Even with some of the best prospects opting-out of the bowl games, it allowed for hidden gems to step up and future stars (in the 2024 and 2025 NFL Draft classes) to make big plays when their teams needed them.
There were performances like Oregon’s Bo Nix (one of the top senior QB prospects for ’24) leading the Ducks to a last second victory in the Holiday Bowl, East Carolina’s Keaton Mitchell showing just how dynamic he is in the win over Coastal Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl, New Mexico State’s do-it-all linebacker Chris Ojoh making game changing plays in the Quick Lane Bowl, and Arkansas receiver Matt Landers being involved in some of the biggest moments of the Razorbacks triple overtime win against Kansas in the Liberty Bowl.
Now with more than half the bowls decided, bowl season is reaching its peak with the College Football Playoff and the other New Year’s Six bowls all being played between December 30 and January 2. That means many of the best players in the 2023 NFL Draft will be taking the field one last time for their college programs. These are the 2023 NFL Draft prospects to watch in the third and final wave of bowl games.
Duke’s Mayo Bowl- Maryland vs. No. 23 NC State
Jaelyn Duncan, OT, Maryland (6-6, 320)
Having food products that sponsor bowl games dumped onto the winning coach has quickly become a college football tradition, and no bowl does it better than the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. Maryland head coach Mike Locksley and NC State head coach Dave Doeren will be competing for the honor of taking a mayo bath (this year Duke’s Mayo even had a selection committee pick the two official dumpers), and though the season didn’t go quite like either coach planned, taking home the Duke’s Mayo Bowl rivals that of the National Championship.
Come for the mayo, but stay for the 2023 NFL Draft prospects taking the field for these talented programs. With three of Maryland’s top pass catchers (Rakim Jarrett, Jacob Copeland, and Dontay Demus Jr.) and one of their top defensive prospects (Deonte Banks) opting out to prepare for the 2023 NFL Draft, plenty of attention will fall on Terrapins left tackle Jaelyn Duncan.
Duncan is one of the top senior offensive linemen in the country thanks to his exciting athleticism and length—he’s viewed as a potential top-10 offensive tackle prospect. With the lateral agility to reach landmarks on time and the nimble feet to mirror, Duncan has the makings of a starting left tackle in the NFL if he can clean up his hand placement and base. As a run blocker, he moves gracefully in space which allows him to make a massive impact on the second level to help spring chunk runs.
Joining Duncan, who is headed to the Senior Bowl, as a prospect for Maryland expected to play in the game are fellow offensive lineman Spencer Anderson (headed to the East-West Shrine Game) defensive backs Jakorian Bennett (Senior Bowl) and Tarheeb Still.
For NC State, with their QB issues this season (potential top-10 QB Devin Leary getting injured and hitting the transfer portal—he’s headed to Kentucky), they’ve leaned heavily on their defense… particularly their trio of linebackers. All three of Payton Wilson, Isaiah Moore (East-West Shrine Game), and Drake Thomas (East-West Shrine Game) will play on Sunday’s. Joining the linebackers as prospects for the Wolfpack are guard Chandler Zavala (East-West Shrine Game), receiver Thayer Thomas, defensive back Tanner Ingle, and nose tackle Cory Durden.
Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl- Pitt vs. No. 18 UCLA
Zach Charbonnet, RB, UCLA (6-1, 220)
Although it’s not quite as electric as being bathed in mayo, getting corn flakes dumped on you for winning the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl is quite the reward, so you know Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi and UCLA’s Chip Kelly will have the troops rallied. This game is interesting beyond the cereal too, because these two programs are surging in the right direction.
A year after winning the ACC, the Panthers managed to go 8-4 despite major roster attrition (giving them their most wins in a two-year span since 2008 and 2009) while the Bruins seem to have finally made it over the hump since hiring Kelly and are one win away from their first 10-win season since 2014.
Working in Kelly’s favor is the fact that UCLA’s top prospects all look like they’re going to be playing, none more important than running back Zach Charbonnet. Since transferring from Michigan, Charbonnet has been the engine for Kelly’s offense.
The rugged Charbonnet is a one-cut and hit it type runner with rare contact balance and the short area quickness to make defenders miss in the hole. With his size and power, Charbonnet looks like a potential top-five running back in a very deep class of them for the 2023 NFL Draft. He’s run for 2,496 yards and 27 TDs in 22 games at UCLA.
Charbonnet leads the way, but the Bruins aren’t short on prospects. Others include receiver Jake Bobo, quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, guard Atonio Mafi (all three headed to the East-West Shrine Game), interior lineman Jon Gaines, pass rusher Laiatu Latu, defensive linemen Gabriel and Grayson Murphy, linebacker Darius Muasau, and defensive back Stephan Blaylock.
Pitt isn’t so lucky, most of their top prospects have either opted-out or are injured, including defensive linemen Calijah Kancey, Deslin Alexandre, and Habakkuk Baldonado (East-West Shrine Game), linebacker SirVocea Dennis (Senior Bowl), running back Israel Abanikanda, safety Brandon Hill, and offensive tackles Carter Warren and Gabe Houy. The Panthers top prospect set to play is receiver Jared Wayne.
TaxSlayer Gator Bowl- No. 21 Notre Dame vs. No. 19 South Carolina
Antwane Wells, WR, South Carolina (6-1, 207)
Both Notre Dame and South Carolina started the season with hope, but that was quickly dashed when the Fighting Irish dropped three of their first six games and the Gamecocks gave up over 40 points in their first two conference games, both loses. Yet, both programs finished strong.
Notre Dame took down No. 16 Syracuse and No. 4 Clemson in the middle of five-game winning streak and South Carolina upset No. 5 Tennessee and No. 8 Clemson in their two final games of the season. Those wins speak to the NFL talent both rosters possess, a lot of that talent has opted-out of the Gator Bowl.
Notre Dame’s two top 2023 NFL Draft prospects, tight end Michael Mayer and pass rusher Isaiah Foskey, and South Carolina’s top two, cornerback Cam Smith and defensive tackle Zacch Pickens, all won’t be playing (all four are potential top-100 picks). Other prospects not playing due to opt-out, injury, and portal include South Carolina’s Jaheim Bell, Darius Rush, Dylan Wonnum, Josh Vann, and Austin Stogner, and Notre Dame’s Cam Hart.
That leaves a massive opportunity for Gamecocks receiver Antwane “Juice” Wells to continue to familiarize himself with the NFL Draft community. In an offense that struggled to find its identity for much of the year, Wells was a constant threat… especially down the stretch where he topped 100 yards in three of South Carolina’s last four games.
Wells, who set James Madison’s single-season receiving yards (1,250) and receiving touchdown (15) records last year before heading to Columbia, is going into the Gator Bowl with 898 receiving yards and 6 total TDs on the season. His ball skills, body control, and quickness have made him one of the best big play threats in the country, and a potential top WR in the 2024 NFL Draft if he doesn’t declare for 2023.
Throwing to Wells will be former Oklahoma, and mock draft No. 1 pick, Spencer Rattler. Rattler’s inconsistent play the last two seasons have hurt his draft stock but the arm talent is exciting (he was at his best in the wins over Tennessee and Clemson with 9 total TDs).
A few more 2023 NFL Draft prospects to know are South Carolina’s defensive lineman Jordan Burch and cornerback Marcellas Dial and Notre Dame’s offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson, defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola, linebacker JD Bertrand, and safety Brandon Joseph.
Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl- Ohio vs. Wyoming
Easton Gibbs, LB, Wyoming (6-2, 230)
Packed in-between a plethora of Power Five matchups is the Arizona Bowl between the top team in the MAC East and the second best team in the Mountain West Mountain division. Neither team is stocked with NFL Draft prospects, but both have a couple players who could find their way onto NFL rosters.
Despite Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl being known for bringing Buffalo Bills All-Pro quarterback Josh Allen to Laramie from Reedley College, the man behind turning North Dakota State into a dynasty is a defensive minded coach.
There’s no position the Cowboys have been better at developing under Bohl than linebacker (Logan Wilson, Chad Muma) and Easton Gibbs might be their next one selected in the NFL Draft. Though not the same caliber as Wilson and Muma, Gibbs is a physical run stuffer with the instincts to read keys and make plays around the line of scrimmage with his aggression and take on skills. He needs to develop into a more impactful player in space but has the makeup of an NFL special teams player.
Gibbs leads the way, but the Bobcats have a few prospects to know. Ohio State transfer Sam Wiglusz is a playmaking slot receiver, guard Hagen Meservy is a powerful run mauler, and linebacker Bryce Houston has 19 TFLs the last two seasons.
Capital One Orange Bowl- No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 7 Clemson
Bryan Bresee, DL, Clemson (6-5, 300)
A horse will be beat to death with the non-stop onslaught of jokes about how orange this year’s Orange Bowl will be between Tennessee and Clemson. A battle to see who is more orange with two top-10 teams that blew their playoff chances with losses to South Carolina? Color me excited… but seriously, these two top-10 programs are loaded with 2023 NFL Draft talent.
Clemson has already had two first-round defensive prospects opt-out of the game in pass rusher Myles Murphy and linebacker Trenton Simpson, but even without those two, the defense is crawling with studs.
Assuming he plays, defensive lineman Bryan Bresee is the Tigers best player in the Orange Bowl. Bresee, the No. 1 recruit in 2020, may not have put up gaudy numbers in his time at Clemson (14 TFLs and 8 sacks in 24 games) but the tape shows a top-10 prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft.
With a rare blend of first step explosion, lateral quickness, and flexibility for a big man, Bresee is a complete mismatch as a pass rusher. He can beat interior offensive linemen with his athleticism, or when lining up on the edge (he lines up all over the Tigers front from 1-tech to 9), he can beat offensive tackles with his power. As a run defender, his agility shows up when shooting gaps but he also plays with enough power at the point and leverage to anchor down.
Joining Bresee, it seems fellow defensive linemen KJ Henry, Tyler Davis, and Ruke Orhorhoro (all headed to the Senior Bowl) will play—those three have combined for 21.5 TFLs and 11 sacks this season. Other Tigers prospects include tight end Davis Allen (Senior Bowl), cornerback Sheridan Jones (East-West Shrine Game), offensive tackle Jordan McFadden, and receiver Joseph Ngata.
For the Volunteers, with the injury to potential Day 2 quarterback Hendon Hooker knocking him out of the game, it’s not surprising that his top two pass catchers, Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman opted out (both could be top-100 selections). Tennessee is expected to have offensive tackle Darnell Wright (Senior Bowl), guard Jerome Carvin (East-West Shrine Game), defensive lineman Byron Young (Senior Bowl), and receiver Bru McCoy. Linebacker Jeremy Banks (East-West Shrine Game) opted-out.
AllState Sugar Bowl- No. 5 Alabama vs. No. 9 Kansas State
Will Anderson, EDGE, Alabama (6-4, 243)
In a shocking turn of events, Alabama isn’t in the College Football Playoff for just the second time since its inception in 2014. It isn’t for lack of NFL Draft talent either, the Crimson Tide have two likely top-10 picks and another dozen players who will be drafted. Nick Saban gets the best of the best, while Kansas State’s Chris Klieman has followed the Bill Snyder blueprint to perfection in Manhattan by getting the most out of what he’s got… should make for a fun game.
With the news that both Bryce Young and Will Anderson are set to suit up one last time for Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, those are obviously the two best prospects in the game. Although Young could be the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, Will Anderson will be the higher rate prospect for the vast majority of NFL teams.
Anderson has been a game wrecker since stepping on the field in Tuscaloosa with his twitch, powerful hand pop, pass rush repertoire, and ability to knife through blockers and make plays around the line of scrimmage. Not many prospects can supplement their explosion off the snap with a abundance of pass rush moves (club-swim, forklift, chop, speed-to-power, etc.), he looks a lot like a young Khalil Mack with the production to match (58.5 TFLs, 34.5 sacks).
Along with Anderson on the Alabama defense, other prospects include defensive linemen Byron Young (one of the best at his position in the class) and DJ Dale, linebacker Henry To’o To’o, and safeties Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams, all are going to the Senior Bowl. Eli Ricks, Malachi Moore, and potential top safety prospect Brian Branch are all juniors on the defense too.
With Young running the offense, Alabama’s loaded around him with a trio of Senior Bowl bound players in left tackle Tyler Steen, guard Emil Ekiyor Jr., and tight end Cameron Latu. Of course, junior running back Jahmyr Gibbs is also there and could be selected top-50. Alabama kicker Will Reichard is one of the best at his position and he’s going to the Senior Bowl too.
As full of NFL Draft prospects as the Crimson Tide’s roster is, the Wildcats aren’t too shabby themselves. Running back Deuce Vaughn lacks size but should be an impact satellite back in the NFL (he has 4,751 yards from scrimmage and 42 TDs in three seasons), guard Cooper Beebe is a plug-and-play NFL starter, pass rusher Felix Anudike-Uzomah is top-100 prospect, receiver Malik Knowles is a walking big play, and Julius Brents is a physical Senior Bowl bound cornerback. Kansas State also has a few sleepers in linebacker Daniel Green, safety Josh Hayes, and nose tackle Eli Huggins.
TransPerfect Music City Bowl- Iowa vs. Kentucky
Lukas Van Ness, EDGE, Iowa (6-5, 275)
In a game between two offenses that often fell short of the mark this year (Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz chose not to fire his play caller, son Brian, while Kentucky fired theirs and brought back Liam Cohen from the LA Rams), don’t expect too many points in this one.
That statement is given even more validity by the fact that the Hawkeyes top two QBs aren’t expected to play and Wildcats potential first-round passer Will Levis has opted out. (Both programs have already grabbed their 2023 QBs from the portal with Iowa nabbing Michigan’s Cade McNamara and Kentucky snagging NC State’s Devin Leary.)
Levis is joined by Kentucky star running back Chris Rodriguez (he’s going to the Senior Bowl), cornerback Carrington Valentine, and Iowa safety Kaevon Merriweather (Senior Bowl) in opting out.
That leaves Hawkeyes pass rusher Lukas Van Ness as the top 2023 NFL Draft prospect in the Music City Bowl. Van Ness is just a redshirt sophomore and isn’t actually a starter for Iowa, but it doesn’t take long to realize he’s got star potential.
With an outstanding motor, an explosive get off, and natural power, Van Ness has a similar style to Las Vegas Raiders star Maxx Crosby. As a pass rusher he leans heavily on his speed-to-power to walk back offensive tackles to collapse pockets, and as a run defender, his strength and length allow him to set a strong edge.
Van Ness has 17.5 TFLs and 12.5 sacks as a rotational player for Iowa the last two seasons and may not declare for the 2023 NFL Draft, though he looks like a top-75 lock, because he could be a top-15 pick in 2024 if he continues to develop his pass rush repertoire.
Other Hawkeyes to watch are linebacker Jack Campbell (who won the Butkus Award as the nations top linebacker and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Award), tight end Sam LaPorta (who will serve as the emergency backup QB), and cornerback Riley Moss (who is going to the Senior Bowl).
With Levis and co. opting out, the Wildcats top prospects are linebacker Jordan Wright, pass rusher JJ Weaver, guard Tashawn Manning, and nose tackle Justin Rogers.
Vrbo Fiesta Bowl- No. 3 TCU vs. No. 2 Michigan
Quentin Johnston, WR, TCU (6-4, 215)
The first of the two College Football Playoff games has got to be the most interesting of all the bowls, not only does it feature a Big 12 team for the first time since 2019, but that team is coached by Sonny Dykes, who was only hired by TCU 13 months ago. While Dykes and the Horned Frogs are getting their first taste of the playoff, it’s the second straight year Jim Harbaugh and his Wolverines are playing on the biggest stage after years of disappointment in Ann Arbor.
Although it may be the more interesting of the playoff games, the Fiesta Bowl has less brand name talent in terms of 2023 NFL Draft prospects than the Peach Bowl, especially with Michigan star running back Blake Corum out with a knee injury.
One true star talent hitting the field in Tempe is TCU receiver Quentin Johnston. The top WR prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft is an electric playmaker at X with his height-weight-speed traits. Johnston is the definition of a ball winner with his catch radius, body control, and violence at the catch point.
In a weak receiver class, Johnston is one of the few surefire first-round talents at the position and looks like the type of player who can takeover games. Not only do his size and athleticism translate to superb 50/50 skills, but he’s also a menace after the catch with his fluidity allowing him to turn upfield in a hurry and use his size to break first contact—the smoothness of his hips also show when getting in and out of breaks as a route runner.
Although Johnston is the only blue chip type prospect for the Horned Frogs, they’re not short on NFL talent. Fellow receivers Derius Davis (going to the Senior Bowl), Taye Barber, and Savion Williams are all playmakers with pro potential, as is tight end Jared Wiley. Throwing to them all is Senior Bowl bound quarterback and Heisman finalist Max Duggan, who has a lot to prove as a prospect but will have some big fans.
Running back Kendre Miller is also one of the best in the class and has 1,342 rushing and 17 TDs so far this season. Blocking for Miller is one of the best guard prospects in the country in Steve Avila, who will also be at the Senior Bowl.
Trying to slow down all that talent will be Michigan nose tackle, and No. 1 player on the Freaks List, Mazi Smith, who blends rare twitch for a big man with absurd power. Beside him will be Mike Morris, a top-100 talent on the edge, and former five-star recruit Eyabi Anoma. Rounding out the Wolverines defensive prospects are linebacker Michael Barrett and cornerback DJ Turner.
Defensively, TCU’s led by cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson (East-West Shrine Game), nephew of Horned Frogs great LaDainian Tomlinson, who won the Jim Thorpe Award this year and looks like a future starting NFL nickel. With him in the secondary are fellow prospects Mark Perry, Josh Newton, and Bud Clark.
In the front seven, TCU’s led by Freaks List member Dylan Horton on the defensive line (Senior Bowl) and ultra-physical linebacker Dee Winters. Those two combined for 14 sacks this season.
The Horned Frogs loaded defense will have its hands full with the Joe Moore Award winners (awarded annually to the best offensive line in the country) in the trenches for Michigan. Olu Oluwatimi is one of the best center prospects in the NFL Draft and he’s headed to the Senior Bowl with Michigan left tackle Ryan Hayes. (Trevor Keegan, Zak Zinter, and Karsen Barnhart complete the O-line, they’re all juniors with NFL futures.)
Those two get a big assist in the run game from tight end Like Schoonmaker (East-West Shrine Game), one of the best blocking tight ends in the draft class. The Wolverines aren’t short on draft-eligible receivers either with Ronnie Bell (Senior Bowl), Cornelius Johnson, and Roman Wilson.
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl- No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 1 Georgia
Jalen Carter, IDL, Georgia (6-3, 310)
With some luck, Ohio State got into the playoff to give themselves a shot at redemption. Not only were Buckeyes fans calling for Ryan Day’s job after he dropped a second straight game to “The Team Up North,” but NFL draftniks were beginning to question quarterback CJ Stroud’s ceiling after a couple up and down performances. Both Day and Stroud now have the perfect chance to regain the confidence of their doubters.
Unfortunately for them both, opportunity for penance comes against the defending National Champions and the No. 1 team in the country. Georgia may have a Heisman finalist on offense, but their true star leads that dastardly defense… Jalen Carter will be the No. 1 player on many NFL franchises big boards when the 2023 NFL Draft rolls around.
There’s a strong argument that Carter was the best player on the Bulldogs defense last year, a defense that included No. 1 pick Travon Walker, first-round picks Jordan Davis, Quay Walker, Devonte Wyatt, and Lewis Cine, and Day 2 picks Nakobe Dean and Channing Tindall. Carter is that good, both as a pass rusher and run defender.
With violent hands, natural flexibility, and a pass rush plan, Carter is a constant when it comes to interior pressure. Whether he’s lined up at 3-tech, 1-tech, or even 4i, he’s able to win with both his athleticism—by attacking outside shoulders and getting underneath interior linemen—and with his repertoire of moves thanks to his heavy hands and quick twitch body control—he has a nasty club-swim and push-pull. Carter’s athleticism and leverage also allows him to be a gap shooting disrupter when he’s playing 3-tech and that strength shows up when he needs to anchor and clog gaps.
Carter is surrounded by future NFL players too, although many aren’t draft-eligible and potential top-50 selection Nolan Smith is out with a pec tear. But in the secondary, the Bulldogs have top-20 prospect Kelee Ringo at cornerback and top-100 prospect Christopher Smith (Senior Bowl bound) at safety. They also have the underrated Robert Beal (East-West Shrine Game) on the edge.
With all those dogs on defense, Stroud, a potential top-five pick, will need to show he can play out of structure and create when things aren’t on time. This is the perfect chance for him to show he’s built for the modern NFL. He’ll be without potential first-round receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, but that’s nothing new with JSN being out for most the season (Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka are 2024 studs).
Stroud will be protected by two of the best offensive tackles in the 2023 NFL Draft. Left tackle Paris Johnson Jr. may be the first tackle selected and go top-10 while the massive Dawand Jones (6-8, 360 and going to the Senior Bowl) should be a Day 2 lock at right tackle. Tight end Cade Stover has also been one of the biggest risers of the season.
Even though Bennett and Stroud were both Heisman finalists, Bennett isn’t much of a prospect, but he does a terrific job running an offense full of them. Running back Kenny McIntosh, one of the best seniors at his position, is as dynamic a runner as he is a pass catcher and his backups, Daijun Edwards and Kendall Milton also look like future pro players.
Of course, the Bulldogs are loaded in the trenches with first-round left tackle prospect Broderick Jones, a mean run blocker, and center Sedrick Van Tran and right tackle Warren McClendon. The line is also flanked by tight end Darnell Washington, a top-50 type prospect, who is a mammoth both as a run blocker and at the catch point. (2024 tight end Brock Bowers is the best player on the offense.)
Dealing with all that talent will be a Buckeyes defense that has more than a few prospects. Linebacker Tommy Eichenberg is the heart and soul, defensive linemen Zach Harrison (Senior Bowl) and Taron Vincent (East-West Shrine Game) anchor the front, and in the secondary Cam Brown (East-West Shrine Game), Ronnie Hickman, Lathan Ransom, and Tanner McCalister will all play on Sunday’s in the future. (2024 D-lineman JT Tuimoloau is the X-factor.)
ReliaQuest Bowl- No. 22 Mississippi State vs. Illinois
Emmanuel Forbes, CB, Mississippi State (6-0, 180)
The importance of this game comes second to the importance of honoring Mike Leach throughout it, the Mississippi State head coach and developer of the air raid offense (along with mentor Hal Mumme) passed away December 12. Bulldogs defensive coordinator Zach Arnett has since been named the new head coach at Mississippi State.
Arnett’s top defensive playmaker, and the all-time leader in pick sixes in the Power Five, Emmanuel Forbes is the top 2023 NFL Draft prospect set to play in Tampa. Forbes is a true ballhawk with 14 interceptions, six of which ended with him in the end zone, in his three seasons in Starkville.
Thriving in off-coverage where he can sit on routes and bait quarterbacks, Forbes has excellent reaction time to click and close and jump routes to disrupt passes and create turnovers. With clean feet to mirror in man and instincts and eye discipline in zone, Forbes is scheme diverse. He’s also not shy when it comes to triggering downhill to attack screens or run plays as a force player.
A couple other Mississippi State prospects include run stuffing nose tackle Cameron Young (Senior Bowl), pass rusher Tyrus Wheat (East-West Shrine Game), and quarterback Will Rogers.
Most of the Illini’s top 2023 prospects won’t be playing. Star running back Chase Brown accounted for over 3,000 yards from scrimmage the last two years, but he’s opted-out. His twin brother Sydney Brown, Illinois’ starting safety, has also opted-out, so too has Illinois’ best prospect, cornerback Devon Witherspoon (all three players are going to the Senior Bowl).
Luckily, Illinois is expected to have their fourth Senior Bowl prospect in defensive back Jartavius Martin (3 INTs and 11 PBUs this year). Defensive lineman Jer’Zhan Newton is also set to play, Illinois most disruptive front seven defender. Other Illini prospects to watch are offensive tackle Alex Palczewski and receiver Isaiah Williams.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl- No. 16 Tulane vs. No. 10 USC
Tyjae Spears, RB, Tulane (5-11, 195)
Two of the coolest stories in college football meeting in Dallas with a feather in the cap of their seasons on the line. USC led by Lincoln Riley and Heisman winner Caleb Williams in their first season on the west coast since moving over from Oklahoma up against the top rated Group of Five team in college football—this is the first time Tulane has won double digit games since 1998 and only the fourth time in school history.
Williams, potentially the No. 1 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, is dealing with a hamstring injury and may not play. To make matters tougher on the Trojans, they’ll also be without one of the best senior running backs in the 2023 NFL Draft (Travis Dye), their two best offensive line prospects (Andrew Vorhees and Brett Neilon), and last year’s Biletnikoff winner and first-round talent Jordan Addison.
With all the injuries to USC, the Green Wave might actually have the highest selected offensive prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft taking the field. Running back Tyjae Spears is a dynamic space player perfect for a satellite role at the next level.
With the change of direction skills to bounce runs and the lateral explosion to make defenders miss, Spears can turn any carry into a home run. His long speed and elusiveness are exciting, especially when getting the ball to him as a pass catcher where he can create after the catch. Spears has been unstoppable this year with 1,618 yards from scrimmage and 17 TDs.
If Spears is the engine of the offense, teammate Dorian Williams is the beating heart of the defense. The Senior Bowl bound linebacker plays with his hair on fire using his speed and aggressiveness to go sideline-to-sideline as a run defender and his downhill explosion as a talented blitzer (299 tackles, 27 TFLs, and 9.5 sacks over the last three seasons).
Other Green Wave prospects include receivers Deuce Watts and Shae Wyatt, center Sincere Haynesworth, tight end Tyrick James, defensive lineman Darius Hodges, and defensive back Macon Clark.
For the Trojans, a ton will be on All-American defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu. The brother of Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Marlon Tuipulotu, Tuli was unstoppable this season racking up 21 TFLs and 12.5 sacks. His size, power, and fluid body control create all kinds of mismatches against offensive tackles.
Other than Tuipulotu, the Trojans should have cornerback Mekhi Blackmon, running back Austin Jones, linebacker Shane Lee, offensive tackle Bobby Haskins, and receiver Tahj Washington. All four are prospects who transferred to USC to boost their draft stock.
Cheez-It Citrus Bowl- No. 17 LSU vs. Purdue
Jay Ward, CB, LSU (6-2, 188)
No New Year’s Six bowl has had more shakeup than the Citrus Bowl. Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm left to return home and take the Louisville job after winning 17 games over the last two years in West Lafayette—his brother, and offensive coordinator, Brian will serve as the interim. LSU didn’t go unscathed either, after star receiver Kayshon Boutte changed his mind and declared for the 2023 NFL Draft (and opted-out of the bowl) after initially announcing on December 5 he’d be returning to Baton Rouge.
Boutte isn’t the only prospect opting out, the Tigers will be without first-round pass rusher talent BJ Ojulari, defensive tackle Jaquelin Roy, edge Ali Gaye (Senior Bowl bound), cornerback Mekhi Garner (East-West Shrine Game), and receiver Jaray Jenkins. Quarterback Jayden Daniels, who announce he is returning to LSU, is dealing with an ankle injury and may not play.
The Boilermakers will also be without their five top prospects with quarterback Aidan O’Connell (East-West Shrine Game), receiver Charlie Jones (Senior Bowl), tight end Payne Durham (East-West Shrine Game), linebacker Jalen Graham (East-West Shrine Game), and cornerback Cory Trice (East-West Shrine Game) all opting out to prepare for the 2023 NFL Draft.
With most of the top 2023 NFL Draft talent not taking the field, this game will be a great opportunity to checkout all of LSU’s 2024 and 2025 studs (receiver Malik Nabers, offensive linemen Will Campbell, Emery Jones Jr., and Miles Frazier, tight end Mason Taylor, defensive lineman Mekhi Wingo, pass rusher Harold Perkins Jr.), but LSU still has one of the most underrated defensive back prospects expected to play in Jay Ward.
Ward, who is going to the Senior Bowl, has primarily been LSU’s nickel this season but due to Garner opting-out, he’s expected to start at cornerback in the Citrus Bowl. With his length and physicality at the catch point, Ward has been a quiet star this season for the Tigers. He’s natural playing off in zone with his trust his eyes and explosiveness to close on receivers over the middle and in the flats—his length also helps him take away passing lanes.
Seeing Ward on the outside will be good for his draft stock, it will better showcase his fluidity for a tall cornerback and give scouts a look at how he hangs playing on more of an island. With the NFL trending towards bigger slot receivers, a player like Ward will be very useful.
Two other prospect to watch for LSU are linebacker Micah Baskerville who led the team in tackles this year with 84, and Oklahoma State transfer Jarrick Bernard-Converse, who has 27 PBUs over the last five years at cornerback. For Purdue, receiver TJ Sheffield and defensive backs Reese Taylor and Cam Allen are names to know.
Rose Bowl Game- No. 11 Penn State vs. No. 8 Utah
Ji’Ayir Brown, S, Penn State (5-11, 202)
The Granddaddy of Them All will close out all of bowl season, and it’s a tradition like no other with it being the oldest running bowl game (it was first played in 1902 and has been played every year since 1916). From the Rose Parade to the sunset, the Rose Bowl has a special feel to it, and this year will be no different.
Penn State is playing in its first Rose Bowl since 2016 (it hasn’t won one since 1994) and Utah is looking for its first ever Rose Bowl win after blowing a 14-point lead to Ohio State in last year’s game. Both programs will be without their top 2023 NFL Draft prospects due to opt-outs.
The Nittany Lions won’t have leading receiver Parker Washington nor likely first-round cornerback Joey Porter Jr., they also may not have left tackle Olu Fashanu due to injury. Fashanu would have been the top offensive tackle in the 2023 NFL Draft if he didn’t elect to return to school.
It’s a fair matchup though with Utah also having leading receiver, and top Senior Bowl tight end, Dalton Kincaid and potential first-round cornerback Clark Phillips III opting-out. Utes leading rusher Tavion Thomas (East-West Shrine Game) has also opted out, but Micah Bernard and Ja’Quinden Jackson filled in just fine in the Pac-12 Championship with quarterback Cam Rising carrying the offense.
Trying to slow Rising and co. down in Pasadena will be Penn State safety Ji’Ayir Brown, who has accepted both a Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game invitation. Brown is one of the best safeties in a good class and a member of the Freaks List.
Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Manny Diaz uses Brown as a chess piece depending on what offense they’re up against. He’ll line up in single-high where his range and ball skills show up, in two-deep where his fluid hips and cover instincts are highlighted, in the box to take advantage of his physicality and quick trigger, and at overhang to utilize him as a force player. Brown is a Day 2 talent.
Brown won’t be alone for Penn State with center Juice Scruggs (East-West Shrine Game), defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, tight end Brenton Strange, and receiver Mitchell Tinsley all expected to play.
Utah won’t be short on talent either with left tackle Braeden Daniels, a Senior Bowl bound run blocking savant and potential top-100 pick, set to go. Joining Daniels, Rising, and Bernard as Utes prospects playing are linebacker Mo Diabate (East-West Shrine Game), pass rusher Gabe Reid, and safety RJ Hubert.