton. He (along with fellow OSU wideout Brandin Cooks, a true sophomore) is electric with the ball in his hands, showing the elusiveness and straight-line speed to turn short catches into long gains.It is this fact which makes his matchup against an equally athletic Byndon all the more intriguing. While Byndom possesses the quick feet, fluid hips and speed to handle coverage responsibilities, the junior has struggled at times this year with tackling in the open field. The Beavers and Longhorns will face off at 6:45 pm December 29 in the Alamo Bowl.
Let the talking heads focus on the high profile quarterbacks in the Cotton Bowl, talent evaluators know that the true showdown in this contest will be between the Aggies' Do-Everything Moore and Johnson, the arguably fastest-rising offensive tackle prospect in the country. Despite switching from a stand-up outside linebacker role to a more traditional down defensive end this season, Moore accomplished the rare feat of leading his team in tackles (80), tackles for loss (20) and sacks (12.5) throughout the regular season. Quite used to facing off against elite blockers (since his teammates, Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews are our top-rated prospects at the position), he'll be better prepared than most for handling the unique athleticism that Johnson provides the Sooners at left tackle. The 6-6, 303 pound former JUCO quarterback and tight end has the quick feet, balance and long arms scouts are looking for at left tackle and has played very well at this position in 2012 – his first on the blindside. The Aggies and Sooners will face off at 8:00 pm January 4 in the Cotton Bowl.
It was Clemson's Boyd, not Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who led the FBS with an average of 21.83 points per game this year. Possessing a live, accurate arm, very good mobility and spectacular talent around him, Boyd will present the equally athletic LSU defense with arguably the toughest dual threat they've faced since intercepting Manziel three times in a 24-19 Tigers' victory October 20. Reid, NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated safety, attacks the line of scrimmage like a linebacker, which should limit Boyd's effectiveness as a runner. Reid's aggression makes him a potential liability against good play-action, however. If Boyd can show improved poise against the LSU pass rush and loft a few deep balls to star wideouts DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins, the junior could quickly catapult his way up draft boards. This battle for the “Tigers” moniker will take place at 7:30 pm December 31 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
With all due respect to the star “skill position” players for Alabama and Notre Dame, this game will be won or lost in the trenches. Most presume that the Tide have the significant advantage in this area, considering Nick Saban's history of churning out NFL defensive linemen and an offensive line that boasts three of the top 40 prospects (at least in my opinion) potentially eligible for the 2013 NFL draft. The difference between this year's Notre Dame and teams in recent years, however, is unquestionably their defensive line, where a pair of sophomores – nose guard Louis Nix III and the 6-5, 303 pound Tuitt have each shown the size and skill to earn early attention from NFL scouts. Powerful and surprisingly athletic, Tuitt led the Irish with 12 sacks this season. He'll be facing his stiffest test of the year, however, as power football is the 6-6, 335 pound Fluker's specialty and some close to the Alabama program believe he's played his best in big games. Tuitt, on the other hand, collected just two of his sacks over the Irish's final four games. By comparison, he started the season with eight in his first four contests. Regardless of whether Tuitt notches any sacks, his ability to protect the edge could contain Alabama's ability to run the ball. As such, in a very real way, the winner of this one on one battle could determine the national championship. The Crimson Tide and Fighting Irish will face off at 8:30 pm January 7 in the BCS Championship Game.
It would require a true clash of the titans to steal the thunder from the one on one battle I believe could determine the 2012 BCS champion but that is precisely what is on tap between Clowney and Lewan in the Outback Bowl. Though only a true sophomore (and therefore ineligible for the 2013 NFL draft), the 6-6, 256 pound Clowney is simply the best player in college football. He led the SEC with 13 sacks this season and is just as dominant against the run, demonstrating a combination of size, athleticism and unbridled explosiveness that has forced most opponents to routinely double or even triple-team him. With that said, Clowney has not faced an offensive tackle with Lewan's size and ability. The 6-7, 310 pound redshirt junior is NFLDraftScout.com's No. 11 rated overall prospect for the 2013 draft and is not only very athletic for a man of his size, he's also both physically and mentally tough. Add to this equation Michigan's frenetically-paced offense and dual threat passers Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner and Clowney – as good as he is -- may not have the impact on this game he normally would. From an NFL talent evaluator's perspective, it sure is going to be entertaining to see him try. The Gamecocks and Wolverines will face off at 1:00 pm January 1 in the Outback Bowl.