Now that we're past the halfway point of the college football season, teams are jockeying for postseason position, and a few are even looking toward the Promised Land -- a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff.
NFL scouts are also very interested to see whether a player will step up his games based on his team's circumstances. Does a quarterback put the team on his back to win the conference title? Can a top talent on a poor team overcome the disappointment of the season to give full effort? Will a top-rated defender fare as well against conference opponents as he did against non-conference foes?
When evaluating talent for potential NFL success, it's truly not how they start that matters most, but how they finish. Here are nine players with the most to gain (or lose) based on how they finish out the year.
Jacoby Brissett, QB, North Carolina State: The Florida transfer had a coming-out party against Florida State last season, throwing for 359 yards and three touchdowns against a talented Seminoles defense. Brissett's efforts have been up-and-down this year. He's thrown only one interception all season, but hasn't been as accurate as scouts would like. With games against Florida State and an undefeated Clemson squad coming up, the pocket passer gets a chance to separate himself as a potential starter at the next level. If he's viewed as a starter, general managers will take a chance on him in the second round. If not, he'll end up a mid-to-late round selection with an uncertain NFL future.
Aaron Burbridge, WR, Michigan State: Spartans senior quarterback Connor Cook will obviously be evaluated on his play down the stretch, but Burbridge has a chance to earn money hand over fist if he helps Cook win the Big Ten Championship. Cook's four-year resume speaks for itself, but this is Burbridge's first year as "the man" in Michigan State's offense. If he keeps his pace of nine catches and 139 yards per game over the last month of the season (especially against Ohio State), it would push him from late-round consideration to potentially a top-100 pick.
Jake Coker, QB, Alabama: Nick Saban's club has one of the toughest remaining stretches with a home game against a hot LSU team and games at Mississippi State and Auburn. With a playoff spot still within reach, is there a better stage on which Coker can finally show his mettle as an NFL prospect? Those believing in his NFL potential point to his toughness and physical attributes. Others assert that if Coker was able to lead a team in an elite manner, he would have done so by now. If he makes good decisions with the football, as well as big plays with his arm and feet down the stretch, he'll shorten his wait come NFL Draft Weekend.
D.J. Foster, RB/WR, Arizona State: Foster has been put in a bad spot by those that wanted him to switch positions for his senior year -- he previously served exclusively as a running back. He's averaging just 8.3 yards a catch as a receiver, where some NFL scouts believe he would best fit on Sundays. On the other hand, he's averaging nearly as many yards per carry (6.8). If he can somehow break out over the last few games of the year at either position, teams will be more willing to consider using an early round selection to secure his services. Otherwise, he may be pigeon-holed as a Dexter McCluster-type tweener that helps move the chains but doesn't offer many impact plays.
Jordan Jenkins, DE/OLB, Georgia: After starting the season with 5.5 tackles for loss against Vanderbilt, Jenkins managed only one in the next four contests. In addition, he's fighting a groin/hip flexor injury that kept him out against Missouri. It's unlikely that there will be many strong pass-rush prospects available in the 2016 draft, so Jenkins can keep himself in the top half of the first round with strong performances against Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech, as well as in the team's bowl game.
Cody Kessler, QB, USC: NFL scouts are looking at quarterbacks coming out of Troy as Trojan Horses due to the lack of NFL success for former USC QBs Matt Cassel, Matt Leinart, John David Booty, Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley. After a couple of poor performances in losses to Washington and Notre Dame, whispers that Kessler had fallen into the mid-round category became louder -- but then he returned to his comfort zone with an excellent effort in the team's upset win over Utah last week. Kessler might not be the franchise quarterback some once believed him to be, but leading USC to wins at Oregon and against rival UCLA with big throws into small windows (and low interception totals) should at least allow him to hear his name called as a top-50 pick next April.
Braxton Miller, WR, Ohio State: My inclusion of Miller is not an indictment of his play. In fact, it's quite the contrary. The more he shows scouts, the higher his draft stock goes. Every amazing catch or open-field juke gives NFL teams a glimpse into his playmaking ability. Remember when people scoffed at Miller's preseason statement that he was "the best athlete in college football"? Well, he might have been right. If he blows up Twitter by putting up great numbers at the NFL Scouting Combine (his coach expects him to), teams might have to pick him where they should have picked equally versatile Green Bay PackersPro Bowl receiver Randall Cobb -- in the first round.
Jalen Mills, FS/CB, LSU: Mills looked to be one of the top secondary prospects in the country heading into his senior year, but suffered a fractured fibula in preseason practice. He did not redshirt earlier in his career, so he could have done so this fall. Instead, Mills decided to tough it out, rehabbing quickly to return to action a couple of weeks ago. In his first start of the season last weekend against Western Kentucky, Mills had two stops and made a nice pass breakup against one of the more potent offenses in the country. The importance of having slot corners with the physicality to play the run, blitz, and handle tight ends off the line of scrimmage has never been higher -- Mills could prove himself to be that sort of contributor.
Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor: NFL general managers want to pick Oakman in the top 10 because of his physical stature (6-foot-9, 275 pounds). He's made most of his hay this season against lesser competition, however, and was virtually silenced when playing a good talent in Texas Tech left tackle Le'Raven Clark. After a bye this weekend, Oakman will take on Kansas State's Cody Whitehair and Oklahoma's young stud Orlando Brown, Jr., in consecutive weeks. Showing consistent effort and playmaking ability against better competition will show scouts he's worth an early pick. The Bears need him to step up his game now that quarterback Seth Russell is out for the season with a neck injury.