|Tony Avelar / Associated Press|
|Stanford OLB Trent Murphy can improve his draft stock with upcoming games vs. Oregon, USC, Cal and Notre Dame.|
Every year during the NFL draft process -- which includes the combine, pro days and personal workouts -- player stocks rise and fall. But it's really this time of the season when prospects can make a lot of money.
We're heading down the stretch of the college football season and into bowl season, when each game becomes more meaningful and matchups can determine whether a player is drafted at the back end of the first round or in the middle of it. Here are five players I'll be watching closely over the next two months to see if they'll rise to the occasion or fall flat:
Stanford OLB Trent Murphy
Murphy (confirmed 6-foot-6, 260 pounds) is a very good player. He has a quick first-step move, a necessity to be a pass rusher in the NFL, and he wins with speed (4.75 40) and technique. He has 9.5 sacks on the season and 12.5 tackles for loss. I think he can be an edge rusher in the NFL. Stanford finishes up against Oregon (Thursday night), USC, Cal and Notre Dame. Only Cal won't offer a challenge. If Murphy continues his strong season, he has a chance to improve his stock even more. Interesting side note: Don't be surprised if Murphy doesn't test up to the same level as his competition at the NFL Combine or his pro day; Stanford sent out a letter to teams on their weight program, which is predicated on preventing injuries (the team has lost fewer games to injuries than any other in the nation), and not necessarily on increasing strength and speed. Andrew Luck was an exception; he tested off the charts.
Buffalo LB Khalil Mack
Mack is one of those rare players who escaped the state of Florida and went on to become a top NFL prospect. He started this season with a bang, collecting nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception return for a touchdown against Ohio State. I believe if the draft had been held after that game he would have been a top 10 pick. He's played OK since but not anywhere close to that level. That doesn't mean NFL scouts aren't still excited about him -- they are. I'm not sure there has ever been this much traffic by NFL teams to the University of Buffalo. On the season, Mack (confirmed 6-2 5/8, 245) has 54 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks. He's competitive on every play and runs well (4.65 40). He'll get a lot of national TV exposure over the next month against good competition, including two road games against Toledo and Bowling Green. Scouts will want to see what is truer, his game against the Buckeyes or the ones that followed.
Alabama LB C.J. Mosley
Mosley (confirmed 6-2 3/8, 228, 4.55 40) has been a four-year starter for the Tide, and this season he is the best player on a stingy, top-five defense. He's got 59 tackles; next closest on the team is 34. He reminds me a lot of Derrick Brooks, who I think one day will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's certainly a playmaker like Brooks was at Florida State. Alabama plays two really good teams down the stretch, LSU and Auburn. It will be a good barometer for where Mosley fits into the draft. Don't count on it being too high, and it has nothing to do with this tremendous talent; teams don't traditionally spend high picks on inside linebackers, a position that isn't valued as high as, say, pass rushers.
Minnesota NT Ra'Shede Hageman
Hageman (confirmed 6-6 3/4, 307) is a fifth-year player who redshirted as a freshman. He came to Minnesota as a high school tight end and switched to defensive tackle. He will be 24 years old when he hits his first rookie camp. This season, he has 27 tackles and two sacks (he had six sacks in 2012). He's an outstanding athlete who played basketball in high school. He moves well but looks to be too tall to play inside at the next level. I think he'd be a better fit as an end, and I'm sure teams will work him out at end to see if he has a quick enough first step. The Gophers have a hockey-style approach to their defensive line substitutions, bringing in and out two players at a time. Is it because Hageman doesn't have the stamina to play more snaps? I don't know, but it's a question I have. Left on the schedule for Minnesota is Michigan State and Wisconsin, running teams that will test Hageman.
Clemson QB Tajh Boyd
Boyd, a fifth-year player, has thrown 20 touchdown passes in nine games this season, giving him 93 for his career. He's got a strong arm and there's a lot to like about him, but consistency has been an issue, particularly against top teams. He did not play well against Florida State at home, and struggled in the first half against Maryland the following week before turning it on in the third and fourth quarters. The Tigers have just one tough game left on the schedule, vs. South Carolina. Boyd can help his cause by finishing strong, or raise more questions about his consistency.
My Harris Poll ballot
Here's how I voted the top 10 in my Harris Poll ballot this week (with where the team actually landed in the poll):
1. Alabama (1)
2. Oregon (2)
3. Florida State (3)
4. Ohio State (4)
5. Baylor (5)
6. Stanford (6)
7. Clemson (7)
8. Oklahoma (10)
9. LSU (11)
10. Auburn (9).
My ballot is exactly how the consensus sees it through the first seven spots, but then it gets a little jumbled. I've been high on Oklahoma for a long time, and it seems only now that voters are consistently placing the Sooners in the top 10.
We'll know a lot more about them -- and Baylor -- this week, when the two teams meet up in Waco, Texas. It pits Oklahoma's 10th-ranked defense against Baylor's top-ranked scoring offense.
Speaking of top 10 matchups ...
There might not be a more meaningful week in college football this season than the one coming up, with three games pitting six top 13 teams in the BCS standings against each other, including two Thursday night. Some quick thoughts on the three games:
No. 10 Oklahoma at No. 6 Baylor, 7:30 p.m. ET Thursday: Historically, Oklahoma has not been as good on the road as it has been at home. It will be interesting to see if the Sooners can keep up with Baylor's high-powered offense.
No. 3 Oregon at No. 5 Stanford, 9 p.m. ET Thursday: Who would have thought 20 years ago these two schools would be competing for a national title? Both have exceptional athletes, but I like Oregon to win because Marcus Mariota is a much better quarterback than Kevin Hogan.
No. 13 LSU at No. 1 Alabama, 8 p.m. ET Saturday: I expect this to be a knock-down, drag-it-out game similar to when these two teams, ranked No. 1 and 2 at the time, met in the 2011 regular season with LSU winning in overtime, 9-6. This time, I think Alabama will be too tough to handle at night and at home.
Another game I'll be keeping close tabs on is No. 16 Fresno State at Wyoming. With an 8:15 p.m. local kickoff in Laramie, Derek Carr -- the nation's second-leading passer with 389.9 yards per game and 28 touchdowns -- will have to deal with wind and cold. It is the first game of his career where he will play in such conditions. If he deals with it without any problems it will certainly increase his draft stock with colder-weather NFL teams.
The Ivy League doesn't receive a lot of attention because of the lower level of competition, but this past weekend there were several noteworthy performances, including:
» John Spooney, the Ivy League's 100-meter champion, had touchdown runs of 93 and 94 yards in Brown's 27-0 victory over Penn.
» Fordham went to 9-0 for the first time in school history by beating Holy Cross, 32-30. QB Mike Nebrich threw for a school-record 524 yards.
» Princeton QB Quinn Epperly completed his first 29 passes, an FCS record, in a 53-20 victory over Cornell. His first incompletion came at the 5:14 mark of the third quarter.
» Yale RB Kahlil Keys set a school record with a 94-yard scoring run in a 53-12 victory over Columbia.
All good things ...
My streak of picking five straight upset specials came to a halt on Saturday, when Florida Atlantic doubled up Tulane, 34-17. Impressive victory for a team that switched head coaches mid-week.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.