Each week, we rewind the game film to highlight the star-worthy performances that could impact the 2013 draft rankings.
Following a Saturday in which No. 3 Florida State, No. 4 LSU and No. 5 Georgia each suffered upset losses to conference rivals, it is perhaps more appropriate than ever to remind fans of just how difficult is for teams -- regardless of their future NFL talent -- to finish a season undefeated.
In the high-profile contest of the weekend it was the stellar play of two safeties that left the greatest impression on talent evaluators. LSU junior free safety Eric Reid entered the matchup against No. 10 Florida as the most celebrated defensive back on the field. The preseason All-American boasts a combination of size (6-2, 212), speed and ball skills unmatched in college football. He's hardly just an impressive athlete -- his reliable open-field tackling and history of making big plays in critical games have helped make him NFLDraftScout.com's No. 14 overall prospect.
Against Florida, Reid wasn't able to make the momentum-changing plays that helped the Tigers to big wins over Alabama (2011), Texas A&M (2010-11 Cotton Bowl) and Arkansas (2010). While he showed terrific closing speed on several of his six tackles, Reid -- like most of LSU's talented defenders -- was largely held in check by Florida's commitment to the run.
The game-changing play Saturday at The Swamp was turned in by another underclassman, who quietly is earning favorable early grades from pro scouts -- Florida strong safety Matt Elam.
While not as physically intimidating as his counterpart, the 5-10, 202 pound Elam had a team-best seven solo tackles, including a tackle for loss. In ripping the football away from LSU wideout Odell Beckham, Jr., he immediately extinguished the only big play (20-plus yards) the Tigers had on offense all day.
With LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger surprisingly able to slip free from an aggressive Florida pass rush, Beckham slipped down the right sideline. Mettenberger hit him on a perfectly thrown 56-yard bomb.
Trailing Beckham and showing the speed and understanding of pursuit angles NFL scouts looking for, Elam closed on and rather than just securing the tackle -- which was a feat in itself considering Beckham's speed and elusiveness -- he wrapped his arm around the Tiger ballcarrier, ripping the ball free and putting himself in position to recover the fumble.
Beckham's catch would have given LSU its only third-down conversion of the game to that point (4:13 left in third quarter). They'd convert just one more in the game, never getting further than their own 45-yard line in the fourth quarter.
* In a game in which the defenses received all of the hype it was Florida senior running back Mike Gillislee who proved the difference in the upset win over LSU, weaving through Tigers for 146 rushing yards and both of the Gators' scores on a career-high 34 attempts. The 5-11, 209 pound Gillislee showed off the toughness, vision, lateral agility and explosiveness scouts are looking for in a true three-down back at the pro level. Gillislee's scores were arguably the two biggest plays of this low-scoring affair, but if all you saw of this contest were the highlights, they don't do the senior running back justice as they were two of his easiest runs of the day. While LSU is exceptionally athletic along the defensive line, they're also undersized, especially at left defensive end with the 6-4, 245 pound Barkevious Mingo. While Mingo's agility and surprising strength makes him more effective against the run than his size would likely lead you to believe, he and the rest of the left side of the LSU defensive front was consistently sealed off by good blocking from the Florida offensive line throughout this game. Though the Gators were held to just a 3.0 yard per rush average against LSU, their total effort on the ground (176) was more than four times than what the Tigers and their vaunted power running game were able to muster Saturday (42). As is often the case on a team as athletically gifted as Florida, Gillislee has had to bide his time before getting the opportunity to be the Gators' lead back. Though he'd seen action in 36 games over his career entering the 2012 season, Gillislee had amassed "just" 920 yards and 10 touchdowns (on 145 attempts). Nevertheless, his talents were obvious, which led NFLDraftScout.com to stubbornly rank him among the more intriguing senior running back prospects in the country heading into the year. Given a day three grade (5th-6th round) prior to Saturday's performance, Gillislee will be drafted much higher than that should he continue his breakout campaign, perhaps even jumping into the competition to be the first senior running back selected come April.
* Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei entered the 2012 season as my top-rated prospect in the country. Though he's flashed the unique combination of strength and athleticism that caused him to be voted by Pac-12 offensive linemen as the conference's dominant down defender a year ago, he's been largely inconsistent this season. Scouts having recently visited Utah, in fact, have told me they've found him somewhat "underwhelming" so far. Their tunes may change after reviewing the tape of Thursday's performance against USC. While the Utes lost this contest 38-28 and Lotulelei was officially only credited with three tackles, including one tackle for loss, the reasons I believe he'll wind up a top five pick in the 2013 draft were on constant display. in a highly anticipated matchup against Lotulelei's power, burst off the snap and lateral agility helped him dominate USC's center Khaled Holmes, a 6-3, 305 senior rated by NFLDraftScout.com as the top prospect at his position for the 2013 NFL draft. When forced to block Lotulelei by himself Holmes was consistently pushed deep into the pocket, resulting in two botched snaps and multiple tackle for loss opportunities for an aggressive Utah front seven. After it was clear that Holmes could not handle Lotulelei alone, USC committed one of their guards to assisting their senior center on most snaps and at times dedicated a third blocker to the Utah defensive tackle. As the game went on, it was clear Lotulelei wore down. He played hard throughout the contest, however, pursuing laterally and downfield even as the game got out of reach. That kind of sustained effort against the most talented offensive unit he's likely to face all season long will ultimately result in Lotulelei earning the highest draft selection of any Utah player since Alex Smith was selected No. 1 overall back in 2005.
* The University of Arizona lost a heart-breaker in overtime to Stanford Saturday and quarterback Matt Scott, unfortunately, will remembered more for the tipped pass that led to the interception that ultimately resulted in the Wildcats' loss than the record-breaking performance he'd enjoyed throughout most of the afternoon. Scott, who set a school and conference record with 69 pass attempts, saw his final attempt get tipped and land in the hands of Cardinal outside linebacker Chase Thomas. While the game certainly ended on a sour note for Scott, talent evaluators couldn't help but be impressed with the unique skill-set from the Wildcats' quarterback, who completed 45 of those attempts for 491 yards and three touchdowns in the loss. Scott is leaner than scouts would prefer at 6-2, 198 pounds but demonstrated the toughness, mobility and most importantly the arm talent to reward an NFL team willing to gamble on his upside. Scott was particularly impressive during the third quarter of this contest. He showed off his legitimate NFL arm on a pair of 3rd quarter touchdown passes to wideout Austin Hill to twice give the Wildcats the lead in the back and forth game. Scott was the beneficiary of good pass protection on both plays, as he had the time to fake the hand-off to Ka'Deem Carey before setting his feet and throwing perfect strikes. On the first touchdown, Scott rolled to his left and drilled the ball into Hill, who'd himself started left and was then crossing back over the middle heading right. It was a difficult throw and one easy to nitpick if Scott's accuracy and arm strength hadn't been up to the task, but they were. Scott demonstrated the same intriguing combination of zip and ball placement on Arizona's next drive, firing a deep ball between Stanford's cornerback and safety playing in a Cover-2 to hit Hill for a 17-yard touchdown. Since 1963 only two Arizona quarterbacks have been drafted, with Nick Foles last April being drafted as part of the seven-round format currently used by the NFL. In Scott, who incidentally leads the Pac-12 in total offense (367.2 all-purpose yards per game) and is currently NFLDraftScout.com's No. 9-rated senior quarterback prospect, the Wildcats appear poised to go two for two.