SMU vs Memphis
A quarterback vs quarterback matchup is atypical of this series, but it’s hard to ignore this week’s historic College GameDay feature. For the first time in history, Memphis will host ESPN’s famous pre-game show, making their heated conference battle against SMU the marquee game of the week.
Dueling it out in this one will be SMU quarterback Shane Buechele versus Memphis quarterback Brady White. Both are transfers from Power 5 schools, just as both are juniors on the outside looking in at the 2020 draft class. Perhaps a strong showing down the stretch could be enough to earn them Day 3 consideration and declare early, but more than likely, the two are making their cases to be top seniors in 2021.
White and Buechele rank first and third, respectively, in the AAC in passer rating. Only UCF’s Dillon Gabriel stands between them at the moment. More impressive, White ranks fifth in the country in passer rating just behind Ohio State’s Just Fields, which also makes him the highest ranked Group of Five passer.
With the numbers backing him up, it’s safe to say White is among the most efficient passers in college football. White does not have the strongest arm, nor is he a particularly threatening presence outside the pocket. However, in a brilliant Mike Norvell offense, White consistently does well to locate weak spots in coverage and thread touch passes to his slew of talented receivers. The touch White can put on some of his throws is tough to find in many other places in the AAC.
That deep corner throw is a rarity among all quarterbacks, not just Group of Five quarterbacks. Throwing 30 yards from the left hash to the right sideline, especially with wide college hashes, is among the toughest handful of passes any quarterback could be asked to make. As the saying goes, there is no defense for a perfect pass, and White has a few of them each game.
Coming off the opposite sideline is a gunslinger from Texas. Buechele was originally with the Longhorns before losing the starting job to Sam Ehlinger and transferring across the way to SMU. In just his first season at SMU, Buechele’s let-it-loose play style in Sonny Dykes’ Air Raid offense has propelled the Mustangs to their best season since the Pony Express days. Buechele hasn’t quite matched White’s efficiency this season, but his numbers do look similar to that of White’s in his first year at Memphis in 2018. With the progress Buechele has made just across this season, it would be no surprise to see him take a massive leap in 2020.
If there is anything Buechele has down pat, it’s deep passing. Buechele has a booming arm that forces defenses to respect every blade of grass. One false step by a defensive back and Buechele can uncork a deep ball for six points before the defender ever gets a chance to correct the mistake. Memphis has a quietly good pass defense, so getting the best of them on a handful of explosive passes would be great for Buechele’s resume this season.
As the two stand right now, White is closer to being a finished product while Buechele has room to work on the finer areas of his game. White’s accuracy and decision making are each a hair better than Buechele’s right now. The same discrepancy rings true for their teams at large. While SMU are undefeated and Memphis are not, Memphis lone loss came down to a botched catch/no-catch call late in the game against a good Temple team and that should not disqualify them from being labeled the better team in this match.
Florida vs Georgia
Florida WRs vs Georgia CB Eric Stokes
The Florida Gators don’t have one super star wide receiver. They don’t have a Tylan Wallace, a Rondale Moore, a CeeDee Lamb, or any other receiver of that ilk who can single-handedly carry a receiving corps. What the Gators do have is a platoon of tough, productive juniors and seniors who all fulfill their roles within the Dan Mullen offense. None of Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain, or Trevon Grimes are shaping up to be high-end NFL draft prospects, but they will get looks late/undrafted players and would be top receivers at a number of other non-SEC programs.
Of the three, Jefferson likely presents the best blend of likelihood to face Stokes often and potential to give Stokes a tough time. Jefferson, a 6-foot-2, 197-pound senior, is a transfer from Ole Miss who left when the kitchen was too full with cooks like D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown, and DaMarkus Lodge. In two seasons with the Gators, Jefferson has proven himself a shifty receiver who does best threatening immediate inside breaks or on vertical routes down the sideline. He’s a slant/post/go route player.
And here is Jefferson beating LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr., maybe the best cornerback in the country, on a slant route. Jefferson knows he cannot just beat Stingley with a standard route, so he has to set him up outside. Jefferson’s quick-twitch footwork gets Stingley to bite on the outside release and take a step back while opening to the boundary. With a window of opportunity created, Jefferson cuts back inside of Stingley and gains just enough separation to pick up a solid gain. Jefferson did the same thing for a touchdown against Stingley later in this game.
Tasked with keeping the Gators’ carousel of pass-catchers at bay is Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes. Stokes is just a redshirt sophomore, but the 6-foot-1, 185-pounder has 17 passes defended in 16 career appearances, including eight passes defended in seven games this season. Unlike many of Georgia’s other defenders, Stokes was not an elite player coming out of high school. Stokes was a three-star recruit in Georgia’s 2017 signing class, making him their fourth-lowest rated recruit and rated below the four other cornerbacks they signed. Suffice to say Stokes has shed his recruiting status.
Stokes' selling point right now is movement skills. Whether it’s closing down on a curl route from a half-turn technique or flipping his hips to match a receiver going vertical, Stokes can make seamless transitions from one position to the next. Typically smaller cornerbacks are the ones who can move as freely as they want to, but Stokes has few issues being contorting his lanky 6-foot-1, 185-pound frame to move wherever it needs to move at a moment’s notice.
If the half-turn example sounded a bit specific, it was. Here is a clip of Stokes coming out of a half-turn technique against Tennessee. The throw ends up wide anyway, but Stokes’ reaction time and instant gap close on the wide receiver put him in position to play the catch point.
Stokes has some Byron Jones (Cowboys) to his game. Jones, like Stokes, is lankier than his height may suggest and is a phenomenal athlete, most famous for breaking the broad jump record at the 2015 NFL Combine. It’s unlikely Stokes is quite that juiced up, but he is a plenty explosive and fluid athlete, and plays with many of the same movement patterns that Jones does.
A “win” for Stokes in this case would be limiting how well the Gators can throw on the sideline and negating any potential for explosive plays. While Stokes will almost certainly give up a couple of catches, if he can avoid giving up downfield shots and defend more short passes than he allows, he will be in good shape. It won’t be easy, especially considering Florida QB Kyle Trask’s surprisingly solid play, but Stokes is up for the task.
Florida vs Georgia
It would not have been difficult to fill out the entirety of this week’s matchup spotlight with battles in the Florida-Georgia game. The two squads are both ranked in the top-10 and have more talent on both sides of the ball than they know what to do with — literally (looking at you, James Coley).
Thomas is the “elite” player of the bunch. The 6-foot-5, 320-pounder is a bulldozer of a left tackle. His combination of length and strength make it easy for him to get a grip on a defender early and drive them out of the play, both in the run game and in pass protection. In the run game, in particular, Thomas is devastating. Precious few defenders in college football can fend of being blown off the ball, much less get the better of him.
Pass pro is where Thomas “weaknesses” lie, but that’s a relative term in this case. Thomas’ length and strength help him plenty in pass pro. While he is not the smoothest mover getting around the arc, his strength and proper technique make up for him being caught behind the play by a half-step sometimes.
Here he is running Notre Dame EDGE Khalid Kareem, a future pro himself, behind the pocket and out of position to make a play. It’s not as flashy as just squaring him up and stonewalling him, but Thomas covered all the area he needed to and forced Kareem to run wide. The only way this becomes a losing rep is if the QB holds onto the ball for an unreasonable amount of time, in which case that isn’t really on Thomas.
Florida’s pair of pass-rushers will be no easy task to hold down, though. While neither are potential top-10 picks like Thomas, both are potential top-100 picks and solid contributors to an NFL defensive front down the line.
Zuniga is a career Gator who has always had the tools, but never quite matched it with production. At 6-foot-4 and 246-pounds, Zuniga sports a tall, lean build that gives him the flexibility to dip around the edge and slip past offensive tackles. His burst off the line of scrimmage flashes at times, and he’s become a devastating force in converting opportunities to turn the corner around an offensive tackle once he gets there.
Unfortunately, injuries have kept Zuniga sidelined for most of the year. An ankle injury held him out of last week’s win over South Carolina, but in three appearances this season, Zuniga has found three sacks. Head coach Dan Mullen said earlier this week that Zuniga should be a full-go against the Bulldogs, though.
Greenard is in a similar recent injury boat. Like Zuniga, an ankle injury has bugged Greenard of late, but it will not hold him out of the famed Florida-Georgia game. Greenard has been healthy for most of the season and has been a disruptive force when on the field. While not quite as gifted as Zuniga, particularly with regards to flexibility, but he plays like a bull seeing red and won’t stop until he gets to the quarterback. Greenard’s raw power is often overwhelming, though his effectiveness in working the outside shoulder of offensive tackles can run hot-and-cold. Greenard certainly projects as a strong-side defensive end who majors in run defense and minors in pushing the pocket as a pass-rusher.
Overall, Thomas should win the day. At the very least, even if he loses a few reps, Thomas should fare better than every other offensive tackle has against this Gators duo. If Thomas is going to lose to anyone it will most likely be Zuniga’s speed and flash, not Greenard’s strength and mean streak. Expect QB Jake Fromm to remain clean in the pocket, at least relative to how clean most of Florida’s previous opposing QBs have been.
Bonus: Utah vs Washington
Washington OL vs Utah DL
While Washington's offensive line should not be expected to produce another first-round pick like Kaleb McGary last year, they do feature a couple of players that will get selected at some point on Day 2 or Day 3. Namely, left tackle Trey Adams and center Nick Harris are future pros. Both are seniors this season and will likely earn bids to offseason all-star showing, like the Senior Bowl.
Adams, in particular, is well on his way to earning a Senior Bowl invite. Many analysts believe Adams to have been NFL-ready for years, but a season-ending injury in 2017 as well as only playing a handful of games in 2018 made it tough to buy into anything he's done recently. Back in action for 2019, though, Adams has reaffirmed his status as a top pass blocker in the country. Adams' blindside protection has helped enable QB Jacob Eason, who took over this season as the Huskies starting QB after transferring over last year.
Washington's offensive line is also bolstered in the middle by Harris. The senior center missed some time for health reasons earlier this year, but since returning to the fold, has been critical to the Huskies' success in both phases of the game. Harris is not particularly daunting at 6-foot-1 and 301-pounds, but his smaller stature ends to above-average agility at the second-level and an ability to match moving targets better than some larger centers may be able to. Harris is not the nastiest blocker around, but with how well he gets himself in position, a slight lack of beefiness is fine.
As per usual, Utah's defensive line is going to have something to say of all these Washington offensive linemen getting hype. Utah have long produced impressive defensive linemen, most recently names such as Star Lotulelei, Nate Orchard and Kylie Fitts. Another two are on the way in EDGE Bradlee Anae and DT Leki Fotu.
Fotu has turned into a sort of Draft Twitter cult favorite. Underrated coming into the season, Fotu is a mountain in the middle of Utah's run defense and has proven himself light on his feet relative to his 6-foot-5, 335-pound frame. Of course, someone of Fotu's size is not the most effective pass-rusher, but his strength upon contact is overwhelming and he is not one to give up ground in the run game easily.
Anae's profile as an EDGE player is the opposite of Fotu's as a defensive tackle. Anae is a whirlwind as a pass rusher, slicing and dicing past offensive tackles at 6-foot-3 and 265-pounds. The senior pass-rusher moves exceptionally well for a player with as much weight on his frame as he carries. Through six games in 2019, Anae has picked up seven sacks, which is just one shy of his career-high 7.5 sacks that he recorded in 12 games last season. Barring a complete fizzle to the end of the season, Anae should waltz into a 10-sack season and propel himself firmly into the top-100 discussion.