- Todd McShay, Scouts Inc.
Nearly every bowl game this season features NFL prospects on one or both of the teams, and there are some games that are particularly loaded with future pro talent. With that in mind we decided to identify the top prospect "matchups" of bowl season -- both instances in which guys will literally be lining up opposite each other, and cases where players at the same position are playing each other.
Here are the top prospect matchups in this year's bowls -- we'll be back at a later date to spotlight the key matchups in the BCS title game between Florida State and Auburn.
This is a battle of QB prospects that you won’t want to miss. Miami's Morris has unquestionable talent (including a quick release and above-average arm strength that allows him to make all the NFL throws), but he hasn’t yet been able to develop his accuracy and decision-making skills. It’s unclear how much he's been limited this season by an ankle injury, and there's no question that some injuries to his skill-position players (in particular star RB Duke Johnson) have interfered with his ability to be productive. I'm hoping for Morris' sake that he’ll be 100 percent healthy for this one, and be able to show NFL scouts what he’s capable of doing.
On the other sideline there's Bridgewater, a potential No. 1 overall pick should he choose to leave school early. The Cardinals haven't had the dream season they were hoping for, but Bridgewater has more than held up his end of the bargain. He played really well in the team's one loss to UCF, and he flat-out carried Louisville in its final regular-season game victory against Cincinnati. His lack of size and long-term NFL durability are troubling, but he is really tough, has a tremendous football IQ and possesses pinpoint accuracy. This bowl game is another opportunity for Bridgewater to show NFL scouts that he's the best QB in the 2014 draft class.
If you like running backs, this is your bowl game. Arizona's Carey is currently our third-ranked RB prospect behind Ohio State's Carlos Hyde and Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas, now that Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon has said he's returning to school. Boston College's Williams ranks fifth, behind Hyde, Thomas, Carey and Baylor's Lache Seastrunk.
Carey isn't the biggest guy, but he got stronger as the season progressed and showed the ability to put his team on his shoulders with his 48-carry, 208-yard performance in the Wildcats' upset win over Oregon this season. He averaged 33 carries in his final seven games.
Williams, meanwhile, leads the FBS in rushing yards with 2,102 this season, a total that helped him earn a fourth-place finish in the Heisman voting. As a prospect, he is faster than he looks (he ripped off 26 rushes of 20 or more yards this season, the most by an FBS player since 2007) and he's a perfect fit for a power-running team like the Baltimore Ravens. He has the potential to work his way into the second day of the draft.
Valero Alamo Bowl, Dec. 30, 6:45 p.m. ET
Most fans typically think of the Ducks’ offense when it comes to any game involving Oregon, but there is a really intriguing one-on-one matchup that will be taking place when the Longhorns have the ball. Ekpre-Olomu is a potential first-round pick who possesses excellent anticipation and route-recognition skills. He is a playmaker, with the ball skills to match, and he’s a fluid and flexible athlete with above-average man-to-man coverage skills and quick short-area closing burst. In short, he's a takeaway machine.
Ekpre-Olomu will face the task of shutting down Davis, a vertical threat with good size (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) and improving ball skills. He has the tools to develop into a good No. 2 or No. 3 wide receiver in the NFL, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he winds up as a late Day 2 value pick in this year's draft. He has really gotten better throughout the season.
Hyundai Sun Bowl, Dec. 31, 2 p.m. ET
This is an interesting battle between two quarterbacks who have loads of natural ability but are still very much works in progress. Hundley has very impressive physical tools, including size, mobility and arm strength, and he has the potential to one day develop into a very good NFL quarterback. But because of the inconsistency of his decision-making and throwing accuracy, I think he should return to school for his redshirt junior season, plain and simple.
Thomas doesn’t have that option, as a senior, even though he'd probably benefit from another year of development at Virginia Tech. Thomas certainly made strides under new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler this season, and often his supporting cast let him down this season, limiting his production. Like Hundley he has the size, arm strength and mobility to succeed at the NFL level, and he's an excellent young man, but his accuracy and decision-making simply have not progressed. It'll be interesting to see where he lands in the draft; a strong performance against a talented Bruins defense led by likely top-10 pick OLB Anthony Barr would help his stock. I know of some scouts who still have top-50 overall grades on Thomas.
5. Stanford defense versus Michigan State defense
Rose Bowl presented by VIZIO, Jan. 1, 5 p.m. ET
This game is loaded with defensive prospects, with seven players in our top 160 overall.
For the Spartans, ILB Max Bullough, safety Isaiah Lewis and OLB Denicos Allen all grade out as potential mid-round picks, but the headliner is CB Darqueze Dennard. He is one of several corners in the mix to be drafted in the first round, and he's had an excellent season. His performance in MSU's win over Ohio State in the Big Ten title game is one of the most impressive tapes I've studied of a cornerback all season. He followed Buckeyes WR Devin Smith all over the field, was asked to hold up against him on an island in one-on-one coverage for about 70 percent of the game and nearly completely shut him down (Smith had just one catch for 11 yards). He is a smart, tough player with above-average size who has great playmaking instincts, and I can't wait to see him versus Stanford WR Ty Montgomery. It should be a great one-on-one matchup to study, as Montgomery has 10 receiving TDs this season to go with 16.2 yards per catch.
On the other sideline, the Cardinal have three defenders who could hear their names called in the first few rounds of the 2014 NFL draft. OLB Trent Murphy is the highest-ranked of the three, a relentless pass-rusher who has been very productive this season. He isn't an elite athlete, which is what could keep him out of the first round, but he has good first-step quickness, snap anticipation and the ability to transfer speed to power. ILB Shayne Skov is the vocal leader of the Stanford defense, and finally looks like he's back to full health after suffering a torn ACL earlier in his career. He isn't the quickest player, but possesses good instincts and takes good angles, which allows him to play faster. Safety Ed Reynolds currently carries a mid-round grade -- his range in the passing game isn't great, but he is a disciplined player with good awareness and ball skills.
Nearly every bowl game this season features NFL prospects on one or both of the teams, and there are some games that are particularly loaded with future pro talent.