Way too often, when I try talking to ‘football’ fans about the upcoming bowl season, I get the response “Oh, I thought you meant the NFL. I don’t follow college football.” While I understand preferring pro ball to college (I’m in that camp), football is football, and you’re missing a lot of quality action if you leave out the NCAA. I know for me, I started watching college football to see who would be good at the next level, and got hooked from there. So if anybody is thinking about jumping into college football this bowl season, I’m here to help. Here are my favorite NFL prospects to watch in each bowl game in 2017-18. (Note: Games listed chronologically)
Celebration Bowl (Grambling vs. North Carolina A&T)- OT Brandon Parker
In 2017, Parker was named MEAC Offensive Lineman of the Year for the third straight time. There is a lot to like about the senior from NCA&T from a pro point of view, from his size (6’8, 310) to his experience (3 year starter), which included blocking for now-Chicago Bears rookie standout Tarik Cohen last season. As is the case with any player from a smaller school, the Senior Bowl will do a lot to dictate his stock, but if all goes well, he will be a day 2 pick come April.
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl (Troy vs. North Texas)- RB Jordan Chunn
Chunn really jumped into the national spotlight when he tore up LSU’s defense for 191 yards back in September, but there’s more to the red shirt junior than that one game. At 6’1-235, Troy’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns has the ideal size for a ‘change of pace’ or goal line back at the next level. Expect him to put on a show against a North Texas defense that has allowed over 200 rushing yards a game this season.
AutoNation Cure Bowl (Western Kentucky vs. Georgia State)- DE Mackendy Cheridor
Cheridor’s NFL appeal comes from his ability to play on or off the ball. After spending his first two years with the Panthers as a stand up linebacker, the Decatur product put on weight and moved to the defensive line. Given how much Western Kentucky throws the ball, he will have a chance to show off for the scouts early and often.
Las Vegas Bowl (#25 Boise State vs. Oregon)- RB Royce Freeman
Freeman has averaged 6 yards a carry this year, despite dealing with injuries throughout the season. With his speed and ability to catch the ball, the Oregon back fits into the Kareem Hunt/Alvin Kamara mold, which after this season especially is a hot commodity. Projected a day 2 pick right now, a good game against a ranked Boise team could elevate him to the late first round conversation.
GILDAN New Mexico Bowl (Marshall vs. Colorado State)- QB Chase Litton
Litton completed 61% of his passes this year, which is an exceptional percentage given Marshall’s style of play. With his arm and size (6’6, 223), he has all the physical attributes that NFL teams covet in a quarterback. However, it will take time for him to learn and adapt to a pro system, so whatever team drafts him will have to move forward with a level of patience that is so rare in the league today.
Raycom Media Camellia Bowl (Middle Tennessee vs. Arkansas State)- OLB Ja’Von Rolland-Jones
Jones has been a regular disruptive force for Arkansas State, with 9 sacks on the season. That is actually down from 13.5 a year ago, to go along with 4 forced fumbles. He is one of those high energy edge rushers that can play in a 2 or 3 point stance, and with a good performance in the bowl game and at the combine could work his way to a second round pick.
Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl (Akron vs. Florida Atlantic)- WR John Franklin III
Franklin has had quite the journey of a career, starting as a quarterback at Florida State in 2013. After two years seeing no playing time, he transferred to East Mississippi Community College, where he was featured on the Netflix series Last Chance U. After a stop at Auburn in 2016, he moved on to FAU in 2017 to play for Lane Kiffin, and in addition to moving schools also changed positions, lining up at receiver for his senior year. LCU fans should enjoy watching this one.
DXL Frisco Bowl (Louisiana Tech vs. SMU)- WR Courtland Sutton
Sutton stands 6’4, but has the quickness of a guy half a foot shorter. Unlike most receivers his size that are primarily red zone threats, he is effective anywhere on the field. A 62 catch, 1,017 yard season has shot him up draft boards, and with a strong performance can make his case to be the first pass catcher off the board in April.
Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl- (Temple vs. Florida International)- DE Sharif Finch
First off, that name? Really? Is this a football game or a Diddy owned landscaping business? Anyways, Sharif Finch is another guy who will draw focus due to his versatility. He started his career at Temple as a 218-pound inside linebacker, and will finish as a 255-pound defensive end. He can rush the passer from anywhere on the field, and play special teams as well.
Bahamas Bowl (UAB vs. Ohio)- ILB Quentin Poling
Poling was a 1st Team All-MAC linebacker this year, recording 110 tackles with 13.5 for a loss. He is still a raw prospect, but given his football IQ and ability to both pursue the ball and drop into coverage, he could end up being a day 3 steal if he ends up with the right coaches.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (Central Michigan vs. Wyoming)- QB Josh Allen
When the season kicked off, Allen was considered one of the top quarterback prospects in this year’s draft. Unfortunately for him, that was the highpoint of his 2017 campaign, throwing only 13 touchdowns before missing the final two games of the year with a shoulder injury. There are still aspects of his game to like, but he will need a big performance on the Boise Blue to remind scouts why they had him as a 1st round pick. NOTE: Nobody will top the 2012 performance of Kerwynn Williams in this game, who scored 3 fourth quarter touchdowns in 3 minutes of clock time as part of a 235 yard, 3 TD performance and a 41-15 win.
Birmingham Bowl (Texas Tech vs. South Florida)- DT Bruce Hector
Scouts like Hector’s combination of size and quickness off the line, he is already buzzing as a day 2 value pick. 4-3 teams are looking more towards interior speed rushers, and he is one of the best in this class. Expect his stock to rise too; Hector is a player built to succeed at the Combine.
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl (San Diego State vs. Army)- RB Rashaad Penny
Penny had big shoes to fill replacing Donnel Pumphrey, who set the FBS record for career rushing yards while at SDSU. The Norwalk, California product proved to be up for the task, leading the nation with over 2,000 yards rushing, averaging 7.4 yards a carry. Some expected Perry to skip the bowl game, similar to McCaffrey and Fournette last year, but the senior feels he can improve his draft standing with a good performance.
Dollar General Bowl (Appalachian State vs. Toledo)- G Colby Gossett
The senior anchored an offensive line that ranked first in the Sun Belt in yards/per carry in 2017. At 6-6, 320, he should get plenty of attention both in this game and at the Senior Bowl.
Hawaii Bowl (Fresno State vs. Houston)- DT Nick Thurman
A fringe day 3 pick to start the season, Thurman has worked his way into 6th or 7th round territory. He’s an effective gap filler against the run on early downs.
Zaxby’s Heart Of Dallas Bowl (Utah vs. West Virginia)- WR David Sills
The 2nd Team AP All-American has been an exciting player all season as one of the premier deep ball threats in college football. His ability to high point the ball and fight off defenders makes him a must watch, especially against a strong Utah pass defense.
Quick Lane Bowl (Duke vs. Northern Illinois)- CB Shawun Lurry
Coming off of an ankle injury last season, Lurry’s stock was on the lower end entering the season, but the Husky has been impressive all year. Given his smaller stature (5’8, 170) he will probably play in the slot in the NFL, so watching him against Duke’s quick throw offense will give good insight as to how he’ll perform at the next level.
Cactus Bowl (Kansas State vs. UCLA)- QB Josh Rosen
UCLA had high expectations going into the season, and anyone in the program will quickly tell you the Cactus Bowl is a disappointment. That being said, it may be Rosen’s last chance to showcase his skills at the college level, or, as unlikely as it may be, this game could be a wakeup call that he needs another year at UCLA. If (when) he enters the draft, Rosen will be either QB1 or 1a. This game can’t do much to improve his stock, but a rough outing could sink him.
Walk-On’s Independence Bowl (Southern Miss vs. Florida State)- DT Derrick Nnandi
With Derwin James sitting this one out, Nnandi becomes my player to watch. Nnandi was one of the bright spots on an FSU team that at one point was ranked #3 in the nation. He had 6.5 tackles for a loss this year, impressive for a player whose primary job is to close gaps so the second level players can finish plays. He has the looks of a player that will be able to contribute instantly at the next level, and has the size and speed to play inside on multiple defensive fronts. He is currently projected as a second or third rounder, but given his NFL readiness, a good bowl game and Senior Bowl could make him a viable pick at the end of round 1.
New Era Pinstripe Bowl (Iowa vs. Boston College)- OLB Harold Landry
Landry has been the key piece in what has been an impressive BC defense for the last few years. One GM went as far as saying he would have been a 1st round pick if he had entered last year’s draft. The senior is a drop-back linebacker who can take away both running backs and tight ends in the passing game. His one weakness is playing against the run, which happens to be Iowa’s biggest strength. If he can be a presence in the run game in this one, his draft stock will skyrocket.
Foster Farms Bowl (Arizona vs. Purdue)- LB Ja’Whaun Bentley
Bentley will be tasked with containing Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate, who has been one of the most electrifying players in college football this year. Purdue needs to control the line of scrimmage and protect the middle of the field to win this game, and Bentley is a big part of that. If Purdue wins this game, he will get noticed.
Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl (Texas vs. Missouri)- P Michael Dickson
The 2017 Ray Guy Award winner is part of a recent string of Australian punters having success in college football. While we still don’t know if the junior will declare for the draft, he should be the top punter off the board if he does. Dickson had 34 punts of 50+ yards this year, including a 76 yarder against TCU. Texas allowed just 21 points a game this year, in large part due to Dickson giving opponents long fields to work with.
Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman (Virginia vs. Navy)- ILB Micah Kiser
Kiser is a hit-the-hole linebacker who has lead Virginia in tackles the past two seasons, including 134 his junior year. One of the best run stoppers of the nation, he should be all over the field against Navy’s triple option. He is an intelligent, physical player, but lacks the athleticism and coverage skills needed to succeed at the next level. He should take care of business in this game, while the Senior Bowl will dictate his draft stock, which is dangling between days 2 and 3 right now.
Camping World Bowl (#22 Virginia Tech vs. #19 Oklahoma State)- WR James Washington
It would have been easy to go with OKST quarterback Mason Rudolph here (who is also an intriguing prospect), but Washington has been one of my favorite players to watch in college football for the last 3 seasons. While he has been used as a deep threat at Oklahoma State, he lacks the size of a deep ball NFL receiver (6’1, 205). Given his strong hands, he projects as an intermediate weapon at the next level. His ability to run crisp routes and snatch fastballs away from his body make him as difficult cover as you’ll find, especially in zone. His lack of breakaway speed will give teams pause, but he’s proven to be a quick learner, and could end up being the steal of the draft if he falls.
Valero Alamo Bowl (#13 Stanford vs. #15 TCU)- RB Bryce Love
Pac-12 fans will tell you that the east coast bias is the only thing that stopped Love from taking home the 2017 Heisman. At 8.6 yards per carry, he was nearly unstoppable, going for 263 yards against UCLA and 301 yards on Arizona State. He very well may be the fastest running back in NCAA football this year, and will be quick off the board come April.
San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl (#18 Washington State vs. #16 Michigan State)- RB L.J. Scott
This one was tough, because I really like Luke Falk, but L.J. Scott is one of the most under the radar prospects in the nation. He has some of the best field vision I’ve seen from a college back, and his ability to be patient and hit the hole hard is reminiscent of another MSU back, one Le’Veon Bell. He needs to drop some weight and work on his ball security, but his ability to make tacklers miss will make him a value pick on day 2, especially for a team that can have him split time with an already established back.
Belk Bowl (Wake Forest vs. Texas A&M)- WR Christian Kirk
Kirk is the premier slot receiver in this year’s class, and is the rare example of a college receiver who is ready to run an NFL route tree right out of school. Even with inconsistent quarterback play, he managed to record 221 catches in three years as a starter for the Aggies. He also has the ability to return kicks and punts. Even though he tends to run from the slot, he has shown flashes of spectacular downfield catch ability, with some scouts even referring to him as “Baby Beckham”.
Hyundai Sun Bowl (#24 NC State vs. Arizona State)- DE Bradley Chubb
Chubb was a game changer week in and week out for the Wolfpack, and is ranked by some as the top defensive prospect in the 2018 draft. He has the speed to blow by blockers on the edge, and the strength to power through on the interior, which he did notably in NCST’s upset of Louisville, holding the ever-elusive Lamar Jackson in check. NC State hasn’t been in the national spotlight much this year, so this game will be a chance for Chubb to show NFL fans what he brings to the field.
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl (Kentucky vs. #21 Northwestern)- LB Josh Allen
Yes, this is the second Josh Allen on our list. The linebacker from Kentucky started his career as a relative unknown and has worked his way up to a borderline 1st round pick. While Allen is not the athlete other outside linebackers in this draft are, he has a nose for the football, forcing 6 fumbles in the last two seasons. Nobody is sure yet if the junior will declare for the draft or wait until 2019, but a good performance in Nash-Vegas should lock him into a 1st round pick, and it would be hard for Allen to pass on that chance.
NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl (Utah State vs. New Mexico State)- WR Jaleel Scott
Scott didn’t put up the most impressive numbers in a struggling New Mexico State offense, but he has all the measurables (6’6, 215) NFL teams covet. He’ll have a chance to go to the Senior Bowl and play with top-level talent, which should tell us if there is more to his game than his size. Before he gets there though, he’ll have one last chance to shine in the Aggies offense against Utah State.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic (#8 USC vs. #5 Ohio State)- QB Sam Darnold
We still don’t know if Darnold will enter the draft or stay at USC for another year, but if he does declare, it’s going to be him and Rosen battling for the top quarterback spot. Obviously, he has a much tougher opponent in the battle of the teams Alabama ‘passed’ for the final playoff spot, so he’ll have a better chance to improve his draft stock. Honestly, this game is full of NFL talent, and should be a close one, so put it on your list to watch. It may very well be the most entertaining non-playoff bowl game this year.
TaxSlayer Bowl (Louisville vs. #23 Mississippi State)- CB Jaire Alexander
Sure, I could easily go with Lamar Jackson here, but where’s the fun in that? Alexander, despite missing 6 games due to injury this year, is still a borderline first round pick. The 5’11 corner may be the best man-to-man defender of his class, and can step up to play the run as well, with 19 tackles in 4 games. Teams are weary of the injury history, with some scouts having him as low as the third round, but if he continues to grow his game like he did when returning from injury this year, NFL GMs will have a tough time passing him on their draft boards.
AutoZone Liberty Bowl (Iowa state vs. #20 Memphis)- ATH Joel Lanning
Lanning has been one of the best stories of this college football season. A little known quarterback early in his career, Lanning moved over to linebacker to see more playing time, and the coaching staff wanted his leadership and football IQ on the defensive side of the ball. After putting together a solid season at LB, Lanning was thrust back into the quarterback spotlight, leading the Cyclones to an upset win over Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma, playing offense, defense, and special teams over the course of the gam. Lanning projects as a linebacker at the next level, but has a long way to go skill-wise to get there. That being said, he has the drive and intelligence to make a run at a roster spot. Can you say Belichick?
PlayStation Fiesta Bowl (#11 Washington vs. #9 Penn State)- RB Saquon Barkley
Barkley was the Heisman favorite for most of the season, before his Nittany Lions faded down the stretch. Still, Barkley is an elite talent that the defense needs to be aware of from whistle to whistle. He can run around, through, and by defenders in the running game, and has wide receiver type hands. If you haven’t seen him play in blue and white before, catch it while you still can.
Capital One Orange Bowl (#10 Miami vs. #6 Wisconsin)- TE Troy Fumagalli
In a game with two of the top defenses, lets go with a tight end. Fumagalli has the size (6’6, 248) and speed (projected 4.67 40) to draw comparisons to the likes of Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski. The senior has shown a receiver-like ability to run routes, and the discipline needed for a blocker at the next level. Coming from a pro-style offense in Wisconsin, he should be a three-down player right away in the NFL if he can stay healthy.
Outback Bowl (Michigan vs. South Carolina)- DT Maurice Hurst
Whether he’s lining up on the interior or on the edge, the one thing you know about Maurice Hurst is he is going to factor into the running game. His fast first step is reminiscent of a player who was on the field last time these teams met in the Outback Bowl, Jadeveon Clowney. While most NFL teams want him to put on weight (he is currently listed at 282 pounds) so he can play exclusively on the interior, I wonder if he could drop some weight and become a 3-4 defensive end. Either way, he is a solid day 2 project pick.
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (#12 UCF vs. #7 Auburn)- CB Carlton Davis
Davis has everything NFL teams want in a corner. His size (6’1, 195) and length make him a trump card when it comes to planning matchups. While he doesn’t have that extra gear (projected 4.53 40) some players at the position do, he levels the playing field against faster receivers with his exceptional ability to jam his man at the line. His motor is enough to earn a first round grade from some teams, while others think he needs another year in college to fine-tune his game. Either way, he will lead the charge in halting the high-powered UCF offense, so there will be plenty of chances to see what kind of plays he can and can’t make.
Citrus Bowl Presented by Overton’s (#14 Notre Dame vs. #17 LSU)- G Quenton Nelson
Notre Dame features two of the highest ranked offensive line prospects in the country (Mike McGlinchey) but lets focus on guard Quenton Nelson. Some teams will pass on Nelson early because of his position, but they will be sorry. GMs have him graded higher than notable high draft picks at the position Logan Mankins, David DeCastro, and Brandon Scherff. Anyone who has watched Notre Dame this year has seen what a game changer he is in the running game, and he possesses above average pass blocking ability for an interior lineman as well. If you’re a fan of solid play in the trenches, you will enjoy watching how Nelson handles the LSU defensive front.
The Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual (#3 Georgia vs. #2 Oklahoma)- QB Baker Mayfield
This time last year, Mayfield seemed like a fringe prospect destined to go the way of Kellen Moore or Colt McCoy. Fast-forward, and some scouts have him graded as high as a first round pick. He has put to rest any questions about his raw ability, winning the 2017 Heisman and leading Oklahoma to the #2 ranking in the nation. What scouts still aren’t sure about are how his size (listed at 6’2) will effect what he can do at the next level. He will also need to learn how to read more complex defenses, which he will get a chance to do against Georgia. This game could make-or-break Mayfield as a first round pick (if he stays out of trouble off the field, of course), and you can double down on that sentiment if he gets a chance to face Alabama.
Allstate Sugar Bowl (#4 Alabama vs. #1 Clemson)- DB Minkah Fitzpatrick
This entire game is a Pro Bowl waiting to happen, so even though I’m only mentioning one player, about half the guys on the field will make a major NFL impact at some point in their careers. I’m not sure any will match what Fitzpatrick looks capable of though. His natural position is safety (he can play free, strong, or deep), but he can line up as an outside corner, slot corner, and even an in-the-box linebacker. The intellectual center of Nick Saban’s complicated defense, Fitzpatrick’s football IQ is on display before just about every play as he directs teammates and makes adjustments pre-snap. You’d have to look hard to find a defensive player with higher upside in this draft; whatever team picks him in April should be getting a defensive cornerstone for 8-10 years.
Well, there you go, the most interesting prospect in every bowl game. See how many you can catch, and let me know if I missed anybody. Enjoy the games!
Written by: Alex Barth (@RealAlexBarth)