College football's conference championship game slate is loaded. Friday marks the beginning of a fun-filled two-day stretch of matchups that include the best teams from each conference. With 10 FBS conference title games on tap -- plus a makeup Pac-12 game and a slew of FCS contests -- we will get a glimpse of plenty of notable prospects who are battling for conference supremacy.
We're inching closer to bowl season and the all-star game circuit, and we will begin to hear players announcing their intent to either return to school or declare for the draft. This weekend's games include some players that could be making those headlines, and we'll get to see them at least one more time on the playing field.
From the long-awaited SEC championship game, all the way to the SWAC title matchup, I wanted to highlight some prospects to keep a very close eye on. These are the guys who will pop up frequently on Friday and Saturday with big plays before getting a lot of attention in the lead-up to April's draft. Here are the prospects that I have circled to watch closely this weekend.
Noon ET, Saturday, ABC
Abram Smith, RB, Baylor
A converted linebacker, Smith has enjoyed a breakout season, leading the Baylor attack with 1,366 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Smith runs hard and uses his physicality from his time on the other side of the ball when running. Making it difficult for defenders to bring him down, he has displayed veteran-level instincts in his lone season at the position. Still learning the nuances of running back, the 5-foot-11, 221-pound senior rusher has scouts intrigued. He's a round and stout runner who could be a welcome addition to a committee backfield. His defensive background could also make him a prime special teams candidate at the next level, which would help him earn a roster spot. He's likely in the early-Day 3 range.
Jalen Pitre, S, Baylor
Playing the notable "star" position in coach Dave Aranda's defense, Pitre is often positioned as a nickel defender and as the low safety. As the centerpiece of the Bears' defensive attack, he's tasked with the most responsibilities on the second and third levels. A five-year player at Baylor, he is at his best when allowed to attack moving forward, as he's an A+ run blitzer and an asset when playing in the box. Pitre still needs to answer questions about his consistency in pass coverage, but he's in the early-Day 3 conversation.
Noon ET, Saturday, ESPN
Dustin Crum, QB, Kent State
At the end of a historic college career, Crum has positioned Kent State for a chance at its first MAC title since 1972. Engineering the team to a 48-47 victory over Miami (OH), the senior signal-caller possesses an average arm and a bit of an elongated release, but his decision-making and command of the offense has helped his efficiency remain consistent. Surpassing 7,000 career passing yards last week, he now has set new single-season career highs in passing yards (2,794) and rushing TDs (11). Likely to play in multiple all-star games, Crum could be a popular undrafted free agent target among teams.
Clint Ratkovich, RB/FB, Northern Illinois
A transfer from Western Illinois, Ratkovich quickly turned into a do-it-all player in the Huskies' backfield during his first season on campus. Ratkovich's primary responsibilities are as a fullback, but the team hasn't been shy about incorporating him in the rushing attack this season, registering 11 touchdowns on the ground. Last week, he broke a 96-yard TD run against Western Michigan, the second longest run in program history and the longest since 1934. At 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, Ratkovich is likely a running back at the next level, but the Northern Illinois offense has allowed him to showcase his overall game in a multitude of facets. Like Crum, he is probably a priority undrafted free agent.
3 p.m. ET, Saturday, FOX
Cameron Thomas, DL, San Diego State
On an Aztecs defense that has remained near the top ones in the country, Thomas established himself as the linchpin. He is generating pressure on 13.5% of his pass rush reps, the 23rd-best rate in the country. His versatility has been on full display as his two highest pressure totals have come when aligned outside as a 5-technique (17) and when slid inside as a 3-technique (13). At 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, Thomas is a consistent pocket pusher and finisher who has recorded 10.5 sacks this season. His effort, awareness in all phases and maturity with his hands have helped him become an improved player as a senior, and he's likely at least a top-50 pick in April, if not higher.
3:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, ESPN
Max Mitchell, OT, Louisiana Lafayette
Rotating between both tackles spots since taking over as a starter during his sophomore season (2019), Mitchell has managed to only surrender pressure in 1.2% of 326 pass-blocking snaps this season. At 6-foot-6 and 297 pounds, Mitchell's frame is underdeveloped, but he has plenty of standout blocks that immediately draw your attention. A strong finisher, Mitchell plays through the echo of the whistle and looks to embarrass the opposition at the point of attack.
Matched up against an App State defense that has only given up 17 points over the past three games, Mitchell will be put to the test. And in a prospect vs. prospect battle flying under the radar, the senior blocker faces off against Nick Hampton. Hampton is listed as an outside linebacker, but the junior is primarily utilized as a designed pass-rusher. With 8.0 sacks and a 15.3% pressure rate (sixth-best), his pass-rushing ability will test the experienced technique of Mitchell, who could go late on Day 2 or early on Day 3 in the draft.
Percy Butler, S, Louisiana Lafayette
The leader of the defense, Butler is a veteran presence on the back end with experience at multiple spots in the secondary and on special teams. He is one of the best pass coverage options in the draft, with the 11th-best completion percentage against on throws into his zone (35.7%). Playing both safety spots as well as nickel corner, his versatility shines throughout games. Butler has a great feel for passing concepts and is instinctive with attacking patterns to force incompletions. Entering this week, Butler owns the highest forced incompletion percentage (42.9%) of any defender in the country. He is likely to be one of the higher-rated players participating in the East-West Shrine Game after the season, and a good week there could help him rise beyond his current late-Day 2 range.
4 p.m. ET, Saturday, ESPN2
James Houston IV, LB/Edge, Jackson State
The Tigers defense has been one of the best groups to watch in the FCS ranks this season. Back in the SWAC title game for the first time since 2013, the Tigers are seeking their first conference championship victory since 2007. The defense has given up only 13.8 points per game (fourth-best in the FCS), and a main culprit of the attacking group has been Houston.
At 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, Houston is a Florida transfer who has ignited the program. He is likely to switch back to his position as an off-ball linebacker in the NFL but the senior prospect is an aggressive and physical presence who has been the team's most consistent playmaker. His best performance was against Tennessee State, when he recorded 4.5 sacks. With 14.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles on the season, he was recently voted as the conference's Newcomer of the Year, and he'll be a late-Day 3 consideration.
4 p.m. ET, Saturday, CBS
Derion Kendrick, CB, Georgia
If taking into consideration the amount of prospects on both teams, it would take many pages to describe the future NFL talent that will be on display inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. But Kendrick is a player that I wanted to specifically highlight because he has been a bit hidden on the Bulldogs' loaded defense. An active press-man corner, he has proven his ability after being one of the most highly sought-after transfer players in the country.
Kendrick was kicked off the team at Clemson, but he hasn't suffered any more stains on his résumé since entering Athens. On the field, the senior corner has improved his consistency in man-to-man defense, where he's only allowing a 31.6% completion percentage into his coverage. Throughout the pre-draft process, Kendrick will need to answer questions about his history at Clemson, but he could be a prime second-round target for cornerback needy teams.
Bryce Young airs it out for 50-yard Bama TD
Bryce Young connects with Jameson Williams for a 50-yard passing touchdown.
Jameson Williams, WR, Alabama
Williams was ejected from the Iron Bowl following a targeting penalty on an attempted tackle, but he returns here for his biggest test of the season: the Georgia secondary. The Ohio State transfer has been better than imagined after escaping the middle of the Buckeyes' depth chart. The only player in program history with four touchdown catches of 75-plus yards in a single-season, Williams has been a lethal threat down the field. Tied with Ohio State's Chris Olave for second in the FBS with 13 touchdown receptions, he will have extra attention from the Bulldogs' secondary, which is only giving up 6.9 points per game. Williams could make a statement with a big game against what's on track to be one of the best defenses in college football history. He is probably a top-25 pick, and he can still climb boards.
4 p.m. ET, Saturday, ABC
Marcus Jones, CB, Houston
A wearer of many hats for the Cougars, Jones is listed as a defensive back but has been somewhat of a renaissance man for the program since transferring from Troy (2019). This season alone, the star senior has a receiving touchdown, scored twice on both punt and kick returns and has added five interceptions. A scout told me Jones was "an extremely high competitor that will tooth and claw for a roster spot." Jones is likely to play nickel corner at the next level, but he could hang onto a roster spot for over a decade because of his value in so many different areas, including special teams. The No. 8 jersey won't be hard to find in this matchup because he's on the field in nearly every phase of the game. Expect Jones to be drafted on Day 3.
Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati
A slimly built dual-threat QB, Ridder shattered every program and AAC record and now has the Bearcats firmly in the wheelhouse to compete for a national title. But first, he must win in the conference title game over a streaking Houston team that has won 11 consecutive games after dropping the season-opener to Texas Tech. I got a live viewing of Ridder a week ago against East Carolina, and while his frame is slender, he throws a beautiful ball and shows plenty of touch, rhythm and timing. He is a Day 2 guy right now, but if able to get into and play well in the College Football Playoff, Ridder could slide into the back end of the first-round discussions. The biggest question that scouts have about the senior signal-caller is his ball placement; he can have stretches of inconsistency.
Ahmad Gardner, CB, Cincinnati
In my years of scouting, I haven't been more impressed by a live viewing than I was with Gardner against East Carolina (eight tackles, two passes broken up and a touchdown off a blocked kick). At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, he has plenty of size, and his impressive tape lines up with what I saw in person.
#Cincinnati CB Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner (6-3, 200, Jr.) is a long press-man corner that's received comparisons to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie from NFL scouts.— Jordan Reid (@Jordan_Reid) November 26, 2021
He's yet to give up a TD in his career and QBs have a 30.4% comp. pct on throws into his zone (3rd-best rate in the FBS). pic.twitter.com/LV3ZhJs6cR
Still yet to surrender a touchdown during his three-year career, "Sauce" has the makings of being a first-round draft pick, and he's looking like a top-20 selection. Gardner has the length, competitive desire and ball skills, and he's an ideal candidate for teams that deploy a press-man coverage scheme.
8 p.m., Saturday, FOX
Aidan Hutchinson, Edge, Michigan
The only defensive player to ever win the Heisman Trophy came in 1997 when Charles Woodson took home the illustrious award. Another Wolverines defender should be in contention for college football's most prestigious honor this year. Hutchinson capped off a standout senior season with his best performance yet -- and in the biggest game of the year. He registered 3.0 sacks against Ohio State and engineered a dominant performance in the trenches.
At the moment, Hutchinson is jostling back and forth with Oregon's Thibodeaux atop the positional draft rankings and pole position for the No. 1 overall pick, and there are some evaluators that value Hutchinson's polish and ready-made game more than the upside of Thibodeaux. Hutchinson has a chance to continue to improve his résumé as Michigan searches for its first Big Ten title since 2004.
Tyler Linderbaum, OL, Iowa
The Hawkeyes have established a proven pipeline of NFL talent, and Linderbaum is next in line. He's an interior blocker with strength, awareness and finishing ability. A scheme versatile center, Linderbaum is capable of being a plug-and-play NFL option and an instant-impact type of player who could build an entire unit around.
At 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, Linderbaum won't meet some thresholds for some teams, but he's able to overcome his size because of his quickness, grip strength at the point of attack and finishing power. Center has become an underrated spot to help signal-callers, and Linderbaum has the potential to be a Day 1 starter in the middle of the offensive front. He's looking like a top-25 selection.
8:00 p.m., Saturday, ABC
Kenny Pickett, QB Pittsburgh
There isn't a player who has benefited more from returning for their senior season than Pickett. He fought through an ankle injury and dealt with weak performers for nearly all of his junior campaign, but his return in 2021 has paid significant dividends. An NFL scout believes the best about Pickett and his next level projection among QBs is a better sense of what a team is getting. "You're chasing potential and what you hope they can be with those other guys," the scout said. "I know exactly what I'm getting with Pickett. He's experienced, an excellent decision-maker, and has a stronger arm than given credit for. The ceiling may not be as great, but he's like a point guard out there. It's impressive stuff."
While Pickett may not have the top-tier traits of some of his counterparts, his accuracy, decision-making and leadership qualities are what make scouts intrigued. With 40 touchdown passes this season, he has already surpassed Dan Marino's single-season record (37). We are five months away from the NFL draft, and there's still plenty left to play out, but Pickett is a strong contender to be the first quarterback off of the board, and he's looking very much like a top-20 pick.
7 p.m. ET, Friday, CBS Sports Network
Bailey Zappe, QB, Western Kentucky