Top 25 NFL Prospects to Watch this College Bowl Season

Another college football bowl season is upon us, and for those of you who don’t follow the college game religiously, the bowl season offers an opportunity to catch some of college football's brightest stars. Some of these players play at smaller schools, who rarely, if ever get national television coverage. These bowl games give the nation an opportunity to watch some players we have read about, but not given a chance to watch.

The bowl season starts on December 20th this year and runs through till January 12th, where the season cumulates with college football's first playoff winner.  Most bowl games have contracts with certain conferences, and will pit teams ranked in various conferences against each other. For example the Alamo Bowl will match a Big 12 team versus a Pac 12 team, this year that puts Kansas State up against UCLA.  A school becomes “bowl-eligible” with a .500 record. In a 12-game season, that would mean six wins would make the school eligible for a bowl. With the multitude of bowls available now, most qualifying schools will find themselves playing in a bowl game, but scenarios could arise where there would be more eligible teams, then available slots in the games.

For the purpose of this list, we need not worry so much about the schools involved in these games, this list will focus on the star players. The future stars of the NFL will be showcased in these major bowl games, with many underclassmen contemplating their decision on declaring for the draft based on how well they perform in their final game. For the players these games hold a lot of weight. For the greater majority of the seniors these game will mark the last football game they will ever play. For the elite few they will move on to the NFL, and hope to carry on the success they had in college. You've got to believe that the NFL's bottom feeders like the Buccaneers, Titans, Raiders, Jets and Jaguars will be watching these games closely. The following list will look at 25 marquee players in these upcoming bowl games to watch.

25 Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech: Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl

Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

Kenneth Dixon is a touchdown machine. He finished 3rd in the FBS with 26 total touchdowns (21 rushing, 5 receiving). This is the second time in his career he has topped 26 total touchdowns. In his freshman year he totaled 28 (27 rushing and one receiving). He has scored a rushing touchdown in every game, but the opener against Oklahoma. He comes into the bowl game on a complete tear, rushing for 10 touchdowns over the last four games.

24 Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State: San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The 5-foot-9 sophomore quietly had a monster season for the San Diego State Aztecs. He finished 3rd in rushing yards with 1,761, behind two running  backs set to go in the top 2 rounds of next year’s NFL draft.  He had a fantastic 6.9 yards/carry average, and 19 rushing touchdowns. He was also very consistent throughout the year going over a hundred yards in 10 of 12 games, and scoring a touchdown also in 10 of 12 games. Every one of the Aztecs wins this season was by double digits, and they leaned on Pumphrey to help salt away the games.

23 Cody Fajardo, Nevada: R + L Carriers New Orleans Bowl

Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

Cody Fajardo is one of the premiere duel threat quarterbacks in college football. Fajardo is one of only two players in college football history to have passed for over 9,000 yards, and rush for 3,000, the only other player to do it, was the player he replaced, Colin Kaepernick. Fajardo took over the starting job as a freshman in 2011 when Kaepernick jumped to the NFL. He does not possess Kaepernick’s rocket arm, and this limitation might prevent him from being an NFL quarterback, but he is as good of runner as Kaepernick. In this his senior year Fajardo passed for 2,370 yards and 18 touchdowns, while adding another 997 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. Fajardo has gone over 100 yards rushing in four of his last five games, with five touchdowns.

22 Shaq Thompson, Washington: Ticket City Cactus Bowl

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Last year it was UCLA’s Myles Jack who was all the rage as a two way star. This year it was Shaq Thompson of the Washington Huskies. Simply put, Thompson is a playmaker. He had six touchdowns, four on the defensive side where he had three fumble recoveries for touchdowns, and a pick-6. The other two touchdowns came as a part time running back. As a running back Thompson had 61 carries for 456 yards, which was a fantastic 7.5 yards/carry. Early in the year, the Huskies would only give Thompson a handful of touches each game, never more than three per game.

21 Tyler Lockett, Kansas State: Valero Alamo Bowl

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

20 Duke Johnson, Miami: Duck Commander Independence Bowl

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

19 Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: AutoZone Liberty Bowl

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

18 18.Brandon Doughty, Western Kentucky: Popeyes Bahamas Bowl

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

With the slew of talented quarterbacks in the FBS it was Brandon Doughty from little Western Kentucky that led in passing yards, and touchdowns. He finished the year throwing for 4,344 yards and 44 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions. The season came as a complete surprise as Doughty only threw for 2,857 yards, with 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last year. He would have two 560+ yards game, and threw for five or more touchdowns in four games.

17 DeVante Parker, Louisville: Belk Bowl

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

16 16.Rakeem Cato, Marshall: Boca Raton Bowl

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

This will be the last game in Rakeem Cato’s illustrious career at Marshall.  This year he had another fantastic season, as he went on to break most of former NFLer Chad Pennigton’s school records.  He enters this game with an FBS record 45 game touchdown streak. He broke the mark set by Russell Wilson who had gone 38 straight games. On the season Cato threw for 3,622 yards and 37 touchdowns, the third straight season that he has eclipsed the 37 touchdown mark, which gives him of total 128. The total puts him fifth overall in career touchdowns, and in the bowl game he has a chance to creep to fourth spot as he trails Colt Brennan by only three touchdowns.

15 Jaelen Strong, Arizone State: Hyundai Sun Bowl

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

 You will be watching Jaelen Strong playing on Sundays next year as he is a projected 1st-round draft pick. He is a big receiver at 6-foot-4, 212 pounds, and is a force when the ball is in the air. You will remember Strong as the player who hauled in the Hail Mary pass this year that knocked off USC on the last play of the game. He finished the year with 75 catches for 1,062 yards, and 10 touchdowns. Those stats could have been even better if Mike Bercovici had been the starter all year.

14 Bryce Petty, Baylor: Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Petty and the Baylor Bears entered the season with college playoff aspirations, which would likely have put Petty in the Heisman race. They fell short on both accounts. Petty’s numbers took a hit this year, as he struggled with a back injury, and the Bears featured the run game a little more. He still finished with 3,305 yards in 11 games, and finished 9th in the FBS with 8.8 yards per attempt. Last season Petty managed 4,200 yards in 13 games, with a 10.4 yards per attempt which was 2nd in the FBS. When Petty is on the Baylor offense, it's a thing of beauty. They operate at a break neck pace, and are very hard to defend.

13 Justin Hardy, ECU: Birmingham Bowl

James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

12 T-12. Leonard Williams, USC & Randy Gregory, Nebraska: National University Holiday Bowl

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

If he declares, Leonard Williams should be a top-3 pick in next year’s NFL draft, and would be the top rated defensive player in the class. A dominating performance in this game would make his decision an easy one. His numbers were down from his stellar freshman year as he posted 42 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, and three forced fumbles, but all it takes is  watching one game for you to understand what was has scouts drooling. He is 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, and has played both inside and outside on the USC line. That type of versatility is going to appeal to all NFL teams. He has cat like quickness, and can get into the backfield in a flash. When he is on, he can be unstoppable.

11 Brett Hundley, UCLA: Valero Alamo Bowl

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Had Brett Hundley left after his junior season, he would have likely been the first quarterback off the board. He decided to come back for his senior year, and it may have cost him severely. Instead of solidifying his pro prospects, Hundley struggled in a season where he was expected to dominate. Some flaws in his game were revealed, and his stock has dropped. The most noticeable questions have to do with operating inside the pocket.

10 Rashard Higgins, Colorado State: Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Rashard Higgins is the best college wide receiver you have never heard of. The sophomore finished second in receiving yards with 1,640 yards, and led the FBS with 17 receiving touchdowns. The impressive thing is he did this in only 11 games. In comparison the FBS leader Amari Cooper needed 13 games to put up the leading 1,656 yards. Higgins averaged a whopping 149 yards a game, in the last 10 games, the average is a staggering 162.3 yards per game.

9 Jay Ajayi, Boise State: Vizio Fiesta Bowl

Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

8 Scooby Wright III, Arizona: Vizio Fiesta Bowl

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Scooby Wright joined Rey Maualuga as they only PAC-12 defenders to win the Chuck Bednarik award given to the best college defender. It was a clean sweep for Wright as he also brought home the Lombardi for best lineman/linebacker, the Bronko Nagurski award, and the PAC-12 defender of the year. Wright was a dominating force for the surprising Wildcats. Wright announced his presence to the nation in primetime when the Wildcats knocked off the no.2 Oregon Ducks in Eugene. Late in the game Marcus Mariota was leading the Ducks on a game tying drive, when Wright sacked him, and ripped the balls out of his hands turning the ball over. The fumble against the Heisman winner would seal the biggest victory in school history, and made everyone take note of the sophomore.

7 Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: Capital One Orange Bowl

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

In the first half of the season Mississippi State was the top team in the nation, and that was due in large part to their junior quarterback Dak Prescott. Mississippi State is led by coach Dan Mullen, who was the offensive coordinator in Florida during Tim Tebow’s reign. Mullen uses Prescott very similar to how Tebow was used, and the numbers in the early part of the season reflected that. During the first half of the season, Prescott was on a tear throwing for 1,685 yards, and 15 touchdowns, while running for 664 yards and 10 touchdowns. Prescott was unstoppable in the redzone, and was the leading candidate for the Heisman.

6 Trevone Boykin, TCU: Chick Fil-A Peach Bowl

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of last year Trevone Boykin was a wide receiver and running back for TCU. This year he was a top-5 finisher for the Heisman as a quarterback. One of the most unlikely stories of the college football season was the transformation of Trevone Boykin under offensive coordinators Doug Meacham, and Sonny Crumbie. He would finish with 3,714 yards passing, 30 touchdowns, and only seven interceptions. What makes Boykin special is his dual threat ability, as he added 659 yards rushing, and eight more touchdowns. If that was not enough, Boykin added a 55-yard touchdown reception in his last game. That incredible season led the Horned Frogs to a 11-1 record, which looked like it would send them to the college football playoff, and Boykin to New York for the Heisman final. Despite a 52-point win to close the season, neither would occur.

5 Samaje Perine, Oklahoma: Russell Athletic Bowl

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

All Samaje Perine did this season was break the FBS record for rushing in a single game with 427 yards, as a true freshman. A week after Melvin Gordon had broke the previous standing record with 408 yards, Perine went out the next game and just embarrassed Kansas. It took an early season injury to Keith Ford for Perine to get an opportunity, but once he did he never looked back. In his first start he dropped 242 yards, and four touchdowns against West Virginia. The game before Kansas he eclipsed the 200-yard mark again with 213 and three touchdowns versus Texas Tech. In his last three games heading into to this bowl game he has rushed for 791 yards, and 10 touchdowns.

4 Amari Cooper, Alabama: All State Sugar Bowl

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Amari Cooper is the best player for the best team in the nation. He has dominated the competition in the best conference in college football. He finished the year ranked 2nd in receiving touchdowns, and led the FBS in receptions and receiving yards. The only game he was held below 8 catches, was a game against Western Carolina where he exited early with an injury. He torched three SEC defenses for 200 yards (Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn). Cooper is the best route runner in the nation, and no corner can match up one on one with him.

3 Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Outback Bowl

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Melvin Gordon was the most dominating running back in the FBS this year. He led the nation in rushing yards with 2,336, and touchdowns with 26. Early in the season some were questioning Gordon’s talent as he put up a dud against lowly Western Illinois, managing only 38 yards on 17 carries. That seemed to spark Gordon as he would go on to rush for 2,082 yards over his next 10 games, with 25 touchdowns. Wrap your head around those numbers, in that span he averaged 208 yards per game, with 2.5 touchdowns. He would also go on to break the single-game rushing record with 408 yards against Nebraska. The previous mark had lasted 15 years when LaDainian Tomlinson rushed for 406 yards in 1999.

2 Marcus Mariota, Oregon: Rose Bowl

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide garnering 90.9% of the possible points. That mark is second highest in history, trailing only the 91.6% put up by Troy Smith in 2006.  Mariota is a breath of fresh air to the Heisman award, after its last two winners have had major off the field issues. Mariota is a class act, and has the character that is more commonly associated with a Heisman winner.

1 Jameis Winston, Florida State: Rose Bowl

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The most polarizing player in college football is once again a former Heisman trophy winner. Like Johnny Football before him, Jameis Winston has seen his fair of off the field issues, which has taken the luster off his Heisman win . Pundits and scouts alike, have put into question Winston ability to lead on the field, due to his decision making off of it. This is where the intrigue lies. On the field Winston looks, and feels like a leader.

As one of the youngest players on the team the past two years, veterans look to Winston as a leader. The coaching staff loves him as a player, and have defended him in the media numerous times. You watch games, and  Winston who leads the pep talk on the sidelines, the guy going up and down the bench making sure the guys' heads are still in the game, and he is the one who leads them out of dire straits. Winston is still without a loss in his collegiate career, but there were many close calls for the defending champs. They had to comeback in the 4th quarter five times this season, but this gives even more credence to the leadership Winston possesses on the field. In these games, with the world against the defending champs, he always found a way to remain calm, and lead the troops back. It is a trait that NFL teams are going to really look at, when looking for a counter argument to his off the field behavior. In this game he goes up against this year’s Heisman winner in Marcus Mariota, a dream matchup for the FBS.

This will likely be the most watched game due to the two quarterbacks who are projected to become the top two picks in next year’s NFL draft. The winner in this duel may get the edge for the 1st overall pick. If you must watch one game, this should be it. Off field issues aside, this game will allow you to form your own opinion on the polarizing Jameis Winston.

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Top 25 NFL Prospects to Watch this College Bowl Season