The Most Interesting NFL Draft Prospect in Every College Football Bowl Game

Alex SimsCorrespondent IIIDecember 20, 2013

The Most Interesting NFL Draft Prospect in Every College Football Bowl Game

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    With the college football regular season over, it's now time for the bowl seasonthe bridge to the NFL draft.

    Many established prospects have little to prove in their bowl games. These matchups will serve as one last chance for them to show off at the collegiate level. Meanwhile, countless other players are still aiming to boost their draft stock before leaving school. 

    There are also plenty of juniors who still haven't announced their draft intentions. For many of them, these bowl games will be their final college appearance before jumping ship to the pros.

    NFL draft fanatics, look no further. Here is your official guide for all 35 college football bowls.

    Notes: All times EST. All rankings based on final BCS standings.

New Mexico Bowl

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    Matchup: Washington State vs. Colorado State

    Date: Saturday, Dec. 21, 2 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: WSU S Deone Bucannon 

     

    Named a first-team AP All-American this year, Washington State safety Deone Bucannon will be the alpha dog on the field during the New Mexico Bowl.

    The senior led the Pac-12 Conference with 109 tackles, while bringing in five interceptions and forcing three fumbles.

    CBSSports.com ranks Bucannon as the No. 1 strong safety in this year's draft class—and Colorado State understands why.

    CSU quarterback Garrett Grayson recently commented that the Rams must keep an eye on Bucannon at all times, per Tom Kensler of The Denver Post:

    After watching game film in preparation for Saturday's New Mexico Bowl, Colorado State players say they aren't surprised that Bucannon was named an All-American by The Associated Press this week. He has been projected as a possible first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft.

    "We have to know where he is at all times because he's going to make plays," CSU quarterback Garrett Grayson said of Bucannon. "We have to try to keep the ball away from him as much as possible."

    At 6'1", 198 pounds, Bucannon has NFL-caliber size and speed. Look for him to be flying all around the field against the Rams.

Las Vegas Bowl

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    Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

    Matchup: No. 20 Fresno State vs. No. 25 USC

    Date: Saturday, Dec. 21, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

    Prospect to Watch: Fresno State QB Derek Carr 

     

    Derek Carr is the No. 1 passer in college football, and if he keeps his current pace up, he'll be the first passer since Case Keenum in 2011 to average more than 400 yards per game.

    Oftentimes, passers who go off for incredible numbers aren't serious NFL prospects, but rather just the product of explosive offensive systems.

    That isn't the case for the 6'3", 218-pound Carr. In his recent first-round projections, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller tabbed Carr as a top-five pick and the second quarterback off the board.

    He'll also be carrying an extra bit of motivation into the game after being left off the list of Heisman Trophy finalists, per Kevin Baxter of the Los Angeles Times:

    It's definitely fuel for the fire, that's for sure. Hopefully after my career is all said and done, I'll look back on it and it will be something we can just laugh and joke around about. But . . . it hurt the first couple of minutes I heard the news.

    The USC defense will be the most talented unit he has faced this season. The Trojans boast several current and future NFL draft prospects on that side of the ball.

    With one final chance to prove he truly is one of the best players available in the draft, Carr will be the one to watch in Las Vegas.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl

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    Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Spor

    Matchup: Buffalo vs. San Diego State

    Date: Saturday, Dec. 21, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: Buffalo LB Khalil Mack

     

    All-American linebacker Khalil Mack isn't your typical Mid-American Conference player.

    The senior should be a first-round lock (B/R's Matt Miller projects him to go No. 8 overall) and is as NFL-ready as a player can be.

    At 6'3", 248 pounds, Mack could already start on most NFL rosters.

    And as SDSU coach Rocky Long told Matt Calkins of The San Diego Union-Tribune, the linebacker will make the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl worth watching:

    He's one of those guys that you cannot block. You're going to have to make your offensive game plan predicated on trying to slow him down some because he's such an impact player. Before we even knew who he was, he jumped out on tape for us.

    Mack finished in the top 10 in the nation with 19 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. He also notched three interceptions and forced five fumbles.

New Orleans Bowl

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

    Matchup: Tulane vs. Louisiana-Lafayette

    Date: Saturday, Dec. 21, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: Tulane WR Ryan Grant

     

    The New Orleans Bowl isn't laden with NFL draft prospects, but the most eyes will be on Tulane receiver Ryan Grant.

    Not to be confused with the former Green Bay Packers running back of the same name, this Grant led the Green Wave with 70 receptions for 926 yards and nine touchdowns.

    Before the season, Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated tabbed Grant as the premier NFL draft prospect to watch in all of Conference USA:

    Grant deserves to be in the “best senior WR prospect” conversation, thanks to a 76-catch, 1,150-yard junior season in 2012. Assuming Grant, who took a medical redshirt in ’11 because of a sports hernia, can stay on the field this fall, he could push into the top 50 picks — maybe even higher. He has adequate size at 6-1, 191 pounds, but he uses all of his height to go after the football. Grant also will make plays after the catch, as his career average of 14.5 yards-per-reception indicates.

    He'll be headed to the Senior Bowl after his bout in New Orleans with Louisiana-Lafayette, but before that, he'll be one of Tulane's biggest hopes for a victory to close the season.

Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl

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    James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

    Matchup: Ohio vs. East Carolina

    Date: Monday, Dec. 23, 2 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: ECU LB Derrell Johnson

     

    Like the New Orleans Bowl, the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., won't be a hotbed for NFL scouts.

    However, East Carolina linebacker Derrell Johnson is one player who will draw some attention.

    Johnson led the Pirates with 78 tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks. He ranked fourth in the C-USA in terms of tackles for loss and third in sacks.

    As a result, the Baltimore native was named to the All-Conference USA second team.

    CBSSports.com identified him as ECU's top draft prospect and the No. 21 outside linebacker. He might not be the hottest target this bowl season, but he'll have a chance to boost his stock against Ohio.

Hawaii Bowl

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    Matchup: Boise State vs. Oregon State

    Date: Tuesday, Dec. 24, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: OSU WR Brandin Cooks

     

    Oregon State has two exceptional NFL draft prospects, but wide receiver Brandin Cooks comes in as the one to watch over defensive end Scott Crichton.

    Cooks, a junior, hasn't made a declaration as to whether or not he'll enter the draft, though he has admittedly given it consideration.

    As reported by Lindsay Schnell of The Oregonianthe NFL has always been one of Cooks' dreams:

    He has pushed aside all talk about turning pro, insisting that he’s focused on getting one more win this season. He'll make a decision after the bowl game, he says. 

    "The second I learned what college football was, what the NFL was, I said, ‘I want to do that.’ I came in here, and I wanted to break records, I wanted to be better than anyone else who had come here,” he says, adding that if he returned for his senior season it would be to try to push this program to a BCS bowl. “I wanted to set myself up so that within three years, I would have the option to leave.”

    After taking the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best receiver this season, the NFL is certainly in the cards.

    If OSU wins and Cooks has a big game, don't be surprised if he packs up and heads to the NFL draft.

Little Caesars Pizza Bowl

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

    Matchup: Pittsburgh vs. Bowling Green

    Date: Thursday, Dec. 26, 6 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: Pitt DT Aaron Donald

     

    It was a bit of a surprise when Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald swept through the award season with the Nagurski, Bednarik, Lombardi and Outland awards.

    Not because he wasn't deserving, but because there were several other contenders, like Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, who brought in much more national recognition.

    Donald, unanimous All-American, led the nation with 26.5 tackles for a loss, 10 of which were sacks. He also logged 16 quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles.

    At just 6'0", 285 pounds, he is a bit undersized for a typical NFL defensive tackle. However, despite the lack of size, Rob Rang of CBSSports.com explains why he is still a highly touted prospect:

    Donald is as explosive out of his stance as any defensive tackle in the country. This burst is complemented by a terrific over-arm swim move that allows him to slip past would-be blockers in an instant.

    While shorter and lighter than scouts would prefer, Donald appears to have longer arms than typical for a man of his size. These long arms give him room to maneuver as he swims through the offensive line.

    With his slight size, Rang notes that there is a slim chance Donald will be taken in the first round. Tune in to the Little Caesars Bowl to decide for yourself.

Poinsettia Bowl

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    Matchup: Utah State vs. No. 23 Northern Illinois

    Date: Thursday, Dec. 26, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: NIU S Jimmie Ward

     

    Jimmie Ward might be the No. 2 NFL draft prospect in the MAC behind only Buffalo's Khalil Mack.

    Ward received several All-American honors, including a first-team distinction from USA Today.

    The Mobile, Ala., native paced the Huskies with 89 tackles, 14 pass defenses, six interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. CBSSports.com named him NIU's top draft prospect and the No. 5 strong safety in the class.

    Even despite the individual accolades, the Huskies ended their regular season on a sour note with a crippling loss to Bowling Green.

    After falling short of the MAC title and a BCS berth, Ward and quarterback Jordan Lynch will look to end their collegiate careers on a high note.

Military Bowl

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    Matchup: Marshall vs. Maryland

    Date: Friday, Dec. 27, 2:30 p.m (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: Marshall QB Rakeem Cato

     

    Rakeem Cato likely won't be entering the NFL draft this season, but the junior is a player to watch for next season.

    Early this season, NFL.com's Gil Brandt compared Cato to Seattle Seahawks star Russell Wilson, while also noting that he'll be better served to return for his senior season.

    Cato is slightly under 6-foot. He reminds me a little bit of Russell Wilson, but I don't think he's as good as the Seahawks quarterback. He moves around a lot and has a strong arm. A junior, he's a guy right now who would definitely be drafted if he were to come out. He definitely is a prospect, but it would be smart for him to stay in school, with all the quarterbacks coming out this year.

    Cato ranked fifth in the nation in passing last year with more than 4,200 yards and 350 yards per game but slipped a bit this season. However, he still racked up 3,579 passing yards, 36 touchdowns and just nine interceptions in 2013.

    He doesn't have many opportunities to show his skills against BCS conference teams, so don't be surprised if he has a big bowl performance.

Texas Bowl

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    Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

    Matchup: Syracuse vs. Minnesota

    Date: Friday, Dec. 27, 6 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman

     

    It's hard to miss Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, who stands at 6'6", 311 pounds. And just like those who watched the Gophers play this season, NFL draft prospects have taken notice of the talented senior.

    The Minneapolis native led his hometown team with 11 tackles for a loss, while also logging an interception, eight pass breakups and two blocked kicks.

    Hageman recently told Tyler Mason of Fox Sports North that the thought of his NFL future keeps him up at night, but that he remains focused on the Texas Bowl:

    I try not to, but sometimes I have insomnia sitting there thinking about what my future's going to be like and what I have to do and what changes I'm going to have to make. I'm always thinking about the future. As of right now, I'm trying to focus on the bowl game because it's very important for us to come out with a win.

    Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys identified him as a sure first-round pick in the upcoming draft, per Mason:

    I'd be surprised if he's not a first-round draft pick. I don't see teams passing on him. After they watch him work out in the combine and you put his highlight tape together of his negative-yardage plays and the plays he's made back to back, you put that on a tape and you watch it, it's one of the most impressive things I've seen for a guy his size. I think somebody's going to get a gem.

    Check out the Texas Bowl to see if Hageman can prove his coach right.

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

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    Matchup: Brigham Young vs. Washington

    Date: Friday, Dec. 27, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: BYU LB Kyle Van Noy

     

    Kyle Van Noy might be the most versatile linebacker in the 2014 NFL draft.

    The BYU star, whom KSL.com's Dylan Cannon recently called the school's best defensive player of all time, is one of the best linebackers in the nation.

    He led the Cougars with 16 tackles for a loss and four sacks. As the quarterback of the defensive unit, he also pulled in two interceptions, broke up seven passes, notched 14 hurries and recovered a fumble.

    Van Noy likely would've been a first- or second-round pick last year, but he elected to return to school. With a strong senior campaign, he'll be off the board early.

    He stands to boost his stock over the bowl season, as he'll take on a talented Washington offense that features NFL prospects at tight end and running back with Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Bishop Sankey.

Pinstripe Bowl

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    Matchup: Rutgers vs. Notre Dame

    Date: Saturday, Dec. 28, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: Notre Dame DE Stephon Tuitt

     

    With Louis Nix III still sidelined with a knee injury, defensive end Stephon Tuitt will be the one to watch as Notre Dame takes on Rutgers.

    The junior could be a late first-round pick if he chooses to declare for the draft, though he remains undecided at the moment.

    DraftCountdown.com analyst Scott Wright told Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune that Tuitt could return to Notre Dame, given his situation:

    It wouldn’t surprise me if Tuitt stayed in school. That was kind of the buzz before the season—that he wasn’t a lock to come out. And ND is a program where a lot of guys have a tendency to go back to school rather than coming out early.

    But Tuitt’s in kind of a tricky situation. Clowney is projected to be the first defensive end taken, somewhere in the top three picks overall. Then there’s a gap. Who is the next defensive end who comes off the board?

    Tuitt had a solid junior season, leading the Irish with 7.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks.

Belk Bowl

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    Matchup: Cincinnati vs. North Carolina

    Date: Saturday, Dec. 28, 3:20 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: UNC TE Eric Ebron

     

    North Carolina's Eric Ebron was one of the biggest snubs of the award season, as he was passed up by Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins for the Mackey Award, given to the nation's most outstanding tight end.

    He led the Tar Heels with 895 receiving yards, though he had just three touchdowns. Just a junior, Ebron will be headed to the draft, as reported by CBSSports.com's Tom Fornelli:

    I've had a great time in Chapel Hill and I appreciate everything Coach Fedora and the coaching staff has done for me. Coming to Carolina allowed me to develop as both a person and a football player. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made. I look forward to finishing the season with my teammates and then moving on to the next level.

    At 6'4", 245 pounds, Ebron fits the mold of big, athletic tight ends who are currently thriving in the NFL. B/R's Matt Miller sees him as the second tight end off the board in the first round behind Texas Tech's Jace Amaro.

Russell Athletic Bowl

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Matchup: Miami (Fla.) vs. No. 18 Louisville

    Date: Saturday, Dec. 28, 6:45 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater

     

    Teddy Bridgewater will almost certainly be the top quarterback taken in the upcoming draft and could be the No. 1 overall pick—if he declares.

    He recently told ESPN's Brett McMurphy he is undecided on whether he will stay or go and that he isn't leaning one way or another.

    Bridgewater had a solid junior season, throwing for more than 3,500 yards with 28 touchdowns and just four interceptions. However, Louisville, which had AAC and national title hopes, fell short of its postseason goals.

    The Cardinals will enter the Atlantic Coast Conference next year, making for a better platform and better competition for Bridgewater.

    However, as high as his stock is now, he has no real reason to return. Whether he performs well against a talented Miami (Fla.) squad or not, he should be headed to the draft.

Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl

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    Matchup: Michigan vs. Kansas State

    Date: Saturday, Dec. 28, 10:15 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: Michigan OT Taylor Lewan

     

    The draft stock of Michigan's Taylor Lewan has fallen drastically after the Wolverines' rough season.

    UM struggled to protect quarterback Devin Gardner, finishing No. 114 nationally with 35 sacks allowed. In two games, they finished with negative rushing yards. 

    Even through a rough season, ESPN's Todd McShay still sees him as a prospect that will be highly coveted on draft day, per Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com:

    Lewan did not have, he didn't play probably as well as he possibly could have and it wasn't probably the year he expected, but I still see a very good player. I don't think he's an elite athlete, but he has good quickness, he's physical, he takes good angles. You watch him even in the Ohio State game getting down into the second level on screens and blocking guys.

    He's got enough mobility combined with his size and his arm length at 6-foot-7, 314 -- these guys don't last long in the draft.

    B/R's Matt Miller left Lewan out of his recent first-round projections, though he likely won't last much longer than that. He has a chance to bolster his draft stock when he goes against a physical Kansas State defense in his final collegiate game.

Armed Forces Bowl

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    Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

    Matchup: Middle Tennessee vs. Navy

    Date: Monday, Dec. 30, 11:45 a.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: MTSU S Kevin Byard

     

    Middle Tennessee and Navy don't share a bevy of NFL draft prospects, but the best of the bunch might be MTSU's sophomore safety Kevin Byard.

    After a stellar first year, Byard was named a freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association of America. Now a sophomore, Byard will be capping off another outstanding campaign.

    The Lithonia, Ga., native led all MTSU defensive backs with 92 tackles and five interceptions, while also forcing and recovering a fumble. He also returned two picks for touchdowns.

    However, as The Daily News Journal's Adam Sparks opined, Byard was snubbed when he didn't make the All-Conference USA team:

    Byard was one of the conference’s best defenders at any position this season. Yet Byard was completely left off the list of C-USA all-league teams, released on Tuesday. 

    For those missing the math of the C-USA teams, that means Byard was not perceived as one of the top eight defensive backs in the league.

    Byard had 92 tackles (ninth most in C-USA, fourth among defensive backs) and five interceptions (tied for third in C-USA) along with two picks returned for touchdowns (tied for league lead). He also had five pass breakups, one fumble recovery and one forced fumble.

    Nonetheless, Byard has plenty of time to prove his worth as an NFL draft prospect. CBSSports.com tabbed him as the No. 4 strong safety for 2016 in its early projections.

    Any draft fanatics watching the Armed Forces Bowl will want to keep an eye on Byard.

Music City Bowl

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    Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

    Matchup: Ole Miss vs. Georgia Tech

    Date: Monday, Dec. 30, 3:15 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: GT LB Jeremiah Attaochu

     

    Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu has been upstaged by several other defensive end prospects in this draft, but he'll be very valuable to whichever team picks him.

    The third-team All-American has experience as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 and as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme.

    At 6'3", 242 pounds, he is a bit of an "in-betweener," but his talent will warrant a draft pick.

    He ranks second among all active players with 25 career sacks and was tied for third in college football with 12 sacks this season.

    He'll have one final chance to make an impact in the eyes of scouts against a talented Ole Miss squad.

Alamo Bowl

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    Matchup: No. 10 Oregon vs. Texas

    Date: Monday, Dec. 30, 6:45 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

     

    The Alamo Bowl showdown between Oregon and Texas will be one of the most interesting non-BCS matchups for draft and college football fans.

    Texas will boast defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, along with several others. Meanwhile, the Ducks have a number of draft prospects, but none more intriguing than cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.

    The junior still hasn't decided whether he will leave Eugene or return for his senior season. As reported by Jason Quick of The OregonianEkpre-Olomu has submitted papers for a draft evaluation, though he commented that it will really come down to whether or not he feels ready to leave:

    (The evaluation) is definitely going to play a part in it, but I still think it is going to come down to if I’m really ready to leave college. You always have to fall back to your education.

    I don’t want to say anything yet because I haven’t gotten my evaluation, and I don’t know what they (the NFL) think of me. What it comes down to is what is going to be best for me.

    Right now, the best choice might be to head on to the pros. B/R's Matt Miller projects the Chino Hills, Calif., native as the No. 22 overall pick. 

Holiday Bowl

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    Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

    Matchup: No. 14 Arizona State vs. Texas Tech

    Date: Monday, Dec. 30, 10:15 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: ASU DT Will Sutton

     

    After leading the nation with 12 sacks and 23.5 tackles for a loss last season, Will Sutton's draft stock soared to astronomical heights.

    However, the Arizona State defensive tackle slowed down this season, tallying only four sacks and 11.5 tackles for a loss. As a result, his draft stock has fallen considerably. 

    Even with the statistical step back, ASU head coach Todd Graham sees Sutton's year as a success, per Zach Buchanan of AZCentral.com:

    I think he’s had a better year than he had last year, in my opinion.

    It’s not all about somebody’s individual statistics. What he does and how he’s developed as a player, the unselfish attitude he has and the power that he has; he’s a great player. The reason why our guys respect him so much is the passion which he plays with.

    Sutton will have one chance to prove he's still the same player from a year ago against a pass-happy Texas Tech squad.

     

    Honorable mention: Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro, who has little to prove after an incredible 2013 campaign.

AdvoCare V100 Bowl

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    Matchup: Arizona vs. Boston College

    Date: Tuesday, Dec. 31, 12:30 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey

     

    The AdvoCare V100 bowl will feature two outstanding running backs, Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey and Boston College's Andre Williams.

    Williams, the Doak Walker Award winner and Heisman finalist, led the nation with more than 2,100 rushing yards.

    However, Carey is likely the better NFL prospect.

    The junior hasn't decided on his future yet, though he told Daniel Berk of the Arizona Daily Star that he won't pass up the opportunity if a first- or second-round grade comes when he receives his feedback from the draft advisory board:

    The running back told us he filed his paperwork to the NFL draft advisory board to see where he's projected to be picked and will wait to see what the results are before making a final decision.

    "First round, second round, that's comfortable stuff you can't pass up," Carey said. "Anything after that I think you have to get your degree. There's a lot of things boiling in the pot affecting my decision."

    Given the high turnover at the running back position, even the best running backs sometimes don't garner a first-round pick. However, CBSSports.com sees Carey as the No. 1-ranked running back if he heads out after this season.

Sun Bowl

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    Matchup: Virginia Tech vs. No. 17 UCLA

    Date: Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2 p.m. (CBS)

    Prospect to Watch: UCLA LB Anthony Barr

     

    There are plenty of NFL-ready defenders in this year's draft, but Anthony Barr is right near the top of the list.

    B/R's Matt Miller projects the UCLA star to be off the board after just three picks.

    Barr carried some enormous NFL stock all season long, but by the end of the 2013 campaign, he had been outshone by a true freshman next to him, Myles Jack.

    However, after stealing the show late in the season, Jack repaid Barr with some high praise, per the Los Angeles Times' Chris Foster:

    I'm learning everything from him. Pass rush, consistency, composure, he has it all. I'm just trying to suck up everything he can possibly give me before he moves on to the next level.

    I just learned something new from him today about flipping my hips when pass rushing. I have yet to get a sack. It would be nice to get one this last game.

    The All-American will have one last swan song against an indisposed Virginia Tech offense.

Liberty Bowl

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    Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    Matchup: Rice vs. Mississippi State

    Date: Tuesday, Dec. 31, 4 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: MSU OG Gabe Jackson

     

    Offensive linemen rarely receive recognition, but that hasn't been the case for Mississippi State guard Gabe Jackson.

    The senior was showered with All-America honors and, as detailed by Michael Bonner of the Clarion Ledgerhe'll be a highly touted prospect in the draft:

    After accolades as a junior, Jackson opted to return to school instead of enter the NFL draft. In his final season at MSU this year, he did not allow a sack and graded out 80 percent or better in every game he played. This year, he’s regarded as one of the best guards in the country.

    Specifically, CBSSports.com sees him as the No. 6 guard prospect and MSU's best NFL candidate.

    Watch as he paves a path for fellow draft hopefuls running back LaDarius Perkins and quarterback Dak Prescott.

Chick-fil-A Bowl

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    Matchup: No. 24 Duke vs. No. 21 Texas A&M

    Date: Tuesday, Dec. 31, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: TAMU QB Johnny Manziel

     

    Texas A&M might have the No. 1 overall draft pick in offensive tackle Jake Matthews.

    The senior is on the short list of top-pick possibilities, though B/R's Matt Miller forecasts him to go No. 2.

    While Matthews' draft resume is all taken care of, his quarterback, Johnny Manziel, is the biggest one to watch for in the draft.

    Last year's Heisman Trophy winner still hasn't decided on his future, though an injury-riddled 2013 season could very well be enough to send him off to the pros.

    A unique talent, many are torn on whether Manziel is NFL ready or not, though Texas Tech head coach and former A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury has no doubts about his former QB. As tweeted by Fox Sports' Clay Travis, he sees Manziel as the No. 1 overall pick.

    Manziel should have no problem shredding the Duke defense, particularly if this is his last collegiate game.

Gator Bowl

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    Matchup: Nebraska vs. No. 22 Georgia

    Date: Wednesday, Jan. 1, 12 p.m. (ESPN2)

    Prospect to Watch: Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

     

    After leading the Big Ten in sacks in just his first year in Division I, Nebraska defensive ends Randy Gregory has caught plenty of attention from scouts and analysts.

    He has only spent one season at Nebraska, joining the Cornhuskers as a 247Sports composite 4-star and one of the nation's top junior college defenders in the 2013 class.

    An injury during his sophomore season in junior college left him sidelined, but it also sent him to Lincoln as a redshirt sophomore with three season of eligibility, as Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald detailed.

    It is likely that he'll be headed back for his redshirt junior season, where his draft stock will only grow.

    Bleacher Report's Michael Felder recently tabbed him as a future No. 1 overall pick. 

     

    H/t to reader Scott Wilson for pointing out our mistake on Gregory's eligibility.

Heart of Dallas Bowl

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    Matchup: UNLV vs. North Texas

    Date: Wednesday, Jan. 1, 12 p.m. (ESPNU)

    Prospect to Watch: UNLV RB Tim Cornett

     

    The Heart of Dallas Bowl won't feature many NFL draft prospects, but UNLV running back Tim Cornett could boost his draft stock with a strong performance.

    The senior was one of the Mountain West's best rushers this season, tallying 1,251 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground. Back in October, he became UNLV's all-time leading rusher.

    Cornett's draft hopes appear slim, though CBSSports.com ranks him as his school's best hope.

Capital One Bowl

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    Matchup: No. 19 Wisconsin vs. No. 9 South Carolina

    Date: Wednesday, Jan. 1, 1 p.m. (ABC)

    Prospect to Watch: USC DE Jadeveon Clowney

     

    Jadeveon Clowney didn't have his best season, but he still might go No. 1 overall in this draft.

    That's where B/R draft guru Matt Miller has him.

    The opposition ran away from Clowney and put as many blockers on him as possible, and he still logged 10.5 tackles for a loss, three sacks and eight hurries.

    Even in a rough season, there is no denying Clowney's physical capabilities.

    He'll be a star in the NFL. 

Outback Bowl

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    Matchup: Iowa vs. No. 16 LSU

    Date: Wednesday, Jan. 1, 1 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: LSU RB Jeremy Hill

     

    The No. 2 rusher in the SEC, Jeremy Hill is likely to head to the NFL after this season, despite being just a redshirt sophomore.

    Jim Kleinpeter of The Times-Picayune recently reported that the bruising back will likely take his chances in the draft.

    Kleinpeter also quoted ESPN's Mel Kiper as saying that Hill will be one of the most talented backs in the upcoming draft if he goes out:

    Hill is an enormously talented running back. He can do so many things running the football. Obviously this league is now about throwing the football. The depth usually at the running back spot allows you to find guys at any point in the draft.

    From a skill-set standpoint what he brings to the table is going to make him an intriguing prospect. We'll see what his decision is. You'd have to put him right there with Ka'deem Carey at Arizona, Melvin Gordon III at Wisconsin and Lache Seastrunk of Baylor.

    With the short shelf life of running backs, it would certainly make sense for Hill to cash in while he still has his health. He'll be squared off with a gritty Iowa defense, featuring a talented pair of linebackers, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens.

Rose Bowl

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    Matchup: No. 5 Stanford vs. No. 4 Michigan State

    Date: Wednesday, Jan. 1, 5 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: MSU CB Darqueze Dennard

     

    Darqueze Dennard had an outstanding senior season while Michigan State won the Big Ten and led the nation in total defense, per CFBstats.com.

    The Dry Branch, Ga., native tallied four interceptions, 10 pass breakups and forced two fumbles. At 5'11", 197 pounds, he has NFL size.

    Per Josh Slagter of MLive.com, ESPN's Todd McShay was sold on his play in the Big Ten title game against Ohio State:

    I was so impressed with that Ohio State game. He made so many smart decisions.

    Just the instincts of when to turn and locate and track the ball, and then the last second ability to get his arms out there and deflect and contend the ball—that's something you don't see with college cornerbacks (a lot).

    The Thorpe Award winner could start immediately, and B/R's Matt Miller has him going No. 17 to Detroit.

    Watch as he tries to hang with Stanford's speedster Ty Montgomery in Pasadena.

Fiesta Bowl

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    Matchup: No. 15 Central Florida vs. No. 6 Baylor

    Date: Wednesday, Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: UCF QB Blake Bortles

     

    Baylor has several intriguing draft prospects, including safety Ahmad Dixon, running back Lache Seastrunk, guard Cyril Richardson and others.

    However, the one to watch in this game will be on the other side of the field.

    Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles has seen his stock skyrocket during his outstanding junior campaign. 

    Bortles won't make his decision until after the bowl season, though Paul Tenorio of the Orlando Sentinel recently quoted Sports Illustrated's Peter King as saying Bortles is the top QB on the board of a team with a top-10 pick:

    On Sunday night during NBC's Football Night in America, Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King said Bortles is the top quarterback on the board for some NFL teams.

    "The fastest rising quarterback in the first round, should he choose to come out, is fourth-year junior Blake Bortles of Central Florida," King said. "I’ve spoken to a team that’s likely to have a top 10 pick, and they like him better than any quarterback in this draft.”

    With that kind of recognition, Bortles should be headed to the draft early.

    He'll have one last chance to shine in a sure shootout against Baylor.

Sugar Bowl

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    Matchup: No. 11 Oklahoma vs. No. 3 Alabama

    Date: Thursday, Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: Alabama LB C.J. Mosley

     

    The Sugar Bowl will feature a host of NFL draft prospects, particularly on Alabama's sideline.

    But of all of the touted prospects, eyes primarily should be on Crimson Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley.

    The senior won the Butkus Award and was a unanimous All-American, though he was passed up for the Bednarik Award.

    He led the Tide with 102 tackles, including nine tackles for a loss, five pass breakups, eight hurries and a forced fumble. 'Bama finished No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense with Mosley at the helm, per CFBstats.com.

    B/R's Matt Miller projects him at the No. 18 pick, but said that, depending on circumstance, he could go higher: 

    On draft night, C.J. Mosley shouldn't last this long, but without trades and before free agency, this is where he falls. The Chicago Bears would gladly end his wait. Mosley can play either inside or outside linebacker, excels against the run and has the hips to play in coverage.

    Imagine Lavonte David with 10 more pounds on his frame and you have Mosley. The Bears would love building out a linebacker corps with Mosley, Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene for the next decade.

    Even though the Tide missed out on the national title, they'll still come to play in the Sugar Bowl.

Cotton Bowl

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    Matchup: No. 13 Oklahoma State vs. No. 8 Missouri

    Date: Friday, Jan. 3, 7:30 p.m. (Fox)

    Prospect to Watch: OSU CB Justin Gilbert 

     

    Before he heads off to the pros, Oklahoma State corner Justin Gilbert will have one final test at the collegiate level—or rather, two tests.

    The 6'0", 200-pound senior will look to match up with Missouri receivers L'Damian Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham, who are both 6'4" or taller.

    Gilbert has been outstanding this season, finishing at a tie for fourth nationally with six interceptions. An elite playmaker, Gilbert is predicted to be the first cornerback off the board by B/R's Matt Miller.

    The Thorpe Award finalist has a bright future ahead of him, but before that happens, it should be fun to watch him do battle with Mizzou's receiving duo. 

Orange Bowl

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    Matchup: No. 12 Clemson vs. No. 7 Ohio State

    Date: Friday, Jan. 3, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: Clemson WR Sammy Watkins

     

    Rather than just watching Sammy Watkins, check out how he and Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby perform when lined up against one another.

    Both are highly touted draft prospects. Roby has already declared his intentions to enter the draft, while it seems like a foregone conclusion that Watkins will do the same.

    B/R's Matt Miller tabbed Watkins as a top-10 pick, going No. 9 to Tampa Bay.

    A Biletnikoff Award finalist, Watkins' coaches have already given him the go-ahead to take his skills to the next level, per Aaron Brenner of The Post and Courier. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables commented that only players who are "freaks" like Watkins should pass up college eligibility for the NFL, while head coach Dabo Swinney said his receiver fits that mold:

    I don’t think any of those guys should come out other than maybe Sammy. I think all those guys need another year. I don’t think there’s any question about it. If anybody’s telling them otherwise, they’re not very well-informed.

    But could those guys come out? Absolutely. Play on the next level, maximize their opportunity. The only guy that I could say fits in that category to me is Sammy.

    With this likely being his and quarterback Tajh Boyd's final game, Clemson will look to put on a show against an OSU defense that has struggled at times this season.

Compass Bowl

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    Matchup: Vanderbilt vs. Houston

    Date: Saturday, Jan. 4, 1 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: Vandy WR Jordan Matthews

     

    Jordan Matthews, the SEC's most productive receiver, will be capping off his career in Birmingham, Ala., at the Compass Bowl.

    He finished No. 4 nationally with 107 receptions and led the SEC with 1,334 yards and an average of 111.2 yards per game.

    In November, NFL.com's Charles Davis tabbed him as one of the draft's best receiver prospects:

    He has terrific hands and runs excellent routes. We'll have to see about his speed when he runs at the combine, but I think he will surprise people as a runner. I love his toughness, which was on display in the season opener against Ole Miss, when he took a hard hit, vomited on the field, but returned to the game and was productive.

    Whether he lights up the combine or not, I think Matthews has all the tools to be a very effective player at the next level.

    His combine numbers might play a large role in his draft stock, but he'll also have one last opportunity to add to his game tape against the Cougars.

GoDaddy Bowl

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    Matchup: Arkansas State vs. Ball State

    Date: Sunday, Jan. 5, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: Ball State QB Keith Wenning

     

    After his GoDaddy Bowl appearance against Arkansas State, Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning will be a 4,000-yard passer as he looks to sneak into the NFL draft.

    The senior is No. 5 nationally with 3,933 yards, 34 touchdowns and just six interceptions.

    Wenning was upstaged by Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch in the MAC, but it might be the Cardinals QB who has the better NFL outlook.

    BSU head coach Pete Lembo recently told Michael Pointer of the Indianapolis Star that NFL scouts regularly drop by Muncie, Ind., to see Wenning:

    But Lembo said Wenning is not being overlooked by one very important group when it comes to the future. Those are the NFL scouts regularly coming through Muncie, who are impressed by his size, arm strength and ability to run a pro-style offense.

    “I certainly don’t think Keith is flying under the radar with them,” Lembo said.

    While NFL scouts are watching Wenning, feel free to tune into the GoDaddy bowl to catch a glance as well.

BCS National Championship

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    Matchup: No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 2 Auburn

    Date: Monday, Jan. 6, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

    Prospect to Watch: Auburn RB Tre Mason

     

    Florida State and Auburn are both stacked with NFL draft prospects, hence their appearance in the national title game.

    However, the biggest draft questions will be centered around Tigers running back and Heisman finalist Tre Mason.

    The junior hasn't declared his intentions yet, but he recently told Brandon Marcello of AL.com that he has been giving the decision plenty of thought:

    I'm not sure. I've been talking to my family, talking to a couple guys that I know that are already there like (Baltimore Ravens safety) Matt Elam and guys like that. I've been discussing those things with them and they said don't worry about it, leave it in God's hands. He's going to make the right decision for you, so I'm just going to let time wind down.

    After an incredible finish to the season, Mason might be a strong performance in the national title game away from moving on as one of the top running back prospects in the draft.