Expect these college football players over the next two weeks will have breakout performances and use the bowl season as a launching pad to the 2017 campaign.
In last year’s Music City Bowl with Texas A&M, Louisville QB Lamar Jackson raced for 226 yards and a pair of scores on the ground in a breakout performance. It would serve as the launching point for his sophomore, Heisman-winning campaign. With 80 teams and hundreds of student-athletes set to play for the final time this postseason, the following players are positioned to use their bowl appearance as a runway to bigger and better things in 2017.
6. Memphis QB Riley Ferguson
In 2015, Justin Fuente and Paxton Lynch collaborated to elevate Memphis to new heights. This past year, Mike Norvell and Ferguson formed a first-year coach-QB tandem, respectively, that kept the Tigers humming.
Ferguson has a new lease on life in Memphis after beginning his career in Knoxville and transferring from Coffeyville (Kans.) Community College. He’s a gamer, with 32 total touchdowns, and he finished the regular season by torching Houston in a 48-44 upset. Ferguson will take a head of steam into the offseason after dueling with Western Kentucky’s Mike White.
Set to Launch: Dec. 20 at 6:00 EST vs. Western Kentucky (Boca Raton Bowl)
5. Pitt ATH Quadree Henderson
With great deference to Jabrill Peppers and Adoree’ Jackson, college football’s most explosive multidimensional weapon just might reside in Pittsburgh. Henderson doesn’t play D like Peppers and Jackson, but with the ball in his hands, he’s instant, edge-of-your-seat energy.
Henderson is 5-8 and 190 pounds of blinding speed as a receiver, return man and ballcarrier on jet sweeps. He’s averaging more than 10 yards a carry and has scored 10 times, four on special teams. In a Pinstripe Bowl staged at Yankee Stadium, Henderson will have a breakout performance and introduce himself to the nation as this game’s long ball hitter.
Set to Launch: Dec. 28 at 2:00 EST vs. Northwestern (Pinstripe Bowl)
4. Colorado State QB Nick Stevens to WR Michael Gallup
Among pitch-and-catch combos, Stevens to Gallup might be the best-kept secret in the country. Impressive considering Stevens was benched in favor of rookie Collin Hill in September, and Gallup is in his first season out of Butler County (Kans.) Community College.
Since mid-October, Stevens has thrown 14 touchdowns and one pick, while Gallup has scored in each of the last seven games. Stevens will now target a soft Idaho secondary to get a jump-start on the inevitable competition with Hill, who was also playing well when he suffered a season-ending ACL tear on Oct. 8.
Set to Launch: Dec. 22 at 7:00 EST vs. Idaho (Idaho Potato Bowl)
3. South Carolina QB Jake Bentley
Bowl games are particularly beneficial to true freshmen, who can use the extra practice time to become better acclimated with systems, staffs and the speed of the game. Bentley will not only continue ascending, but will also have a full month since the Palmetto Bowl to heal a bone bruise near his knee. He lit a spark under the entire Gamecock program after leaving the bench in October. Now a sophomore for all intents and purposes, Bentley gets to show the country why he’s one of the SEC’s rising offensive stars.
Set to Launch: Dec. 29 at 2:00 EST vs. South Florida (Birmingham Bowl)
2. Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald
Dan Mullen is at it again in Starkville, transforming a big and physical dual-threat athlete into an emerging star behind center. Fitzgerald exceeded expectations in his first year replacing Dak Prescott, and currently leads the SEC in total offense. Sure, there’s work to be done as a pocket passer, but there’s time to develop in Starkville. For now, the 6-5, 230-pound Fitzgerald, who’s accounted for 35 scores, will pound the Miami (OH) defense between the tackles in St. Petersburg and take whatever it gives him through the air.
Set to Launch: Dec. 26 at 11:00 AM EST vs. Miami (St. Petersburg Bowl)
1. South Florida QB Quinton Flowers
Flowers will be the Bulls’ Greg Ward Jr. in 2017, a dual-threat American Athletic Conference quarterback with a chance to crash the Heisman discussion. He has received far too little national attention for a junior who’s led his team to 10 wins, is ranked second to Lamar Jackson in rushing yards by a QB and has had his hand in 37 touchdowns. The Birmingham Bowl affords Flowers a rare opportunity to showcase his diverse talents to a broad audience, a runway of sorts into next season, when he figures to be distinctly buzzier as the leader of Charlie Strong’s offense.
Set to Launch: Dec. 29 at 2:00 EST vs. South Carolina (Birmingham Bowl)
6. Minnesota LB Blake Cashman
Cashman was a tweener coming out of high school, a little too slow to cover effectively at safety and a little too small to be an every-down Big Ten linebacker. But the walk-on has found his niche on a Gopher defense that’s overachieved all season long. Cashman has blossomed into a situational terror on timed blitzes, making 7.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in November alone. He’ll be a Minnesota wild card for slowing down Wazzu QB Luke Falk, while furthering his case for a free ride in 2017.
Set to Launch: Dec. 27 at 7:00 EST vs. Washington State (Holiday Bowl)
5. Miami DE Joe Jackson
Jackson is still a little rangy at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds and still a little unpolished as a pass rusher. But he’s also just a true freshman, so there’s plenty of time to grow, both physically and professionally.
Despite coming off the bench for much of the season, Jackson still leads the Canes with 10.5 stops for loss, 7.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. He’s poised for a quantum leap between now and the 2017 opener, and it all begins with the Russell Athletic Bowl later in the month.
Set to Launch: Dec. 28 at 5:30 EST vs. West Virginia (Russell Athletic Bowl)
4. Kentucky LB Jordan Jones
Jones has been a revelation for the Wildcats this fall. As a rookie in 2015, he got his feet wet with 10 tackles off the bench. But this past season, the sophomore erupted into one of the SEC’s most productive linebackers, making a team-high 100 stops, 14 tackles for loss, four sacks and nine hurries.
Jones loves the game, and it shows every time he hits the field. Facing Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl will afford him ample opportunities to advertise his range and passion for playing D one final time in 2016.
Set to Launch: Dec. 31 at 11:00 AM EST vs. Georgia Tech (TaxSlayer Bowl)
3. Washington LB D.J. Beavers
The Huskies do a lot of substituting on defense. And it’s a good thing, too, because Beavers has made a smooth transition into the lineup since leading tackler Azeem Victor was lost in the Nov. 12 USC game. With an expanded role down the stretch, the linebacker got a chance to show off his range, closing speed and cover skills. Although Psalm Wooching is Washington’s only senior linebacker, Beavers can solidify a spot in the 2017 rotation by leaving his mark on Alabama in the opening playoff game.
Set to Launch: Dec. 31 at 3:00 EST vs. Alabama (Peach Bowl)
2. Ohio State LB Chris Worley
Worley doesn’t get nearly as much attention as his teammates, namely Raekwon McMillan or Malik Hooker. But he has quietly been outstanding from strongside, while saving his best efforts for the late-season playoff run.
Worley is fourth on the team with 60 tackles; however, 18 of those stops came in the last two games, including a career-high 11 versus Michigan. He is proving to be both an underrated run stopper and pass defender, which will be especially important against the balance of the Clemson attack.
Set to Launch: Dec. 31 at 7:00 EST vs. Clemson (Fiesta Bowl)
1. Michigan DE Rashan Gary
Naturally, Jim Harbaugh wants to beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl. But he also plans to use this month to prepare his next wave of superstars to fulfill expanded roles in 2017. Gary, for instance.
The can’t-miss recruit showed plenty of flashes in his first season in Ann Arbor. Still, he isn’t even close to maximizing his potential as a Wolverine. And Harbaugh understands the importance of these next few weeks, since the current starting D-line is comprised of four seniors. The coach wants Gary, in particular, to use the Noles as a runway to the start of next season.
Set to Launch: Dec. 30 at 8:00 EST vs. Florida State (Orange Bowl)