It is called The Game for a reason.
Ohio State vs. Michigan is — at least in my opinion — the very best, most passionate rivalry in sports.
So, while we’ve highlighted the best prospects in the top college football games all season long, this week we’re focusing strictly on Columbus, Ohio, where the No. 2 Buckeyes will play host to the No. 3 Wolverines (Noon ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app).
The stakes have never been higher, with two undefeated teams battling for the Big Ten championship and likely one of four spots in the College Football Playoff.
Unlike previous seasons, the defending champion Wolverines and the Buckeyes are both gifted on offense. In fact, while we’ve highlighted all the prospects likely to be selected among the Top 100 in next year’s NFL Draft, the obvious focus is on the offensive side of the ball, including Heisman front-running quarterback C.J. Stroud of Ohio State and Michigan running back Blake Corum. In fact, nine of the top 10 graded prospects in this game are hoping to score points on Saturday rather than prevent them.
Still, some of the best players who will suit up in The Game are not eligible for next spring’s draft. The Buckeyes’ dynamic duo of Marvin Harrison, Jr. and Emeka Egbuka could very well continue Ohio State’s spectacular run of receivers chosen in the first round, but that won’t occur until 2024 at the earliest. That is also the case for Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy.
The Game: Ohio State, Michigan square off
RJ Young is joined by Geoff Schwartz to preview the biggest game of the college football season.
As such, while many of us are still digesting our Thanksgiving meals, the real bounty lies for the scouts who get to watch prospects of every available Saturday on “Big Noon Kickoff.”
Here is our evaluation of the 14 players expected to be selected next spring, ranked by projected draft position.
1. C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State — first round
Statistics can be bent in every way to make a point, but it is hard to discount Stroud’s remarkable numbers this season, which include a staggering 35 touchdowns against just four interceptions. He has done so despite throwing to almost an entirely new receiving corps after losing Garrett Wilson (New York Jets) and Chris Olave (New Orleans Saints) to the first round of last spring’s NFL Draft.
As highlighted in a previous article grading the top quarterbacks in the 2023 NFL Draft, Stroud is the most gifted passer in the country, demonstrating exceptional precision to every level of the field. While his accuracy and arm strength will earn him a top-10 selection in next spring’s draft — assuming he declares early — Stroud needs to show that he can be just as effective from a muddied pocket, making this weekend’s game must-see scouting for all NFL talent-evaluators.
[Grading the top quarterbacks in the NFL Draft]
Why Ohio State’s run game is the key
Joel Klatt breaks down the Ohio State offense ahead of Saturday’s game against Michigan.
2. Paris Johnson, OT, Ohio State — first round
After turning heads a year ago at right guard, Johnson, a former five-star recruit, has boosted his stock tremendously this season at his more natural outside position at left tackle. He is the underrated star of the Buckeyes’ dynamic offense, providing top-shelf protection on Stroud’s blindside. Johnson possesses showing terrific initial quickness and lateral agility to go along with his prototypical 6-foot-6, 310-pound frame, which includes long arms.
His agility to handle the blindside in pass protection could earn Johnson a first-round selection, but it is the experience and physicality learned inside that shows up in re-establishing the point of attack and meeting opponents at the second level to establish running lanes.
3. Ryan Hayes, OT, Michigan — first/second round
While not quite as agile as Johnson, Hayes may be just as quick off the ball, consistently beating opponents at the snap and showing terrific balance and power to turn and seal defenders from the action. He is a bit high-cut, lacking the flexibility in his core to make the quick adjustments to moving targets that NFL teams prioritize with premium picks, but he uncoils with aggression and power, snatching and latching to control with the best of them.
Technically eligible to return next year, Hayes has already accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl, suggesting that he (or his potential agents) have also heard feedback from the NFL of a possible top-50 selection in next spring’s draft.
Three things Michigan must do to beat Ohio State
Joel Klatt breaks down the path to victory for Michigan.
4. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Ohio State — first/second round
A lower leg injury has “hamstrung” Smith-Njigba for much of the 2022 season, allowing the aforementioned Harrison and Egbuka to take center stage. But when healthy, his power-packed frame, strong hands and reliable route-running warrant comparisons to former Ohio State standout Michael Thomas, who was simply the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year for the New Orleans Saints just three seasons ago, when he led the league with 149 catches for 1,725 yards.
Like Thomas, Smith-Njigba isn’t likely to wow scouts with his straight-line speed — projecting as more of a 4.55 runner than a blazer like former teammates Wilson (4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and Olave (4.39). However, his bulk, body control and pillow-soft hands could make him an immediate standout in the slot.
5. Roman Wilson, WR, Michigan — second round
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh may love the running game, but the most gifted “skill position” players on his offense are outside at wide receiver, with the speedy Wilson capable of sneaking ahead of more celebrated teammates based on pre-draft workouts. Wilson, a true junior from Hawaii, currently ranks fourth for the Wolverines with “just” 19 receptions for 243 yards and three scores, but he possesses the instant acceleration and top-end speed to pique the interest of scouts should he enter the NFL Draft early.
Watch: Roman Wilson catches TD pass vs. Maryland
Michigan took a 24-13 lead over the Maryland earlier this season when J.J. McCarthy connected with Roman Wilson on a 20-yard TD.
6. Dawand Jones, OT, Ohio State — second round
While not as agile as his teammate Johnson, Jones is even larger. And if there is one thing the NFL prioritizes as much as speed, it is size. At nearly 6-foot-9 and 360 pounds, Jones is one of the biggest men potentially available in the 2023 NFL Draft, and he has shown improved quickness and balance this season. While lacking elite foot speed, Jones’ girth and punch make him almost impossible to get around, and he’s matured over his time in Columbus, showing greater awareness to counter moves. Much is made every year about NFL teams gambling on upside at the skill positions. But Jones has an upside worth betting on as well, as he is massive and still just growing into his frame.
7. Ronnie Bell, WR, Michigan — second/third round
While his teammate Wilson might be the “toolsiest” draft-eligible receiver prospect in this game, Bell might be the most dynamic, boasting not only greater production, but versatility as a do-it-all weapon who projects similarly to longtime NFL standout Randall Cobb (Green Bay Packers). Like the 5-foot-10, 192-pound Cobb — who has 52 career touchdowns in the NFL — Bell (6-foot, 185 pounds) possesses the elusiveness, acceleration and vision to impact the game in multiple ways, including as a receiver, runner and both kick and punt returner. Bell has scored just seven touchdowns over his entire college career, but many believe those numbers were impacted by Michigan’s run-heavy offense. Scouts think Bell could be one of those rare players who is a more dynamic weapon at the NFL level than in college, which is among the reasons Bell has already been invited (and accepted) an invitation to the Senior Bowl.
8. Olusegun Oluwatimi, C, Michigan — second/third round
Highlighted in our weekly college football preview just a week ago, Oluwatimi is the perfect example of a blossoming NFL prospect taking advantage of the NCAA’s new liberal transfer policy. He began his college career with the Air Force Academy before emerging at Virginia as a Rimington Award candidate as one of the nation’s top centers. Stout, strong and still improving, Oluwatimi has seized the attention of scouts, who view the 2023 center class as one of the better groups in the past decade. Oluwatimi has some of the same qualities that earned former Michigan center Cesar Ruiz a first–round selection in 2020 (New Orleans Saints), including a compact, well-proportioned frame, surprising quickness, legitimate knockdown power and a tenacious playing style.
9. Mike Morris, DL, Michigan — third round
A year ago, the Wolverines bullied the Buckeyes along the line of scrimmage, in part due to future No. 2 overall selection Aidan Hutchinson (Detroit Lions) and fellow top-50 pick David Ojabo (Baltimore Ravens). At an imposing 6-foot-6, 292 pounds, Morris is bigger than both of his former teammates, and he’s taken over as Michigan’s dominant defensive lineman with his 7.5 tackles for loss this season, three times more than any other Wolverine.
While Hutchinson and Ojabo beat opponents in a variety of ways, Morris is a traditional power player who typically overwhelms competition with brute strength and tenacity. While he can play outside at the collegiate level, he projects best as a two-gapper at the next level, likely earning middle-round consideration. He possesses a pro-ready game and the toughness to ultimately outplay his draft standing.
10. Zach Harrison, Edge, Ohio State — third round
It isn’t just the decal on the helmet that makes Harrison the polar opposite of the aforementioned Morris. Whereas Morris has emerged this season as a legitimate NFL prospect after starting just four games over his first three seasons in Ann Arbor, Harrison has lacked eye-popping statistics since signing with Ohio State as a consensus five-star recruit.
Harrison has yet to top his career-high of 3.5 sacks that he logged as a true freshman in 2019. Yet he boasts the triangular size-strength-speed numbers to earn early-round NFL consideration. He certainly offers projectable traits, including a prototypical 6-foot-6, 268-pound frame with long arms and legitimate twitch. In much the same way that scouts fell in love with Ojabo’s potential a year ago, Harrison’s four turnovers caused this year (including three forced fumbles) could be enough to convince teams that his best football still lies ahead of him.
11. Blake Corum, RB, Michigan — third/fourth round
If this was an article highlighting the Heisman Trophy candidates for the entire country, rather than ranking the NFL prospects in this game, Corum might lead the list. After all, no one in the country has scored more than his 19 touchdowns, and the only two who can match his production — Pitt’s Israel Abanikanda and Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim — star for teams with four losses.
Of course, the numbers that matter even more to scouts than Corum’s statistics are his size and speed. At 5-foot-8 and 200 pounds, Corum lacks an ideal frame to be a bell cow at the NFL level. He also lacks the production in the passing game to warrant the comparisons some have made to Los Angeles Chargers back Austin Ekeler — Corum has just 11 passes this season, compared to his 245 rushing attempts.
Suggesting that Corum is purely a function of Michigan’s power running game, however, is also silly. In reality, he is a quality back who simply needs a clean fit to excel at the next level.
12. Mazi Smith, DT, Michigan — third/fourth round
Blue-blood programs like Michigan and Ohio State are always going to attract exceptional athletes, and they simply do not come much more explosive (or hyped) than Smith, who checked in at No. 1 overall on longtime college football analyst Bruce Feldman’s annual top 100 list.
Smith’s athletic exploits read like something out of a video game, with a reported 44-inch vertical jump — which would have led all Combine invitees a year ago — and 4.41-second short shuttle time more typical of a defensive back or wide receiver than a 6-foot-3, 326-pound defensive tackle.
While scouts’ collective mouths may water more at Smith’s athleticism than a second serving of turkey and pumpkin pie, he has yet to consistently turn that potential into production, registering “just” six tackles for loss and half a sack in 27 career games for Michigan. This is why he currently ranks as more of a middle-round prospect at this point, rather than the first-round lock his traits suggest.
13. Miyan Williams, RB, Ohio State — third/fourth round
Both literally and figuratively, the 5-foot-8, 227-pound Williams has been overshadowed by Stroud and Ohio State’s dynamic passing game. A virtual bowling ball who consistently barrels through would-be tacklers and provides an element of toughness for Ohio State that, frankly, Michigan boasted a year ago with Hassan Haskins, Williams has emerged as the Buckeyes’ finisher near the goal-line, leading the team with 13 rushing touchdowns — more than twice as many as teammates (and fellow future pro hopefuls) TreVeyon Henderson and Dallan Hayden, who have similar rushing attempts this season. Williams lacks the frame and breakaway speed to ever receive early-round NFL Draft consideration, but he’s quick to and through the hole, and bounces off defenders like a bumper car — traits that project very well at the next level.
14. Tommy Eichenberg, LB, Ohio State — third/fourth round
The younger brother of former Notre Dame offensive lineman Liam (currently on Injured Reserve for the Miami Dolphins), Eichenberg possesses the instincts and intensity to follow his siblings’ footsteps to the NFL, albeit at a different position. At 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, Eichenberg possesses a prototypical frame for a modern-day linebacker, showing the key and diagnosis skills to sniff out plays, as well as good speed to the flanks and a strike zone that would make a pitcher in the Major Leagues envious, consistently bringing down opponents with a clean hit-drive-wrap technique. On a team full of future NFL draft picks, Eichenberg is Ohio State’s runaway leader in both tackles and stops behind the line of scrimmage, with 105 and 12, respectively.
Rob Rang is an NFL Draft analyst for FOX Sports. He has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others. He also works as a scout with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.
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