The conference championship games provide scouts a final "regular" season opportunity to evaluate prospects before the blitz of bowls, all-star games and workouts kicks into high gear.
The ability to step up as the pressure increases will only enhance the stock of many prospects. Bowl games provide similar pressure, but with several weeks to go before the first of them the championship games are a better chance to gauge players in the week to week schedule that NFL teams use on their potential march to the Super Bowl.
The Big Board isn't a mock draft. There is no attention given to team needs or the projected selection order. It is simply a ranking of the 32 best prospects potentially eligible for the 2014 NFL draft.
* denotes underclassman
1. DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina (6-6, 268, 4.65)* -- Clowney has failed to live up to our astronomical expectations, but scouts aren't as concerned with his mediocre production as the media seems to be. Though he registered just three sacks (and zero forced fumbles) in the 2013 regular season, Clowney remains a dominating presence capable of making the game-changing play on each snap of the ball.
2. QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville (6-3, 220, 4.65)* -- In an era in which college quarterbacks' numbers are often inflated by short passes and relatively simplistic schemes, Bridgewater's sparkling production is due to Pro Bowl-caliber accuracy. His success (71 percent completion rate with 25 touchdowns against just three interceptions) comes out of a pro-style offense that forces him to make tough throws. Bridgewater's slight frame and level of competition are concerns, but make no mistake: he's the heavy favorite to be the top pick in the 2014 draft should he come out.
3. OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA (6-4, 238, 4.73) -- A running back until last season, Barr exploded on the scene in 2012 and has continued his playmaking ways as a senior. Barr ended Matt Barkley's college career with a huge hit a year ago against the Trojans and was again dominant in the intense rivalry this season, collecting five tackles (all solos), three tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble. The UCLA coaches rave about his work ethic, and Barr is a terrific pass rusher, capable of beating tackles off the edge with speed and power.
4. WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson (6-1, 200, 4.49)* -- After a disappointing sophomore season a year ago, Watkins has returned to the dominating form he displayed as a true freshman. Watkins is an explosive athlete with impressive body control and natural hands to pluck the ball. Unlike some of his teammates, Watkins played well against Clemson's top opponents in two losses this season, Florida State and South Carolina.
5. OT Cameron Erving, Florida State (6-5, 310, 5.26)* -- Erving played in 13 games as a redshirt freshman defensive tackle, but looked like a natural when moved to left tackle a season ago. Long, balanced and athletic, he's a hidden factor in the dynamic play of freshman quarterback Jameis Winston and could enjoy a "quiet" ride into the top 10 of the 2014 draft just as former Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel did a year ago while blocking for Heisman winner Johnny Manziel.
6. QB Derek Carr, Fresno State (6-3, 215) -- Carr's staggering production (69.7 completion percentage, 39 TDs, four INTs) is certainly inflated by coach Tim DeRuyter's QB-friendly spread attack and legitimately talented receiving corps, but there is no denying his talent. Frankly, his release and velocity are as impressive as any college quarterback in the country. Don't be surprised if Carr winds up in the top five should he continue to throw this well in Fresno's bowl game and in Mobile.
7. OT Jake Matthews, Texas A&M (6-5, 305, 5.14) -- The son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, Jake proves the cliche true -- the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. He has played well at left tackle this season after starring at right tackle over his first three years. Matthews is a terrific football player, demonstrating impressive technique, strength and consistency. He is not, however, an elite athlete and some view his future back on the right side in the NFL.
8. OT Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama (6-5, 312, 5.12)* -- Nick Saban questioned draft analysts for pegging Kouandjio as a first-round talent before the season, but given the junior left tackle's exciting skill-set the projection has been an easy one. Athletic and aggressive, Kouandjio could overtake some of the other top tackles in this class should he elect to enter the draft a year early.
9. CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State (5-11, 197) -- Quick feet, loose hips and a fluid turning motion make Dennard a classic cover corner capable of shutting down half the field. His ability in coverage plays a big role in Michigan State's stellar defense. Scouts are eager to see how Dennard matches up against Ohio State in the Big Ten championship in easily the Spartans' biggest test of the season
10. OLB C.J. Mosley, Alabama (6-2, 232, 4.56) -- While a bit undersized, Mosley might be the best pound-for-pound player in the country. Athletic and instinctive, he is a true three-down linebacker capable of making plays against the run and pass. Mosley lacks the bulk scouts want in a pass rusher, but his awareness in coverage is special.
11. OLB Khalil Mack, Buffalo (6-3, 248, 4.66) -- With a record-tying 75 career tackles for loss, Mack's statistics jump off the page. Against the most gifted opponents he faced this year (Ohio State, Connecticut), it was his game that jumped off the screen. His size, instincts and agility as an edge rusher make him equally intriguing to teams operating out of a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment.
12. OT Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M (6-5, 300, 5.15)* -- Overshadowed by all of the talent on the Aggies' roster, Ogbuehi is an exciting prospect in his own right. A standout at right guard a year ago, Ogbuehi (pronounced ah-BOO-hee) took over for Jake Matthews at right tackle in 2013 and has excelled. Possessing long arms and light feet, Ogbuehi's offers more upside than his more celebrated teammate, though he is not yet as polished.
13. WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M (6-5, 225, 4.58)* -- Like his famous quarterback Johnny Manziel, Evans is just a redshirt sophomore, but he has a big decision to make after dominating the SEC most of the season. Deceptively fast and possessing great body control as well as timing, Evans is an exciting split end prospect who reminds scouts of Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Vincent Jackson. Of concern, however, is the fact that Evans struggled in his final two regular-season games, catching just eight passes for a combined 59 yards in losses to LSU and Missouri.
14. TE Eric Ebron, North Carolina (6-4, 245, 4.67)* -- Ebron possesses a jaw-dropping combination of size and athleticism that has earned comparisons to 49ers star Vernon Davis. Like Davis, however, Ebron struggles with consistency, relying too much on his athleticism rather than dedicating himself to learning the finer techniques of the position. Ebron will forgo his senior season and enter the 2014 draft.
15. CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon (5-10, 190)* -- Lost in the hype of Oregon's offense are a number of highly regarded defenders, including Ekpre-Olomu, who combines great instincts, agility and physicality to shut down his side of the field. Ekpre-Olomu's toughness on the perimeter played a significant role in Oregon's win over Oregon State in the Civil War, as he posted 12 tackles (all solos), deflected three passes and intercepted another while helping to limit Beavers star WR Brandin Cooks.
16. OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan (6-7, 310, 5.04) -- Possessing an impressive combination of size, strength and toughness, Lewan has earned comparisons to former Michigan standout Jake Long throughout his career. He certainly looked the part against Ohio State, dominating the action up front. Lewan lacks elite athleticism, however, and some feel his NFL future lies on the right side.
17. DL Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame (6-5, 303, 4.89)* -- Offseason sports hernia surgery may have played a role in Tuitt weighing 20 pounds more this season than a year ago, and early on the extra weight seemed to be slowing him. He played much better over the second half of the season, but with nose guard Louis Nix III sidelined, Tuitt has faced additional attention from opponents.
18. DE Trent Murphy, Stanford (6-6, 261, 4.85) -- Used as a standup outside linebacker as a well as a down defensive lineman for the Cardinal, Murphy is equally impactful in the passing game, running game and on special teams due to his instincts, physicality and awareness. Scouts question whether he possesses the acceleration and balance to consistently turn the corner as a 4-3 defensive end, but Murphy will get a chance to prove his burst against the up-tempo Sun Devils in the Pac-12 championship game.
19. TE Jace Amaro, Texas Tech (6-5, 260)* -- The NFL is looking for seam threats rather than extra blockers at tight end in today's game, and there hasn't been a more impressive prospect in the country in 2013 in this role than Amaro. Scouts are beginning to mention the name Jimmy Graham when discussing the junior, though he dropped a few catchable passes in Tech's loss to Texas on Nov. 30.
20. WR Marqise Lee, Southern Cal (6-0, 195, 4.51)* -- A nagging left knee injury has hampered Lee much of the 2013 season, robbing the reigning Biletnikof Award winner of his trademark elusiveness and acceleration. Finally healthy, he starred against Stanford Nov. 16, helping guide the Trojans to the upset win and seeming to solidify his stock, but then he registered a relatively nondescript six grabs for 69 yards in the Nov. 30 loss to UCLA.
21. OG Cyril Richardson, Baylor (6-5, 335, 5.27) -- A dominating drive blocker who projects best at guard but spent the entire 2011 season protecting Robert Griffin III at left tackle, Richardson is massive, powerful and shockingly athletic. While many of the other Bears struggled in primetime showdowns against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Richardson shined. Watch for him against an athletic Longhorns front seven in the Big 12 championship game.
22. OC Travis Swanson, Arkansas (6-4, 318) -- If Richardson is the elite interior lineman of the 2014 senior class, Swanson ranks as a close second. Athletic, powerful and versatile (some view him as a potential guard convert), Swanson will continue former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema's tradition of churning out quality NFL prospects along the offensive line.
23. OLB Ryan Shazier, Ohio State (6-2, 226, 4.58)* -- Shazier may be 10-15 pounds lighter than scouts would prefer, but his instincts, speed and bone-jarring hits make him a fearful defender opponents must account for on every snap.
24. QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M (5-11, 210, 4.45)* -- Manziel's vision, elusiveness and accuracy while on the move make him a mesmerizing prospect, but red flags were raised with mediocre performances against LSU and Missouri to end the regular season. Bottled in the pocket by both, Manziel was unable to throw his receivers open and he struggled. The NFL rule books have never been more accommodating to dual-threat passers, but consistent accuracy from the pocket remains the most critical element to quarterback play at the next level.
25. WR Brandin Cooks, Oregon State (5-10, 186)* -- Beavers coach Mike Riley has made a career out of finding undersized pass-catchers to star in his offense, but Cooks is a different level of athlete than Sammie Stroughter, Markus Wheaton and the Rodgers brothers (James and Jacquizz). Boasting a combination of elusiveness, acceleration and toughness that is earning comparisons to Percy Harvin, the Biletnikof Award finalist is rewriting school and conference record books with 120 catches for 1,670 yards and 15 touchdowns in the regular season.
26. CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State (6-0, 200) -- In terms of size, agility and speed, no cornerback offers a more intriguing skill-set. Gilbert ranks among the nation's leaders with six interceptions this season (through 10 games) and has returned just as many kickoffs for touchdowns during his time in Stillwater.
27. DT Will Sutton, Arizona State (6-0, 305) -- Perhaps due to concerns about how he would hold up in the NFL, Sutton gained weight for his senior season and hasn't been as dominant as last year, when he recorded an astounding 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. Though Sutton's production has tailed off, he remains a difference-maker in the middle due to his quickness, punch and ability to tie up multiple blockers. His matchup this week against Stanford's terrific offensive line is a must-see for talent evaluators.
28. DT Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota (6-6, 311, 4.95) -- Blessed with an extraordinary combination of size and athleticism, Hageman could join Michael Brockers and Dontari Poe as recent big defensive tackles whose real rise up draft boards doesn't begin until the Scouting Combine. Hageman has looked unblockable at times, but he struggles with consistency.
29. CB Jason Verrett, TCU (5-10, 182, 4.49) -- Verrett lacks the size so en vogue in today's NFL, but agility and ball-skills never go out of style for cornerbacks. Verrett led the Big 12 with 22 passes defended and six interceptions in 2012, and he's tied for the lead in PBUs again this year (16) while recording two pass thefts. While light, Verrett is scrappy and tenacious, making him an ideal nickel corner with the tackling ability to threaten on an occasional blitz.
30. TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington (6-6, 276)* -- The third-year junior didn't enjoy the flashy season many projected, but much of that is due to the fact that the Huskies chose to use Seferian-Jenkins more as a blocker and decoy rather than as the focal point of their offense. Seferian-Jenkins may not possess the straight-line speed of the two tight ends ranked higher on this list (UNC's Ebron, Texas Tech's Amaro), but he possesses rare body control of a man his size and is a more polished blocker.
31. ILB Shayne Skov, Stanford (6-2, 245) -- I'll be the first to admit it, I'm a sucker for instinctive, physical inside linebackers, and that is precisely what Skov has proven himself to be over his distinguished career. While Skov may lack elite straight-line speed, his diagnosis skills, power and ability to make big plays have stood out in each of Stanford's biggest games this season.
32. QB Brett Hundley, UCLA (6-3, 222)* -- If he elects to declare early for the 2014 draft, Hundley will be giving up two years of eligibility; time that could be spent honing his obvious talents. He has a strong, accurate arm and is a graceful, elusive scrambling threat but too often looks to run rather than exhausting his passing options. Bottom line: Hundley is raw, but so gifted that the potential reward may outweigh the risk.
Just missed the cut:
DT Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
WR Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
OT Brandon Scherff, Iowa*
RB Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona*
OG David Yankey, Stanford
OLB Vic Beasley, Clemson*
WR Allen Robinson, Penn State*
FS Hasean Clinton-Dix, Alabama*
OT La'el Collins, LSU*
CB Bradley Roby, Ohio State*
OG Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA*
DE/OLB Trevor Reilly, Utah
OT Greg Robinson, Auburn*
DT Ego Ferguson, LSU*
OLB Kyle Van Noy, BYU
Rob Rang is a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com. He can be found on Twitter @RobRang.