Top Players, Underrated Stars to Watch During 2021 College Football Bowl Season

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistDecember 16, 2021

Top Players, Underrated Stars to Watch During 2021 College Football Bowl Season

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    From superstars needing to play their best for their team to win to guys looking for an NFL showcase to some getting major opportunities with those in front of them opting out, there are plenty of college football players you need to pay close attention to this bowl season.

    There are far too many stars in games throughout this postseason to name them all, but who are the ones you need to circle? Maybe it's because they're the focal point of a key matchup or they've got major stuff to prove.

    In a couple of cases, it could mean whether their team competes for a championship or not.

    It doesn't matter if you're a quarterback who touches the ball every offensive snap or a cornerback who needs to get his hand on the ball to turn the tide, this bowl season is full of important, key pieces on every team. Who are those guys with the biggest bull's-eye on them?

    Let's take a look at the guys you need to pay the closest attention to this bowl season.

Jordan Addison, Pittsburgh Wide Receiver (Dec. 30 vs. Michigan State)

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    Apologies if you're too busy watching the explosive arm and better-than-expected wheels of senior Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett. After all, he may just wind up being the first signal-caller taken in the NFL draft if he continues to impress.

    But it's Pickett's top target who could run roughshod over the Michigan State Spartans in the December 30 Peach Bowl.

    That would be Jordan Addison, a 6'0", 170-pound Maryland native who has turned into one of college football's quietest megastars.

    Because of Pickett and Addison—who won the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to college football's top pass-catcher—this is a brutal matchup for coach Mel Tucker's Spartans. They're dead last nationally, allowing more than 337 passing yards per game.

    That doesn't bode well for MSU completing what once was a storybook season. Instead, coach Pat Narduzzi's Panthers could follow up their ACC championship with yet another huge win and send out Pickett the right way.

    The best news for Panthers fans? Addison is a true sophomore, so even though he had more than 1,500 offensive yards this year and has to have NFL scouts everywhere drooling, he's got to come back for another year. This could wind up being his biggest game of the year on the biggest stage.

Stetson Bennett, Georgia Quarterback (Dec. 31 vs. Michigan)

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    Now, let's move from a huge star to a player who desperately needs to be one to elevate his championship-caliber team's level of play under the brightest of lights.

    To be fair, that can be said about both starting quarterbacks in the College Football Playoff semifinal played at the Orange Bowl. Both Michigan's Cade McNamara and Georgia's Stetson Bennett have been brilliant at times this year, and McNamara seems to be playing some of his best football.

    The same can't be said for Bennett, a former walk-on who was asked to match high-flying Alabama point-for-point as the Crimson Tide torched what had been an elite Dawgs defense. He couldn't do it.

    Now, Bennett goes up against another talented defense in the Wolverines, and he needs a big semifinal game against Michigan if UGA is going to have another shot at Alabama (or the upstart Cincinnati Bearcats) in the national championship game.

    While Bennett has, at times, been exceptional throwing the ball and moving the chains with his legs, can he win the biggest game? Is he more than just a game manager and a terrific story as a former walk-on who has been too steady for JT Daniels to usurp?

    With two great defenses going head-to-head, this may be about which quarterback elevates his team's play. Everybody will be watching to see who answers the call.

Coby Bryant, Cincinnati Cornerback (Dec. 31 vs. Alabama)

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    Cincinnati making the College Football Playoff is the biggest story since this format was adopted. But can the Bearcats hang with big bad Bama?

    Everybody is getting ready to find out.

    If they're going to, it's vital the uber-talented back end of coach Luke Fickell's defense plays its best game of the season, especially when it comes to defending Jameson Williams. Yes, John Metchie III is out and the Crimson Tide have waves of untested talent behind him, but they're going to still churn out athletes.

    So far, nobody has been able to hang with Williams, the former Ohio State transfer and Biletnikoff Award finalist.

    Enter Thorpe Award winner Coby Bryant, who beat out teammate Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, among others, for the award, which goes to college football's top defensive back.

    Bryant and Gardner are lockdown cornerbacks who have had top-shelf years to lead their team to an unprecedented season for a Group of Five program. But this is the biggest test of them all, and if Fickell's bunch is going to knock off Nick Saban, Bryant and Co. need some game-changing plays.

    We're all on pick-six alert for momentum swings.

Jahan Dotson, Penn State Wide Receiver (Jan. 1 vs. Arkansas)

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    After a scorching start to the season, this hasn't been the type of year Penn State wanted. They dropped five of their final seven games to fall to a pedestrian 7-5 on the year.

    Even so, superstar receiver Jahan Dotson was a bright spot, and with several players around the nation opting out of bowl games before heading to the NFL draft, the 5'11", 184-pound pass-catcher certainly could do the same. But at this point, it appears he's going to give it at least one more go.

    The Nittany Lions are playing Arkansas in the Outback Bowl, and it would be a great showcase game for the undersized Dotson to go in and upstage Treylon Burks, who seems to be on his way to a high NFL draft pick. Dotson is elite and should be in the mix for first-round status, as well.

    The Pennsylvania native was unequivocally coach James Franklin's best player this year, catching 91 passes for 1,182 yards and 12 touchdowns. Even with all the inconsistency around him and Sean Clifford's sporadic ineffectiveness and the lack of a relevant running game, Dotson starred.

    Just how good is he? According to OnwardState, he's never dropped a pass of more than 20 yards. He's explosive and dependable.

    He can do it all, and some NFL team is going to be very happy to get him in the fold. And unless he changes his mind, he'll have one more game with his Penn State teammates Jan. 1.

Matt Corral, Ole Miss Quarterback (Jan. 1 vs. Baylor)

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    The other signal-caller vying with Kenny Pickett (if you listen to some of the NFL draft pundits) right now for the top quarterback taken in the draft is Ole Miss' Matt Corral. 

    Of course, there could be combine warriors who emerge or a team could have a different preference that bucks the trend, but in an uneven year with a bunch of question marks at the position, the Rebels' three-year starter is about as close to a sure thing as they come.

    He's thrived under the tutelage of coach Lane Kiffin and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, who have taken the highly rated California prep star and turned him into an elite quarterback and savvy leader.

    And though Lebby is heading back to his alma mater of Oklahoma to be new coach Brent Venables' offensive coordinator, he will again work for the Rebels in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.

    That's big news for the Rebels, who could close a terrific revival of a season with Lebby drawing up plays for Corral before they ride off into the sunset and leave Kiffin to mold the next generation of Ole Miss players.

    Corral has helped leave them in good hands, and it's going to be fun to watch him at nearly full strength with his arm and legs after a year battling nagging injuries.

Breece Hall, Iowa State Running Back (Dec. 29 vs. Clemson)

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    Plenty of running backs have grabbed headlines the past few years, but none has been more consistent on such a high level as Breece Hall.

    He's got all the talent and intangibles to be this year's Najee Harris, and the crazy thing is he could return to Iowa State for another season with the Cyclones. But there's almost no reason for him to do so.

    No, he doesn't have the Doak Walker Award, and Kenneth Walker III had the better season, but Hall is a steady force, and the Wichita, Kansas, native is finally getting his just due. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has him as the top-rated running back in this year's class.

    He rushed for 1,472 yards this past season, making it 3,941 career yards, and he has rushed for a score in an FBS record 24 consecutive games.

    Hall hasn't made any decisions yet, but coach Matt Campbell doesn't sound like he's going to be depending on his running back next year, and, honestly, why would he? The shelf life is short for runners in the NFL, and it's time for Hall to go make his millions.

    "We'd be naive not to believe Breece is one of the best running backs in college football," Campbell told the Gazette's Ben Visser. "Those are all certainly great decisions that he's put himself in a position to make. He has a great family and he has great support, and we're going to do everything in our power so he can make a great decision for him and his future. Whatever that is, he'll make a great decision."

    The Dec. 29 Cheez-It Bowl showdown against Clemson's vaunted defense may be the last time we get to watch him in a college uniform.

Sam LaPorta, Iowa Tight End (Jan. 1 vs. Kentucky)

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    It was downright painful watching Iowa's offense for much of the season.

    The Hawkeyes were 123rd out of 130 teams in total offense and, surprisingly, No. 111 nationally with an average of fewer than 120 rushing yards per game. Now, starting running back and offensive bell cow Tyler Goodson is heading to the NFL and bypassing the bowl game.

    Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz is left with a running back room whose next-highest rushing output is 207 total yards, and the Hawks are playing a Kentucky defense that has been strong against the run on Jan. 1 in the Citrus Bowl.

    The Wildcats obviously see a Hawks offense with a broken wing.

    But Ferentz has actually found traction throwing the ball downfield this year, and the most likely scenario is Spencer Petras (or Alex Padilla) looking for Sam LaPorta in the short and intermediate passing game to make up for the lack of short-yardage running ability.

    While neither quarterback is particularly accurate, they have found solace in LaPorta this year. The big pass-catcher leads the team with 46 catches for 548 yards to go along with two touchdowns.

    He may not be the best receiving tight end in his state (that distinction goes to Iowa State's Charlie Kolar), but LaPorta is terrific in his own right and will be playing on Sundays in the future. He could have a major showcase game against Kentucky, and he may need to if Iowa is going to win.

DeMarvin Leal, Texas A&M Defensive Lineman (Dec. 31 vs. Wake Forest)

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    Texas A&M's quarterback situation is a mess, with walk-on freshman Blake Bost likely getting the nod in the Dec. 31 Gator Bowl against Wake Forest with Zach Calzada in the transfer portal and Haynes King still recovering from a leg fracture.

    So, if the Aggies are going to end an up-and-down season on a positive note with a win over the Demon Deacons, they're going to have to put a bunch of pressure on Wake quarterback Sam Hartman and make things difficult defensively.

    The Aggies certainly have been up to it throughout the year, but there are a ton of question marks with coordinator Mike Elko off to Duke to be the head coach.

    Success starts up front with a stingy unit led by junior defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal, who is almost certain to be a first-round draft pick and leave College Station early after a dominant season where he was a first-team All-American.

    Though he's already announced he's leaving for the NFL, Leal has said nothing about the bowl game. Coach Jimbo Fisher needs him to hang around for another game.

    He was a big catalyst on a defense that allowed just 15.9 points per game and registered 39 sacks. Leal finished with 12.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks and was one of the most disruptive forces in the nation from the interior of the line.

    If you get the chance (and if he plays), watch him wreak havoc. Wake doesn't have anybody on the offensive front who can slow him.

Devin Lloyd, Utah Linebacker (Jan. 1 vs. Ohio State)

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    Georgia's Nakobe Dean won the Butkus Award, but the best linebacker in college football plays out West.

    That would be Utah's Devin Lloyd, who is a terrorizing force who has improved as the season progressed and led the Utes to their first-ever Rose Bowl appearance.

    That's a major deal for coach Kyle Whittingham and the Utes faithful, who have been gobbling up tickets to Pasadena by the bunches. It's going to be a blast to watch one of the nation's hottest teams take on Ohio State and try to do what Oregon did earlier in the season.

    If that's going to happen, Lloyd has to be all over the place on defense. It's a safe bet he'll be able to. Not only can he get after the Buckeyes' running backs, led by TreVeyon Henderson, but he also can drop back in coverage and take away some of those routes across the middle.

    OSU quarterback CJ Stroud needs to know where Lloyd is at all times, and if Utah wins the game, it's going to be because of a strong defensive performance led by Lloyd.

    Lloyd accomplished what he set out to do when he returned to Utah for another season, cementing his reputation as a star and leaving a legacy. But nothing would be bigger than helping his team upset the Buckeyes and win arguably the biggest game in school history.

    If you've never seen him play because of late-night starts, buckle up. He's a treat to see in action.

Lew Nichols III, Central Michigan Running Back (Dec. 31 vs. Boise State)

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    Never heard of Lew Nichols III? Don't feel bad. You're probably in the same boat with about a million other casual college football fans.

    Then again, not everybody had heard of Buffalo running back Jaret Patterson a season ago, but he broke out with a monstrous year and then went on to play for the Washington Football Team this year, where he has played in a backup role as a rookie.

    Now, the Central Michigan back who played high school football at powerhouse Detroit Cass Technical School is trying to make his own noise.

    The best thing for the Chippewas star? He has three more seasons of college football for you to become acquainted with him, and at 5'10", 220 pounds, he is good enough not only to play at this level but beyond. He won MAC Freshman of the Year honors a year ago and upstaged that this year.

    Nichols led the nation in rushing this year with 1,710 yards and added 15 touchdowns and was a huge receiving threat with 38 catches for 300 yards and two scores. Now, he gets to go up against Boise State in the Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl on Dec. 31.

    "I kind of just pulled him aside and said, 'Look, here we go, let's jump on your back and ride,'" CMU coach Jim McElwain told the Detroit News' Tony Paul. "I've been at some pretty good places, had a Heisman Trophy winner (Flint's Mark Ingram Jr. in 2009, when he was an assistant at Alabama), and had some other things. But to lead the nation in rushing, that's a heck of a feat."

Chris Tyree, Notre Dame Running Back (Jan. 1 vs. Oklahoma State)

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    There is no question a couple of these running backs like Nichols and Hall are going to "tote the tater" a bunch of times in the bowl game. However, one budding star who could use the bright lights as a springboard for bigger things could come in the Fiesta Bowl when Notre Dame takes on Oklahoma State.

    The Fighting Irish are going to be without star back Kyren Williams, who is opting out to focus on the NFL draft, and coach Marcus Freeman's first game as head coach is going to include some new stars.

    Freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner may get a lot of reps over outgoing Jack Coan, but with the Irish needing to make up Williams' workload, they'll probably turn to multiple players. At the top of that list is former elite recruit and explosive sophomore Chris Tyree.

    The Virginia native had 201 yards on 50 carries this year, but a turf toe injury kept him from really breaking out for much of the year. A fourth-quarter 96-yard kick return for a touchdown against Wisconsin was his biggest highlight of the year.

    Said Freeman: "He brings a different element of speed to the backfield." 

    Tyree isn't the biggest back, and his injury issues this year call into question whether he can be a three-down back for an elite program like Notre Dame. But, if he's healthy, showing out against a top-shelf defense like Oklahoma State's would go a long way in showing he has that type of ability.

    This could be a coming-out party for Tyree as he looks to make a positive "first" impression.

Caleb Williams, Oklahoma Quarterback (Dec. 29 vs. Oregon)

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    Oklahoma, take a deep breath.

    We know, it's been a rough month for you guys out there in Norman, but things can kind of calm down now that Brent Venables has been tabbed the next head coach for the Sooners and Jeff Lebby is coming to make sure the offense keeps clicking at a high level.

    Put those Lincoln Riley days behind you and look ahead to what still can be a bright future, even with a rugged SEC schedule coming your way soon.

    Of course, the biggest piece of that puzzle is making sure star freshman signal-caller Caleb Williams doesn't enter the transfer portal. As of now, it doesn't seem like he's champing at the bit to go anywhere.

    OUInsider's Brandon Drumm reported recently that Venables and Lebby met with the Williams family to let them know how much he is wanted, but right now he's focused on beating Oregon.

    Obviously, things are going to look different against the Ducks in the Alamo Bowl with Bob Stoops temporarily back at the helm. But there are going to be plenty of nervous Sooners fans who are going to be worried about whether it's Williams' final game in crimson and cream.

    Williams is going to have a lot on his mind, especially since he's essentially going through the process of being re-recruited again by the team he chose by the coach he didn't. The outcome of a second-tier bowl game is going to be secondary, but Williams' performance won't be.

    Get ready to dissect his body language and performance, because everybody will be doing it. The portal is sitting there with a door wide-open. The question on everybody's mind is will Williams walk through it?

Malik Willis, Liberty Quarterback (Dec. 18 vs. Eastern Michigan)

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    You can circle a bunch of lower-tier bowls on your schedule if you're sitting around just feening for football, especially if you're wanting to watch fun quarterback play.

    Later today, you've got Bailey Zappe's Western Kentucky team going up against Appalachian State, as well as Mountain West champion Utah State and quarterback Logan Bonner taking on Oregon State in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl. On December 27, Carson Strong and Nevada will play Western Michigan.

    But one of the most scrutinized signal-callers with a sky-high ceiling also plays later today as Malik Willis leads Liberty against Eastern Michigan in the Lending Tree Bowl.

    Unfortunately, we don't get to see coach Hugh Freeze's big weapon go against a Power 5 defense again in what is almost certainly going to be the junior's final college game before testing NFL waters. Everybody wants to see him put on a show.

    The 6'1", 215-pound signal-caller found a second college life after transferring from Auburn, and he threw for 2,616 yards, 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this year while rushing for 820 more and 11 scores. He has tantalizing dual-threat ability, but he's also a project who needs plenty of polish.

    Still, you don't normally see a player with Willis' potential get out of the first round, and somebody is going to take a shot at him early and take a couple of years to mold him into what they hope will be a pro starter.

    He doesn't need a massive performance in his collegiate finale, but it would help a lot of scouts to see a little bit more before they spend millions on a gamble.


    All stats courtesy of CFBStats and Sports Reference. Recruiting rankings via 247Sports' composite rankings unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.