2008/2009 Bowls - The Breakout Players
Penn State RB Stephfon Green
Penn State RB Stephfon Green
Posted Dec 18, 2008

The bowl season is a time for the stars to shine through, and for unsung players who haven't been in the national spotlight to breakout. Who might be the players to come from out of nowhere to be the big-time names going into next year? Richard Cirminiello highlights 64 players you need to pay attention to.

The Bowl Season's Breakout Players

The unsung players to watch out for

By Richard Cirminiello 

- The stars who'll be playing their final game this bowl season

FedEx BCS National Championship
Jan. 8 / 8 p.m. Miami Gardens, Fla. FOX
*BCS #1 vs. BCS #2 
Oklahoma vs. Florida 

Florida: CB Janoris Jenkins. You know you’re special when you start at Florida as a true freshman. Jenkins is one of those rare gems on the Gator defense. He has already exceeded expectations in his first year, blanketing opposing receivers and continuously improving as the season has progressed. He’s got the hips, speed, and confidence to be one of the best corners in the SEC as early as next year.

: WR Ryan Broyles. While he sort of got lost in a receiving corps that included Juaquin Iglesias, Manny Johnson, and Jermaine Gresham, Broyles was still able to make the first 42 grabs of his career for 661 yards and six touchdowns. He’s loaded with speed, explosiveness, and upside potential, all of which will become more obvious once this year’s starters graduate.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl
Jan. 5 / 8 p.m. Phoenix, Ariz. FOX
*BCS vs. BCS (Big 12 Champion, if available)
Texas vs.
Ohio State

Texas: WR Malcolm Williams. After toiling behind veterans Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley this season, Williams will be ready to wear the go-to tag in 2009. He showed glimpses of the future, especially in the Texas Tech game, finishing the regular season with 17 catches for 304 yards and three touchdowns. At 6-3 and 218 pounds, he has the physical gifts and the work ethic to be a force, especially if Colt McCoy returns for his senior year.

Ohio State
: QB Terrelle Pryor. Everyone knows that the sky is the limit for Pryor once he improves his reads and fine-tunes his overall game as a passer. A bunch of practices in December and a date with a talented defense will only hasten the maturation process. If Pryor has a breakthrough game and somehow engineers an upset Texas, the expectations for his sophomore year will ramp up exponentially. 

Allstate Sugar Bowl
Jan. 2 / 8:30 p.m. ET  New Orleans, La. FOX
*BCS vs. BCS  (SEC Champion, if available)
 Alabama vs. Utah

Utah: WR David Reed. Reed came on late in his first season out of Pasadena City (Calif.) College, and is poised to be the Utes’ go-to receiver in 2009. The team’s long-ball threat, he’s caught 23 passes for 369 yards and five touchdowns, with most of the big plays coming in November. He’s got the speed and improving ball skills to be a 50-catch guy once Freddie Brown, Brent Casteel, and Bradon Godfrey are off campus.

: LB Dont’a Hightower. It’s early, but Hightower looks like he has the potential to be the second coming of teammate Rolando McClain at Alabama. A big, physical linebacker who runs well, he’s already made an instant impact on the Tide D as a true freshman. A starter at weakside since September, he’s gobbled up 62 tackles almost entirely on raw ability. Once Hightower has a better grasp of where to be on the field, he’ll have all-league potential. 

FedEx Orange Bowl
Jan. 1 / 8 p.m. Miami Gardens, Fla. FOX
*BCS vs. BCS (ACC Champion, if available)
Virginia Tech vs. Cincinnati

Cincinnati: QB Tony Pike. While it took a spate of circumstances for Pike to get his turn, he delivered when he finally got on the field. Buried on the depth chart in August, he’s gone on to throw 18 touchdown passes and earn a spot on the All-Big East second team. With continued progress, he stands to give the Bearcats far more stability at quarterback that they’ve had in 2008.

Virginia Tech
: WR Jarrett Boykin. Before the season began, Virginia Tech put out an APB for a few decent wide receivers. Boykin answered the call in his first year in Blacksburg, making a team-leading 28 receptions for 413 yards and two scores. A big, physical receiver, he’s not shy not about blocking downfield, a job requirement in this run-first Hokie offense.

Rose Bowl presented by Citi
Jan. 1 / 5:10 p.m. ET  Pasadena, Calif. ABC
*BCS vs. BCS  (Big Ten Champion vs. Pac 10 Champion, if available)
USC vs. Penn State

USC: FB Stanley Havili. Is there a more versatile or athletic fullback anywhere in America? Havili doesn’t get many touches on a squad loaded with star tailbacks, but when he does, he usually makes it count. A tremendous lead blocker for those runners, he’s also a valuable outlet in the passing game, catching 62 passes for 596 yards and eight touchdowns in his first two seasons. At just about any other school, Havili would warrant a dozen or so carries a game.

Penn State
: RB Stephfon Green. While Evan Royster got the majority of the touches this fall, Green did a nice job of laying a foundation for the future in his redshirt freshman season. The 5-11, 194-pound burner has turned 95 carries into 521 yards and four touchdowns, while catching 10 passes for 201 yards and another score. Royster will continue to be the starter, but Green has earned a place as the big-play option out of the backfield.

The Rest

EagleBank Bowl
Dec. 20 / 11 a.m.. ET Washington, D.C.
Tie-Ins: ACC vs. Army or Navy 
Wake Forest
vs. Navy

Wake Forest: RB Josh Adams. The reigning ACC Rookie of the Year was never right this season, battling an assortment of ailments, including a nagging ankle injury. With almost a month to get right, he’ll be able to recapture his freshman form at the expense of the Navy defense. When healthy, Adams is a terrific back who’s capable of taking a game over. 

: DE Jabaree Tuani. Not your average plebe, Tuani has been quick to adjust to an expanded role since Michael Walsh was injured in September. Just a few months removed from Brentwood (Tenn.) Academy, he’s got 39 tackles and nine tackles for loss, flashing the speed around the corner that could make him the Middies most dangerous pass rusher in 2009.  

New Mexico Bowl
Dec. 20/12:30 p.m. Albuquerque, N.M. ESPN
Tie-Ins: Mountain West vs. WAC 
Colorado State vs. Fresno State

Fresno State: DE Chris Carter. Although he lines up at defensive end, the versatile Carter plays with all of the agility and range of a linebacker. At just 6-2 and 220 pounds, the sophomore will eventually settle down at linebacker, but for now, he’s a handful when not being locked up by opposing tackles. In his first full season as a regular, Carter has parlayed 79 tackles, six tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks into a spot on the All-WAC second team.  

Colorado State: LB Ricky Brewer. Any efforts to improve the defense in the offseason will be done around Brewer and fellow outside LB Mychal Sisson. The game has begun to slow down for Brewer, who likes to fly around the field and play with reckless abandon. In what’s been a table-setting year for the second half of his career in Fort Collins, he’s second on the team to Sisson with 94 tackles.  

Pioneer Las Vegas Bowl
Dec. 20 / 8 p.m. ET Las Vegas, Nev. ESPN
Tie-Ins: Mountain West No. 1 vs. Pac-10 No. 4
BYU vs.

BYU: LT Matt Reynolds. With Max Hall, Harvey Unga, Dennis Pitta, and Austin Collie in the same huddle, who bothers watching a freshman lineman, right? Because he’s got the tools to be one of the best blockers in the country before too long. A dominant force at 6-6 and 320 pounds, he’ll step out of the shadows of his senior linemates as soon as this game ends. 

Arizona: RB Keola Antolin. While only 5-8 and 180 pounds, when Antolin gets into open space, his size is irrelevant. He burst on to the scene in the Oct. 18 win over Cal, rushing for 149 yards and three touchdowns, and electrifying the offense with his quick cuts and darting moves. Just a true freshman, he has an exciting future in Tucson. 

magicJack St. Petersburg Bowl
Dec. 20 / 9 p.m. ET  St. Petersburg, Fl.
Tie-Ins: Big East vs. Conference USA 
South Florida vs. Memphis

Memphis: QB Arkelon Hall. While there were ups and down in Hall’s first season out of the College of the Sequoias, he showed enough as a passer and a scrambler to raise expectations for 2009. Before breaking his thumb on Oct. 18, he was filling the air with passes, throwing for more than 350 yards on three different occasions. With a year of experience behind him, he could be one of Conference USA’s most dangerous hurlers next fall.

South Florida: LB Kion Wilson. Earlier, in the year, Wilson came to Tampa as one of the most decorated JUCO recruits in the country. By November, he was playing like it. He had double-digit tackles in three of the Bulls’ final four games, flashing the power and open field tackling from middle linebacker that’ll make him one of the defensive leaders in 2009.  

R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
Dec. 21 / 8 p.m. ET New Orleans, La. ESPN
Tie-Ins: Sun Belt No. 1 vs. C-USA 
Troy vs. Southern Miss

Southern Miss: LB Korey Williams. Before getting his jaw broken in an off-field altercation, Williams was beginning to look like the next big thing in a Southern Miss linebacker. In the first four games of his career, the redshirt freshman had 21 tackles and four tackles for loss, including nine solos in a loss to Marshall. Although he hasn’t suited up since, the Eagles are hoping to see him in pads one more time before spring practice.

Troy: QB Levi Brown. Brown is one of those feel-good Sun Belt stories that usually only gets told this time of year. A walk-on transfer from Richmond, he took over for injured starter Jamie Hampton in October and threw 14 touchdown passes to a mere three picks. Once Hampton recovers from his ACL tear, the Trojans will be faced with a good old fashioned quarterback battle in 2009.    

San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl
Dec. 23 / 8 p.m. ET San Diego, Calif. ESPN
Tie-Ins: Mountain West vs. Pac 10 (WAC if no Pac 10 team available)
TCU vs. Boise State

TCU: WR Jimmy Young. Sure, Young has already broken out with 54 catches for 926 yards and five touchdowns, but he still takes a backseat on a team dominated by its defense. That could change next year, when a big chunk of that D will be applying for NFL jobs. Young has good size to go along with the deep speed to get behind the last line of defense.

Boise State: S George Iloka. Iloka is raw, but he also has the combination of size, speed, and athletic ability that’s off the charts for a safety. At 6-3 and 202 pounds, the true freshman gets tremendous elevation on jump balls and can go stride-for-stride with most receivers in the WAC. He’s laid the foundation for a tremendous future in Boise with 55 tackles, five tackles for loss, four picks, and 10 passes defended.

Sheraton Hawaii Bowl
Dec. 24 / 8 p.m. ET  Honolulu, Hawaii ESPN
Tie-Ins: Pac 10 vs. WAC 
 Notre Dame
vs. Hawaii

Notre Dame: TE Kyle Rudolph. The new Tight End U. has located its newest member of the fraternity. Forced into a prominent role when starter Mike Ragone tore his ACL in August, Rudolph has responded with 25 catches for 262 yards and a pair of touchdowns. At 6-6 and 252 pounds, he already has the size of a future Mackey Award candidate to go with the long stride to create nightmares for opposing linebackers. 

Hawaii: QB Greg Alexander. Okay, Alexander is not the second-coming of Colt Brennan, but he sure has done a nice impression since replacing Inoke Funaki in October. The first-year transfer from Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College with the rocket arm has thrown 12 touchdown passes and just two interceptions since entering the lineup six games ago. He’s also shown unexpected mobility for a 6-5, 240-pounder, scrambling for positive yards in each of those games.   

Motor City Bowl
Dec. 26 / 7:30 p.m. ET  Detroit, Mich. ESPN
Tie-Ins: Big Ten No. 7 vs. MAC 
Florida Atlantic vs. Central Michigan

Florida Atlantic: TE Jamari Grant. Although he lines up at tight end, at 6-5 and 210 pounds, Grant has the size and the moves of a rangy wide receiver. Along with fellow junior Rob Housler, he’s stepped up in the absence of injured starter Jason Harmon to catch 40 balls for 572 yards and four touchdowns. With all three slated to be back in 2009, the Owls will quietly have one of the deepest corps of tight ends in the country.  

Central Michigan: LB Nick Bellore. Despite popular opinion, they do play some defense at Central Michigan. The headliner of the unit is Bellore, who leads the MAC with 135 tackles in just his sophomore season. While not always the best athlete on the field, he plays with a level of tenacity and field vision that keep him around the ball at all times.  

Champs Sports Bowl
Dec. 27 / 4:30 p.m. ET  Orlando, Fla. ESPN
Tie-Ins: ACC No. 4 vs. Big Ten No. 4 or No. 5
Florida State
vs. Wisconsin

Florida State: RB Jermaine Thomas. Thomas showed enough in his first season out of high school to be considered the heir-apparent to senior Antone Smith in the running game. At 6-1 and 180 pounds, he’s a blazer with good vision in the open field and enough wiggle to make defenders miss. Thomas has made the most of his 66 carries, averaging more than seven yards and putting up 130 yards against a good Georgia Tech D.

: WR David Gilreath. The antithesis of the stereotypical plodder in Madison, Gilreath has an incendiary quality that began to emerge in his sophomore season. Third in the Big Ten behind Javon Ringer and Shonn Greene in all-purpose yards, he had a 100-yard game rushing and receiving in November and leads the Badgers in kickoff and punt returns.

Emerald Bowl
Dec. 27 / 8:30 p.m. ET  San Francisco, Calif. ESPN
Tie-Ins: ACC No. 7 vs. Pac-10 No. 5
Miami vs.

Miami: WR Travis Benjamin. In Benjamin, the Hurricanes are hopeful their harboring the second coming of Devin Hester or Santana Moss in Miami. He’s got world-class speed and the acceleration to jet past defenders in the blink of an eye. He showed flashes as a receiver and on special teams, and should really begin taking flight as a playmaker in 2009.

: WR Nyan Boateng. Even though he’s tied for the team lead with 26 receptions, Boateng is capable of so much more. Physically speaking, the transfer from Florida has few peers, combining a sleek 6-2, 210-pound frame with tremendous speed and elevation. Once he fine tunes his overall game and gets better consistency from the quarterbacks, he’ll be tough to keep quiet.

Meineke Car Care Bowl
Dec. 27 / 1 p.m. ET Charlotte, N.C. ESPN
Tie-Ins: ACC No. 6 vs. Big East 
North Carolina vs. West Virginia

North Carolina: LB Bruce Carter. Carter may be a linebacker these days, but he plays with all of the explosiveness and big-play ability of a former high school running back. He has blossomed in his second season into the type of defender and special teams performer who can change the momentum of a game with his speed and range. Carter leads the Heels in tackles for loss and sacks, and has four blocked punts, three coming in the Connecticut game.

West Virginia
: WR Jock Sanders. Think Noel Devine with better pass-catching skills. Sanders is a diminutive slot receiver who the Mountaineers like to get in space in a multitude of different ways. He’s caught a team-high 48 passes, averaged almost six yards on 45 carries, and leads the team in touchdowns scored. No. 9 is the kind of gamebreaker who can go the distance with one timely block.

PapaJohn’s.com Bowl
Dec. 29 / 3 p.m. ET Birmingham, Ala. ESPN2
Tie-Ins: Big East vs. SEC (or Sun Belt if no SEC team available)
Rutgers  vs. NC State

Rutgers: RB Jourdan Brooks. If the Scarlet Knights learned one thing in the post-Ray Rice era, it was that no single back was going to replace the All-American. Brooks took turns with Kordell Young and Joe Martinek playing the feature role, twice going over 100 yards on the ground. He could offer the greatest upside of the three underclassmen, blending a 250-pound frame with a nice kick once he gets through the hole.

North Carolina State
: LB Nate Irving. If not for an injury in the middle of the season, Irving appeared headed for the All-ACC first team. When he returned in November, the Pack was a different team, tightening up on defense and winning the final four games. A sideline-to-sideline playmaker with game-changing skills, he still came up with 73 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and a team-best four interceptions.

Independence Bowl
Dec. 28 / 8 p.m. ET  Shreveport, La. ESPN
Tie-Ins: Big 12 No. 7 vs. SEC No. 8 (Or WAC & the third choice of Sun Belt teams if no Big 12 or SEC team available)
Louisiana Tech vs. Northern Illinois

Northern Illinois: QB Chandler Harnish. Injuries to starter Dan Nicholson forced Harnish into an expanded role that he embraced in the final two months of the season. An athletic redshirt freshman, he twice rushed for more than 100 yards and had big games through the air versus Toledo and Kent State. While this wasn’t supposed to be Harnish’s time to shine, the unexpected reps will be a boon to the entire program in 2009.

Louisiana Tech
: WR Phillip Livas. While Livas isn’t very big, his contributions to the Bulldog offense have been enormous. The most versatile and dangerous weapon on the roster, he’s run for 322 yards, caught a team-high 39 passes, scored six times, and is the school’s best special teams player. Now that he’s comfortable in the Tech offense, he can spend the second half of his career making a name for himself outside Ruston.  

Alamo Bowl
Dec. 29 / 8 p.m. ET  San Antonio, Texas ESPN
Tie-Ins: Big Ten No. 4 or No. 5 vs. Big 12 No. 4
Northwestern vs. Missouri

Northwestern: LB Quentin Davie. While Davie sort of hit the wall in November, the coaching staff saw enough in the first half to know he has substantial upside. A terrific all-around athlete at 6-4 and 215 pounds, the sophomore could be asked to put his hand in the dirt if he’s able to pack on some pounds in the offseason. Davie has flashed a natural ability for getting into the backfield, collecting 9.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. 

: NT Jaron Baston. Baston was quietly one of this year’s pleasant surprises, doing a nice job of replacing All-Big 12 first teamer Lorenzo Williams. In his first year in the lineup, he’s been in on 43 stops and has eight tackles for loss to earn honorable mention all-conference. At 6-1 and 305 pounds, the junior plays with good leverage and is surprisingly nimble for his size.

Texas Bowl
Dec. 30 / 8 p.m. NFL Network
Tie-Ins: Houston, Texas
Big 12 vs. C-USA 
Western Michigan vs. Rice

Rice: S Travis Bradshaw. Bradshaw must’ve known something that others didn’t when he turned down scholarship to walk on at Rice. Just a redshirt freshman, he’s been one of the big surprises on defense for the Owls, making 81 tackles, breaking up five passes, and really having an impact toward the end of the year. Bradshaw has been particularly effective in run defense and as an open-field tackler. 

Western Michigan
: WR Juan Nunez. In a complimentary role, Nunez has carved out a productive niche in the Bronco passing game, making 55 catches for 661 yards and seven touchdowns. However, he better start getting used to more attention. Three of this year’s top four receivers, Jamarko Simmons, Schneider Julien, and Branden Ledbetter are seniors, meaning the sophomore will be play sans protection next fall.

Pacific Life Holiday Bowl
Dec. 30 / 8 p.m. ET San Diego, Calif. ESPN
Tie-Ins: Big 12 No. 3 vs. Pac-10 No. 2
Oklahoma State vs. Oregon

Oklahoma State: WR Damian Davis. In 2007, Dez Bryant showed signs of his massive upside before erupting this year. Although Davis doesn’t have as high of a ceiling, he’s done the same thing this fall, getting his feet wet with 16 catches for 348 yards and two scores. He still needs to fill out his 6-5, 185-pound frame, but with his roommate getting so much attention on the other side, he stands to be the chief beneficiary.

: LB Spencer Paysinger. Paysinger has sort of gotten lost on a defense with more recognizable names. That’s too bad because he’s really delivered as a sophomore, making 86 tackles, and nine tackles for loss, while doing a nice job in pass defense. He’s got good range, tackles well in the open field, and is, pound-for-pound, one of the strongest players on the defense.

Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl
Dec. 30/4:30 p.m.  Boise, Idaho ESPN
Tie-Ins: ACC No. 8 vs. WAC
vs. Nevada

Maryland: RB Davin Meggett. Da’Rel Scott is still the focal point of the running game, but Ralph Friedgen might have to find ways to get Meggett more reps next year. As a true freshman, he’s gone for 422 yards and four touchdowns on just 79 carries, running downhill and low to the ground. Scott’s inability to stay healthy puts a premium on Meggett getting prepared for an expanded role going forward.
: DE Kevin Basped. While Basped has already broken out on a WAC level, it hasn’t exactly had a ripple effect outside the region. That could begin to change following the H-Bowl. The sophomore is a 6-6, 240-pound predator, who deserves more national attention. An imposing physical presence who’s still growing into his frame, he has 18.5 tackles for loss and a league-leading 10 sacks.

Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl
Dec. 31 / 12 p.m. ET  Fort Worth, Texas ESPN
Tie-Ins: Mountain West vs. Conference USA 
Air Force vs.

Houston: WR L.J. Castile. Yes, he’s still raw, but when you’re a gifted 6-3 and 210-pound athlete, coaches have a tendency to be patient. A quarterback when he arrived in Houston, the sophomore has gradually assimilated to his new position, catching 29 passes for 511 yards and eight touchdowns. The Cougars are hoping Castille’s last game, five grabs for 144 yards and three touchdowns, provides a springboard into next season.

Air Force
: QB Tim Jefferson. In early October, Troy Calhoun made the bold move of turning his offense over to Jefferson, a true freshman. The coach has never looked back. Sure, the learning curve will be steep for awhile, but he’s shown flashes as a dual-threat behind center, and the experience of playing in a bowl game will pay tangible dividends in 2009 and beyond.

Sun Bowl
Dec. 31 / 2 p.m. ET. El Paso, Texas CBS
Tie-Ins: Big 12/Big East/Notre Dame vs. Pac-10 No. 3
Pitt vs. Oregon State

Pittsburgh: WR Jonathan Baldwin. It’s only a matter of time before Baldwin develops into a bona fide star. At 6-5 and 220 pounds, he possesses an almost freakish combination of size, speed, and physicality. Now, all he needs is more reps and more looks from QB Bill Stull. Baldwin has 18 catches for 404 yards and three touchdowns, largely being underutilized in his first year out of high school.

Oregon State
: DT Stephen Paea. Paea has come a long way in a short period in his athletic career. A rugby player growing up in his native Tonga, he’d only played two seasons of football before arriving at Oregon State via Snow College. You couldn’t tell by watching him play this season. In the first significant action of his career, the disruptive Paea parlayed 37 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and five sacks into honorable mention on the All-Pac-10 squad.

Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl
Dec. 31 / 3:30 p.m. ET Nashville, Tenn. ESPN
Tie-Ins: ACC vs. SEC No. 5
Boston College vs.

Boston College: QB Dominique Davis. An unfortunate broken collarbone to Chris Crane has provided a glimpse into the future at Boston College. While Davis was always pegged as the successor behind center, no one expected the wraps to come off so soon. The redshirt freshman has played the last three games and will get all of the first-team reps in December, which will surely hasten his development heading into next spring.

: TE Brandon Barden. In his first season since transferring from Virginia Tech, Barden has emerged into a reliable target on intermediate routes. An athletic 6-5, 245-pounder, who played quarterback in high school, he’s caught 27 passes for 204 yards and four touchdowns. With more time at the position and in the weight room, the sky will be the limit for the redshirt freshman.

Chick-fil-A Bowl
Dec. 31 / 7:30 p.m. ET  Atlanta, Ga. ESPN
Tie-Ins: ACC No. 2 vs. SEC
Georgia Tech
vs. LSU

Georgia Tech: S Cooper Taylor. On a defense crammed with veterans, Taylor had no problem fitting in as a true freshman. A rangy 6-4, 195-pound athlete, he’s an ideal nickel back, who can cover receivers and press up to stop the run. In his first go-round with the Yellow Jackets, Taylor is second of the team with 65 tackles, showing marked improvement as the season wound down.

: QB Jordan Jefferson. Jefferson’s baptism under fire is expected to continue in Atlanta. The true freshman with the considerable upside started the regular season finale against Arkansas, struggling at times, yet throwing two touchdown passes and flashing good acceleration outside the pocket. The staff will use this game and the 15 practices that go with it to get a better read on the quarterback situation for 2009.

Insight Bowl
Dec. 31 / 5:30 ET Tempe, Ariz. NFL Network
Tie-Ins: Big Ten No. 6 vs. Big 12 No. 6
vs. Kansas

Kansas: DT Jamal Greene. It took some time to get to this point, but Greene has begun to show why he was one of the top recruits out of the state two years ago. At 6-4 and 300 pounds, he’s extremely powerful, yet moves surprisingly well laterally. He’s had a tackle for loss in four of the last six games, a preview of what’s to come from the sophomore in 2009.

: LB Simoni Lawrence. In just his first season out of Valley Forge (Penn.) Military Academy, Lawrence has had an instant impact on the Gopher defense. A linebacker who moves like a safety, he’s had no problems adjusting to the speed of the Big Ten, ranking fourth on the team with 64 tackles, while proving to be a useful option on the blitz.

Outback Bowl
Jan. 1 / 11 a.m. ET Tampa, Fla. ESPN
Tie-Ins: Big Ten No. 3 vs. SEC
Iowa vs.
South Carolina

Iowa: CB Amari Spievey. It’s been a long journey getting back to Iowa City, but the Hawkeyes are thrilled that Spievey’s back. Originally signed by the Hawkeyes in 2006, he had a rough time being so far from home and his grades began to suffer. After spending one season at Iowa Central to get things in order, he’s returned to the Iowa defense and enjoyed an outstanding first season of action. For Spievey, the best is yet to come. 

South Carolina
: DT Ladi Ajiboye. Forget the numbers when evaluating Ajiboye’s importance to this Gamecock defense. Quick off the ball, he never takes a play off and has the athletic ability to fight through blocks and makes stops for minus yards. Just a sophomore, he’ll have an opportunity to be one of the catalysts of the D in 2009.

Konica Minolta Gator Bowl
Jan. 1 / 1 p.m. ET  Jacksonville, Fla. CBS
Tie-Ins: ACC No. 3 vs. Big 12/Big East/Notre Dame 
Clemson vs.

Clemson: DE Da’Quan Bowers. After getting his feet wet as a true freshman, Bowers should be ready to explode a year from now. An athletic 6-4, 275-pounder, he has an immense upside that’ll begin to reach the surface next year. Once he improves his technique and understanding of the defense, he’ll have a chance to be one of the true pass-rushing monsters of the ACC.

: RB Roy Helu. Helu. wasn’t quite ready to be the Husker workhorse early in the season. He is now. The sophomore went on a tear in November, averaging 127 yards a game and giving Nebraska some much-needed balance during a solid stretch run. A tough, efficient runner, Helu is making a strong statement to be the focal point of the offense in 2009.   

Capital One Bowl
Jan. 1 / 1 p.m. Orlando, Fla. ABC
Tie-Ins: Big Ten No. 2 vs. SEC No. 2
Michigan State vs. Georgia

Georgia: RB Caleb King. If, as expected, Knowshon Moreno bolts for the NFL, King is a name to keep in mind for 2009 and beyond. Similarly built to Moreno at 5-11 and 212 pounds, he’s got the potential to be the next big thing at the position, provided he learns to do the little things better. A missed block in the Florida game cost the redshirt freshman playing time at the end of the year. Mark Richt might want to get King and Richard Samuel some reps in Orlando in anticipation of what’s to come next year.

Michigan State
: TE Charlie Gantt. A year after not catching a single pass behind Kellen Davis, Gantt pulled down 19 for 302 yards and four touchdowns in a statement sophomore season. Determined to be more than just a faceless blocker on running downs, he dropped weight in the offseason and worked on improving his ball skills. The results have been greater confidence from the Spartan quarterbacks and more chances to make plays in the passing game.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Jan. 2 / 5:00 p.m. ET Memphis, Tenn. ESPN
Tie-Ins: C-USA No. 1 vs. SEC No. 6
East Carolina vs. Kentucky

Kentucky: QB Mike Hartline. With Randall Cobb likely sidelined following knee surgery, Hartline gets 15 practices and the Liberty Bowl to get a jump on a quarterback race that’ll continue again in the spring. Hartline had his struggles in the first half of the year, but is clearly the better passer of the two, which will be needed to make a dent in a pretty good East Carolina pass defense.

East Carolina: NG Linval Joseph. The average fan will never appreciate a player like Joseph. Pirate coaches feel he’s indispensable. A 6-6, 300-pound brick wall in the middle of the defensive line, he’s one of the unheralded reasons why East Carolina was so stingy in the second half of the year. Plenty tough at the point of contact, the sophomore has trimmed away excess baby fat to dramatically improve his quickness and endurance.

AT&T Cotton Bowl
Jan. 2 / 2 p.m. ET Dallas, Texas FOX
Tie-Ins: Big 12 No. 2 vs. SEC 
Texas Tech vs.
Ole Miss

Ole Miss: QB Jevan Snead. Snead’s anonymity on a national level has a short shelf life. By this time next year, he could be one of the hottest quarterbacks in the country. After a slow start, he caught fire, throwing 13 touchdown passes and just two picks in the Rebels’ final five games. More important, he’s helped lead the program to an 8-4 record that’s included road wins over Florida and LSU. For much of the nation, the Cotton Bowl will be a first chance to get a really good look at Snead’s rising stardom.

Texas Tech
: WR Tramain Swindall. In all likelihood, the Red Raiders will be looking to replace two of this year’s top three receivers, Michael Crabtree and Eric Morris, in 2009. Swindall has shown in his redshirt season that he’ll be capable of filling some of the void. A fluid, 6-3 and 175-pound athlete, he’s already caught 42 passes for 528 yards and two touchdowns, while getting a better grasp of Mike Leach’s system.

International Bowl
Jan. 3 / 12 p.m. ET Toronto, Canada ESPN2
Tie-Ins: Big East vs. MAC No. 4 or 5
Connecticut vs. Buffalo

Buffalo: LB Justin Winters. Winters is a well-kept outside of Upstate New York. That could change if the International Bowl does the unlikely and attracts any audience outside of the Northeast. In his first full year of action, the sophomore leads the Bulls with 118 tackles, while chipping in 7.5 tackles for loss. A glorified safety at 6-1 and 202 pounds, he makes plays with his quickness and ability to shed blockers.

: CB Jasper Howard. Now that star corner Darius Butler has played his final games for the Huskies, Howard has taken over as the team’s stopper in pass defense. While not very big, he’s a dynamic athlete who’s not afraid to step and support in run defense. He’s tied for second on the team with 37 solo tackles, has four interceptions, and leads the Big East in punt returns.

Jan. 6 / 8 p.m. ET  Mobile, Ala.  ESPN
Tie-Ins: C-USA No. 2 vs. MAC/WAC
Tulsa vs. Ball State

Tulsa: WR Damaris Johnson. Johnson surely did his homework last year when he signed a letter of intent to play for Tulsa. He’s a perfect fit for the Hurricanes’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense. While only 5-8 and 175 pounds, he’s got the jets and the moves in the open field to be a game-breaker as a receiver, running back, or kickoff returner. Basically, the Tulsa staff will be looking for new ways to get the ball in Johnson’s hands over the next three years.

Ball State
: WR Briggs Orsbon. After Dante Love suffered a career-ending spinal injury in September, Orsbon responded better than a true freshman should have under those circumstances. He wasted no time earning the confidence of QB Nate Davis, and finished the regular season with a team-best 65 catches for 767 yards and five touchdowns. With a full offseason to get better acclimated with his surroundings, he’ll return next year even more confident and prepared for success.