Bowl season isn’t just for the college football diehards who can’t get enough of marathon game watching. NFL fans can also get a good glimpse of some future professional stars playing their final games for programs.
The 2021 run of college postseason games offers some intrigue, starting with a busy opening bowl weekend. Here are the best prospects to watch throughout the action, including two quarterbacks ranked in the top 100 on Sporting News’ updated 2022 NFL Draft big board:
- 1 Bahamas Bowl: Middle Tennessee vs. Toledo (Friday, noon ET, ESPN)
- 2 Cure Bowl: Northern Illinois vs. Coastal Carolina (Friday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
- 3 Jeffrey Gunter, EDGE, Coastal Carolina (6-4, 260 pounds)
- 4 Boca Raton Bowl: Western Kentucky vs. Appalachian State (Saturday, 11 a.m. ET, ESPN)
- 5 Celebration Bowl: South Carolina State vs. Jackson State (Saturday, Noon ET, ABC)
- 6 New Mexico Bowl: UTEP vs. Fresno State (Saturday 2:15 p.m. ET, ESPN)
- 7 Independence Bowl: UAB vs. BYU (Saturday 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
- 8 LendingTree Bowl: Eastern Michigan vs. Liberty (Saturday 5:45 p.m. ET ESPN)
- 9 Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl: Utah State vs. Oregon State (Saturday 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
- 10 New Orleans Bowl: Louisiana vs. Marshall (Saturday, 9:15 p.m. ET ESPN)
Bahamas Bowl: Middle Tennessee vs. Toledo (Friday, noon ET, ESPN)
Reed Blankenship, S, Middle Tennessee (6-1, 204 pounds)
Blankenship probably would have been a late-round pick in 2021. He’s a sturdy and active defender with good natural toughness and leadership skills. He makes too many plays with sound fundamentals on special to not get a look as a valuable swing backup in the NFL.
Cure Bowl: Northern Illinois vs. Coastal Carolina (Friday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Isaiah Likely, TE, Coastal Carolina (6-4, 240 pounds)
Likely had a big season in the Chanticleers offense, catching 52 passes for 816 yards and 10 TDs. He’s gaining steam as a strong Day 3 trip because he’s a versatile receiver who can shine running the entire route tree but is also comfortable working inline.
Jeffrey Gunter, EDGE, Coastal Carolina (6-4, 260 pounds)
Gunter is working to gain late-round consideration as a dynamic situational edge rusher. He has 5.5 sacks going into the matchup. Just like Likely, his appeal is the ability to line up at multiple positions with a variety of moves.
Boca Raton Bowl: Western Kentucky vs. Appalachian State (Saturday, 11 a.m. ET, ESPN)
Bailey Zappe, QB, Western Kentucky (6-1, 220 ponds)
Zappe had a prolific first season with the Hilltoppers jumping to FBS competition. He keeps doing his best to rewrite the big passing records through volume, accuracy and a quick release in an “Air Raid” like system. He will be looking to get more attention for his accuracy and arm to sneak into Day 3 consideration.
Celebration Bowl: South Carolina State vs. Jackson State (Saturday, Noon ET, ABC)
Shedeur Sanders, QB, Jackson State (6-2, 215 pounds)
There’s a lot of future college and NFL buzz for a notable nephew, Arch Manning. But that’s fast-forwarding ahead from Deion Sanders’ son, also the leader of his impressive HBCU program. Sanders is a freshman sensation, so he’s not draft-eligible in 2022, but the Jerry Rice Award winner is fun to watch and headed to big things as a potential high draft pick just around the corner.
New Mexico Bowl: UTEP vs. Fresno State (Saturday 2:15 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Ronnie Rivers, RB, Fresno State (5-9, 195 pounds)
Rivers is an elusive smaller back and good pass-catcher, making him ideal for a third-down and change of pace role in the NFL to be effective in a committee with a bigger power back.
Jalen Cropper, WR, Fresno State (6-0, 173)
Cropper has been an exceptional possession receiver for the Bulldogs with great hands, route-running and red zone work, with 11 TDs on his 76 receptions. He can further climb up into Day 2 consideration by better showing off his underrated downfield speed.
Independence Bowl: UAB vs. BYU (Saturday 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
Gerrit Prince, TE, UAB (6-5, 240 pounds)
Prince is a late-round prospect with upside because of big-play flair and some wide receiver hybrid appeal.
Tyler Allgeier, RB, BYU (5-11, 220 pounds)
Allgeier is getting middle-round consideration for his powerful compact running but he also has the versatility to stay on the field in passing situations.
LendingTree Bowl: Eastern Michigan vs. Liberty (Saturday 5:45 p.m. ET ESPN)
Malik Willis, QB, Liberty (6-1, 215 pounds)
Willis racked up some mistakes with his big passing and rushing stats for the Flames but the physical skills of strong arm and dazzling athleticism keep showing pro-pleasing flashes. He’s a first-rounder, but he has a wide range of outcomes from top QB off the board to the fifth one.
Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl: Utah State vs. Oregon State (Saturday 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
Deven Thompkins, WR, Utah State (5-8, 155 pounds)
Thompkins is coming off a prolific regular season with 96 catches, 1,589 yards and 9 TDs. He’ll try to get more attention as a versatile pro diminutive dasher in prime time.
New Orleans Bowl: Louisiana vs. Marshall (Saturday, 9:15 p.m. ET ESPN)
Max Mitchell, OT, Louisiana (6-6, 297 pounds)
Mitchell is exceptional athlete who uses his footwork well to excel in pass protection. The rising Ragin’ Cajun will be participating in the Senior Bowl and its practices to help boost his stock. He has good work ethic and dedication and should keep improving all-around.