The final month of college football's regular season provides NFL scouts with several matchups that ultimately will determine the draft fate of some of the top prospects in this year's draft class. While most evaluators will not admit to being swayed by a strong finish, it is hard for scouts to ignore players who close the season with standout performances.
Given the importance of shining when the lights are the brightest, here are five prospects with a lot riding on their play this weekend:
All games are scheduled for Saturday; all times listed are Eastern.
* Denotes underclassmen
Chase Thomas, OLB, Stanford
Stanford (8-2) at Oregon (10-0), 8 p.m., ABC
Chase Thomas is the heart and soul of the Cardinal defense with his relentless motor and rugged game. He attacks opponents off the edge and shows explosive quickness and burst as a pass rusher. Although Thomas only has 3.5 sacks, he is a disruptive penetrator with the ability to take over the game off the edge. Against an explosive Oregon offense with speed at every skill position, Thomas will have plenty of chances to showcase his speed, quickness and agility in space. If he can make a few plays in the Ducks' backfield, while displaying the disruptive skills that he has flashed throughout the season, Thomas could see his draft stock spike in war rooms across the league.
Cornelius "Tank" Carradine, DE, Florida State
Florida State (9-1) at Maryland (4-6), Noon, ESPNU
Carradine has created quite a buzz in NFL scouting circles with a strong senior season that has seen him emerge as the ACC leader with nine sacks. He is coming off a terrific performance against Virginia Tech (11 tackles and one sack) that showcased his impressive first-step quickness and burst. Carradine also showed solid skills as a run defender by using his 6-foot-4, 265-pound frame to set the edge against big, physical offensive tackles. While some scouts wonder if Carradine's production is a byproduct of playing opposite Bjoern Werner (eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss), Carradine will get a chance to show evaluators he possesses a game that fits at the next level.
Datone Jones, DE, UCLA
USC (7-3) at UCLA (8-2), 3:05 p.m., FOX
David Amerson*, CB, N.C. State
N.C. State (6-4) at Clemson (9-1), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2
Amerson already has NFL scouts salivating about his immense talent and potential. The 6-3, 195-pound cover man possesses the physical dimensions and ball skills that defensive coordinators covet in No. 1 corners. Although Amerson only has about a year and a half of starting experience, he has tallied 17 career interceptions and wreaks havoc on opponents with his aggressiveness in coverage. Amerson will take calculated gambles based on formation and receiver alignments to make plays on the ball, but opponents have exploited his risky ways by frequently instructing receivers to run double moves on his side to slip past him. Against a pair of explosive playmakers for Clemson in DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins, Amerson must play with discipline and technique to hold his own. If he can alleviate concerns about his gambling nature and man-to-man cover skills, Amerson can cement his status as a top prospect.
Quinton Patton, WR, Louisiana Tech
Utah State (8-2) at Louisiana Tech (9-1), 4 p.m., ESPN3
Patton is one of the top pass catchers in the country with a refined game that is ready-made for the pros. He is an outstanding route runner with exceptional balance, body control and short-area quickness. Patton is a natural pass catcher with a penchant for coming down with acrobatic grabs in traffic. Against Utah State, he will face a highly touted corner in Will Davis with the speed and athleticism to hold up in single coverage. With scouts certain to scour this tape looking for flaws in each of their games, this matchup could determine whether Patton is viewed as a No. 1 receiver at the next level.
FROM MY NOTEBOOK
» Senior wideout class lacks first-round talent. After studying several of the top wideouts in the 2013 draft class, I don't believe a senior prospect will finish the season with a consensus first-round grade. In theory, first-round prospects should project as first-year starters and possess at least three blue-chip characteristics (size, speed, playmaking ability, hands and receiving skills).
In looking at three of the top-rated seniors, Baylor's Terrance Williams, West Virginia's Tavon Austin and Louisiana Tech's Quinton Patton, I believe all of them fall short in a critical area that will prevent them from earning high marks across the league. With Williams, most scouts will find flaws in his route-running skills and worry about his ability to transition into a traditional pro-style offense after spending his collegiate career in the spread. Austin lacks the prototypical size (he is listed at 5-9, 180 pounds) to develop into a No. 1 receiver. In Patton, scouts will fall in love with his overall game and impact potential, but there are questions about his speed and burst.
Although I believe each player can develop into a solid contributor at the next level, the critical factors must be present to garner first-round consideration. At this point, I view them all as second-round possibilities.
» Matt Barkley's arm strength will be watched. The "Inflate Gate" scandal at USC that led to the dismissal of a student manager for providing the team with deflated footballs during the Oregon game might affect Barkley's evaluation in the eyes of NFL scouts. The practice of using a deflated ball is not uncommon on the high school level because a softer ball is easier to throw and catch. More specifically, quarterbacks are able to throw deflated balls farther and with better touch than regulation balls.
Given some of the concerns about Barkley's arm strength and talent, NFL scouts will pay close attention to his performance moving forward and compare it to his play in other games to see if there is a noticeable difference in the zip and velocity on his passes. In addition, scouts will scrutinize every one of his throws in postseason all-star games and pre-draft workouts to get an accurate gauge of his arm strength and talent. It's unfortunate, since Barkley has not been implicated in the controversy, but he certainly will face more scrutiny and pressure as a result of the situation.