Cincinnati showcases names to keep in mind for NFL draft

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Desmond Ridder could be the one to end Cincinnati’s 50-year stretch without a first-round pick in the NFL draft, or the quarterback could watch a teammate get that historic phone call in Las Vegas this spring.

Either way, the Bearcats will showcase talent on a scale rarely seen at their school in a College Football Playoff semifinal against Alabama, which had 10 first-rounders the past two years and at least one for 12 years running.

“If they’re surprised, then they haven’t been watching our games,” said Ridder, a potential first-round choice along with cornerback Ahmad Gardner. “So maybe the draft or whatever, that maybe might help them wake up a little bit, I guess.”

There are plenty of ways to conclude Cincinnati (13-0) is the underdog in the Cotton Bowl on Friday. None is as stark as the history of NFL prospects and stars, which extends to the other semifinal between Georgia and Michigan in the Orange Bowl.

While top-ranked Alabama (12-1) has 62 first-round picks since Cincinnati defensive tackle Bob Bell went 21st overall to Detroit in 1971, Michigan and Georgia aren’t exactly first-round strangers.

Not so for the biggest names in the NFL among Cincinnati alums.

Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce and older brother Jason Kelce, Philadelphia’s center, are both three-time All-Pros, but Travis Kelce has the higher profile as one of Patrick Mahomes‘ favorite targets.

The younger Kelce went in the third round in 2013, while Jason Kelce was a sixth-rounder in 2011. Between the Kelce drafts, the Bearcats had their highest number of picks in the first four rounds with four in 2012.

Cincinnati (No. 4 in The Associated Press and CFP rankings) could match that in the upcoming draft. Ridder, Gardner, edge rusher Myjai Sanders and receiver Alec Pierce are showing up on some lists of top 100 prospects.

“You have to have a little buzz for us, especially for future-wise,” said safety Bryan Cook, another NFL prospect. “But I try not to get too caught up in that aspect. Just at least not right now, because you have a game to play. But from looking at it, it definitely does help us a lot as far as getting looks and things like that.”

Gardner, an Associated Press All-American who hasn’t given up a touchdown in his college career, still has to declare for the draft. But he generally projects higher than any of his teammates, so that decision seems clear.

Cincinnati hasn’t had a draft pick higher than the second round since defensive tackle Derek Wolfe (Denver) and running back Isaiah Pead (then-St. Louis Rams) in 2012. Wolfe had a solid nine-year career with the Broncos and Baltimore, recording 34 sacks in 122 games through 2020, while Pead never really caught on over four seasons.

If nothing else, this year’s Cincinnati prospects will enter the NFL with higher profiles as the first Group of Five school to reach the four-team playoff.

“I guess that’s not the way we choose to look at it, an opportunity to showcase our talent, as much as our unit strength and our team strength and our team chemistry,” defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “We feel like everybody coming together is the only way to beat an Alabama or anybody else that’s in the playoff. Our guys are excited to match up.”

The Crimson Tide has taken the Heisman Trophy winner into consecutive playoffs with receiver DeVonta Smith last season and Bryce Young, the first Alabama quarterback to win the award, this year.

Ridder led the only remaining undefeated FBS team, while “Sauce” Gardner allowed just 17 catches in 13 games and fellow cornerback Coby Bryant won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. But millions of television viewers will be seeing those names for the first time Friday.

“A lot of people might not think or might not know, that’s not their fault, because that’s not something they were brought into or really seen,” Cook said. “All I can say is, we do have a lot of guys who can actually play on the next level.”

The proof should come on the Strip in Las Vegas in four months.

No. 2 Michigan beats Purdue 43-22 for Big Ten crown

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS – Donovan Edwards ran for 185 yards and a score, J.J. McCarthy threw three touchdown passes and No. 2 Michigan beat Purdue 43-22 on Saturday night for its second straight Big Ten title and a likely No. 2 playoff seed.

College football’s winningest program has the first 13-win season in school history. Two more victories would give the Wolverines (13-0, No. 2 CFP) their first national championship since 1997.

And with injured star Blake Corum sidelined by a season-ending left knee injury, Edwards stole the show for the second straight week.

After shredding rival Ohio State for 216 yards and two scores last week, Edwards broke open this game with a 60-yard on the first play of the second half to set up one score. He added a 27-yard TD sprint on Michigan’s next series to make it 28-13.

Purdue (8-5) never recovered from Michigan’s quick, seven-play onslaught after it trailed 14-13 at halftime.

But quarterback Aidan O'Connell and receiver Charlie Jones helped the Boilermakers make it interesting for a while.

O’Connell was 32 of 47 with 366 yards and two interceptions after missing some practice time early this week to mourn the death of his oldest brother. Jones, who lost to Michigan in last year’s game while playing for Iowa, had 13 receptions for 162 yards.

It just wasn’t enough.

Michigan showed no signs of a hangover after last week’s rout over the Buckeyes, taking a 7-0 lead on its opening possession with a 25-yard TD pass from J.J. McCarthy to Colston Loveland.

Purdue answered with Devin Mockobee’s 1-yard scoring run to tie the score then took the lead on Mitchell Fineran’s 33-yard field goal.

Michigan answered by taking advantage of an offside call on fourth-and-6 by going for the first down, picking it up and eventually converting the drive into a 7-yard TD pass from McCarthy to Luke Schoonmaker. They never trailed again.

Edwards big run set up Kalel Mullings‘ 1-yard TD plunge before Edwards celebrated his own scoring run.

All Purdue could muster was three more field goals.

McCarthy was 11 of 17 with 161 yards and one interception.

Corum posted a message on Twitter on Saturday morning to say his knee surgery went well.

THE TAKEAWAY

Purdue: The Boilermakers’ magical season ended with a solid showing in the championship game where they played better than most expected. Still, they won the Big Ten’s wild, wild West, both trophy games and should be bound for a warm-weather bowl game.

Michigan: Yes, the Wolverines may have already locked up a top-two seed thanks to losses by Southern Cal and TCU. Michigan now has back-to-back conference crowns for the first time since 2003-04 though the hard part remains – ending its national title drought.

DIALING UP TRICKERY

Brohm played one season in the now defunct XFL and has acknowledged that experience helped him understand how to inject personality and creativity into play calling. It was on full display Saturday.

A surprise end around set up Purdue’s first score, a fake punt helped keep its second scoring drive alive and then Mockobee sprinted 25 yards on a fake flea-flicker in the third quarter.

UP NEXT

Purdue: Will find out its bowl game, destination and opponent Sunday.

Michigan: Waiting to see where its headed and who it will face in the national semifinals.

Klubnik, No. 10 Clemson rout No. 24 UNC 39-10 for ACC title

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Backup quarterback Cade Klubnik completed 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score and No. 10 Clemson reclaimed the Atlantic Coast Conference championship with a 39-10 victory over No. 24 North Carolina on Saturday night.

Cornerback Nate Wiggins broke up two passes in the end zone, blocked a field goal and returned an interception 98 yards for a touchdown to help the Tigers win their seventh ACC title in eight seasons.

Clemson (11-2, No. 9 CFP) won six straight ACC championships from 2015 to 2020 before failing to reach the title game last season. But coach Dabo Swinney‘s Tigers rebounded in a big way, going 9-0 against ACC foes this season to reach the Orange Bowl.

They have Klubnik to thank for that.

With Clemson down 7-0, Swinney benched two-year starter D.J. Uiagalelei after the Tigers failed to pick up a first down on their first two possessions, Swinney turned to Klubnik, a 5-star recruit from Austin, Texas. He responded by leading the Tigers to four straight scores and a 24-10 lead at halftime.

Clemson stretched it to 39-10 heading into the fourth quarter.

It wasn’t the first time Swinney has turned to Klubnik.

He benched Uiagalelei in the second half against Syracuse and Klubnik responded by leading the Tigers to a come-from-behind 27-21 victory. Swinney also turned to Klubnik against Notre Dame, although the results were the opposite with the freshman throwing a Pick 6 in a 35-14 loss.

Swinney has never been shy about replacing veteran QBs with less experienced players. He did it in 2014, sitting Cole Stoudt for Deshaun Watson, and again in 2018 replacing Kelly Bryant with Trevor Lawrence.

ACC player of the year Drake Maye was limited to 268 yards passing and turned the ball over three times for North Carolina (9-4, No. 23 CFP), which was seeking its first ACC championship since 1980 when Lawrence Taylor was wreaking havoc on quarterbacks.

Maye got things started on the right foot for the Tar Heels, capping an 11-play, 78-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead on UNC’s first possession.

But the Tar Heels repeatedly sputtered on offense inside the red zone after that, the biggest blow coming when Maye misfired near the goal line and Wiggins – who had struggled in Clemson’s 51-45 win over Wake Forest – returned his pass for a touchdown to give Clemson a 32-10 lead with 5:05 left in the third quarter.

Klubnik provided an immediate spark for Clemson.

He led the Tigers on a nine-play, 71-yard drive, culminating in a 1-yard TD pass to Davis Allen. After Maye’s fumble, Klubnik caught a 19-yard pass from Phil Mafah to set up Mafah’s 4-yard touchdown run – Clemson’s second TD in a span of 40 seconds.

Klubnik then showed off his arm strength with a 68-yard pass to fellow freshman Cole Turner to set up his own 1-yard TD run for a 21-7 lead.

END OF AN ERA

This is the final year the ACC will feature its two division winners playing for a championship. In future years, all ACC teams will be lumped together and the two teams with the best records will advance to the title game.

THE TAKEAWAY

North Carolina: Maye garnered plenty of Heisman Trophy talk during the season, but the Tar Heels offense has stalled resulting in a three-game losing streak. But as long as Maye doesn’t transfer – and there are no indications he will given his family history at North Carolina – the Tar Heels have a good chance to get back to the ACC title game next season.

Clemson: The Tigers have set a high bar by winning national championships, so as much as they will enjoy getting back atop the ACC mountain there will be plenty of talk over whether Swinney cost his team a chance at a spot in the College Football Playoff by not turning to Klubnik at quarterback earlier in the season. It seems Uiagalelei might be a logical transfer portal candidate.

UP NEXT

Clemson will play in the Orange Bowl, while North Carolina awaits a bowl bid.