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Top 7 individual matchups to watch in College Football Playoff

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Dominating against college players that don't have an NFL future is one thing, but dominating against elite talent? That's something else.


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The star players suiting up for Alabama, Clemson, Michigan State and Oklahoma should heed those words when facing fellow prospects in the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year's Eve.

Besting the competition across the line of scrimmage will not only help their team win and move on to the national title game, but it will also improve that player's standing in the eyes of NFL general managers, coaches and scouts -- who place higher value on game tape against top competition when evaluating the draft class.

Here are my top seven individual matchups to watch during the College Football Playoff semifinals, all of which will have an impact on the draft grades of some of college football's best players.

7. Michigan State WR Aaron Burbridge vs. Alabama CB Cyrus Jones
Jones is a converted receiver who really came on during the second half of the year for the Tide. Burbridge, too, has taken a huge step forward in his senior season, becoming Spartans quarterback Connor Cook's favorite target (80 receptions, 1,219 yards, seven scores). If Jones can stay with Burbridge (who measures about 6-foot-1 vs. Jones' 5-10) downfield, NFL teams might not have a choice but to look at him as a legitimate starting or nickel prospect instead of a returner (three touchdowns on punt returns in 2015) and dime back. Likewise, Burbridge needs to separate from Jones and Alabama's young stud corners to show he can be a true No. 1 option at the next level.

6. Michigan State LT Jack Conklin vs. Alabama DE A'Shawn Robinson
If Conklin gets his mitts on a defensive end, the play is over. The Spartans' All-American left tackle is a 6-6, 325-pound bulldog with very strong hands and the attitude to go through the whistle on every play. In theory, the matchup with Robinson (6-4, 312) plays right into Conklin's wheelhouse, strength vs. strength. However, scouts like Robinson's athleticism as a five-technique, which could give Conklin fits if Alabama coaches get their first-team All-SEC end to win the hand battle and free himself to get through the tackle's outside shoulder. Whether these juniors apply for early entry into the 2016 draft or not, NFL personnel men will be keying in on this clash early and often.

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5. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson vs. Oklahoma LB Eric Striker
This will be the ultimate chess battle, pitting the passing and running ability of Watson, a sophomore Heisman finalist, against the versatility and instincts of Striker. The two-time first-team All-Big 12 defender chases quarterbacks in the pocket (eight sacks in 2015) as well as running backs (16 tackles for loss) using his speed. Some NFL teams won't value Striker as much as they should because of his size (6-0, 222), but given Watson's ability to make big plays with his feet (887 rushing yards this year) by design or when his initial read is covered, Striker's dogged pursuit of ball carriers makes him a valuable asset in this matchup. And while Watson won't be able to go pro until at least after next season, evaluators will want to see the playmaker operate the offense efficiently as well as use his athleticism to his advantage on this big stage.

4. Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander vs. Oklahoma WR Sterling Shepard
Alexander is living up to his high school recruiting ranking (fourth overall prospect nationally by ESPN) during his redshirt sophomore season, shutting down top receivers across the board. Shepard's route-running from the slot and on the outside is a challenge for any cornerback, though. Shepard will be compared to Green Bay Packers star Randall Cobb due to his size (5-10, 193), toughness and versatility. Alexander has the agility and aggression to make life difficult for Shepard on slants and comebacks, and a successful bowl game will show scouts he's a future pro starter.


» Tracking underclassmen intentions for 2016 draft


3. Michigan State C Jack Allen vs. DT Alabama Jarran Reed
I projected Reed as a top-50 pick before the season began, and he's met those expectations with strong play in his senior campaign. He uses his low center of gravity quite well, and is able to unlock from his man to make plays on ball carriers coming through gaps to his left and right. When Reed plays head-up on the center, though, he'll face a tenacious blocker in Allen. The senior first-team All-Big Ten selection fought through injuries this season, but should be ready to turn Reed's shoulders to make room for freshman running back L.J. Scott. Scouts will also take a peek at Spartans senior lineman Donavon Clark if Reed lines up at three-technique across from the 6-4, 325-pound right guard with NFL length and strength.

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2. Alabama RT Dominick Jackson vs. Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun
Calhoun plays on both sides of the defensive front, so he could see a bit of Tide sophomore left tackle Cam Robinson, as well ... but the really interesting matchup for scouts evaluating the 2016 draft class comes when the first-team All-Big Ten pick faces Jackson on the right side of the offensive line. Jackson was a dominant guard in junior college and a second-team All-SEC pick by league coaches after shifting out to tackle this season. Calhoun's willingness to take a strong punch from Jackson when playing the run will help NFL teams project him as an every-down player. On the other hand, Jackson will try to prove he can play tackle at the next level. Scouts will be interested to see if he's able to consistently escort one of the country's top sack artists (27 career) around the pocket.

1. Oklahoma LT Orlando Brown, Jr. vs. Clemson DE Shaq Lawson
The son of the late NFL tackle Orlando Brown carries his father's physique (6-8, 342) and wingspan. Lawson's been a thorn in the side of every left tackle he's faced this season, however, converting his speed to power and getting under the pads of taller linemen like Brown to push them into the quarterback. The nation's leader in tackles for loss (22.5) will also test the redshirt freshman's ability to keep his feet moving against a speed rush. And if Lawson can hold the edge in the run game against a mountain of a man like Brown, scouts will see the first-team All-American as a top-flight prospect.

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @chad_reuter.

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