Bowl matchups to watch: From Poinsettia to title game

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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Nebraska CB Alfonzo Dennard will match up against S.C's Alshon Jeffery in the Capital One Bowl. (Getty Images)  
Nebraska CB Alfonzo Dennard will match up against S.C's Alshon Jeffery in the Capital One Bowl. (Getty Images)  

Bowl season has a different meaning for fans than it players, especially seniors and other draft-eligible prospects eager to make one final, lasting impression.

For most players on the 72 teams with games left to play -- including Army-Navy this weekend -- they'll put on shoulder pads and a helmet for the last time.

Pro scouts aren't concerned with which teams get to bowl games or who wins the game on the field, as fans are.

They're focusing on individual players to note which players took the extra practice time allotted to bowl teams seriously and improved since the end of the regular season. And, by the same token, who took in the sights and sounds of the host city and never found the film room.

The players who raise their level of play when the lights are brightest are the prospects that scouts remember in April.

A quick glance at the bowl schedule reveals dozens of tantalizing individual matchups are readily available. Here are the ones NFL scouts -- and fans -- can't afford to miss.

Poinsettia Bowl

Arizona State ILB Vontaze Burfict vs. Boise State RB Doug Martin: The West Coast hasn't seen an inside linebacker with Burfict's combination of size, speed and explosive hitting ability since Rey Maualuga (Southern Cal). Scouts wonder if Burfict has the discipline to translate his ability to the NFL. Burfict will get an opportunity to prove himself against Martin and the Broncos on Dec. 22. Quarterback Kellen Moore may get the headlines, but the 5-9, 210-pound Martin is actually Boise State's top prospect and could wind up the first senior running back selected in the April draft.

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Champ Sports Bowl

Florida State CB Greg Reid vs. Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd: The Seminoles boast two of the country's more intriguing cornerbacks in Reid and Xavier Rhodes, a 6-1, 215-pound redshirt sophomore. At 5-8, 186 pounds, Reid gives up size to the 6-3, 224-pound Floyd, but the diminutive junior operates as FSU's field cornerback, which means he's the Seminoles' top cover man and thus likely to draw Floyd regularly. Floyd has been using his size and surprising speed to tear apart defenses all season. A strong performance against a secondary as talented as Florida State's could push Floyd into the top 10.

Alamo Bowl

Washington CB Desmond Trufant vs. Baylor WR Kendall Wright: The younger brother of Seattle Seahawks' cornerback Marcus Trufant, Desmond has quietly put together a strong junior campaign for the Huskies despite virtually no pass rush. There is speculation in fact, that this could be the last season at Washington for the 6-0, 185-pound junior corner. If so, he's saving his toughest opponent for last. While Robert Griffin III could ride a spectacular junior campaign to the Heisman Trophy, Wright is getting higher grades from some scouts. The 5-11, 190-pound Wright boasts a combination of speed and elusiveness that has drawn comparisons to Carolina Panthers' star Steve Smith.

Pinstripe Bowl

Iowa State CB Leonard Johnson vs. Rutgers WR Mohammed Sanu: Scouts had identified Johnson as one of the more intriguing senior cornerbacks in the country before the season began, but in slowing down reigning Biletnikof winner Justin Blackmon during Iowa State's upset of Oklahoma State on Nov. 18, Johnson catapulted himself into consideration for a top 75 pick. Sanu, like Blackmon, doesn't possess elite speed, but the 6-2, 215-pound junior does have size, physicality and even more reliable hands than the OSU star. Sanu is thought likely to be entertaining thoughts of leaving Rutgers early for the NFL. Playing well against the cornerback who stopped the country's elite receiver could make it an easy decision.

Insight Bowl

Oklahoma DE Frank Alexander vs. Iowa OT Riley Reiff: Recording zero tackles in a humbling 44-10 loss to rival Oklahoma State is not the way that Alexander will want his Sooner career to end. One of six finalists for the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end, Alexander led the Big 12 with 18 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. There isn't a team in the country who prepares offensive tackles better for the NFL than Kirk Ferentz's Iowa Hawkeyes, and in Reiff they have yet another future first-round talent. Reiff is only a junior, but the 6-6, 300 pound already boasts the technique of a NFL veteran and the athleticism to handle Alexander's speed.

Capital One Bowl

Nebraska CB Alfonzo Dennard vs. South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery: Scouts circled this one in red ink, and Jeffery should do the same. He's against the clock to prove he's not overhyped in an offense that caters to his natural skills. Jeffery, a junior, has a 6-inch and nearly 25-pound advantage on the Nebraska senior cornerback. Dennard's late-season push to work back into first-round conversation would get an exclamation point if he muzzles the gifted but undisciplined Jeffery.

Outback Bowl

Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy vs. Georgia C Ben Jones: There may not be a defensive tackle in the country blessed with a more impressive combination of burst off the snap and strength than Michigan State's junior defensive tackle. Playing in the SEC, however, has prepared Jones for just this type of matchup. While the All-SEC center may lack Worthy's power and athleticism, the senior is tough-minded, technically sound and a legitimate top 75 pro prospect, in his own right. If nothing makes you happier during the holidays than a good old fashioned battle in the trenches, this is the showdown to watch.

Rose Bowl

Wisconsin FS Aaron Henry vs. Oregon RB LaMichael James: The key to stopping the "Quack Attack" is the same as it is with most offenses: take away the running game. Without a dominant front line, the Badgers will have to demonstrate extraordinary discipline in the back half of their defense. Fortunately, they boast a terrific all-around defender in Henry, a former cornerback who has earned all-conference honors after each of his two seasons at free safety. Scouts, of course are even more familiar with James as he's led the country in rushing yards the past two years. If James is to leave Oregon after this season as those close to the program expect, notching yet another 20-plus carry game (he has seven this year) against a traditionally stout defense could help convince scouts the 5-9, 195-pound back has the toughness to be successful in the NFL.

Fiesta Bowl

Oklahoma State FS Markelle Martin vs. Stanford TE Coby Fleener: If there is a safety in the country with as many responsibilities looming as Wisconsin's Henry, it is Martin. At 6-1, 198 pounds Martin doesn't have the bulk scouts generally prefer, but his coverage skills and penchant for the big play have made him NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated senior at the position. It will be those coverage skills that are put to the test against Andrew Luck and his favorite target, the 6-6, 245-pound Fleener. With little speed on the flanks, Stanford's passing game attacks the field down the middle. As such, the winner of this one on one battle could very well determine the Fiesta Bowl champion.

BCS National Championship

Alabama DE Courtney Upshaw vs. LSU OT Alex Hurst: Most are going to focus on Trent Richardson or the extraordinary talent playing in the secondary for both teams when previewing this contest -- and all of the above deserve such a pedestal. LSU's 9-6 overtime win over Alabama November 5 proved that this game is going to be won in the trenches. Upshaw, 6-2, 265 pounds, alternates between defensive end and outside linebacker for Nick Saban and scouts are excited about his potential to do the same in the NFL. With only one of his 8.5 sacks (and 17 tackles for loss) coming against Hurst and the Tigers last time, however, scouts may now be more excited about the potential of LSU's massive junior left tackle. The 6-6, 340-pounder doesn't generate the same hype as Southern Cal's Matt Kalil or even Reiff, but another strong game against the country's top-rated defense could end that quickly.

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