1 Player to Watch in Every Remaining College Football Bowl Game

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistDecember 24, 2014

1 Player to Watch in Every Remaining College Football Bowl Game

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    Jameis Winston will be a key piece for Florida State's Rose Bowl showdown.
    Jameis Winston will be a key piece for Florida State's Rose Bowl showdown.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    It is here, and it is glorious. We’re talking about the 2014 college football bowl season, of course. Ten games in, the postseason football buffet has already produced fantastic finishes, slobberknockers and postgame fisticuffs. And that was just the Miami Beach Bowl!

    Starting Friday, 28 bowl games remain on the schedule, plus Jan. 12’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium, which will pit the winners of the Rose and Sugar Bowls. You know you’re watching that game. But why should you watch the other 28?

    We’re here to help you out. We’ve identified a player to watch in every remaining bowl game. They’re interesting for a variety of reasons, be it skill, chasing records or just importance to the game at hand. Regardless, they’re worth watching.

    *Stats for this article were obtained from ESPN.com and individual schools’ statistical websites.

Heart of Dallas Bowl

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    Louisiana Tech's Kenneth Dixon will take aim at Illinois' defense.
    Louisiana Tech's Kenneth Dixon will take aim at Illinois' defense.Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    While the Dallas metroplex will host plenty of standout football over the next two-plus weeks (both college and professional), this game ranks near the bottom of the barrel. It’s hard to imagine people getting incredibly excited about a matchup between 6-6 Illinois and an 8-5 Louisiana Tech team played in the Cotton Bowl on the day after Christmas.

    But that’s why you’re here, right? To find something that’ll give you a reason to watch this game? Well, feast your eyes on Louisiana Tech tailback Kenneth Dixon. Dixon is an impressive run-pass threat. He has 1,236 rushing yards and 21 rushing touchdowns as well as 26 receptions for 306 yards and five scores through the air.

    Dixon has six 100-yard rushing games this season, including each of the last three weeks. He could feast on Illinois’ porous run defense. The Illini yield 249.6 rushing yards per game to opponents, sixth-worst nationally. So, if nothing else, you can enjoy Dixon having his way with the Illinois front seven in Dallas.

Quick Lane Bowl

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    Ryan Switzer is one of North Carolina's most dangerous players.
    Ryan Switzer is one of North Carolina's most dangerous players.Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    The Quick Lane Bowl surely isn’t where either North Carolina or Rutgers figured they’d end this season.

    The Tar Heels had hoped to build on winning six of their final seven games last season but were instead rather mediocre in a 6-6 season that saw coach Larry Fedora fire defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. North Carolina allowed 38.9 points per game, No. 119 nationally. Rutgers was up and down in its first Big Ten season, finishing 7-5.

    One key player to watch is North Carolina sophomore wide receiver Ryan Switzer. Switzer stands 5’10”, 180 pounds and is a big-play threat in multiple areas. Last fall, Switzer earned All-America honors after returning five punts for touchdowns, tying an NCAA single-season record. This fall, he has been reined in on punts, making 34 returns for a total of 167 yards and no touchdowns.

    However, he has become the Tar Heels’ No. 1 receiver, catching 55 passes for 703 yards and four touchdowns. Rutgers’ defense allows 30.9 points per game, No. 92 nationally, and there’s potential for big plays against the Scarlet Knights in Detroit.

St. Petersburg Bowl

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    Jacoby Brissett was a difference-maker for N.C. State this season.
    Jacoby Brissett was a difference-maker for N.C. State this season.Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Tropicana Field is an odd place for a college football bowl game, but NC State is happy to be there. One year removed from a 3-9 season, the Wolfpack is 7-5 and pumped up for the St. Petersburg Bowl against Central Florida (9-3), which is one year removed from a Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor.

    One big reason for NC State’s emergence? Junior quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Brissett transferred from Florida for a second chance, and he has found it in Raleigh. Brissett is a mobile quarterback who has given the Wolfpack’s offense a new dimension this fall.

    Brissett has thrown for 2,344 yards with 22 touchdowns against five interceptions. He’s also the Wolfpack’s No. 2 rusher with 498 yards and three touchdowns. It’ll be fun to watch Central Florida’s defense try to contain him in St. Pete.

Military Bowl

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    Gunner Kiel has found a home at Cincinnati.
    Gunner Kiel has found a home at Cincinnati.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The Military Bowl features a pair of teams heading in opposite directions. Cincinnati (9-3) won a share of the American Athletic Conference title under Tommy Tuberville. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech watched a promising season highlighted by an upset of Ohio State slip away to offensive struggles, and the Hokies needed a late touchdown against rival Virginia just to get bowl-eligible at 6-6. So they find themselves in Annapolis, Maryland for the postseason.

    Their most important task will be trying to contain Cincinnati quarterback Gunner Kiel. The well-traveled sophomore had an excellent first season as the Bearcats’ starter. He threw for 3,010 yards with 30 touchdowns against 11 interceptions, completing 60.2 percent of his passes. He surpassed 400 yards passing twice and was a huge factor in Cincinnati ending its season on a seven-game win streak.

    Virginia Tech has a stingy secondary led by cornerback Kendall Fuller; the Hokies allow opponents only 186.8 passing yards per game (No. 14 nationally) and opposing passers are completing just 47.6 percent of their passes against them. Kiel is an excellent pure passer, and he’d like nothing more than to throw all over the Hokies secondary to end his season.

Sun Bowl

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    Jaelen Strong will take his talents to the NFL next season.
    Jaelen Strong will take his talents to the NFL next season.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Sun Bowl matches two teams that finished 2014 in disappointing fashion. Both Arizona State and Duke are 9-3, but both teams missed out on opportunities to play in their respective league title games largely thanks to losses to their rivals (Arizona State to Arizona and Duke to North Carolina). They’ll seek redemption in El Paso, and Arizona State’s offense has plenty of interesting viewing options.

    Chief among them is junior receiver Jaelen Strong, who has announced that he’ll declare for the NFL draft following this season. Strong put together his second consecutive 1,000-yard receiving campaign this fall, catching 75 passes for 1,062 yards and 10 touchdowns.

    He has four 100-yard receiving games and has an NFL-ready body at 6’3”, 212 pounds. He is a tantalizing talent who can make big plays in the short game and downfield. It’ll be fascinating to watch him match wits against Duke’s secondary in his Sun Devils swan song.

Independence Bowl

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    Denzel Perryman is one of college football's top all-around linebackers.
    Denzel Perryman is one of college football's top all-around linebackers.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The Independence Bowl is a bastion of disappointment. With matching 6-6 records, it’s safe to say that Shreveport, Louisiana is not where either Miami or South Carolina wanted to finish their 2014 seasons. That said, both teams have plenty of talent on their rosters, which will make the Indy Bowl a compelling post-Christmas watch.

    One of the best reasons to watch will be Miami senior middle linebacker Denzel Perryman. Perryman is one of college football’s most ferocious linebackers, and he’s very productive. This season, Perryman leads Miami with 102 tackles and also has 8.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks.

    Perryman plays all over the field, is a very hard hitter and the clear leader of the Hurricanes defense. He’ll have an impact in the NFL, but he’s worth watching in his final game in a Miami uniform, too.

Pinstripe Bowl

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    Tyler Murphy made a difference for Boston College at quarterback this season.
    Tyler Murphy made a difference for Boston College at quarterback this season.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The Pinstripe Bowl is an excellent foothold for football in the northeast, with the game being played in new Yankee Stadium. This year’s edition, which matches traditional area powers Boston College and Penn State, is no different.

    At 7-5, the Eagles will be excited to make their second consecutive bowl appearance, and although the Nittany Lions are a disappointing 6-6, they’ll be happy to make their first bowl appearance since 2011 after their four-year bowl ban was cut in half by the NCAA this fall.

    The Eagles offense found success under senior quarterback Tyler Murphy, a Florida transfer. Murphy proved he can be a viable starter this season. While he passed for 1,526 yards with 11 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, he was very impressive as a running threat, rushing for 1,079 yards and 10 touchdowns. His 191 rushing yards keyed an early-season upset of Southern California, and BC averages 251.8 rushing yards per game, No. 15 nationally.

    Penn State features a stingy defense that allows just 17.7 points per game, No. 7 nationally. How the Lions game-plan for Murphy’s dual-threat skills could be the difference in what will likely be a defense-fueled, low-scoring game.

Holiday Bowl

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    Leonard Williams should be one of the top overall picks in next spring's NFL draft.
    Leonard Williams should be one of the top overall picks in next spring's NFL draft.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Holiday Bowl will match a pair of teams that had big expectations for 2014 but are now playing to finish on a high note. Southern California surely expected better than 8-4 in Steve Sarkisian’s first season, and Nebraska fired bombastic coach Bo Pelini after yet another nine-win regular season and an embarrassing loss to Big Ten rival Wisconsin. When these talented teams meet up, they’ll be looking to squeeze something more from their seasons.

    Both rosters have future NFL players in the fold, but one of the brightest futures is Southern California junior defensive end Leonard Williams. Williams is an imposing figure who can play either end or defensive tackle and excels at both, creating havoc in pockets while also chasing down opposing tailbacks on screen passes.

    This fall, he has 71 tackles (second on USC’s roster) with 8.5 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks. He has drawn favorable comparisons to Detroit Lions star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and is expected to be a top-five pick in next spring’s NFL draft, should he declare. Get a look at Williams in college, while you can.

Liberty Bowl

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    Kevin White had a breakout senior season for West Virginia.
    Kevin White had a breakout senior season for West Virginia.Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    While the Liberty Bowl is a mid-tier game, it features what could be one of the bowl season’s most entertaining matchups. Both Texas A&M and West Virginia feature wide-open passing offenses which pile up points in impressive fashion.

    A&M averages 34.4 points per game, No. 31 nationally, while the Mountaineers average 33.2 points per game, No. 38 nationally. They’re No. 9 nationally in passing yardage, averaging 314.6 yards per game.

    West Virginia senior receiver Kevin White has been one of the breakout stars of 2014. After catching 35 passes for 507 yards and five touchdowns last fall, White turned into one of the nation’s top wideouts this fall, catching 102 balls for 1,318 yards and nine touchdowns.

    At 6’3”, 210 pounds, White has an NFL-ready frame that should garner plenty of interest from professional teams early in next spring’s draft. He has excellent ability deep and can go up strong for passes that only he can catch. He’ll surely get his share of targets and deep completions against the Aggies defense.

Russell Athletic Bowl

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    Artavis Scott emerged as one of college football's top freshman receivers.
    Artavis Scott emerged as one of college football's top freshman receivers.RICHARD SHIRO/Associated Press

    The Russell Athletic Bowl is trying to improve its standing among mid-tier bowls, and this season, the RAB garnered the ACC’s top non-College Football Playoff bowl pick in Clemson. The Tigers will face off against Oklahoma in what will be a name-brand matchup.

    The Tigers will be without offensive coordinator Chad Morris (who became SMU’s head coach) and quarterback Deshaun Watson (who recently underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL) but still have significant offensive weapons remaining.

    One of the best is freshman wide receiver Artavis Scott, the Tigers’ top freshman wideout. Scott has 68 receptions for 851 yards and seven touchdowns, and is fresh off his best collegiate game against South Carolina. Scott had seven receptions for 185 yards and two scores, turning a pair of short Watson passes into long touchdowns.

    He is fully capable of turning a bubble screen or five-yard out into a big play, and he’ll bear watching all night in Orlando. Scott’s big-play ability and speed make him worth focusing on against the Sooners.

Texas Bowl

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    Jonathan Williams played a huge role in Arkansas' rush to postseason eligibility.
    Jonathan Williams played a huge role in Arkansas' rush to postseason eligibility.L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    Arkansas-Texas is a matchup of 6-6 teams, but it has turned into a gold mine for the Texas Bowl. While many wanted to see a Texas-Texas A&M matchup, the Razorbacks’ return to bowl play against a former Southwest Conference rival has generated significant interest, as the game is already sold out.

    Bret Bielema has Arkansas on the upswing thanks to his preferred ground-based attack, with Arkansas averaging 220.3 rushing yards per game, No. 28 nationally. The Razorbacks have a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, who’ve combined for 2,109 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns.

    Williams had the slightly better season of the two, rushing for 1,085 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s the power back with an impressive frame at 6’0”, 225 pounds, but is fully capable of breaking off a long scoring run, too. Williams and Collins split carries almost equally, but it’ll be fascinating to see how the powerful Williams fares against a good Texas defensive line.

Music City Bowl

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    Leonard Fournette is only getting better as the season wraps up.
    Leonard Fournette is only getting better as the season wraps up.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    The Music City Bowl features a marquee matchup between a pair of teams who surely hoped for more from this season. Following a 6-0 start, Notre Dame looked like a College Football Playoff contender even following a narrow loss at defending national champion Florida State, but the Irish lost five of their final six games, including blowout losses to Arizona State and Southern California. LSU, wracked by early draft departures, took No. 1 Alabama to overtime but finished a very average 8-4.

    The Tigers have a significant building block in freshman tailback Leonard Fournette. Hailed as the nation’s top overall recruit, Fournette got off to a slow start but finished strong. He had two 100-yard rushing efforts in his final four games, including a 146-yard effort in the regular-season finale against Texas A&M. He finished with 891 yards and seven touchdowns on the season.

    Fournette is a powerful rusher capable of lowering his shoulder and trucking opposing linebackers for more yards after contact. He’ll get his chance for plenty of carries against the Fighting Irish’s struggling, porous defense.

Belk Bowl

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    Nick Chubb was a revelation as Georgia's top tailback.
    Nick Chubb was a revelation as Georgia's top tailback.Dave Tulis/Associated Press

    The Belk Bowl matchup between Georgia and Louisville has no shortage of interesting storylines. How will Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham fare against his former Georgia defense? Can Bobby Petrino finish the first season of his second Louisville tour with 10 wins? Can Georgia find motivation following what was a disappointing 9-3 season?

    Entering the season, how many of you knew Nick Chubb’s name? The Georgia freshman tailback was talented but just another face in a crowded backfield led by junior star Todd Gurley. Gurley was outstanding when he was on the field, but with his season truncated by NCAA suspension and injury, Chubb found a way to shine as the Bulldogs’ lead tailback.

    Entering the Belk Bowl, the physical, bruising Chubb has 1,281 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. He averages 6.9 yards per carry and is riding a seven-game string of 100-yard rushing games. He is an extremely hard runner and very tough to tackle, and he will be a huge challenge for Louisville’s defensive line.

Foster Farms Bowl

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    Stefon Diggs is one of the most electric players in the Big Ten.
    Stefon Diggs is one of the most electric players in the Big Ten.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    For Stanford, the Foster Farms Bowl will seem like a bit of a letdown. The two-time defending Pac-12 champions are playing close to home in Santa Clara after slipping to 7-5, and they get a matchup against Maryland that hardly moves the needle nationally. But the Cardinal will need to be on their toes against the Terrapins, who feature a very exciting player in junior receiver Stefon Diggs.

    This season, Diggs, who stands 6’0”, 190 pounds, missed three games with a lacerated kidney but still had 52 receptions for 654 yards and five touchdowns. Diggs has excellent speed and big-play ability, and he’ll have plenty of chances to turn small plays into larger gains against the Cardinal defense.

Peach Bowl

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    Trevone Boykin has been a key piece of TCU's breakout season.
    Trevone Boykin has been a key piece of TCU's breakout season.Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    The Peach Bowl features two of the game’s most surprising teams in Ole Miss and TCU. The Rebels broke away from SEC West mediocrity with a 9-3 season that included upsets of Alabama and Mississippi State, while TCU rebounded from a 4-8 mark with an 11-1 season, narrowly missing the College Football Playoff.

    TCU’s charge was led by junior quarterback Trevone Boykin. Boykin thrived in the Horned Frogs’ new air-raid offense this fall, emerging as a star. He threw for 3,714 yards with 30 touchdowns against seven interceptions and added 642 yards rushing with eight touchdowns.

    He’ll face a tough Ole Miss defense, but Boykin, a former wide receiver, has shown the ability to hurt opposing defenses in multiple fashions. He’ll be a major problem on the fast Georgia Dome turf.

Fiesta Bowl

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    Jay Ajayi was a dynamic force in Boise State's backfield.
    Jay Ajayi was a dynamic force in Boise State's backfield.Otto Kitsinger/Associated Press

    As the Group of Five qualifier for the College Football Playoff affiliated bowls, Boise State is the designated interloper. But you’d better believe the Broncos are at home in the Fiesta Bowl. Two of the program’s biggest-ever wins came in University of Phoenix Stadium.

    Boise’s 2007 Fiesta Bowl win, a wild 43-42 victory over Oklahoma capped by the Statue of Liberty play, was one of college football’s great games. Three years later, the Broncos added another Fiesta Bowl win, this time over TCU. Now, they’ll try to add a third Fiesta Bowl trophy against Arizona.

    One of the best backs you might not have seen much of this season is Boise junior Jay Ajayi. Ajayi has 1,689 yards and 25 touchdowns this season and has added 536 yards and four touchdowns receiving. He has nine 100-yard rushing efforts and a pair of 200-yard efforts. He has solid size at 6’0”, 216 pounds, and he has already declared for the NFL draft.

    Arizona’s defense can certainly be strafed, and Ajayi will be fired up to prove his worth to NFL scouts. He can score in quick fashion or help grind out drives, and he’ll have a major showcase in the Fiesta Bowl.

Orange Bowl

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    Justin Thomas has been impressive in his first season as Georgia Tech's starting quarterback.
    Justin Thomas has been impressive in his first season as Georgia Tech's starting quarterback.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    The Orange Bowl is an intriguing matchup of teams that rose above their usual mediocrity this fall. Mississippi State (10-2) spent a good portion of the fall at No. 1 before falling to Alabama and Ole Miss, while Georgia Tech rose from the muddled ACC Coastal Division to compile a 10-2 record with wins over Clemson and Georgia. Can Dak Prescott win another bowl game in what could be his last game as a Bulldog?

    Or will Justin Thomas and Tech strike at Paul Johnson’s poor record in bowl games (1-4)?
    Thomas has been very impressive this season replacing transfer Vad Lee as the Yellow Jackets’ starting quarterback, the key to the flexbone offense. He has thrown for 1,594 yards with 17 touchdowns against five interceptions is also Tech’s leading rusher, with 965 yards and five touchdowns.

    Can his obvious skills leading the offense overcome the advantages that defenses typically have against a Johnson offense in bowl games, thanks to improved lead time? We’ll see, but it’s clear that Thomas’ efficiency will be a huge key to Tech’s success in south Florida.

Outback Bowl

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    Melvin Gordon was college football's top tailback this season.
    Melvin Gordon was college football's top tailback this season.Andy Manis/Associated Press

    The Outback Bowl will match a pair of teams trying to rebound from disappointing ends to their regular seasons. Auburn slipped from national runner-up status to 8-4, with tough November losses to Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama. Wisconsin won the Big Ten West but suffered an embarrassing 59-0 Big Ten title game defeat to Ohio State.

    Expect this game to feature plenty of ground-and pound. Auburn is No. 12 nationally in rushing yards, led by senior tailback Cameron Artis-Payne, who has 1,482 yards and 11 touchdowns. Of course, Wisconsin is No. 4 nationally in rushing yards, at 314.0 yards per game.

    The Badgers are keyed by Heisman Trophy runner-up Melvin Gordon, who has 2,336 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns, averaging 7.6 yards per carry. Gordon would need a huge day to break Barry Sanders’ NCAA single-season rushing record (292 yards, to be exact), but for a guy who’s gone for 408, 259, 253, 205 and 200 this season, that seems strangely within range.

    "I'll remember Melvin as probably the best back to come through here," Wisconsin interim coach Barry  Alvarez told reporters, per NFL.com's Mike Huguenin. "And that's saying a lot."

    There’s not a lot on the line in terms of national meaning in this one, but watch to see if Gordon gets fed, breaks a few and threatens Barry’s record.

Cotton Bowl

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    Connor Cook has been an impressive force for Michigan State this fall.
    Connor Cook has been an impressive force for Michigan State this fall.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    On New Year’s Day, two teams will match up in AT&T Stadium that surely wish they were playing there 11 days later. Both Michigan State (10-2) and Baylor (11-1) harbored legit College Football Playoff dreams and hopes of making it to the site of the national championship, but both ultimately fell just short.

    They’ll have to comfort themselves with playing in one of the best bowl matchups of the season, with the Spartans defense trying to shut down Baylor’s high-powered offense led by senior quarterback Bryce Petty (3,305 yards, 26 touchdowns, six interceptions).

    One of the most intriguing matchups will be how Michigan State junior quarterback Connor Cook matches up against Baylor’s secondary, which has shown vulnerability this season. Cook recently announced he was returning for his senior season, so he’ll get a chance to build on a campaign that saw him throw for 2,900 yards with 22 touchdowns against six interceptions.

    A year ago, Cook threw for 332 yards in Michigan State’s Rose Bowl win over Stanford, so he isn’t afraid of the spotlight. The strong-armed Cook will get one last chance to throw to senior wideout Tony Lippett (1,124 yards, 11 touchdowns), and here’s guessing he’ll take advantage of it.

Citrus Bowl

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    David Cobb was a key piece of Minnesota's success this season.
    David Cobb was a key piece of Minnesota's success this season.Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    The Citrus Bowl matches a pair of programs that made the most of their seasons. Missouri surprised many by winning the SEC East title in 2013, and then repeated the feat this fall with a 10-3 record. Meanwhile, Minnesota was in the Big Ten West title race until the final weekend of the season and finished 8-4. Their reward? A warm-weather date at Orlando’s renovated Citrus Bowl.

    While Missouri will lean on a solid defense and hope that the good version of quarterback Maty Mauk shows up, Minnesota will rely heavily on an impressive ground game fronted by senior tailback David Cobb.

    Cobb quietly had an impressive year in 2014, following up a 1,202-yard campaign with 1,545 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. At 5’11”, 229 pounds, Cobb is a powerful runner who can be hard to tackle. He had seven 100-yard rushing games and a pair of 200-yard efforts this season and can break off long runs, too.

    He’ll be a load for a Missouri defensive line led by star defensive end Shane Ray to handle. If Minnesota wins, it’ll be thanks to Cobb doing the most with a big volume of carries.

Rose Bowl

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    Jameis Winston has been at his best when Florida State needed him most this season.
    Jameis Winston has been at his best when Florida State needed him most this season.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    A year ago, Florida State entered the Rose Bowl as the favorite in the BCS National Championship and survived Auburn for a national title. The Seminoles group that returns to the Rose Bowl for a College Football Playoff semifinal against Oregon is 13-0 but is still a nine-point underdog due to a spate of narrow victories and comebacks.

    While Oregon boasts the Heisman Trophy winner in junior quarterback Marcus Mariota, the player who’ll receive the most attention, without question, is Florida State sophomore quarterback Jameis Winston.

    Winston put up incredible numbers as a freshman (4,057 yards, 40 touchdowns, 10 interceptions), but his stats are down across the board this fall. Entering the Rose Bowl, he’s thrown for 3,559 yards with 24 touchdowns against 17 interceptions and his quarterback rating stands at 147.0 compared with 184.8 in 2013.

    Winston has slogged through controversy this fall: He was recently cleared by Florida State in a code of conduct hearing connected with 2012 sexual assault allegations and was suspended for the Clemson game after yelling a vulgarity on campus. But he has been at his best when FSU has needed him, leading a trio of double-digit road rallies.

    He’ll face off against an Oregon secondary that’ll be without star corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in a recent practice. Given the talents of FSU wideout Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’ Leary, among others, that could be a game-changer.

Sugar Bowl

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    Cardale Jones must be at his best for Ohio State to have any hope of upsetting Alabama.
    Cardale Jones must be at his best for Ohio State to have any hope of upsetting Alabama.Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    The Sugar Bowl will be a sweet treat for college football fans who love rare meetings between the power programs. Alabama and Ohio State have met only three times in their history, including the 1978 Sugar Bowl. The teams’ last meeting came in the 1995 Citrus Bowl, with the Crimson Tide claiming a narrow victory.

    This time around, Alabama is the clear favorite, emerging as the nation’s top team, while Ohio State slipped into the College Football Playoff as the No. 4 seed following a Big Ten title game demolition of Wisconsin. One of the most intriguing storylines will be the play of Ohio State third-string quarterback Cardale Jones against an Alabama defense that allows just 16.6 points per game, No. 4 nationally.

    Until late November, Jones was an afterthought in Ohio State’s offense. He was passed by freshman J.T. Barrett for the starting role following Braxton Miller’s season-ending shoulder surgery and watched as Barrett became a star, accounting for 45 total touchdowns.

    But when Barrett broke his ankle in the regular-season finale against Michigan, Jones was thrust into the spotlight. He was impressive against the Badgers, completing 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He’ll have to repeat the feat if Ohio State has any hopes of an upset.

    SI.com's Pete Thamel says OSU is in excellent hands with Jones at the helm. 

Armed Forces Bowl

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    Tailback James Conner makes Pitt's offense go.
    Tailback James Conner makes Pitt's offense go.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Nothing says postseason fun like a post-Jan. 1 bowl featuring two teams led by interim coaches. But that’s what we have with the Armed Forces Bowl. Houston fired coach Tony Levine following a 7-5 season, and Pitt lost Paul Chryst to Wisconsin following a 6-6 campaign. It isn’t the most attractive matchup, but it’ll be interesting to see which team is really motivated to be in Fort Worth.

    If you tune in, keep an eye on Pitt sophomore tailback James Conner. At 6’2”, 250 pounds, Conner is a bull of a back who sheds tacklers and consistently churns upfield. He has 1,675 rushing yards with 24 touchdowns this season and has three 200-yard rushing games, going for 214 against Boston College, 220 against North Carolina and 263 against Duke. If Houston isn’t careful, the Cougars will be the fourth victim on his 200-yard hit list.

Taxslayer Bowl

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    Brandon Scherff is a key piece of Iowa's offensive success this fall.
    Brandon Scherff is a key piece of Iowa's offensive success this fall.Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Iowa fans are always happy to escape winter and head to Florida for a bowl game, but forgive them if they’re feeling a bit salty this season. The Hawkeyes had a very soft schedule this season (no Michigan State or Ohio State, with Nebraska and Wisconsin at home) but still managed only a 7-5 record. Meanwhile, Tennessee is thrilled to be back in a bowl game for the first time since 2010 after squeezing out a 6-6 mark.

    Both teams struggled at times to score points this season, but if you’re keeping an eye on a player, look no further than Iowa senior left tackle Brandon Scherff. Scherff is the latest Hawkeye offensive lineman to emerge from Kirk Ferentz’s line factory. He won the Outland Trophy as college football’s top lineman.

    At 6’5”, 315 pounds, he has excellent feet and mobility and is a solid all-around blocker, and he should be a high pick in next spring’s NFL draft. If your NFL teams needs offensive line help, you should take a good long look at Scherff’s talents during an otherwise meaning-free bowl game.

Alamo Bowl

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    Brett Hundley has been a special force for UCLA's offense.
    Brett Hundley has been a special force for UCLA's offense.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    When Kansas State and UCLA face off in the Alamo Bowl, you’ll see a pair of 9-3 teams both hoping to secure a spot in the nation’s final Top 10 rankings. Both teams have solid dual-threat quarterbacks. Kansas State sports senior Jake Waters, who has thrown for 3,163 yards with 20 touchdowns and six interceptions and also added 471 yards and eight rushing touchdowns.

    Meanwhile, UCLA has one of the nation’s most dynamic signal-callers in junior Brett Hundley, who is playing his final collegiate game. Hundley didn’t develop into a Heisman-quality player this season but had a good year regardless, throwing for 3,019 yards and 21 touchdowns against five interceptions while adding 548 rushing yards and eight scores. He can hurt teams in a number of ways and will be giving NFL scouts an audition on the Alamodome floor.

    Hundley will receive plenty of attention in the NFL draft process, but he’s worth watching for a final time in a UCLA uniform regardless.

Cactus Bowl

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    Shaq Thompson is one of college football's most versatile players.
    Shaq Thompson is one of college football's most versatile players.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    A duel in the desert features a pair of interesting teams in Washington and Oklahoma State. In Chris Petersen’s first season, the Huskies beat everyone they were expected to but went 0-5 against ranked teams, which raised some concerns. Mike Gundy muddled through what was a bit of rebuilding season in Stillwater, qualifying the Cowboys for a bowl only with a regular-season-finale upset of archrival Oklahoma.

    There’s little question who you should be watching in this game: Washington junior linebacker Shaq Thompson. Thompson is one of the nation’s most versatile players. He has scored six touchdowns this season, four on defense and two on the other side of the ball as a tailback.

    As a tailback, Thompson rushed for 456 yards with two touchdowns, averaging 7.5 yards per carry. He was even more impressive as a playmaking linebacker. He had 71 tackles with 2.0 tackles for loss, a sack, an interception, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Thompson always seems to be around the ball. This could be his final collegiate game, as he is mulling early entry into the NFL draft, per Adam Jude of The Seattle Times. He’ll be making plays next fall. The only question is where.

Birmingham Bowl

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    East Carolina's Justin Hardy is one of college football's top wideouts.
    East Carolina's Justin Hardy is one of college football's top wideouts.Ted Richardson/Associated Press

    A matchup between East Carolina and Florida seems a bit dreary, especially considering that the Gators (6-5) will be led by an interim coach following Will Muschamp’s firing. And it’s tough to get excited about a bowl being played in outdated Legion Field, home of the late, lamented UAB Blazers.

    But get a look at East Carolina’s offense, and you might get a little more excited. The Pirates average 37.2 points per game, No. 15 nationally, and 367.2 yards per game passing, second nationally. That’s fun.

    So is senior receiver Justin Hardy, one of the nation’s most prolific wide receivers. Hardy followed a 114-catch, 1,284-yard junior season with an even better senior season. With one game remaining, he has 110 catches for 1,334 yards and nine touchdowns. He has seven 100-yard receiving games this season, with the highlight being a 15-catch, 188-yard, one-touchdown effort against Cincinnati.

    He faces a stiff challenge in Birmingham. Hardy will likely be matched up against Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, a cornerstone of the Gators defense and surefire NFL draft prospect. Their encounters could be the pendulum that swings the game in one direction or another.

GoDaddy Bowl

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    Kareem Hunt has been a special player for Toledo this fall.
    Kareem Hunt has been a special player for Toledo this fall.David Richard/Associated Press

    If you haven’t had your share of football by the night of Jan. 4 and just can’t wait for the College Football Playoff National Championship Game on Jan. 12, the GoDaddy Bowl is for you. Matching 8-4 Toledo and 7-5 Arkansas State, the game will be low-stakes, save bragging rights between the MAC and Sun Belt Conferences.

    One of the most interesting players to keep an eye on will be Toledo sophomore tailback Kareem Hunt. Hunt enjoyed a breakout season in 2014, improving on a solid freshman campaign to rush for 1,360 yards and 11 touchdowns. Those numbers are impressive, but even more so considering that Hunt missed three games in the middle of the season.

    The 5’11”, 215-pound back has rushed for at least 100 yards in every game this season, going off for 265 yards and two touchdowns against Bowling Green. He has shown he can handle a high volume of carries, and will likely get plenty of chances to break big gains against Arkansas State’s defense.

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