25 Impact Players to Watch in College Football Bowl Season
The 2013-14 college football bowl season will feature several intriguing matchups and even more enticing one-on-one bouts between star players.
Seniors will be looking to cement their legacy before moving on, and countless underclassmen will be looking to boost their NFL draft resumes.
Meanwhile, freshmen and sophomores will be vying to build for the future and prepare for next season.
In the always unpredictable bowl season, players can come from nowhere to make an instrumental impact on their games.
Here are 25 players from 25 different bowl games who might be the X-factor in bowl wins.
Oregon State WR Brandin Cooks
Boise State vs. Oregon State
Tuesday, Dec. 24, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
The nation's top wide receiver, Brandin Cooks, never fails to make an impact, even when Oregon State struggles.
The Beavers ended the regular season on a long skid, losing their last five games. However, Cooks notched 80 or more receiving yards in every game. He finished the regular season with 1,670 yards and 15 touchdowns and will add to those numbers against Boise State.
Boise interim head coach Bob Gregory lauded Cooks ahead of the Hawaii Bowl matchup, per Lindsay Schnell of The Oregonian:
He’s the best we’ve seen all year. He was very deserving of the Biletnikoff. He catches the ball clean, he’s a great route runner, very strong and they do a great job of getting him the ball in different ways.
The Broncos have struggled at defending the pass this season. They come in at No. 93 nationally, yielding nearly 250 passing yards per contest—and their success has been directly tied to their ability to defend the pass.
Their four losses were four of their worst games against the pass, and they only notched one win while giving up more than 300 yards passing.
If Cooks breaks open for a huge game, there's a good chance OSU will break its five-game slide.
Pitt DT Aaron Donald
Little Caesars Pizza Bowl
Pittsburgh vs. Bowling Green
Thursday, Dec. 26, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Bowling Green runs a balanced attack that will challenge the Pittsburgh defense on all fronts.
The Panthers will counter with the nation's best defender, Aaron Donald.
The Bednarik Award winner led the nation with 26.5 tackles for a loss. The undersized defensive tackle will be looking to burst into the backfield to disrupt the BGSU offense all evening in Detroit.
Donald is so talented, BGSU interim coach Adam Scheier joked that his team will need a 12th man on the field to deal with him, per Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press:
I actually talked to (Pittsburgh) coach (Paul) Chryst earlier and he was agreeable. He’s allowed us to put 12 men on the field on offense to keep it a level playing field.
I was shocked he was agreeable to that, but we’re going to see if we can get that passed by the NCAA.
The Falcons have a budding star at quarterback, sophomore Matt Johnson, who outshone Northern Illinois star Jordan Lynch by throwing for 393 yards and five touchdowns in the Mid-American Conference title game.
After that breakthrough contest, he'll be looking to do the same against the Panthers.
It'll be up to Donald and co. to keep him out of his comfort zone.
Washington RB Bishop Sankey
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl
Brigham Young vs. Washington
Friday, Dec. 27, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Bishop Sankey recorded a rushing touchdown in every one of Washington's games this season and has reached the end zone in 14 straight games, the longest streak in the nation.
He'll regularly be in an intriguing one-on-one matchup with All-American BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
The senior is one of the most dynamic defensive playmakers in the country, and he'll be tasked with shadowing Sankey and UW quarterback Keith Price.
Sankey won't be silenced, but if Van Noy and co. can quiet him and put the pressure on Keith Price, they will have a much better shot at victory.
However, it all starts with keeping Sankey from controlling the game.
Notre Dame WR TJ Jones
Rutgers vs. Notre Dame
Saturday, Dec. 28, noon (ESPN)
Rutgers knows it will have its hands full with Notre Dame receiver TJ Jones.
The Scarlet Knights identified some similarities between his game and that of some of their own receivers, but as cornerback Gareef Glashen told Brendan Prunty of The Star-Ledger, Jones will present a great challenge in New York:
We’ve got guys like that on our team...Like them, he’s aggressive going up to go get the ball. They don’t wait for it to come to them. And they’re good route-runners. He’s very similar to those guys. But he’s a senior and has a lot of experience, so he’s very comfortable out there.
He’s a good player and he has good speed. He goes and gets the ball. I’d say he’s very versatile. That’s why they like to get him the ball as much as possible.
Jones was the go-to receiver for quarterback Tommy Rees, hauling in a team-high 65 receptions for 1,042 yards and nine touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Rutgers finished No. 122 nationally, allowing an absurd 311.4 passing yards per game.
The senior from Roswell, Ga., should have no problem shredding that secondary to close his career.
North Carolina WR/RET Ryan Switzer
Cincinnati vs. North Carolina
Saturday, Dec. 28, 3:20 p.m. (ESPN)
Thank to the efforts of return man Ryan Switzer, North Carolina boasted one of the nation's best special teams units.
As detailed by Turner Walston of GoHeels.com, UNC finished first nationally with an average of 17 yards per punt return, while Cincinnati ranks 113th in the nation at defending punts.
Just a true freshman, Switzer has returned four punts and four touchdowns while also bringing in three touchdown receptions.
His role has steadily increased throughout the year, which head coach Larry Fedora attributes to comfort on the field, per the Associated Press (h/t the Charleston Gazette):
Now the confidence is there. He's not worried about catching the football, he's not thinking about everything that I've given him to think about. He thought when you come out of high school, you go back there, you just catch a ball and run. Well, that's not the way we do things. He is so comfortable now that he is at that point where he doesn't have to think now.
If Switzer plays out of his mind in the Belk Bowl, Cincy could be in trouble.
Louisville WR DeVante Parker
Russell Athletic Bowl
Miami (Fla.) vs. No. 18 Louisville
Saturday, Dec. 28, 6:45 p.m. (ESPN)
Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has done an excellent job of spreading the ball around to several receivers equally, but there's no question as to who is go-to guy is.
DeVante Parker has been the Cardinals' top option, particularly around the end zone.
At 6'3", 209 pounds, he has the size and strength to win jump balls over multiple defenders. As a result, he has tallied 46 receptions for 743 yards and 11 touchdowns on the year.
With a first-round grade highly unlikely, it seems as though Parker will start focusing forward to next season. That process will begin in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Kansas State DE Ryan Mueller
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl
Michigan vs. Kansas State
Saturday, Dec. 28, 10:15 p.m. (ESPN)
The Big 12 Conference's Defensive Lineman of the Year might be the best defender in college football you've never heard of.
Kansas State defensive end Ryan Mueller led the league with 18.5 tackles for a loss, including 11.5 sacks. He also broke up six passes and forced four fumbles.
The former walk-on is now looking forward to the challenge of lining up against Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan, per John Zetmeir of The Collegian:
I just try to be better than the man across from me because I know that behind all of that stuff, it does not really mean anything it’s what’s inside that makes a player good. Obviously, Taylor Lewan has gotten a lot of attention for being a good football player and I am looking forward to the opportunity to go in against somebody who is considered great.
Michigan has struggled up front for much of the 2013 season, including consecutive games with negative rushing yards.
If Mueller and the Wildcats can generate consistent penetration against the UM front, it will make the difference in the game.
Georgia Tech RB David Sims
Music City Bowl
Ole Miss vs. Georgia Tech
Monday, Dec. 30, 3:15 p.m. (ESPN)
Ole Miss knows it has a unique challenge ahead of it in defending Georgia Tech's option offense.
Stopping the Yellow Jackets comes down to sound tackling and decisive action against the unorthodox attack.
GT boasts 12 rushers with more than 100 yards on the season, but David Sims has been the best of the bunch. The senior has tallied 846 yards and 11 touchdowns, both team highs.
Mississippi head coach Hugh Freeze recently broke down how he is preparing for Sims and the Ramblin' Wreck, per Yahoo! Sports:
It’s not easy to prepare for. Luckily we have some extra time. I really haven’t studied them a whole lot defensively yet because we’ve been on the road recruiting, but I’ll get the film guys to send me some film on our computers and start watching some in the hotel while I’m on the road.
The Rebels will have to be well prepared to stop GT, but it'll all come down to stopping Sims and co. on game day.
Oregon RB De'Anthony Thomas
No. 10 Oregon vs. Texas
Monday, Dec. 30, 6:45 p.m. (ESPN)
It's tough to predict which Oregon running back will have a big game.
Between De'Anthony Thomas, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner (not to mention quarterback Marcus Mariota), the Ducks have plenty of options.
But just as they have all season long, injury will play a role in UO's Alamo Bowl tilt with Texas.
Assistant coach Gary Campbell revealed the injury after he was asked whether Tyner would be the Ducks’ No. 1 tailback when they faced Texas.
"Thomas is hurt,’’ Campbell said. “And if we were to start a game and come back tomorrow, I would say Byron Marshall would be the starting tailback.’’
"(Tyner) has a tight hammy, something, I think. He is not injured, he is just not ... well, everybody is a little beat up, all those guys are."
With Tyner and Marshall possibly in question, Thomas might be the one garnering the most touches out of the backfield. Regardless of which back gets the most attention, the Ducks should be able to rack up big numbers against a Texas defense that has been porous this season.
Arizona State RB Marion Grice
No. 14 Arizona State vs. Texas Tech
Monday, Dec. 30, 10:15 p.m. (ESPN)
The Holiday Bowl outcome will depend heavily on the status of Arizona State running back Marion Grice.
The senior missed the last two games of the regular season with a lower leg injury, but hopes to return to close his career. The former junior college transfer told Doug Haller of AZCentral.com that it was tough to sit the final two games, but he'll still have to be at full health to take the field one last time:
It was very hard. I feel like I let the team down, but they told me to keep my head up and be there for them. And I’m there for them no matter what, no matter if I’m on the field or off the field.
I got to be 100 percent (to play), for sure.
Grice was replaced well by sophomore D.J. Foster, but ASU isn't a complete team without him. The Houston native has reached the end zone 20 times between rushing and receiving.
If he plays, the Sun Devils shouldn't lose to Texas Tech.
Arizona QB B.J. Denker
AdvoCare V100 Bowl
Arizona vs. Boston College
Tuesday, Dec. 31, 12:30 p.m. (ESPN)
All of the attention in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl is on the running backs: Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey and Boston College's Andre Williams.
They are the two most productive running backs in the nation, amassing more than 3,800 rushing yards between them.
However, as those two look to go shot-for-shot on the ground, Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker could end up making the biggest difference.
There’s always a read or multiple reads or three or four reads on a significant play, and sometimes in a different offense – pro-style or what have you – they don’t have to do that. So it’s obviously challenging. The mental aspect of playing for this offense is challenging.
(But) once you get it done, once you get a grasp of it, the sky’s the limit. It’s so much fun. You have so much fun out there making plays and scoring points and going fast.
Denker will have an excellent chance at posting big points against the porous Boston College pass defense. The Eagles rank No. 111 nationally against the pass.
UCLA RB Jordon James
Virginia Tech vs. No. 17 UCLA
Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2 p.m. (CBS)
The UCLA offense was one of the nation's best early in the season, and running back Jordon James was posting numbers among the highest in college football.
The junior then went down with an ankle injury against Utah in early October, sending the Bruins' attack awry.
For the better part of the final eight games, James was either sidelined completely or on the field and less than 100 percent.
"You know how running backs are, he feels healthy," Mazzone said. "He's not thinking about the ankle when he runs. He looks quick. He hasn't looked like this since before the Utah game."
"He was back running the ball like he did earlier in the season," Hundley said. "You see that natural running motion is back. Ankle injuries are not fun. I had one as a freshman and it stayed with me throughout the whole season. It's one of those injuries that is always in the back of your mind."
If James is back at full health and the UCLA offense is at full strength, the Bruins won't have any trouble topping Virginia Tech.
Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott
Rice vs. Mississippi State
Tuesday, Dec. 31, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
Dak Prescott has spent much of his career at Mississippi State looking over his shoulder.
The sophomore has split time with senior Tyler Russell, but now after his heroic efforts in an Egg Bowl win over Ole Miss, the team is fully his.
As MSU transitions into the Prescott Era, he'll be looking forward to improving for the future, per the Associated Press (h/t The Mississippi Press):
That's what this bowl practice is about -- getting ready for spring practice and seeing where things belong and where players are best at. That's what we're doing. Just trying to make our team better and have some fun.
We know how good we can be and we're not going to take anything for granted. We're just going to go out there, make each other better and push each other.
If Prescott plays up to his potential, the Bulldogs should have no trouble pushing past Rice.
All six of MSU's losses have come to teams ranked in the BCS Top 25.
Texas A&M WR Mike Evans
No. 24 Duke vs. No. 21 Texas A&M
Tuesday, Dec. 31, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
The matchup between the Texas A&M offense and the Duke defense could be ugly.
The Aggies rank fourth nationally in total offense and the Blue Devils come in at No. 73 nationally in total defense.
While it is a virtual certainty that A&M will post big points against Duke, the only question is who will be the biggest benefactor.
Johnny Manziel is the top candidate to have a big day, but Mike Evans is due for an enormous performance as well.
Evans was one of the nation's best receivers, tallying 1,322 yards and 12 touchdowns, but his production tapered off late in the season. Over the final five games, he only broke 100 yards once. He ended the regular season with just eight receiving yards against Missouri and star cornerback E.J. Gaines.
Against Duke, he won't be matched up against a future first-round draft pick, so a big game is certainly in the cards.
LSU RB Jeremy Hill
Iowa vs. No. 16 LSU
Wednesday, Jan. 1, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
LSU will take on Iowa in the Outback Bowl without the services of quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
The senior suffered a season-ending knee injury in the last game of the regular season against Arkansas, which will give freshman Anthony Jennings his first start.
While Jennings showed promise against the Razorbacks, the Tigers will likely look to their run game against the Hawkeyes.
On the ground, they are led by All-SEC running back Jeremy Hill, but he'll be running into an Iowa front that is one of college football's best. The Hawkeyes rank seventh nationally in total defense, including 17th against the run and 11th against the pass.
If Hill has a strong game against that Iowa defense, LSU will win. If not, don't be surprised if the gritty Hawks pull off the upset.
Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah
Nebraska vs. No. 22 Georgia
Wednesday, Jan. 1, noon (ESPN2)
Nebraska has had several different quarterbacks through a roller-coaster 2013 campaign, but running back Ameer Abdullah has been the constant through it all.
As the Big Ten's leading rusher, Abdullah has amassed 1,568 yards and eight touchdowns, going for 85 or more yards in each game this season.
Early in bowl preparation, before doing any intensive film study, Georgia head coach Mark Richt was impressed by the work done by Abdullah this season. According to Josh Harvey of BigRedReport.com, Richt said:
They’ve got Abdullah rushing for almost 1,600 yards, so that’s very impressive. I think they’ve got about seven starters back on offense and about four starters back on defense, but that’s about as far as I’ll go as far as the scouting report goes until I can study them a little bit better and do it some justice.
The Bulldogs gave up more than 100 rushing yards in each of their four losses this year, including 323 from Auburn.
Meanwhile, the UGA offense will be in flux with junior backup Hutson Mason at the helm after the season-ending injury to Aaron Murray.
To take pressure off of the new signal-caller, the Dawgs will have to ratchet up the defensive intensity, which starts with stopping Abdullah.
Wisconsin RB James White
Capital One Bowl
No. 19 Wisconsin vs. No. 9 South Carolina
Wednesday, Jan. 1, 1 p.m. (ABC)
Wisconsin running back James White will cap off an incredible career in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina.
The senior needs just 92 yards to hit 4,000 for his career. Looking at his past bowl performances, the outlook isn't positive. In three bowl appearances, he has amassed just 57 rushing yards.
"I haven't had much of an impact in the bowl games," White told ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg. "So I definitely want to go out here my last season and have an impactful game and get a win."
With plenty of extra motivation, White is poised for a massive game.
Michigan State LB Denicos Allen
No. 5 Stanford vs. No. 4 Michigan State
Wednesday, Jan. 1, 5 p.m. (ESPN)
A defense doesn't end the season ranked No. 1 thanks to just one or two good players.
Michigan State, first nationally in yards allowed, has several. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard, linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen and defensive end Shilique Calhoun were all showered with All-American and All-Big Ten honors.
Allen led the bunch with 91 tackles and 15 tackles for a loss. He also tallied 5.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hurries.
In a Rose Bowl that will be dominated by defense, it'll be up to the 5'11", 218-pound Allen to fill gaps and push back the powerful Stanford rushing attack.
UCF QB Blake Bortles
No. 15 Central Florida vs. No. 6 Baylor
Wednesday, Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
The Baylor offense is bound to score points.
That will leave it up to Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles to keep up.
The junior tallied nearly 3,300 passing yards with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions in leading UCF to its first-ever BCS bowl appearance.
He could end up as a top-10 pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
Before then, he'll have one last chance to boost his stock.
Alabama LB C.J. Mosley
No. 11 Oklahoma vs. No. 3 Alabama
Thursday, Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Alabama is a heavy favorite for the Sugar Bowl (-15.5), according to VegasInsider.com.
However, the Crimson Tide will have to stop Oklahoma's dangerous rush offense to cover that spread.
The Sooners are No. 18 nationally, running for 235.8 yards per contest. That's where 'Bama linebacker C.J. Mosley will earn his keep.
The senior has led the Tide with 102 tackles and nine tackles for a loss. He has also notched eight quarterback hurries and a forced fumble in his All-American campaign.
Look for Mosley to be shadowing quarterbacks Blake Bell and Trevor Knight in New Orleans. With Mosley leading the way, the 'Bama defense should be able to slow the Sooner attack.
Missouri QB James Franklin
No. 13 Oklahoma State vs. No. 8 Missouri
Friday, Jan. 3, 7:30 p.m. (Fox)
The Missouri offense is a thing of beauty when it is at full strength.
Much of that is thanks to quarterback James Franklin.
The Tigers are known for their weapons, including Henry Josey, Russell Hansbrough, L'Damian Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham. However, it is up to Franklin to distribute the ball to those playmakers, while also making plays himself with his legs.
Unless Oklahoma State can disrupt Franklin, it will be in trouble. The Cowboys have only won twice this season when their opponent scored more than 30 points.
With Franklin in the lineup, Mizzou has only failed to hit 30 twice.
Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde
No. 12 Clemson vs. No. 7 Ohio State
Friday, Jan. 3, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Clemson will be deftly challenged by the Ohio State rushing attack.
The Buckeyes rank third nationally, tallying 317.5 yards per game. Against Clemson, it might just be a matter of which Buckeye has the biggest game. In this one, that Buckeye might be running back Carlos Hyde.
CU has been strong at times but has also shown signs of struggle against physical attacks. According to Mandrallius Robinson of GreenvilleOnline.com, defensive coordinator Brent Venables said Clemson will need to be resilient against the bruising Hyde:
He’s very physical, breaks a lot of tackles. He runs through a lot of trash. He’s not just running and guys are missing hits. He’s running through and over people quite often.
You have to be the most physical team to win. The recipe is being physical, playing with fundamentals, playing with discipline, playing with effort, whether you’re playing against a big, physical back or not.
Hyde hasn't been topped in physicality yet this year, tallying more than 100 yards on the ground in the past eight games.
Houston WR Deontay Greenberry
Vanderbilt vs. Houston
Saturday, Jan. 4, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
Vanderbilt will boast the marquee receiver in Jordan Matthews, but Houston will counter with a talented pass-catcher of its own.
Sophomore Deontay Greenberry led the American Athletic Conference with an average of 100.5 receiving yards per game. He also brought in 10 touchdowns in 76 receptions.
Vanderbilt has only allowed more than 300 yards passing three times this season and will look to keep that streak going.
Houston's success has been directly linked to Greenberry's success this season. The Fresno, Calif., native was held under 100 receiving yards in all of UH's losses.
If Greenberry has a big day, Houston can win. If he doesn't, Vandy will end its season with a victory.
Ball State QB Keith Wenning
Arkansas State vs. Ball State
Sunday, Jan. 5, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Perhaps the best least known quarterback in the nation, Ball State's Keith Wenning is poised for a big day to close his college career.
The senior finished sixth nationally with 327.8 passing yards per game, and he'll be throwing at the No. 74 pass defense in the country in Arkansas State.
A four-year starter, Wenning has led the Cardinals to a steady rise from 4-8 his freshman year to 10-2. At the end of an impressive senior campaign, he is seeing his vision play out, per Mark Inabinett of AL.com:
It makes me feel like we're doing something right, that hard work is paying off. We've tried to get better every year, and we've done that, as our record shows. Individually, I'm trying to do that as well. Being a quarterback, you're the leader of the team, so I'm trying to lead by example and do everything I can to help my team be successful.
He'll be vying to cap that legacy with Ball State's first bowl win—a task he could accomplish through a strong game.
Florida State WR Kelvin Benjamin
BCS National Championship
No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 2 Auburn
Monday, Jan. 6, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
The national title game will feature plenty of impact players on both sides of the ball, which, of course, is why Florida State and Auburn have made it this far.
Nick Marshall, Tre Mason, Dee Ford and several others will make a huge impact on the outcome of this game, as will a bevy of players for Florida State, including Jameis Winston, Devonta Freeman and Lamarcus Joyner.
The biggest one to watch will be FSU receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
The redshirt sophomore has had an incredible close to the regular season, tallying 392 receiving yards and seven touchdowns over the last three games.
That includes 119 yards and two scores in a 45-7 decimation of Duke in the ACC title game. According to Mike Huguenin of NFL.com, before that contest, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe called the 6'5", 234-pounds Benjamin "a monster."
Auburn ranks No. 103 nationally against the pass. Covering Benjamin will be troublesome.