College Football Playoff: NFL draft takeaways from semifinal matchups reveal

C.J. Stroud
Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud will face off against a highly talented Georgia Bulldogs defense in a College Football Playoff national semifinal on Dec. 31.

The College Football Playoff selection committee revealed its final rankings on Sunday, with Ohio State replacing USC in the top four after the Trojans' loss to Utah in Friday's Pac-12 Championship Game.

The national semifinal matchups, which will be held on Dec. 31:

  • Fiesta Bowl: Michigan (No. 2) vs. TCU (No. 3) at State Farm Stadium (Glendale, Arizona)
  • Peach Bowl: Georgia (No. 1) vs. Ohio State (No. 4) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta)

Here are five draft-focused takeaways from the playoff matchups.

1) Will C.J. Stroud help himself with a big playoff showing?

The Ohio State quarterback, a redshirt sophomore, has yet to announce his intentions for 2023, but he enjoyed a fine season for the Buckeyes, posting five performances with 300 yards passing, three five-touchdown games and one six-TD outing. Stroud also dealt with an injury-shortened season for receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and was forced to reinvent himself in rain-soaked, windy conditions against Northwestern on Nov. 5.

There are plenty of pluses when it comes to Stroud and his NFL evaluation. He leads the FBS in TD passes and passing efficiency, is 21-3 as a starter, has good size and coaches have praised him for his intangibles. Scouts do have some questions about his game, though.

There are some who worry that he needs nearly ideal conditions in which to thrive -- a narrative that's not unusual for Ohio State quarterback prospects given the talent they're surrounded by and the scheme they play in with the Buckeyes. Others feel his athletic traits are fine but hardly special.

Stroud's matchup against Georgia won't change his evaluation massively, but it could help tilt things in his favor a bit if he plays well against the Bulldogs.

2) Playoff should be a Georgia showcase ... again

From Travon Walker (No. 1 overall to the Jaguars) to John FitzPatrick (No. 213 to the Falcons), the Bulldogs set multiple NFL draft records last spring, including most defensive players from one school taken in Round 1 (5) and most players selected from one school in a seven-round draft (15).

It's unlikely UGA will be that well-represented again, but the team will have plenty of intriguing talents in the playoff. One senior prospect, potential first-round edge rusher Nolan Smith, is not expected to play; he's rehabbing from a pectoral muscle injury.

But several underclassman standouts are eligible to play, including defensive tackle Jalen Carter, cornerback Kelee Ringo and offensive tackle Broderick Jones. Although tight end Brock Bowers, one of the best players in college football, is a true sophomore and won't be eligible to apply for early draft entry until 2024, his position mate, Darnell Washington, is one of the more intriguing prospects on the roster -- a massive, powerful blocker and surprisingly agile receiver.

3) Will the playoff serve as a launching pad for a Michigan prospect?

Although the previous decade was often lean for Michigan in terms of NFL draft picks, the Wolverines are off to a great start this decade with 23 selections over the past three drafts, including four first-rounders.

But Michigan might be entering a draft cycle without a clear-cut first-round pick in 2023. The school has produced at least one Round 1 pick in four consecutive drafts, with Aidan Hutchinson going second overall earlier this year.

One of Michigan's top talents to watch is redshirt junior defensive tackle Mazi Smith, who is shockingly athletic for a man of his size (6-foot-3, 337 pounds, per school measurements). Smith is continuing to participate as a member of the team while facing a felony charge of carrying a concealed gun, and posted two tackles on Saturday in the Wolverines' win over Purdue.

4) TCU's Quentin Johnston is an enigma but a talented one

Johnston, a junior who has not yet announced his intentions for 2023, is something of a tricky evaluation for scouts.

He broke out last season for the Horned Frogs, using his 6-4, 215-pound frame (school measurements) to box out defensive backs and make plays in the air downfield. He also showed an unusual gift for breaking tackles the way a much quicker (or thicker) receiver might.

This season started slowly for Johnston, who caught only 12 passes for 114 yards and no TDs in the first four contests. But he put on a show against unbeaten Kansas with 14 catches for 206 yards and the game-winning score in TCU's fifth game.

Johnston hasn't been consistent this season, and his per-game production (4.4 catches for 75.3 yards) isn't anything mind-blowing. But his physical traits, downfield ability and tackle-breaking prowess all make him a highly regarded prospect.

Can Johnston shake loose against the coverage of the Michigan defense?

5) Quarterback quartet includes two intriguing seniors

The College Football Playoff games traditionally have set the stage for at least one quarterback due to enter the upcoming NFL draft. And more often than not, they've been highly rated ones, too.

Since the inception of the CFB Playoff in the 2014 season, each year has featured at least one quarterback drafted in the first four rounds the following April. That span has included playoff games from eventual top-five picks Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa.

Last year's group produced one QB pick: Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder, in Round 3 to Atlanta. At this point, however, there isn't much of anything settled when it comes to the stock of the four quarterbacks participating in the national semifinal games.

Stroud was a Heisman finalist last year and has long been a highly touted prospect. TCU's Max Duggan and Georgia's Stetson Bennett IV were not considered top-tier quarterback prospects entering this season, but through their own improvement and their team's success this season, each have helped themselves earn a better shot at making it in the league.

Bennett, a sixth-year senior who turned 25 in October, might be similarly sized to Alabama's highly touted signal-caller, Bryce Young, but he lacks Young's arm talent and ability to make off-script magic. Even still, Bennett's toughness, smarts, better-than-average arm and other intangibles are likely to land him on an NFL roster. He's added arrows to his quiver, with improved scrambling and having fewer passes batted down at the line.

Duggan is a fourth-year senior and has the option of returning for a fifth season at TCU due to the NCAA's COVID-19 waiver. He plays with an unusual style and might not be a fit for every NFL team. But his improved accuracy, rugged toughness, running ability, experience and ability to deliver in the clutch are a bit more appreciated now. Duggan has turned in career bests in completion percentage (65%), pass yards (3,321), yards per attempt (9) and TD passes (30), along with improved ball security (four INTs in 368 passes), in 2022.

Both Bennett and Duggan could end up as Day 3 picks and profile as competitive backups with spot-starter potential.

Follow Eric Edholm on Twitter.

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