There’ll be plenty of memorable individual performances during the bowl season. However, a bunch of topflight athletes won’t even get a chance to play in front of college football fans this month.
More than 6,000 student-athletes will enjoy the myriad trappings of the bowl season between now and the Jan. 9 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. It’s a quintessentially American time of the year to celebrate a season of success and hard work, often in a warmer climate than back home on campus. However, a handful of worthy players are being left out of the festivities, getting insufficient support from teammates in the fall to reach the magical six wins needed to earn a bowl berth.
Note: Players voluntarily sitting out of bowls (Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, et al. not included)
10. SMU DE Justin Lawler
Lawler is one of the gems on the Hilltop and a player Chad Morris will continue to build around in 2017. He’s a high-motor, Big 12-caliber guy off the edge who brings it on every snap. Lawler is an impact performer on all three downs, ranking second on the Mustangs with 65 tackles and first with 15 stops for loss and six sacks. He even blocked a couple of kicks, showcasing a contagious level of passion and intensity whenever he stepped onto the field.
9. Virginia LB Micah Kiser
The Hoos went 2-10 in Bronco Mendenhall’s first season, losing the final seven games. But Kiser once again did about all he could to get his team back on a winning track. He’s an elite inside linebacker, with the instincts and fundamentals to always be around the ball. The heady Baltimore native ranks third nationally with 134 tackles to go along with 6.5 sacks and five forced fumbles. And he’ll be back in Charlottesville in 2017 to anchor Mendenhall’s defense one final time.
8. Ole Miss TE Evan Engram
There’s a lot of Rebel talent sitting at home this holiday season. Engram is chief among them. He’s a special pass-catcher, making downfield plays like a 6-foot-3, 235-pound wide receiver. In 2016, he led Ole Miss with 65 receptions for 926 yards and eight touchdowns, showcasing excellent ball skills and above average athleticism for a player his size. While not a traditional tight end, Engram will have a long career on Sundays as a big slot receiver who beats linebackers to the soft spots on the field.
7. Syracuse WR Amba Etta-Tawo
Plenty of Orange players benefitted from the arrival of Dino Babers from Bowling Green. None more than Etta-Tawo who was wallowing in mediocrity at Maryland. At Syracuse, though, he immediately bloomed into the team’s premier outside threat in the new up-tempo attack. Etta-Tawo strafed opposing defenses with both production and pop, catching 94 balls for 1,482 and 14 scores. In his farewell performance as a member of the Orange, he torched Pitt for 13 receptions for 178 yards and a school-record five touchdowns.
6. Cal QB Davis Webb
The Texas Tech transfer spent his lone season as a Golden Bear operating Sonny Dykes’ version of the Air Raid and auditioning for NFL scouts. All things considered, both sides benefitted. The senior was able to amass a dozen games of film, while Cal got a distributor who threw for 37 scores and 4,295 yards. Webb’s arrival also helped elevate the play of receivers Chad Hansen and rookie Demetris Robertson, and gave the local fans a bunch of exciting games and better-than-expected results.
5. UTEP RB Aaron Jones
Jones might be the nation’s premier running back that no one outside of West Texas watched live this season. A bowl game would have afforded the entire country an opportunity to watch him in action for the first time in 2016. Jones is a pro-caliber home run hitter, needing only 229 carries to rush for 1,773 yards and 17 touchdowns. He’s also a skilled receiver out of the backfield, which is all part of a playmaking package that has him pondering whether to remain in El Paso for a final year or turn pro early.
4. UCLA DE Takkarist McKinley
It was not a memorable fall in Westwood. McKinley was one of the rare exceptions, using his final season as a Bruin to whet the appetite of NFL scouts and GMs. He operated with a laser focus, tuning out the noise associated with a highly disappointing 4-8 season. McKinley may have played his way into the opening round of next April’s draft, parlaying his get-off and uncommon speed off the edge into 61 tackles, 18 stops for loss, 10 sacks and three forced fumbles.
3. East Carolina WR Zay Jones
No player in FBS history has ever caught more balls than Jones. A bonus game in December would have made his warchest of records that much more unreachable for future generations of pass-catchers. Everyone knew No. 7 was being targeted this season, yet he still hauled in a remarkable 158 passes for 1,746 and eight touchdowns. He was held below 10 grabs just twice all year, flashing an uncanny ability to locate the soft spots in defenses and make tough catches in traffic.
2. Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes
Mahomes may not have led the Red Raiders to the requisite six wins needed to bowl. But, boy, was he a blast to watch all season long. And just about every game involving Texas Tech was entertaining in 2016. The gutsy Mahomes played through nagging aches and pains to throw for 41 scores and a nation’s-best 5,052 yards. He even ran for a dozen scores, doing everything within his power to keep the Red Raiders competitive in a year that the defense surrendered more than 43 points per game.
1. Texas RB D’Onta Foreman
What more could Foreman have possibly done to carry his Horns into a postseason game? He led the nation in rushing during the regular season, rumbling for 2,028 yards in two fewer games than his nearest competitor, San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey. And he was remarkably consistent, going for at least 100 yards in each of his final 13 games with the program. Foreman was a warrior in Austin this season. He earned the right to be fawned over by locals and bowl committee officials this month.