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5 reasons NFL fans should watch potential No. 1 pick Sam Darnold vs. Utah

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The USC QB has a chance to be the No. 1 pick in April.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In the last 20 drafts, a quarterback has been the No. 1 pick 14 times.

So when a 6’4, 225-pound passer comes along who impresses on the national stage as a freshman with a strong arm and plenty of athletic ability, it’s worth taking notice. USC’s Sam Darnold is that prospect.

He’s not a perfect one and has struggled for much of the 2017 season so far, but his size and talent warrant attention and a matchup against the Utah defense is a good time for NFL fans to take notice.

Here are five reasons why you should tune in to ABC on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET and watch Darnold in action:

1. Darnold may be the No. 1 pick in April

The most obvious reason an NFL fan should watch Darnold in October is because there’s a good chance you’ll be hearing about him nonstop in the spring. While he’s only a redshirt sophomore, Darnold landed No. 1 in the first mock draft of the offseason from SB Nation’s Dan Kadar.

He was also No. 1 in mock drafts from ESPN’s Todd McShay, Fox Sports’ Dieter Kurtenbach, and CBS Sports’ Will Brinson.

Darnold is eligible to stay in college and not hit the NFL draft until 2020, but it’s difficult for a player to pass on a chance to be the No. 1 pick and get about $20 million guaranteed.

2. The Darnold hype train began last year

Darnold wasn’t even the starter when the 2016 season began, but junior Max Browne struggled in a 1-2 start to the season. The freshman was handed the reins and lost his first start, then led the Trojans to nine consecutive wins to finish the season, including a 52-49 win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl.

At the end of the year, he had 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

The impressive run for USC got the hype train rolling at full speed, with Darnold overshadowing players in a 2017 draft class that he wasn’t even in:

Things continued into the summer when Darnold broke records as a counselor at a quarterback camp that has previously featured players like Deshaun Watson, Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel. He also made ridiculous throws to receivers off the back of a boat, and entered the 2017 season as the Heisman Trophy favorite ahead of 2016 winner Lamar Jackson.

3. Some fans are hoping Darnold will be their team’s savior

Those kind of rave reviews and credentials were instantly reminiscent of the ways scouts and coaches talked about Stanford’s Andrew Luck. That sparked “Suck for Luck” campaigns with fans hoping their bad team would finish the 2011 season as the worst in the NFL.

The Colts won that race with a 2-14 record and grabbed Luck to replace Peyton Manning.

So far, the Browns, 49ers and Giants are all winless and in the lead for the No. 1 pick in 2018. But before the season, the Jets looked like a team that was on the road for a terrible 2017 season. And New York fans were ready for Darnold.

Now the Jets are 3-2 and tied for the AFC East lead, so landing Darnold doesn’t look like as much of a reality for the team. But the Browns, 49ers or Giants may all jump at the chance if it presents itself.

4. Darnold hasn’t looked like a No. 1 pick this season

But now’s the part where I tell you to dial back the hype a bit.

Through six games in 2017, Darnold has already topped his 2016 interception total with nine to go with 12 touchdowns. According to draft reporter Tony Pauline, Darnold has been described as a “one-read wonder,” who looks to run if his first receiver isn’t open.

That doesn’t mean Darnold went from a No. 1 pick to a disaster that NFL teams need to stay far away from, but the beginning of 2017 has definitely revealed that the 20-year-old quarterback is still rough around the edges.

There have been reports that say Darnold is leaning toward returning in 2018 and others that say he’s likely to enter the draft. How he plays in the remainder of the season — particularly against good defenses like Utah — could tilt that scale one direction or the other.

5. Utah has been an underrated pain in QBs’ asses for a while

Through the first five games of the season, the Utah defense has allowed four passing touchdowns and tallied nine interceptions. Only six teams have forced opposing quarterbacks into a lower passer rating so far in 2017.

Plenty of that has to do with an underwhelming slate of opponents to start the year, but Utah coach Kyle Whittingham also has a history of leading tough defenses.

It’s no Alabama, but in the last 10 years, the Utah defense has had Marcus Williams, Eric Rowe, Nate Orchard, Star Lotulelei, Koa Misi, Sean Smith, Paul Kruger and Eric Weddle all get picked in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.

The 2017 Utah defense stars Lowell Lotulelei, the younger brother of Star, a 2013 first-round pick. But the secondary features a lot of new faces, who have done surprisingly well so far.

Two years ago, Jared Goff led No. 23 Cal with a 5-0 record into a primetime game on the road against No. 5 Utah, who had a 4-0 record. With all eyes on Goff, he threw a career-high five interceptions in a 30-24 loss.

For Darnold, it’s a similar stage, but he’ll look for a different outcome. While Goff still went No. 1 after a meltdown against Utah, it could be difficult for Darnold to do the same, and it may just lead him to stay in school.

In 2016, Darnold’s first ever start came against Utah and it was his only loss as a starter that year. He completed 18 of 26 passes for 253 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions in the 31-27 loss.

Whenever he decides to enter the NFL, there’s a good chance a team will peg him as the future of the franchise and that makes his Saturday night battle with Utah one worth watching.