With the holiday season just about to wrap up, what better way to kick off a new year than to watch some great college football games? New Year’s Day is a great opportunity to spend some time with family and friends, to eat some great food (pork and sauerkraut anyone?), and to get a head start on scouting the incoming NFL class of 2019 rookies.
Mississippi State Bulldogs vs Iowa Hawkeyes
ESPN2, 12:00 p.m. EST
Mississippi State is coming into the Outback Bowl with an 8-4 record overall (4-4 in the SEC) in Joe Moorehead’s first season at the helm. Moorehead was previously the offensive coordinator at Penn State where he helped lead the Nittany Lions to a Big Ten Championship and appearances in the Rose and Fiesta bowls.
The Bulldogs have a couple of impact players on the defensive side of the ball in Jeffrey Simmons and Montez Sweat, but on the offensive side, NFL caliber talent is sparse. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is a very talented runner and has led the Bulldog’s scoring attack, but leaves a bit to be desired as a passer. He does have NFL size at 6’4” and 230 lbs, but has average arm strength and his accuracy is questionable, especially on deeper sideline throws. It’s possible a team could end up selecting him, but it will likely be as a late-round flier.
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Iowa also comes into this game with an 8-4 record overall (5-4 in the B1G) in Kirk Ferentz’s 20th season as the head coach of the Hawkeyes. The Hawkeyes had conference championship aspirations that lasted into November before losing two close contests to Purdue and Northwestern on back-to-back weekends.
For the Iowa Hawkeyes, all eyes will be on the tight end position. While Noah Fant will be sitting out the game to avoid injury risk, he is widely considered a potential first round NFL Draft selection. At 6’5” and 240 lbs, Fant is comparable in size and athletic ability to Evan Engram and O.J. Howard, and has the chance to make the same type of impact for the NFL team that selects him. He has good hands and incredible leaping ability that allows him to rise up over defenders and make contested catches. Fant also has good speed and creates matchup nightmares all over the field, and especially in the red zone.
While Fant is typically considered the star prospect, he likely isn’t the only Hawkeye tight end that will be playing on Sundays in the future. T.J. Hockenson led the Hawkeyes in catches and receiving yards in 2018, and won the prestigious John Mackey award for college football’s most outstanding tight end. Hockenson finished his redshirt sophomore year with 46 catches for 717 yards and six touchdowns. He is projected as a possible day two pick in the NFL Draft by several draft analysts if he chooses to declare.
VRBO Citrus Bowl
Kentucky Wildcats vs Penn State Nittany Lions
ABC, 1:00 p.m. EST
The outcome of this game will likely be determined by the performance of two junior tailbacks. For Kentucky, that man is Benny Snell Jr. The 5’11” 223 lb running back from Westerville, OH has had a fantastic career at Kentucky, rushing for over 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons, and 3,729 yards total over that time. He excels at running the ball between the tackles. Snell is a downhill runner with good leg drive and forward lean, and finishes his runs consistently. Snell isn’t overly shifty and doesn’t have great burst, but he can be a consistent, reliable workhorse for a team in the NFL. If you need three to four yards or to grind out a game, Snell is your guy. He is being projected anywhere between the second and fifth rounds.
For the Nittany Lions, the tailback mentioned in the previous paragraph is Miles Sanders. The junior from Pittsburgh, PA had some big shoes to fill entering the 2018 season following the graduation of superstar running back Saquon Barkley. All Sanders did was run for 1,223 yards on 207 carries. Sanders showed the ability to make decisions quickly at the point of attack. He also has good lateral quickness and balance and can pick up big chunks of yardage. Penn State didn’t use Sanders quite as much as anticipated in the passing game, but he was adequate when they did. He has decent hands and can be dangerous in space. Sanders hasn’t given any indication of his plans following the Citrus Bowl, but if he would declare for the NFL Draft, he is projected to be selected anywhere between the second and fifth rounds depending on his Combine numbers.
The heart and soul of the Nittany Lions is senior quarterback Trace McSorley. McSorley owns just about every record a quarterback can have at Penn State. McSorley holds Penn State career records for: wins (31), completions (703), passing yards (9,653), passing touchdowns (75), total offense (11,275), rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (29), touchdowns responsible for (104), 300-yard passing games (10) and 200-yard passing games (27). The “Wizard of Camelot” (a nickname given to McSorley by Fox Sports play by play man Gus Johnson during the 2016 Big Ten Championship game) has had a remarkable run as the starting quarterback.
The question is: can McSorley have success at the quarterback position in the NFL? McSorley’s size is the first thing that usually comes up when discussing his potential as an NFL quarterback. At 6’0” and 201 lbs, McSorley is smaller than pretty much every quarterback in the league. Drew Brees is the closest comparison in size, but Brees is the exception in a league where QBs are often over 6’3”. McSorley has good arm strength and his mobility creates opportunity by keeping plays alive, but he needs to improve his accuracy and his decision-making skills to have a chance at making an NFL roster and sticking. McSorley has been a fantastic college QB. He will need to improve and impress at the Combine and individual workouts to have a real shot at being drafted.
Playstation Fiesta Bowl
UCF Golden Knights vs LSU Tigers
ESPN, 1:00 p.m. EST
If this was September, or if the horrific leg injury hadn’t occurred, we’d probably be talking about UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton here. Milton suffered a nasty looking leg injury that will most likely keep him at UCF for his senior season if he can play again. Prior to the injury, he was projected as a late round selection. He obviously will not be playing in the Fiesta Bowl for the Knights. While the Knights have some NFL caliber talent on defense, there isn’t a lot on the offensive side of the ball, at least not in the 2019 NFL Draft. Running back Greg McCrae is a player to watch, as is freshman quarterback, Darriel Mack, as both are playmakers that can create. LSU will need to contain them if they want to maximize their chances at winning the game.
For LSU in this contest, most eyes will be on the defense. NFL talent is abundant on the defensive side, and that bodes well for the Tigers in their quest to end UCF’s 25-game winning streak. On the offensive side of the ball, expect the Tigers to rely heavily on their running attack, utilizing projected late-round selection senior Nick Brossette, who is just 78 yards shy of reaching the 1,000-yard mark on the season, and freshman Clyde Edwards-Helaire, as well as quarterback Joe Burrow.
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