- Carve out some time each Saturday—just one game per week—to check out the top prospects for next spring’s NFL draft
In a little more than a month, we’ll reach the nadir of meaningless NFL preseason football only to be vaulted into a haze of prime time college games that feature middle-tier schools stepping over one another for a chance at a prime time television appearance.
It can be a puzzling time especially for the red meat NFL fan (waves to teammate Andy Benoit) and it can often serve as a sour start to an NCAA football season that doesn’t really bloom in our consciousness until November.
But make no mistake, the future of the NFL will be molded before our eyes on college fields. Why miss the chance to reference obscure early September games that will be hoisted by draftnik tape grinders in February—especially when we’ll distill all the best matchups for you right here?
Behold, a frame-by-frame college football viewing guide for the NFL fan, highlighting one matchup each week with heavy draft implications:
WEEK 1: Washington vs. Auburn
Saturday, Sept. 1, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Mercedes Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Ga.
An obvious one to kick things off. Here we get Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham, quite possibly the first passer off the board in the 2019 draft, facing off against a Washington team featuring left tackle Trey Adams. Adams is another possible top-10 selection, depending on how his ACL—torn in 2017—heals. Stidham threw for 18 touchdowns and six interceptions last year and while he can look a little stiff and sluggish in the pocket, he can throw on the move and deliver the ball with pro-level velocity. The Tigers also boast a stable of upperclassmen on the defensive line that should pose a challenge for Adams.
WEEK 2: Clemson at Texas A&M
Saturday, Sept. 8, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Kyle Field, College Station, Tx.
The first big reveal for Clemson’s vaunted defensive line, which could produce a handful of first-round draft picks. In Albert Breer’s mock, he had three Tigers—Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins—all going in the top 10. The Aggies have a serviceable enough offensive line, at least the best Clemson will face over the first month of the season. The buzz will only build from here.
WEEK 3: Alabama at Ole Miss
Saturday, Sept. 15, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Vaught–Hemingway Stadium, Oxford, Miss.
If you’re already caught up on Washington’s Trey Adams, this game will showcase the other two O-line headliners for next spring: Jonah Williams of Alabama and Greg Little of Ole Miss. Little is a classic SEC mauler with phenomenal athletic ability. Both teams will have NFL-level talent on defense to challenge the front five. Plus, Ole Miss wideout A.J. Brown is a stud, and could be one of the first receivers selected in 2019.
WEEK 4: Penn State at Illinois
Friday, Sept. 21, 9 p.m., FS1
Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Illinois
A second early-season prime time game for Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, this time against Lovie Smith and an NFL-inspired defense. While the Illini aren’t world-beaters, this is a good time to gather some first and second impressions on McSorley in the post-Saquon Barkley era. Confidence in the six-foot QB’s stock will be linked to Baker Mayfield’s early performance in the pros. McSorley shotputs the ball a bit but is mobile and made some brilliant tight-window throws last year—many of them went unnoticed thanks to a certain backfield mate.
WEEK 5: Iowa State at TCU
Saturday, Sept. 29, time and network TBD
Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, Tx.
While we won’t know what the big network prime time game will be (probably Penn State-Ohio State), this is a good table-setter week to think about something that could become a major story down the road. Matt Campbell’s Iowa State Cyclones stunned both No. 3 Oklahoma and then-No. 4 TCU in 2017, elevating 38-year-old Campbell from wunderkind to straight up pipeline coaching prospect. The next college-to-NFL ascension might not be from the usual suspects (Brian Kelly, Kirby Smart or Nick Saban). NFL owners, thanks to Sean McVay, are warming up to the younger crowd, making Campbell is a name to watch.
WEEK 6: Tulsa at Houston
Thursday, Oct. 4, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
TDECU Stadium, Houston
If the 2019 draft was held today, we would be having heated debates about Ohio State edge rusher Nick Bosa and the Ed Oliver, the Houston defensive tackle. While the perception of interior pass-rushing value can change, Oliver is monstrous and can impact a game from five positions. This might be the best chance to catch him in prime time before bowl season.
WEEK 7: Missouri at Alabama
Saturday, Oct. 13, time and network TBD
Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Missouri’s Drew Lock is another one of the passers being tossed into this currently nebulous first-round category. While NFL evaluators have a litany of traits they’re looking for mechanically, it’s always good to see how prospects stack up against premium competition—how they react, how they battle when the odds are stacked against them. This will be the toughest test of the season for Lock, who dazzled in 2017 with 44 touchdown passes.
WEEK 8: Oregon at Washington State
Saturday, Oct. 20, time and network TBD
Martin Stadium, Pullman, Wash.
Oregon QB Justin Herbert played eight games in each of his first two seasons and was injured a year ago but his size and arm strength are difficult to ignore. He’s a blast on the field; improvisational with a cannon arm even if he misses a few reads. There are analysts in the murky world of 2019 mock drafting already pegging him to rise to No. 1 should he enter after a solid season.
WEEK 9: Utah at UCLA
Friday, Oct. 26, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.
There are some bangers this weekend, but here’s something off the beaten path to consider: Chip Kelly. At this point in the season, will the Bruins still be relevant? How will they fare against one of the most consistent programs in recent CFB history with another coach, Kyle Whittingham, who might soon become a factor in big-time college coaching or even the NFL? People think Kelly’s mark on the NFL was quickly trampled thanks to the magical run Doug Pederson took the Eagles on last year. But the truth is that Kelly changed the landscape for many forward-thinking teams and people will be watching.
WEEK 10: West Virginia at Texas
Saturday, Nov. 3, time and network TBD
Texas Memorial Stadium, Austin, Tx.
This could end up a quietly sexy matchup if the Longhorns can get their program on the rails. Mountaineer quarterback Will Grier will be in town and if he manages to even his game out, he could start getting the Sam Darnold prime-time treatment toward the end of the year. Grier is up there with Drew Lock, Justin Herbert, Jarrett Stidham and the rest. We’re projecting a bit here, and there will be plenty of chances down the stretch to see him play in a hostile environment (the Mountaineers finish with TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma) but this will be a nice change of pace for those not stuck on Alabama-LSU.
WEEK 11: Ohio State at Michigan State
Saturday, Nov. 10, time and network TBD
Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Mich.
Buckeyes pass rusher Nick Bosa, the early bet to be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, in what should almost certainly be a prime-time matchup between two potential top 10 teams. Bosa could end up being better than his older brother, who is currently one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. This will be a fun spotlight treatment game for Nick Bosa, who will be tracked on the broadcast from beginning to end.
WEEK 12, PART I: Buffalo at Ohio
Wednesday, Nov. 14, time and network TBD
Peden Stadium, Athens, Ohio
WEEK 12, PART II: Chattanooga at South Carolina
Saturday, Nov. 17, time and network TBD
Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia, S.C.
This is a little forced, but we need to work South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel and Buffalo’s Anthony Johnson into the mix here. We’ve noted how the wide receiver drought is a real thing in the NFL, but teams need to keep swinging. Both these guys are immensely talented.
WEEK 13: Michigan at Ohio State
Saturday, Nov. 24, noon ET, FOX
Buckeye Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
WHY: We’ve talked about Ohio State, but Michigan has a handful of NFL prospects on display this season. Defensive lineman Rashan Gary is talented, and Jim Harbaugh now has his hands on Shea Patterson, the best quarterback he’s worked with so far in Ann Arbor. If Harbaugh lives up to his reputation as a quarterback whisperer, this could be epic.
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