The 2021 college football regular season has come to an end, which means one thing: it’s time to go bowling!
Bowl season is arguably the most exciting time of the year for college football fans, as it pits the best of the best up against each other on a big stage. The first weekend of bowl action is reserved primarily for some of the top Group of 5 schools in the nation — i.e. those schools in the FBS but not in the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, ACC or Pac-12.
The Bears figure to have their fair share of needs heading into the 2022 offseason, and luckily for them, these bowl weekends will give them a great chance to check out some of the top talent slated to hit the 2022 NFL Draft.
Not all of the prospects listed below will be playing in these matchups, whether it be due to injury or having opted out of the bowl itself. However, I have decided to keep it inclusive and list the top prospects for each team playing this weekend, whether the player suits up or not.
Here are some of the top 2022 NFL Draft prospects in each Week 1 bowl game.
Middle Tennessee State vs. Toledo
Friday, Dec. 17 - 11:00 AM
- Toledo S Tycen Anderson
- Middle Tennessee State S Reed Blankenship
I’m writing this after the conclusion of the Bahamas Bowl — which resulted with a Middle Tennessee State victory — so sadly, you won’t be able to keep these prospects in mind.
Still, these two safeties are worth remembering, especially for the Bears. Tycen Anderson is a 6-foot-2 safety who brings very good versatility and a physical edge to the table, while Reed Blankenship is an intelligent safety with intriguing ball skills. Both could be draftable options later on Day 3.
Northern Illinois vs. Coastal Carolina
Friday, Dec. 17 - 5:00 PM
- NIU RB/FB Clint Ratkovich
- Coastal Carolina TE Isaiah Likely
- Coastal Carolina WR Jaivon Heiligh
- Coastal Carolina DL Jerrod Clark
- Coastal Carolina EDGE Jeffrey Gunter
- Coastal Carolina QB Grayson McCall
Though Coastal Carolina seems to have more NFL talent on its roster, don’t sleep on Northern Illinois this year; the MAC champions have been incredibly resilient all year.
The star on the Huskies’ roster in terms of 2022 draft prospects is “superback” Clint Ratkovich. A standout at Western Illinois prior to his transfer to DeKalb, Ratkovich is a versatile weapon with the fluidity of a running back, the blocking tenacity of a fullback and the pass-catching chops of a tight end. He would be a valuable asset to any team that employs a fullback in its scheme.
Coastal Carolina is led by dual-threat quarterback Grayson McCall, but it’s unlikely he declares for this year’s draft. He has two pro-ready weapons in Isaiah Likely and Jaivon Heiligh, the former of whom being an athletic move tight end and the latter an enticing size-speed threat at wide receiver. Jerrod Clark is a thick and powerful gap eater at nose tackle, and Jeffrey Gunter is a powerful edge rusher with one of the hottest motors in the 2022 draft class.
Boca Raton Bowl
Western Kentucky vs. Appalachian State
Saturday, Dec. 18 - 10:00 AM
- Appalachian State LB D’Marco Jackson
- Appalachian State CB Shaun Jolly
- Appalachian State DL Demetrius Taylor
- Western Kentucky QB Bailey Zappe
- Western Kentucky EDGE DeAngelo Malone
Two of the better Group of 5 programs in the nation will have the chance to square off in what should be a tight matchup on Saturday.
Appalachian State’s draft prospects exist heavily on the defensive side of the ball. D’Marco Jackson recently accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl, and he will look to bring his physical style of tone-setting run defense to Mobile. Shaun Jolly is a ball-hawking defensive back with 18 pass deflections in the last 3 seasons, and Demetrius Taylor is a smaller, yet powerful gap eater with underrated agility in space.
Western Kentucky was aided heavily by Houston Baptist transfer Bailey Zappe taking control of the quarterback position. The accurate and intelligent passer threw for 5,545 yards with a 69.2 completion percentage, 56 passing touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. On defense, look out for DeAngelo Malone, a slippery pass-rusher with 31.5 sacks and 58 tackles for a loss in his collegiate career.
New Mexico Bowl
UTEP vs. Fresno State
Saturday, Dec. 18 - 1:15 PM
- UTEP WR Jacob Cowing
- Fresno State QB Jake Haener (2023)
Though UTEP and Fresno State have been two of the best Group of 5 schools this season, neither seems to be all that loaded in terms of 2022 draft prospects. If Jacob Cowing declares after tallying 67 receptions, 1,330 yards and 7 touchdowns this year, he could be a name to watch late on Day 3. Jake Haener is staying in school for another year, but the quarterback’s accuracy and mechanics will make him a name to watch in this matchup.
UAB vs. No. 13 BYU
Saturday, Dec. 18 - 2:30 PM
- BYU RB Tyler Allgeier
- BYU OL James Empey
- UAB TE Gerrit Prince
UAB has had an impressive season, but they face a tough tasked in the No. 13-ranked Cougars.
BYU might not have the loaded offense it had last year, but they still feature some talented players on that side of the ball this year. Tyler Allgeier is a thickly-built back with good straight-line quickness and a penchant for running over defenders. James Empey is an older prospect who will be roughly 26 years old his rookie year, but he’s an intelligent and technically-sound center with a strong upper body. On UAB’s side, keep an eye on tight end Gerrit Prince, who has 8 touchdowns in 12 games this season.
Eastern Michigan vs. Liberty
Saturday, Dec. 18 - 4:45 PM
- Liberty QB Malik Willis
- Liberty EDGE Durrell Johnson
By all accounts, it sounds like Malik Willis will be playing on Saturday before declaring for the draft. Though a bit raw, his arm talent and elite athleticism will likely see him selected in Round 1 this year. Don’t sleep on Durrell Johnson, who’s smaller for an edge rusher but quick off the snap and fluid in space. Eastern Michigan doesn’t seem to have a standout draft prospect for this year, but they’ve been able to hold their own with some tough MAC competition this season.
Utah State vs. Oregon State
Saturday, Dec. 18 - 6:30 PM
- Oregon State LB Avery Roberts
- Utah State WR Deven Thompkins
This is another bowl game with an admittedly thin herd of 2022 draft options, but a rising Oregon State program and a Mountain West-winning Utah State team should still make for a fun game. Avery Roberts is a Nebraska transfer who exploded this year with 123 tackles for the Beavers, while Deven Thompkins is a dynamic speed receiver who, despite being undersized, had 96 catches, 1,589 yards and 9 touchdowns.
New Orleans Bowl
No. 23 Louisiana vs. Marshall
Saturday, Dec. 18 - 8:15 PM
- Louisiana OL Max Mitchell
- Louisiana OL O’Cyrus Torrence
- Louisiana QB Levi Lewis
- Marshall CB Steven Gilmore
The 12-1 Ragin’ Cajuns could prove to be a tough task for Marshall this weekend, but it should still be a well-contested matchup.
The offensive line is the focal point for Louisiana, as it has been for the past few years. Max Mitchell’s versatility and flat-out nastiness at the point of attack should see him get looks as early as the fourth round, while O’Cyrus Torrence brings impressive length, bulk and raw power along the interior. They help protect quarterback Levi Lewis, who may be undersized but has great dual-threat ability and a solid arm. On Marshall’s side of things, remember the name Steven Gilmore: the younger brother of Patriots All-Pro Stephon Gilmore is 6-foot-2 and has 23 collegiate pass deflections to his name.