Though a spot in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game will be on the line in the Rose Bowl, NFL fans and scouts are likely to be more interested in catching a glimpse of next year’s rookies in action. The Oklahoma Sooners and Georgia Bulldogs are set to meet for the very first time on New Year’s Day, though as many as a dozen players on the two talented rosters will battle it out weekly as professionals. We explore five key draft-eligible players to watch.
1. Orlando Brown, T, Oklahoma
Bigger names will be on display in the Rose Bowl, including multiple national award winners. However, the player with the best odds for a long, successful career is Oklahoma's left tackle. The huge 6-foot-8, 345-pound junior was a unanimous All-American in 2017, as well as a finalist for the Outland Trophy. He also earned conference lineman of the year honors, and is as reliable as they come, as evidenced by the fact Brown has started all 39 games the Sooners have played over the last three seasons. Expect Brown to declare for the draft and hear his name called early — probably within the first 10 picks.
2. Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
A junior, Smith (above, right) has yet to officially declare for the 2018 NFL Draft, but because he’s widely considered a first-round prospect, it seems inevitable. At 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, Smith is undersized for an NFL linebacker, but his production can’t be questioned. Smith won the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker after he tallied 113 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks in the regular season.
3. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
Even with a few hiccups along the way in regards to his maturity outside the white lines, the Heisman Trophy winner has been a fast riser on draft boards in recent weeks. Mayfield (right) led the nation with a 203.76 passer rating and 71.0 percent completion rate during the regular season, and he ranked second with 4,340 passing yards and 41 touchdowns while throwing just five interceptions.
He’s a fiery leader, and a winner — two terms that echo Tim Tebow’s rise as a pro prospect, so here’s hoping the chip on Mayfield’s shoulder will help him carve out a longer and more successful NFL career than his fellow Heisman winner.
4. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
Chubb surprised a lot of people when he passed up an opportunity to enter the draft after his junior year. By doing so, Chubb moved up to second on the school’s all-time rushing list (behind only the legendary Herschel Walker), entering the Rose Bowl with 4,599 yards after gaining 1,175 yards on 191 carries in the regular season. Chubb also is second in program history with 42 rushing touchdowns, including 13 this season. At 5-foot-10 and 225 pounds, Chubb is well built for the NFL, and he’s still got breakaway speed despite suffering a horrific knee injury in 2015.
5. Mark Andrews, TE, Oklahoma
Simply put, Andrews is the best tight end in the country. Often used as a wide receiver, the 6-foot-5, 253-pound junior is a unique athletic specimen at the position, which has helped him to become one of the most dynamic and productive targets in college football. Andrews won the Mackey Award this season after he led the Sooners with 58 receptions and eight TD catches, and he ranked second on the team with 906 yards — an impressive 15.6-yard average for such a big receiver. He’ll likely be the top tight end selected in the 2018 NFL Draft should he forego his final year of eligibility.
There are several other Georgia and Oklahoma players sure to be highly coveted by NFL decision makers. Sony Michel, despite splitting time with Chubb his entire career, ranks third on the Bulldogs' career rushing list with 3,334 yards. Michel, who gained 948 rushing yards and scored 13 times on the ground this season, has had a college career similar to former Alabama and current Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake, and a diverse skill set to match — meaning he could have an even better career as a pro.
The two teams also have great talent at linebacker with Oklahoma’s Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy likely to be drafted in the spring. Offensive tackles Isaiah Wynn, an All-SEC selection, and Oklahoma redshirt sophomore Bobby Evans are also future pros, as is Sooners fullback Dimitri Flowers. A handful of Georgia senior defenders could also have an impact at the next level, including Dominick Sanders, Malkom Parrish and Aaron Davis.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.