As the ESPN promotional advertisement reminds us, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
Bowl season truly is a great time to watch some football during a time of year that many have time off from work or school.
As a website that covers primarily the Packers and the NFL, we’ll take a close look at some of the best prospects most likely to make the jump to the pro game next season.
We’ll stick to those players who are seniors or already declared for the Draft. There’s just too many underclassmen to track otherwise.
And for time constraints, we’ll stick to games played on Saturday and the BCS bowl games. We’ll get to the BCS championship game and the few remaining games next week.
Armed Forces Bowl, Rice vs. Air Force, 10:45 a.m. CT on ESPN
The skinny: One of the least-appealing matchups of the entire bowl season kicks off Saturday’s action. At least Rice comes into the Armed Forces Bowl on a roll, having won five of its last six games. Air Force, meanwhile, backed into a bowl game, having lost three of its last four. The Falcons do have the edge in postseason experience by qualifying for their sixth consecutive bowl game under head coach Troy Calhoun.
Rice NFL Draft prospect: Tight end Vance McDonald––A Senior Bowl invitee, McDonald is considered one of the better senior tight ends in the nation. He had 35 receptions for 433 yards and two touchdowns in 2012, but has had as many as 541 yards as a junior and as many as 10 touchdowns as a sophomore. A toe injury forced McDonald to miss three games at midseason, but he seems to have put those issues behind him after hauling in a career-high nine passes in this year’s season finale against UTEP.
Air Force NFL Draft prospect: Outside linebacker Alex Means––Because of the stringent commitments required of players in the military, it’s unlikely any except the elite will play in the pros. It’s not out of the question, however. You may remember as recently as 2009 the Packers signed Air Force tight end Travis Dekker. If anyone from the current Falcons team has a chance, it might be Means who tallied 89 tackles, 11 for a loss, three sacks and nine passes broken up in 2012.
Prediction: The Rice defense that ranks 95th in the nation will struggle to contain the Air Force ground game that ranks second in the nation, averaging more than 328 yards per game. Falcons win 38-25.
Pinstripe Bowl, West Virginia vs. Syracuse, 2:15 p.m. on ESPN
The skinny: If the Armed Forces Bowl lulls you into a mid-afternoon nap, the Pinstripe Bowl should wake you up. With two prolific passing attacks and bad defenses, there’s sure to a ton of points scored in what could be one of the most-exciting bowl games of the season.
West Virginia NFL Draft prospect: Quarterback Geno Smith––Coming into the season, USC’s Matt Barkley and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas figured to be two of the top quarterbacks in this year’s Draft class. After Barkley had a mediocre season and Thomas fell completely off the map, Smith might be the top QB. He cracked 4,000 yards passing in 2012, along with 40 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Smith has adequate mobility, but is considered more of a pocket passer.
Syracuse NFL Draft prospect: Quarterback Ryan Nassib––Perhaps surprisingly to those unfamiliar with Pro Football Weekly, Nassib was named the first-team All-American quarterback by PFW, which takes into account feedback from professional football evaluators. Nassib completed 63.2 percent of his passes for over 3,600 yards with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Considered a rising prospect, Nassib could go on Day 2 of the Draft.
Prediction: Syracuse is hot, winning their last three games. One of those wins came against BCS-bound Louisville and another came against SEC competition at Missouri. They’ll continue their streak in a high-scoring affair. Orange on top, 44-41.
Fight Hunger Bowl, Arizona State vs. Navy, 3:00 p.m. on ESPN2
The skinny: A contrast in style, it’s Navy’s option attack versus the air-it-out offense employed at Arizona State. Both teams are improved from a year ago when Arizona State looked uninspired under Dennis Erickson, and Navy failed to go bowl for the only time under Ken Niumatalolo.
Arizona State NFL Draft prospect: Wide receiver Jamal Miles––Miles had a disappointing senior season compared to his junior year, but he still has a chance to make an NFL roster as a wide receiver/return specialist. In 2011, he averaged 16.6 yards per punt return with one touchdown and 26.3 yards on kick returns with two touchdowns.
Navy NFL Draft prospect: Running back Gee Gee Greene––Just like Air Force, it will be difficult for any Navy player to make it in the NFL, but Greene is setting up as many auditions as possible. He’s on the roster of two postseason all-star games, the Raycom College Football All-Star Classic and the South Carolina College All-Star Game, after rushing for more than 700 yards and 7.0 yards per carry this season.
Prediction: After a win for the Territorial Cup against Arizona, the Sun Devils are happy and have the talent edge over the Midshipmen. Arizona State wins 31-16.
Alamo Bowl, Texas vs. Oregon State 5:45 p.m. on ESPN
The skinny: Mack Brown enters the Alamo Bowl on the hot seat as the Longhorns have lost their past two games and have underachieved the past several seasons. They take on an Oregon State team that’s also underachieved the past few years, but far exceeded expectations in 2012 under head coach Mike Riley.
Texas NFL Draft prospect: Safety Kenny Vaccaro––One of the top-rated senior safeties, Vaccaro isn’t a big-time interception machine, but he’s become a trusted and reliable tackler, racking up 92 tackles in 2012. He’s not afraid to play around the line scrimmage, both to stuff the run and rush the quarterback. His 13 career TFLs are impressive for someone that plays in the defensive backfield.
Oregon State NFL Draft prospect: Wide receiver Markus Wheaton––Wheaton has been a big-time contributor with more than 50 receptions in every season since his sophomore year. Despite having to share the ball with fellow wide receiver Brandin Cooks, Wheaton was still able to catch 88 for over 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012. Keeping a close eye on cornerback Jordan Poyer will be well worth your time as well.
Prediction: The Alamo Bowl may be the toughest game to handicap of any in bowl season, partially because of the quarterback situation being in flux at both schools. A prediction with very little confidence is Oregon State over Texas, 24-23.
Copper Bowl*, Michigan State vs. TCU, 9:15 p.m. on ESPN
The skinny: Yahoo Sports columnist Pat Forde sets the scene well: “Both have lost two of their last three games and four of their last six. If you want conference-affiliated momentum, the Big 12 has beaten the Big Ten five of the last six meetings in the Bowl.” That about sums up the Big Ten’s lack of success in bowl games the past several seasons.
Michigan State NFL Draft prospect: Kicker Dan Conroy––There are a couple other and better pro prospects, but defensive end William Gholston has yet to declare, and it doesn’t appear as if cornerback Johnny Adams will play on Saturday thanks to a turf toe injury. Conroy is one of the top kickers in this year’s Draft, but his field goal percentage has fallen from 93.3 percent in 2010 to 73.9 percent in 2011 to 71.0 percent in 2012.
TCU NFL Draft prospect: Guard Blaize Foltz––Foltz was a second-team All-Big XII conference selection by both the media and the coaches and has received an invitation to play in the East-West Shrine Game.
Prediction: When in doubt, pick against the Big Ten. TCU wins 20-14 in a defensive battle.
Rose Bowl, Wisconsin vs. Stanford, 4:00 p.m. (Tuesday) on ESPN
The skinny: Barry Alvarez will lead the Badgers on an interim basis after Bret Bielema surprisingly jumped ship for Arkansas. They’ll face a team that’s nearly a mirror image. Both Stanford and Wisconsin have punishing ground games, try to take care of the football and rely on solid defensive play. Stanford earned its way to the Rose Bowl by winning the Pac-12, but Wisconsin snuck in the backdoor thanks to Ohio State and Penn State being ineligible for the postseason. Regardless, the Badgers spanked Nebraska in the conference championship game, which bought them some credibility.
Wisconsin NFL Draft prospect: Running back Montee Ball––Many questioned why Ball didn’t declare for the NFL Draft after his junior season, but he came back for a successful senior campaign that saw him set the NCAA record for career touchdowns. Ball does a little bit of everything good, but might not do any one thing great. He’s been a workhorse back in college, but it remains to be seen whether he can do that in the NFL. He’s fast enough to be successful in college, but he may or may not have the wheels to get by defenders in the pros.
Stanford NFL Draft prospect: Outside linebacker Chase Thomas––Thomas has had a prolific career for the Cardinal, coming up with 50.5 tackles for a loss, 27.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles in four years at Stanford. It remains to be seen if teams think he’s a better fit as a 3-4 or 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL, however. He might be the type of player that will work fine in either scheme.
Prediction: Based upon the way Stanford was able to bottle up the Oregon running game, they should be able to do the same to the Badgers. David Shaw’s crew comes up victorious, 28-25.
Orange Bowl, Florida State vs. Northern Illinois, 7:30 p.m. (Tuesday) on ESPN
The skinny: There are plenty of critics questioning the inclusion of Northern Illinois in a BCS bowl game and saying they can’t hang with Florida State. But remember, despite all the talent, Florida State lost to North Carolina State this season and only beat Georgia Tech by six points in the ACC championship game to a team that went 6-7 this season.
Florida State NFL Draft prospect: Defensive tackle Everett Dawkins––Since bulking up from the 260-some odd lbs. of his freshman and sophomore seasons, Dawkins has seen his tackle and sack production decrease. He might have the squatty body necessary to play in a 3-4 defense like the Packers’, however.
Northern Illinois NFL Draft prospect: Defensive end Sean Progar––Progar has been a big part of the Northern Illinois defense ever since arriving on campus. He’s reached double-digit tackles for a loss every season since his sophomore year, and in his freshmen season, he had eight. He plays defensive end for the Huskies, but might have to be play a rush linebacker if he’s going to make it in the NFL. Progar will have to handle a big step up in competition, and the Orange Bowl could be an indication of whether or not he’ll be able to do it.
Prediction: Northern Illinois might be able to give Florida State a game, but they won’t win it. The Seminoles defense will be too much for the Huskies to handle. 35-21, Seminoles.
Sugar Bowl, Florida vs. Louisville, 7:30 p.m. (Wednesday) on ESPN
The skinny: Louisville might have won the Big East, and it might have a bright future with head coach Charlie Strong and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater running the show, but they’re not in the same category as Florida. The Gators have one of the best defenses in the nation and a nice running game led by Mike Gillislee to complement it.
Florida NFL Draft prospect: Inside linebacker Jon Bostic––A true inside linebacker, Bostic is one of the better senior prospects at his position. Over the course of his college career, Bostic has 19 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks and five interceptions. His tackle numbers waned from 94 in 2011 to 61 in 2012.
Louisville NFL Draft prospect: Center Mario Benevides––Benevides has started 46 games during his college career and was a Rimington Award finalist his senior season. The Packers have a need for depth at center, but the last two offensive linemen they’ve selected out of Louisville haven’t lasted in Green Bay––Breno Giacomini and Jason Spitz.
Prediction: The Florida defense will put the clamps on Bridgewater. Gators chomp the Cardinals, 40-10.
Fiesta Bowl, Oregon vs. Kanas State, 7:30 p.m. (Thursday) on ESPN
The skinny: Had Oregon and Kansas State not lost within minutes of each other in late November, this was potentially a national championship matchup. Another game with contrasting styles, Oregon has the up-tempo and flashy offense led by innovator Chip Kelly while Kansas State goes old school with bruising quarterback Collin Klein and coach Bill Snyder.
Oregon NFL Draft prospect: Tackle Kyle Long––The son of Raiders Hall of Fame defensive lineman and Fox broadcaster Howie Long actually tried his hand at baseball before settling on football. The junior Long attempted to play baseball at Florida State and was actually jailed after a drunken driving charge. He’s since turned a corner and found football to be his calling. Concerns about his past will linger, but his bloodline is undeniable.
Kansas State NFL Draft prospect: Wide receiver Chris Harper––Harper actually transferred from Oregon due to homesickness. During his senior season he caught 50 passes for 786 yards and three touchdowns as Klein’s top target. He’ll play in the Senior Bowl in January.
Prediction: With the exception of Stanford, most opponents found the Oregon offense too fast for them. Kansas State will be no exception. The Ducks dash to a victory, 48-24.
This week’s exclusive player interview is with Arizona State senior linebacker Brandon Magee who will take on Navy in the Fight Hunger Bowl.
Question: Where is the Arizona State program headed after the first year of the Todd Graham era?
Magee: It’s headed in the right direction. He changed a lot of things around for the first season, and he got a lot of teammates to buy in, which is really hard when you get a new coaching staff like that, especially when it’s a total opposite point of view in coaching style. But in the future, the sky’s the limit for Arizona State football.
Question: Can you give a scouting report on Navy and describe what makes them tough team to beat?
Magee: They’re tough, because their offense is different from what we’re used to seeing. They’ve got great athletes on offense, and I’ve heard their defense is pretty good also. And their coaches are great, so we’ve just got to stay disciplined on defense, stay gap-sound and just hustle to the ball, because you never know when your time is to make a nice play. That’s about it. They got a really good, well-disciplined team, so we got to be really disciplined.
Question: Is the triple option going to be difficult to defend?
Magee: We’ve been practicing a lot at it. I believe at first it might be a little hard for us to defend, but as the game goes, you get used to it. Like I said, you’ve got to stay disciplined, because they’re counting on you to get out of your gap or chase the quarterback when you’ve got the pitch guy or stuff like that.
Question: About you personally, what is your best quality as a football player?
Magee: I would say, focused, my focus. I come to practice focused. I’m in the film room focused. And it only helps when the game comes. Everything’s so slow during the game, because I already know what’s going on, and my preparation up to the game is outstanding. I pride myself on getting ready for the teams I play.
Question: You’re 5-11. Do you ever hear that you’re too short?
Magee: I hear that all the time. All day, every day.
Question: What do you say to the critics?
Magee: I can play football. Tell me I can’t play football. Trust me. I don’t think my height hurts me when I hit my blockers. When I hit the offensive line, my leverage is always great. I’m a tough guy for us. I use my height to my advantage. I’ve seen a lot of good linebackers, Mike Singletary, he was short. Jonathan Vilma’s not that tall. Jon Beason’s a great player.
Question: I read you’re coming off an achilles injury in 2011. What’s the process been like coming back from an injury like that?
Magee: It’s a long process. It took me about a year to get back into regular practice shape and getting out there feeling comfortable mentally. I’m happy I’m doing as well as I’m doing with this injury because sometimes I’ve read that people don’t come back the same as what they’re used to. So to be back where I was, and actually better than where I was, is truly a blessing.
What Happened Before Saturday
It’s amazing how far Baylor has come since midseason following a four-game losing streak and a record that stood at 4-5 in mid-November.
There’s no doubt that playing in the pass-happy Big XII will put a dent in the ranks of any defense, but Baylor’s defense was on life support after losing to Oklahoma on Nov. 10.
Since that time, all Baylor has beat previously undefeated Kansas State and then come up victorious against Texas Tech and Oklahoma State to close out the regular season.
Despite the winning streak, Baylor entered Thursday’s Holiday Bowl against UCLA with the 123rd-ranked defense in the nation out of 124 schools.
To close out the season, the Bears limited the Bruins to 362 total yards of offense while UCLA only converted 1-17 third downs and 3-8 fourth downs.
The defense was bad in Waco this season, no doubt about it. But kudos to head coach Art Briles and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett for fixing some problems and fielding a competitive unit toward the end of the year.