CFB season preview: 13 matchups between future NFL stars

Scouts and general managers want to see college football games that allow the top players to match up against the best competition. Watching elite talents take on average or below-average athletes is not a great way to project their Sunday potential.

The following matchups from the 2016 season will be on the radars of NFL evaluators, as they'll provide a glimpse into the pro readiness of top-flight prospects.

1. LSU RB Leonard Fournette vs. Alabama ILB Reuben Foster (Nov. 5): Fournette's lack of production in last year's game against Alabama (31 yards on 19 carries, one score) played a big role in his decline in the Heisman Trophy race. The revenge factor for Fournette makes this must-see TV. Foster's going to be waiting for Fournette in the middle, along with several other 'Bama defenders (safety Eddie Jackson, defensive lineman Jonathan Allen and cornerback Marlon Humphrey, to name a few), as last year's 30-16 Tide victory was determined by Nick Saban's team-oriented defense. This game is almost always on the docket for NFL general managers, but this aspect of the battle gives it a little something extra.

2. Alabama LT Cam Robinson vs. Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett (Oct. 22): If Robinson performs well against the outstanding group of pass rushers he'll face this year, there will be no doubt that he's the best left tackle in the country. Garrett's speed and flexibility off the edge make him the toughest one-on-one battle this year for Robinson, who will need to prove he possesses the footwork to handle NFL-quality talent. A camera should always be trained on these two future NFL stars from the first to fourth quarter, as it will be great viewing for fans, media members and NFL scouts.

3. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson vs. Florida State S Derwin James (Oct. 29): For Clemson to challenge for a national title again in 2016, they must go to Tallahassee and win. A win against the stocked Seminoles defense might also help Watson get the Heisman. He'll have to avoid edge defenders DeMarcus Walker and Josh Sweat to get the ball downfield, but super sophomore James (4.5 sacks last year) will also be coming on the blitz as well as backing into coverage at times. James might also spy Watson to prevent 8-10 yard rushing gains from becoming 15-30 yard plays.

4. USC CBs Adoree' Jackson/Iman Marshall vs. Alabama WR Calvin Ridley (Sept. 3): This high-profile battle should be fun to watch. Ridley showed his playmaking ability for the Tide last season, so the Trojans' elite cover men will have their work cut out for them if they allow him to get the ball in open space. Jackson and Marshall might form the most talented cornerback duo in the country, although they might be matched by the pair on the other sideline of this game (Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick).

5. Florida State LT Roderick Johnson vs. Louisville DE/LB Devonte Fields (Sept. 17): The Cardinals could beat out Clemson and Florida State for the ACC Coastal title. Fields' ability to beat Johnson around the edge could be a big factor in determining whether Louisville can get the win. His 11 sacks in 2015 made NFL scouts remember the way he played as a freshman at TCU. Johnson has the athleticism to handle Fields on the edge, and proving his strength in this matchup would boost his credentials for All-America honors this season.

6. USC WR JuJu Smith-Schuster vs. Washington CB Sidney Jones (Nov. 12): Two talented juniors will face off in a mid-November Pac-12 battle royale. Jones has already displayed competitiveness and ball skills in his first two years as a starter, and he'll get a chance to earn national acclaim when he faces Smith-Schuster. Jones will be looking to prove his 181-pound frame can hold up against the 220-pound USC WR. Smith-Schuster also has to take on the Alabama corner duo in the Sept. 3 season opener; his efforts against Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey are definitely worth a watch.

7. Michigan WR Jehu Chesson vs. Iowa CBs Desmond King, Greg Mabin (Nov. 12): Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines are looking to contend for a Big Ten title this year, and they have to travel to Iowa City (as well as East Lansing and Columbus) for tough tests. Chesson's tall frame and agility give him an excellent chance to crack the top 50 picks in next year's draft, but taking on an All-American in King (eight interceptions in 2015) and an underrated corner in Mabin should give a good indication of the receiver's NFL readiness. King is also likely to be a top-50 pick in 2017. He doesn't just have good hands -- he's a physical player who will challenge Chesson when matched up outside.

8. Florida CB Teez Tabor vs. LSU WRs Malachi Dupre/Travin Dural (Oct. 8): The next star cornerback for Florida is out of Vernon Hargreaves' shadow and will get a challenge no matter which one of the Tigers' excellent receivers lines up against him. Dupre (6-foot-3, 190 pounds) and Dural (6-2, 203) are fast, have hops, and possess a size advantage over the 6-0, 201-pound Tabor. But Tabor will make LSU quarterback Brandon Harris pay if he makes inaccurate throws toward his favorite targets.

9. Michigan State DT Malik McDowell vs. Ohio State C Pat Elflein (Nov. 19): Elflein is moving from guard to center this season. One of the tougher asks he'll have as a senior will be corralling McDowell, who despite his tall, relatively lean build (6-6, 280) plays a strong nose tackle for the Spartans. Elflein's strength, intelligence, and determination, however, make him the top pivot prospect in the 2017 draft class -- so he has the chops to keep McDowell from dominating up front. A win for the Buckeyes here will likely set up a final-game showdown with Michigan for the Big Ten Eastern Division title.

10. (tie) USC OT Zach Banner vs. Alabama LB Tim Williams (Sept. 3); Banner vs. Utah DE/LB Kylie Fitts (Sept. 23): The opening-weekend matchup between Banner and Williams belongs on this list -- they're two of the top players at their respective positions. As for Fitts, he's a bit of an unknown quantity nationally, but he'll have a great stage to make all football fans aware of his presence in a Friday night game in late September. Banner's a mammoth at 6-9, 360 pounds, but Fitts could use his quickness and finesse to win the edge. The other Trojans tackle, Chad Wheeler, is no slouch himself, so the UCLA Bruin-turned-Utah Ute won't get a break no matter which OT he lines up against.

11. Oklahoma State WR James Washington vs. Oklahoma CB Jordan Thomas (Dec. 3): Washington is one of the most exciting players in the country. He'll challenge Thomas on every snap, whether it's chasing a deep ball from Cowboys quarterback Mason Rudolph down the sideline or using his quickness and agility to make things happen after a short pass. Thomas is capable of holding his own, however, as he showed last year by intercepting five passes for the Sooners. More than 150 combined points have been scored by these teams in the past two Bedlams; this matchup could determine how often the scoreboard lights up this year.

12. Pittsburgh OG Dorian Johnson vs. Clemson DT Carlos Watkins (Nov. 12): Though Elflein deserves to be considered the top interior offensive lineman in the country, Johnson should be in the conversation. His combination of mobility and strength at guard is not only Sunday-worthy, but makes him a potential perennial Pro Bowler. Watkins appears to be the next Clemson defensive lineman who'll earn high grades from NFL scouts, though top-rated freshman Dexter Lawrence might also have his turn taking on Johnson. Either way, this game will be a lot of fun if you like watching what goes on in the trenches.

13. Western Michigan WR Corey Davis vs. Northern Illinois CB Shawun Lurry (Oct. 8): NFL stars come from outside the Power 5 conferences, as well. This intriguing corner-receiver duel that could decide the MAC West title also presents two potential pro starters. Lurry's nine interceptions led the FBS last season, while Davis finished fourth nationally in receiving yards (1,436). But Lurry's listed at 5-8, 180 pounds while the Chippewas' star pass-catcher checks in at 6-3, 213. The junior defender must bring all of his athleticism, confidence and intensity if he is to limit Davis from snagging balls and utilizing his after-the-catch ability.

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @chad_reuter.

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