Thursday night's battle between Stanford and Oregon has major national championship implications. With an Oregon win, the Ducks will likely leap frog Florida State in the BCS standings while a Stanford win will keep its slim national title hopes alive. This isn't just a big game for these programs; it's also a very big opportunity for their top NFL prospects. There will be more than 30 scouts in attendance and I've been told at least three general managers will be present as well. A dynamic performance in a game like this could send a prospect's stock through the roof. Here are the five players I'll be focused on during the game:
Oregon QB Marcus Mariota
Mariota has arguably the most at stake in this contest. He is a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy and a strong outing against a well-regarded defense such as Stanford's would make a strong impression on voters. After studying him on coaching tape this week, I've noticed a few improvements he's made from last season. He has more velocity on drive throws and he's also improved his footwork inside the pocket. However, there is one area where I'd still like to see some more consistency: Accuracy. Outside of an outstanding performance against Washington, he's been very streaky with his ball placement. Stanford's defense will challenge the Oregon skill players on the outside and we'll get a chance to see if Mariota can be a precision passer on Thursday night.
Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu
Ekpre-Olomu is one of the top cornerbacks in college football. He doesn't have elite size (5-foot-10, 190 pounds), but he has very quick feet, outstanding toughness and top-notch ball skills. He will get a big challenge when he lines up over Stanford's talented junior wideout Ty Montgomery. Ekpre-Olomu physically beats up smaller wideouts at the line of scrimmage, but Montgomery has a powerful upper body to fight through press coverage. This matchup will be one of the key factors in deciding the outcome of the game.
Oregon RB De'Anthony Thomas
Thomas has missed some time this season while battling injuries, but he's currently in good health and he's feeling pretty confident about the Ducks' chances on Saturday night. Earlier this week, he told the media that he expected the Ducks offense to put up at least 40 points on the Cardinal. The Stanford front seven is very physical at the point of attack and they are very gap-disciplined. Thomas isn't going to have much room inside the tackle box, but his speed could be a factor on the perimeter. I'd also look for Oregon to get him more involved in the passing game. He has soft hands, and he's incredibly elusive when he gets the ball in space.
Stanford LB Trent Murphy
Murphy is Stanford's most disruptive defender. He has already amassed 13.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. He doesn't have an explosive get-off or the flexibility to bend/wrap around the edge, but his combination of power, hand technique and effort is outstanding. He is also a very stout run defender. He excels at setting the edge versus both offensive tackles and tight ends. He'll have a great opportunity to improve his draft stock with a strong outing on this stage.
Stanford LB Shane Skov
Skov is the emotional leader of the Stanford defense and he's playing A LOT better than he did last fall. He's now two years removed from his knee injury, and he's moving around much better. Against the run, he has outstanding instincts, and he excels at flowing with the play and aggressively filling the hole to chest-up ball carriers. He is a very sure tackler inside the tackle box. Against the pass, he is a very effective blitzer, and he uses his instincts to cover up throwing lanes in his zone drops. The one area where he can be exploited is in man coverage. He lacks the foot speed to match up with explosive running backs and tight ends. Oregon will likely try to exploit this matchup, and I'm eager to see how Skov responds to the challenge.
Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.