Last weekend's results in college football put every coach and player on notice: The path to the second College Football Playoff will not be easy.
If the contenders for the four postseason spots are to keep themselves in the hunt, they'll need to rely on their star upperclassmen to lead the way. Those Big Men on Campus will be trying to direct their teams to the CFP, and they'll be hoping to win over NFL scouts in the process.
Below are the top 10 juniors or seniors, ranked according to their draft stock, that will intrigue scouts as they attempt to guide their teams to a coveted playoff berth.
1. Michigan State QB Connor Cook: Right now, NFL scouts are trying to decide whether Cook is a candidate to become an average NFL starter who will always be fighting to keep his job, or a potential top-flight passer that can lead a team through the playoffs. So far this season, he's looked more like the former, but Cook's performances on the road down the stretch will play a large part in determining his final grades. A newly toughened Michigan defense is an excellent test for him (Oct. 17), and the nation will tune in to his battle against the talent-loaded Buckeyes (Nov. 21). If Cook moves the ball effectively against those teams, even if Sparty doesn't get the win, NFL teams will consider him a potential franchise leader at the next level.
2. Baylor DE Shawn Oakman: The Bears' offense is rolling up amazing numbers so far this season (745 yards and 64 points per game) behind a trio of juniors in quarterback Seth Russell, receiver Corey Coleman, and running back Shock Linwood. But Oakman is the Baylor player foremost on NFL scouts' minds this year. After sitting out the first game due to suspension, he racked up 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks against Lamar and Rice. But an uninspired 3-tackle effort (none for a loss) against Le'Raven Clark and Texas Tech last week has scouts already wondering if he can step up his game against better competition. Oakman needs to have a strong finish to the year to put good tape in the hands of general managers throughout the league -- it will determine whether he goes in the top 50 or the top 5.
3. LSU CB Tre'Davious White: Super sophomore running back Leonard Fournette gets all the headlines, as he should, but he won't be eligible to apply for draft entry until after next season. White is a prospect scouts are evaluating for the near future, and he will play a key role for the Tigers as they pursue an SEC title. Why? Because LSU faces excellent receivers over the course of the next few weeks in Florida's Demarcus Robinson, Ole Miss' Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core, and Texas A&M's triumvirate of junior Josh Reynolds (see below), sophomore Ricky Seals-Jones and freshman Christian Kirk. If White holds up against that competition, he'll be considered one of the top cover talents in the country.
4. Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott: Elliott might be the most important player to his team on this list, as the Buckeyes' inconsistent passing attack will force him to carry the offensive load. Zeke's three long-distance touchdown runs (55, 65, and 75 yards) helped stave off Indiana's upset bid last weekend. He showed his combination of strength, agility, and explosiveness in the game. Unfortunately, the devaluation of the running back position will cost him some draft position -- but that doesn't mean he won't be a really good NFL back.
5. Clemson DEs Shaq Lawson/Kevin Dodd: The next pro-ready pass rushers from Clemson gave Notre Dame's strong left tackle, Ronnie Stanley, all he could handle last weekend. Just as quarterback Deshaun Watson and receiver Artavis Scott (both sophomores) are Clemson's leaders on offense, Lawson and Dodd lead a talented defense for the Tigers, who could end up in the playoff with a strong finish to the year, especially if they can pull out a win at home over Florida State on Nov. 7. In addition to facing Seminoles QB Everett Golson, the junior DEs will need to contain the edge against the vaunted Georgia Tech running game (Oct. 10) and stop Miami's budding sophomore passer, Brad Kaaya, from owning the skies (Oct. 24) if Clemson wants to make the Big Show.
6. Texas A&M WR Josh Reynolds: Quarterback Kyle Allen and defensive end Myles Garrett (both sophomores) are the Aggies' top stars, but evaluators consider Reynolds one of the best receivers in the county. His size (6-foot-4,195 pounds) and agility after the catch give him a chance to be a major playmaker on Sundays, even if he's not getting a lot of chances while Allen spreads the ball around to Christian Kirk, Ricky Seals-Jones, etc. Honorable mention here goes to junior defensive end Daeshon Hall, a 6-6, 260-pound pass rusher who makes it difficult for an offensive line to focus purely on Garrett.
7. USC QB Cody Kessler: Yes, Utah is the trendy pick to win the Pac-12 after beating up on Oregon a couple weeks ago, when Ducks QB Vernon Adams was benched. But the Trojans host the Utes later this year (Oct. 24) in one of several games that will impact Kessler's eventual place in the 2016 draft. Kessler is facing an uphill battle given the lack of success recent star USC quarterbacks (Matt Barkley, Mark Sanchez, Matt Leinart) have had in the NFL after putting up great statistics in college. He'll need to show scouts that he can execute an offense efficiently, "throw" receivers open, move well within the pocket and handle pressure from talented front sevens like Utah's. Otherwise, he'll be considered a developmental project rather than a first-round talent.
8. Florida LB Antonio Morrison: Junior cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III is the easy pick as the top prospect for the Gators, and his talent is formidable. However, Morrison's play inside this season has been fantastic, and scouts could put him in the same class as 2015 draft picks like Stephone Anthony (No. 31 overall, Saints) and Eric Kendricks (No. 45 overall, Vikings). He'll also be a major factor for the Gators as they face a load of talented backs coming down the stretch: LSU's stud back Leonard Fournette (Oct. 17), Georgia's strong combo of sophomore Nick Chubb and senior Keith Marshall (Oct. 31), and Florida State's electric ball carrier, sophomore Dalvin Cook (Nov. 28). Morrison will also need to convince scouts he's matured by staying away from off-field incidents that have plagued him during his time in Gainesville. He'll have to show that maturity in order for them to consider him a top-50 prospect.
9. TCU QB Trevone Boykin: Boykin appears to be following the same path to the Heisman Trophy that Robert Griffin III did in 2011. Boykin's not a run-first quarterback, though he can make plays with his feet if given the chance. He places exceptional throws over the top of defenses to a bevy of talented receivers. But scouts saw Griffin do that, as well, during his time at Baylor and the success in the pocket hasn't translated to the next level -- Boykin will face doubters in the scouting world. He will have two big games where he can prove himself, though, when the Horned Frogs take on Oklahoma in Norman (Nov. 21) and then host Griffin's former school six days later. If Boykin makes plays with his arm and feet, bounces up quickly from any big hits to display the necessary toughness to make it at the next level, and can anticipate throws and stick them in tight windows, he can turn at least a couple of NFL teams into believers.
10. Alabama QB Jake Coker: The vast majority of Alabama's current two-deep will play in the NFL, so it's tough to pick only one player as a "top prospect." NFL teams will be very interested in defensive end A'Shawn Robinson, running back Derrick Henry, safety Eddie Jackson and tight end O.J. Howard (among others) whenever they enter the draft. But Alabama needs Coker to be the leader of the offense to win the SEC. The former Florida State signal-caller must impress scouts with his ability to lead the team to a playoff berth if he has any chance to break into the top-100 overall selections. He possesses the physical characteristics to start in the NFL, but without wins in crucial situations, it will be tough to convince anyone he's an elite prospect.