College football season is underway, and you know what that means: The NFL season isn’t far behind. That’s right, as much as the sports world is focused on Alabama-USC, LSU-Wisconsin and Clemson-Auburn this week, pretty soon the calendar will turn to Tuesday and it will be time to look forward to Panthers-Broncos and Week 1 of the NFL slate. This really is a glorious time of year, isn’t it?
Yet, there isn't any football for NFL fans this weekend, so if you're tuning into college football, who should you watch? Thankfully, we have a guide to Week 1 of the college football season. Here are 10 players every NFL fan needs to watch this weekend.
(One note before we begin: We’re skewing away from some of the obvious guys like DeShaun Watson and Leonard Fournette and trying to stick with some of the lesser known guys who still will be getting a ton of attention from NFL front offices.)
Getty ImagesAndy Lyons
Malik McDowell, NT, Michigan State (vs. Furman, Friday, 7 p.m. ET)
To college football fans, McDowell is the former five-star, can’t-miss recruit who ended up in East Lansing and will be the latest in the long line of great defensive linemen coached by Mark Dantonio at Michigan State. But to most NFL fans, they look at the name and say, “Who?”
Well, here’s what you need to know about McDowell: At 6-foot-6 and 290 pounds, the kid is a physical freak with the size, athleticism and pass-rushing ability to play on the edge, but also the strength to play between the tackles, which is where the Spartans will line him up this season. The question now is whether, playing inside, he’ll be able to match the numbers he did last year, when he tallied 13 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
Not that it matters, since he’s on the radar of every NFL scout in America. Some big-time draft experts are already talking about him as a potential Top-5 pick next spring.
Mike Carter-USA TODAY SportsMike Carter
Christian McCaffrey, RB/WR/KR/PR, Stanford (vs. Kansas State, Friday, 9 p.m. ET, FS1)
Yes, you know McCaffrey’s name, but after the Cardinal played in an incredible seven games last year that kicked off after 10 p.m. ET, there’s a pretty good chance you probably didn’t see him play much last year. Well this year with a 9 p.m. start time and a full day’s warning, there’s no excuse: Watch Stanford. Even if it’s only for McCaffrey.
That’s because as good as you think McCaffrey is, he’s even better, having broken Barry Sanders’ all-purpose yardage record last season with just under 3,900 yards of total offense. In the process, he also emerged as one of the best running backs in the country (with 2,019 rushing yards), as well as one of the most dynamic return men too (one punt and kick return each), not to mention a pretty solid wide receiver (45 catches, and five touchdowns). Not a bad year overall, huh?
Thankfully, McCaffrey might have finally gotten the credit he deserved, following an electric bowl game last year in which he scored on Stanford’s first play from scrimmage and broke a Rose Bowl record with 368 all-purpose yards.
Don’t be surprised if he starts off with a bang this year -- and this time, you better not miss it.
While Oklahoma-Houston will be the better game in the Noon ET window (not to mention Missouri-West Virginia on FS1), the best NFL prospect playing during that time frame is Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan.
Somehow, after having 12 players selected in last year’s draft (including three defensive starters in the first round and five players overall), not only is the Buckeyes’ roster not depleted, but I would argue their best defensive player returns. McMillan is a true sideline-to-sideline linebacker, a player who -- despite playing alongside eventual first-round pick Darron Lee last year -- ended up leading Ohio State in tackles with 119 last season.
Look for McMillan to be a first-round pick in the next NFL Draft, and for the uber-football nerds watching Saturday, you’ll get an extra treat: Going up against a pass-happy Falcons offense, McMillan will have ample opportunity to show off his coverage skills in addition to his run-stopping ability in between the tackles.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY SportsGeoff Burke
Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M vs. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET)
It’s not often that you get a chance to see the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft going up against the near-certain No. 1 pick in 2018, but that’s exactly what we’ll have when Myles Garrett and the Texas A&M Aggies host Josh Rosen and the UCLA Bruins at Kyle Field on Saturday.
And what a treat this will be for football fans. Not only will they get a chance to watch “The Rosen One,” a guy who is being touted by some as the best quarterback since Andrew Luck after tossing for 23 touchdowns and over 3,600 yards last year as a true freshman, but they’ll get to see him in a hostile environment, against maybe the best pass rush he’ll see all year.
We all know Garrett and for good reason: The top defensive player in next year’s draft finished last season with 12.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. But for NFL fans tuning in, pay close attention to the guy lining up on the opposite end of the defensive line, Daeshon Hall.
If Hall weren’t playing alongside Garrett he would get more hype, but he could also be a first-round pick after tallying 14.5 TFLs and 7.5 sacks last season.
You know Leonard Fournette. And I know you’ll be watching Fournette. If you won’t be watching him, well, I’m not sure we can be friends.
Either way, while all the focus is on Fournette -- and with good reason -- what gets lost is the Tigers have at least half a dozen starters on defense who will be playing in the NFL within the next year or two. While corner Tre’Davious White is a likely first-rounder and linebacker Kendall Beckwith will go high too, no one has more potential, or is more fun to watch, than Adams.
He is the definition of a “hard-hitting safety,” the kind of guy who you simply don’t go over the middle against and who has the ability to get teammates fired up with his mere presence. Over the course of his career he has four interceptions and 129 tackles, and was named a second-team All-American last year.
Don’t be surprised if he earns first-team honors this year on his way to being a Top 20 pick next season.
Alabama has bigger names on its defense, like Jonathan Allen or Tim Williams, but it’s more fun instead to look at a lesser-known name, and Foster has the pedigree to one day walk amongst them as future NFL All-Pros.
Foster first made headlines as a high school senior when he famously committed to Auburn and commemorated it with an Auburn tattoo (which later turned into a tribute for a lost friend) before flipping to Alabama right before Signing Day. And since arriving at Alabama he’s been relatively quiet, playing large chunks of his career behind Reggie Ragland.
But make no mistake, Foster is every bit the player Ragland is and maybe even more so. Not only was he one of the most quietly efficient players on the Crimson Tide’s defense last year (finishing with 73 total tackles), he's also one of the hardest hitters in all of college football.
Watch him wallop Leonard Fournette on kick-off return coverage here.
Getty ImagesStacy Revere
Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama (vs. USC, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET)
For those of you scoring at home, here are the last five “feature” backs at Alabama under Nick Saban: Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. Those five players have combined for two Heisman Trophy wins (the only two in Alabama school history by the way), two first-round draft selections and two Pro Bowl appearances. All five were drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft.
Therefore, while only die-hard college football fans know Scarbrough’s name, history tells us that at some point he is going to hear his name called pretty early in the NFL Draft, and he’ll likely have a ton of success once he gets there. Scarbrough is a former five-star recruit, who unfortunately was caught in a log-jam behind Henry last year and was limited to just 18 total carries and one touchdown.
Still, don’t be surprised if he’s able to fill a good percentage of the stat sheet that Henry did last year, and fill in his shoes in a literal way too. At 6-2, 230 pounds, Scarbrough not only runs like Henry, he looks like him too.
While Alabama gets all the hype entering this game -- and with good reason -- make no mistake, there’s plenty of talent on the other side of the field as well. Most notably Smith-Schuster, who might just be the best pure wide receiver in college football.
After a solid freshman campaign in 2014, Smith-Schuster exploded onto the scene in 2015, tallying 89 catches, 10 touchdowns and 1,454 yards, the fourth-highest total in the nation. And he did it with good, but not great, quarterback play and in the midst of plenty of melodrama with his head coach.
NFL fans should have a really fun time watching Smith-Schuster for another reason too: He’ll be lined up against two of the best corners he’ll face all year when he goes head-to-head with Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey on Saturday.
You don’t need me to tell you about Deshaun Watson, the guy who torched Alabama for 405 yards passing last year and left Nick Saban gushing like a school girl in the process. So instead, let’s turn our attention to his No. 1 receiver.
Clemson has become “Wide Receiver U” since Dabo Swinney arrived, producing guys like DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins. Williams is the next great one. What might even be greater is his story.
Williams entered last year as a potential All-American but missed all but a few snaps after hurting his neck crashing into a goal post in Week 1. Incredibly, he is back and fully healthy and looking to pick up right where he left off in 2014. That season he emerged as the Tigers’ go-to threat, grabbing 57 passes, including 10 touchdowns.
Now healthy, the sky is the limit for Williams. Expect him to be the next in a long line of receivers to earn All-ACC honors before heading off to the NFL next season.
Tyler Smith/Getty Images
Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State (vs. Ole Miss, Monday, 8 p.m. ET)
I’ve got some good news and some bad news for the NFL fans looking to binge-watch college football this weekend. The good news is that this is arguably the best opening weekend in the history of the sport. The bad news is that we’ve got to wait until Monday for the best game of the bunch.
It’s Ole Miss-Florida State, and while this one is chock-full of future NFL prospects -- Rebels QB Chad Kelly, basically the entire Florida State defense -- the one guy you need to watch if you’re an NFL fan is Cook. The junior is everything you could ever want from a running back, a short, compact runner who hits the hole hard and never goes down on the first tackle. His 7.4 yards per carry was actually one of the best marks in the nation last year, ahead of more highly touted guys like Fournette, McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott and others.
Beyond that, you know the craziest part? He did it all while playing with an injured hamstring most of the season.
Cook alone might just be enough to get NFL fans to come back for Week 2 of the college football season next Saturday.