College football Pre-Christmas bowls: Players to watch


When people complain about there being too many bowl games, they tend to mean the plethora of pre-Christmas bowls between teams most haven’t seen play. That’s a shame because these bowls are a great opportunity for players on teams that typically don’t get big exposure a chance to shine on the national stage. There are some really good players that could break out during the week before Christmas. Just 7 of the 32 teams playing in these bowls come from a Power 5 conference (with the Las Vegas and Gasparilla Bowls being the only ones featuring two P5 schools). The NFL is filled with guys who played in bowls like these, and this year will are treated to one of the nation’s best receivers, college football’s all-time leading tackler, and the son of a future NFL Hall of Famer.

There are some really great bowl locales: Las Vegas, New Orleans, Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium, the Smurf Turf in Boise, Frisco’s soccer stadium, The Bahamas, Fenway Park and an interesting setup for the Hawaii Bowl. If you are a football junkie like me … or just love betting on bowl games … here are some players to watch in the pre-Christmas bowl games. 


1 of 21

Austin Aune, North Texas

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Aune is a bit different than most players who will be participating in bowls: he is 29 years old! Yes, Aune committed to TCU in 2012 but was drafted by the New York Yankees in the second round of the MLB Draft. He would play six seasons in the minor leagues before being cut in 2017. The next year, he would commit to Arkansas but would transfer to North Texas following the season to backup Mason Fine. He would win the starting job last season, and this year has thrown for 3,309 yards and 32 TDs.

North Texas faces Boise State in the Frisco Bowl on December 17th. 


2 of 21

Elijah Cooks, San Jose State

Elijah Cooks, San Jose State

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Cooks finished the season with 63 receptions, 983 yards and 10 TDs and earning first-team All-Mountain West honors. Cooks spent five seasons at Nevada before transferring to San Jose State for his final year of eligibility. His receivers coach at Nevada, Eric Scott, left for the same job at San Jose State and Cooks followed him there. Cooks last two seasons in Reno were spent with various injuries but has produced an all-conference season once healthy as a Spartan.

San Jose State faces Eastern Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on December 20th. 


3 of 21

Malik Cunningham, Louisville

Malik Cunningham, Louisville

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Cunningham has battled injuries all season (and especially at the end of the season) which is really the story on the field for Louisville in the Fenway Bowl. Even as the Cardinals’ quarterback, he was second on the team in rushing and his 12 rushing TDs led the team by a large margin. Over his five years in Louisville, every season felt like a breakout year, but it never really happened. Still, when he’s on, the Cards are so tough to beat.

Louisville faces Cincinnati in the Wasabi Fenway Bowl on December 17th.


4 of 21

Nathaniel Dell, Houston

Nathaniel Dell, Houston

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Nathaniel Dell has already declared for the NFL Draft but said he’ll play for the Cougars in the Independence Bowl. Dell leads the nation in receiving touchdowns (15) and is third in the nation in both receptions (103) and receiving yards (1,354). He’s also been unreal over the last month of the season: 180 yards and 2 TDs vs. SMU, 98 yards and a TD against Temple, 176 yards and a TD against East Carolina, and 161 yards and a touchdown against Tulsa.

Houston faces Louisiana in the Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl on December 23rd. 


5 of 21

Zakhari Franklin, UTSA

Zakhari Franklin, UTSA

Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Franklin has been fantastic this season, catching 86 passes for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns for the Conference USA champion Roadrunners. He, along with Joshua Cephus, combine for one of the most dynamic receiving duos in the nation. Franklin built on his breakout 2021 campaign (81 rec, 1,027 yds, 12 TDs) by becoming a more physical receiver which has allowed him to fight off defenders at the line and during routes.

UTSA faces Troy in the Duluth Trading Cure Bowl on December 16th.


6 of 21

Frank Gore Jr., Southern Miss

Frank Gore Jr., Southern Miss

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You surely know about Frank Gore Jr.’s father, who is the NFL’s third all-time leading rusher, but the younger Gore is making a name of his own. The sophomore rushed for over 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns this season and is coming off a sensational performance against ULM. In that finale, Gore Jr. rushed for 199 yards and a touchdown in a 20-10 victory that ended a three-game losing skid. Southern Miss takes on old Conference USA foe Rice in the LendingTree Bowl — last year Gore Jr. rushed for 79 yards on the Owls.

Southern Miss faces Rice in the LendingTree Bowl on December 17th.


7 of 21

Taylen Green, Boise State

Taylen Green, Boise State

Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Boise State’s season turned around when Taylen Green took over the starting quarterback job from embattled Hank Bachmeier midseason (Bachmeier would immediately declare his intention to transfer). The Broncos would go on to win seven of their final eight regular season games and reach the Mountain West championship game — they would lose to Fresno State. Green brings a dual-threat ability — he rushed for 467 yards and eight TDs. The freshman looks like the future in Boise.

Boise State faces North Texas in the Frisco Bowl on December 17th.


Jaren Hall, BYU

John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Hall is the key for BYU in several ways. Let’s start with the bowl game: he was one of the best quarterbacks this season, tossing 3,171 yards, 31 TDs and just 6 interceptions. He also has his future plans to consider just as BYU is set to join the Big 12 conference next season. Hall could opt for the NFL Draft, could transfer, or could come back and be a huge part of the Cougars’ first season in a Power 5 league. The Utah native did a great job taking over for Zach Wilson last year, though he was banged up in the Cougars finale against Stanford.

BYU faces SMU in the New Mexico Bowl on December 17th.


9 of 21

Jake Haener, Fresno State

Jake Haener, Fresno State

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Haener burst on the scene in 2021 in his second season at Fresno State (4,096 yds, 33 TDs) after transferring from Washington. His thrilling comeback victory over UCLA that season made him a legend at Fresno and he’s only built on that in 2022. Injuries limited him to nine games this year, but he still put up 2,616 yards and 18 touchdowns this season (just three picks) and the Bulldogs won their final eight games of the season.

Fresno State faces Washington State in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl presented by Stifel on December 17th. 


10 of 21

Sam Hartman, Wake Forest

Sam Hartman, Wake Forest

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Sam Hartman’s season got off to a scary start with a non-football illness keeping him out of the Demon Deacons’ opener. He quickly returned to action and put up 3,421 passing yards and 35 touchdowns. He did have some turnover issues midseason (most famously against Louisville), and the Deacs enter the Gasparilla Bowl, losing four of their last five games. Still, Hartman can sling it — he’s set several Wake passing records and needs just one more TD pass to break the ACC record. Such as the times we live in that there is also a slew of rumors surrounding Hartman … who does plan to pay in the Gasparilla Bowl. Is he coming back to Wake? Is he turning pro? Will he enter the transfer portal (with Florida and Tennessee heading those rumors)?

Wake Forest faces Missouri in the Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl on December 23rd.


11 of 21

Montrell Johnson Jr., Florida

Montrell Johnson Jr., Florida

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With quarterback Anthony Richardson skipping the Las Vegas Bowl and declaring for the NFL Draft, the Gators are left with no quarterbacks who threw a pass in 2022. Backup Jalen Kitna was dismissed from the program after he was arrested on child pornography charges. With either walk-on Kyle Engel or transfer Jack Miller (who had thumb surgery in August) starting at QB, look for running back Montrell Johnson to be the focal point of Florida’s offense. The sophomore only carried the ball 144 times this year but averaged 5.7 yards per carry and scored 10 touchdowns. He has been getting stronger as the season wore on, rushing for 100 yards twice and 85 yards in the Gators’ final four games. Last month against South Carolina, he rushed for 161 yards and a touchdown.

Florida faces Oregon State in the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl on December 17th. 


12 of 21

Khalan Laborn, Marshall

Khalan Laborn, Marshall

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Khalan Laborn led the Sun Belt Conference in rushing yards (1,423) and rushing touchdowns (16) this season. Labron began his career at Florida State, where injuries limited his availability for two seasons before he was dismissed from the team for violating team rules in 2020. To his credit, he remained at Florida State as a student and earned his degree. He would then enroll at Marshall this year and decided to use his remaining eligibility and led the Thundering Herd to an 8-4 season in their first year in the Sun Belt, with his signature moment being the 163 yards and a touchdown in an upset of Notre Dame in South Bend.

Marshall faces UConn in the Myrtle Beach Bowl on December 19th.  


13 of 21

Carlton Martial, Troy

Carlton Martial, Troy

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Martial is the Sun Belt’s Defensive Player of the Year, and for good reason. He is simply everywhere when you watch the Trojans play. He has speed and is physical enough to throw off blockers and punishes ball carriers when he gets to them. He’s piled up more tackles than anyone in FBS history. Troy enters the Cure Bowl (which should be one everyone should watch) on a 10-game winning streak.

Troy faces UTSA in the Duluth Trading Cure Bowl on December 16th.


14 of 21

Damien Martinez, Oregon State

Damien Martinez, Oregon State

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Martinez finished his freshman season with 2nd team All-Pac-12 honors after rushing for 970 yards and seven touchdowns. Those are impressive numbers considering he didn’t become the featured back until the second half of the season. Martinez rushed for over 100 yards in each of the Beavers’ final six games … with five of them being wins. His best game was against Colorado, where he rushed for 178 yards and found the endzone three times.

Oregon State faces Florida in the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl on December 17th. 


15 of 21

Quinyon Mitchell, Toledo

Quinyon Mitchell, Toledo

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Quinyon Mitchell may have had the greatest game a college defensive back could dream of. Against Northern Illinois on October 8th, Mitchell picked off four passes and returned two of them for touchdowns. Unreal. While he didn’t have a game anywhere near that (neither didn’t anyone else, for that matter), he still earned first-team All-MAC honors due to being one of the best ball defenders in the league.

Toledo faces Liberty in the Boca Raton Bowl on December 20th. 


16 of 21

DeWayne McBride, UAB

DeWayne McBride, UAB

Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

DeWayne McBride led the nation in rushing yards, 2nd in rushing touchdowns and his 7.4 yards per carry is among the best in the country. In his last game, he gained 272 yards on just 16 carries in a win over Louisiana Tech. In that game, he had a 30-yard, 45-yard and 60-yard run. He broke a multitude of Blazers rushing records this season and was a semifinalist for the Doak Walker award.

UAB faces Miami-OH in the HomeTown Lenders Bahamas Bowl on December 16th. 


17 of 21

Ivan Pace Jr., Cincinnati

Ivan Pace Jr., Cincinnati

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Ivan Pace Jr. has had a memorable 2022 season. For starters, he was named AAC Defensive Player of the Year for his stellar performance on another tough Bearcats defense. The linebacker who transferred from nearby Miami-OH after last season excels in all phases of his job — he stuffs the run, can get to the quarterback and is able to hold his own in coverage. He led the Bearcats in tackling by a lot and his eight sacks were more than twice as many as anyone else on the team. Also, he got to play alongside his brother Deshawn this season.

Cincinnati faces Louisville in the Wasabi Fenway Bowl on December 17th.


18 of 21

Richard Reese, Baylor

Richard Reese, Baylor

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Reese set the school’s freshman record with 962 rushing yards and his 14 touchdowns were the most by a Baylor Bear since Shock Linwood scored 16 in 2014. He earned Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors and is the latest of a recent string of solid Baylor backs. He was electric mid-season with 186 yards and 2 TDs against Kansas and 148 yards and 3 TDs against Texas Tech in back-to-back games. Since then, both Reese and the Bears have struggled, but they will be playing in nearby Ft. Worth and should feel a home-field advantage in the Armed Forces Bowl.

Baylor faces Air Force in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl on December 22nd.


19 of 21

Rashee Rice, SMU

Rashee Rice, SMU

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SMU has one of the best passing offenses in the nation, and that is due in no small part to what receiver Rashee Rice has done. Rice leads the FBS in receiving yards per game and had six games where he gained at least 122 yards. He’s scored a TD in four of the Mustangs last five games, including 147 yards and a TD against Memphis in their finale. See him in the New Mexico Bowl this week and then on Sundays next fall.

SMU faces BYU in the New Mexico Bowl on December 17th. 


20 of 21

Brad Roberts, Air Force

Brad Roberts, Air Force

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Roberts was named the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year after finishing third in the nation in rushing. His 1,612 yards rushing set the Air Force Academy’s record for a single season — and that’s no small feat for a program that’s known for pounding the football. He hit the 100+ yard mark 10 times this season and he scored 3+ TDs on three separate occasions. In the final three games of the season, he rushed for 163, 184 and 187 yards, respectively. Baylor will have their hands full with Roberts.

Air Force faces Baylor in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl on December 22nd.


21 of 21

La’Damian Webb, South Alabama

La'Damian Webb, South Alabama

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The New Orleans Bowl may be one of the best pre-Christmas bowls to watch this year. One reason is running back La’Damian Webb and South Alabama. Webb is a wrecking ball of power. He began his collegiate career at Jones College, then Florida State, Troy, back to Jones, then finally to South Alabama. He led the NJCAA in rushing last season and brought that energy to the Jaguars this year. His high note was a two-game stretch where he rushed 162 yards and three touchdowns against Arkansas State and then 247 yards and four TDs against Georgia Southern — both on the road.

South Alabama faces Western Kentucky in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl on December 21st.

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