This weekend is one of the most exciting of the college football season with four AQ conference championship games on the slate. In addition, three out of the four will hold major implications for a berth to play in the BCS National Championship game in Pasadena on Jan. 6.
Below is a quick breakdown on an intriguing matchup and prospect to watch for each of the four contests on Saturday.
As always draft-eligible non-seniors are denoted by an asterisk.
Big Ten Championship: No. 2 Ohio State (12-0, 8-0) vs. No. 10 Michigan State (11-1, 8-0)
Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde (5-11¾, 238)
No running back has helped his draft status more than Hyde this fall. After serving a three-game suspension at the beginning of the season, the senior running back has been on tear. He is a big reason why the Buckeyes are in solid position to play for the BCS Championship. Hyde is coming off of a 226-yard performance last week against Michigan, his second time eclipsing the 200 yard mark in the past three games.
Hyde is powerful, no non-sense back that excels as an inside runner, but he also shows above-average lateral agility and acceleration out of cuts for a 240-pound back. He has done a much better job of maneuvering in-and-out of traffic this season. In addition he brings strong versatility for a big back. Hyde has natural ball skills and has added 13 catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns to go along with his 1,290 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground.
Michigan State will pose as Hyde’s toughest challenge as season as they are the No. 1 ranked run defense limiting teams to 64.5 yards per game. Saturday night will be a strong gauge on Hyde’s ability to create yards on his own because the Spartans play with great gap integrity and have a pair of reliable tacklers in MLB Max Bollough and WLB Denicos Allen at the second level.
Hyde held a Day 3 grade coming into the season. However, he has worked his way squarely into the second round range and is challenging to become one of the top running backs in the 2014 class. A productive performance against the Spartans will only help keep his momentum going.
SEC Championship: No. 5 Missouri (11-1, 7-1) vs. No. 3 Auburn (11-1, 7-1)
Missouri DE Kony Ealy* (6-4⅝, 275)
Missouri rotates four deep at the defensive end position. While Michael Sam has lit it up in the statistical category, it is Ealy that has the better measureables, more athleticism and projects the best for the next level of the group.
Ealy has above-average length, flexibility and flashes quick and explosive hands in his upper body which provides him with a lot of upside as a pass-rusher. He also has excellent range and is at his best on the move as a run defender. This will help defending the Auburn rushing attack which has the speed to put stress on opponent’s perimeter run defense.
Where Ealy can improve is with his ability to set the edge at the point of attack. Ealy appears to have long arms and uses them well to keep blockers off of his frame. However, he can play high at times which can cause him to lose leverage and leaves some physicality to be desired with his play at times. Ealy will line up across from massive left offensive tackle Greg Robinson a lot on Saturday afternoon and scouts will keep a close eye on his ability to maintain edge responsibility and find the ball against the Auburn zone-read rushing attack.
PAC-12 Championship: No. 7 Stanford (10-2, 7-2) vs. No. 11 Arizona State (10-2, 8-1)
Arizona State DT Will Sutton (6-0¼, 284)
Sutton has seen a significant drop in production as a senior. After notching 23.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks in 2012, he has registered just 13.5 tackles for loss and three sacks so far this season. Sutton is receiving more attention this season, but he has also added a significant amount of weight and reports were that he was tipping the scales at nearly 320 pounds in the beginning of the season.
Sutton lacks ideal length and height but he plays with quality leverage and has one of the better hand fighters of any defensive tackle in this class. However, it is clear his first-step quickness, explosiveness and overall agility that made him so effective last year has taken a step back due to the added weight.
This was evident on the coaches copy tape in his first meeting with the Cardinal back in September. Sutton struggled to gain quality initial positioning and was seen on the ground far too much against the physical style of the Stanford offensive line. The good news is he will have another shot at this unit but must do a better job of protecting his feet and playing with better overall balance on Saturday afternoon.
ACC Championship: No. 20 Duke (10-2, 6-2) vs. No. 1 Florida State (12-0, 8-0)
Duke CB Ross Cockrell (5-11½, 189)
Cockrell is a productive four-year starter above-average length, instincts and eyes in coverage. He is a fluid mover that changes directions well and he possesses an above-average closing burst. Cockrell also has strong ball skills and has 40 pass break-ups and 12 interceptions in 47 career starts.
While he displays strong movement skills, he lacks ideal bulk and can play with a more physical demeanor. Scouts will keep close tabs on Cockrell particularly when he is aligned across from Florida State WR Kelvin Benjamin. At 6-foot-5, 234 pounds, Benjamin is a strong and physical receiver that has been a nightmare to handle in one-on-one situations down the field.
Cockrell should be able to limit separation initially but must do a great job of jockeying for position and timing his leaps well when playing the ball against Benjamin.
On Saturday night, Cockrell will have a chance to showcase his skills on the national spotlight. He currently holds a Day 3 grade but can help his stock if he is able to show well against the Seminoles receiving corps that maybe the deepest and most talented in the country.