Breakout players or the emergence of new stars is an annual tradition for all 128 college football teams. However, with the focus shifting to the bowl season, it’s never too early to think about players that could use the postseason as a springboard to an even bigger 2017 campaign. Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, Kentucky running back Benny Snell, Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst and Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill are just a few names to watch this postseason, as all four finished the regular season playing at a high level and are poised to take another step forward in their bowl appearance.
Outside of the usual superstars and standouts already known throughout the college football world, which players should you keep an eye on this bowl season? Here are 20 names to remember:
20 Players on the Rise Entering CFB's 2016-17 Bowl Season
Alex Barnes, RB, Kansas State
Barnes missed Kansas State’s season finale due to injury, but the redshirt freshman emerged late in the year as the top running back for coach Bill Snyder. On eight carries against Oklahoma State, Barnes recorded 72 yards and followed up that performance with 129 yards against Baylor and 103 yards against Kansas. Barnes is averaging a healthy 7.9 yards per rush on 56 attempts. He’s also reached paydirt six times, with four of those scores coming against Baylor. The 6-foot-1 redshirt freshman will test a Texas A&M defense ranked eighth in the SEC against the run in the Texas Bowl.
Keller Chryst, QB, Stanford
With Christian McCaffrey expected to move on to the NFL after the Sun Bowl, the focus on Stanford’s offense shifts to running back Bryce Love and quarterback Keller Chryst for 2017. In an attempt to spark the offense, coach David Shaw replaced Ryan Burns with Chryst, who started the final five games of the season and ended the year with 837 passing yards and nine touchdowns. The sophomore did not throw an interception over the final four games and completed at least 56 percent of his passes during that span. With the extra bowl practices to prepare for North Carolina, will Chryst take a step forward in his development?
Bradley Chubb, DE, NC State
With names like DeMarcus Walker, Ejuan Price and Carlos Watkins stealing the spotlight in the trenches among ACC teams, Chubb has been largely overlooked on the national scene. The junior deserves some recognition for a standout 2016 campaign, as he recorded nine sacks, three forced fumbles and 20.5 tackles for a loss in 12 contests. Chubb will be a tough matchup for a Vanderbilt offensive line that allowed 27 sacks in 2016.
Rico Dowdle, RB, South Carolina
Coach Will Muschamp has a promising trio of freshmen to build around on offense over the next couple of years, as quarterback Jake Bentley, running back Rico Dowdle and receiver Bryan Edwards all made an impact as freshmen this fall. Dowdle led the Gamecocks with 714 rushing yards and six touchdowns and also chipped in 14 catches for 47 yards. Adding to Dowdle’s impressive season was the fact he did not play in South Carolina’s first four games. The freshman will be critical to the upset hopes of the Gamecocks against USF – a team giving up over 200 rushing yards per game.
Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State
Replacing Dak Prescott – the best player in school history – wasn’t going to be easy for coach Dan Mullen. While the Bulldogs had their share of ups and downs on offense, this unit came alive late in the season. Fitzgerald settled into the starting role and Mississippi State scored at least 35 points in five out of the final six games. The sophomore accounted for 367 total yards in the 55-20 win over rival Ole Miss and 391 in the Bulldogs’ 35-28 upset against Texas A&M. Fitzgerald is a rising star to watch this postseason and should begin 2017 as one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC.
Michael Gallup, WR, Colorado State
Colorado State’s offense ended the regular season on a tear. The Rams scored at least 37 points in each of their last five games, including 63 in a victory over Mountain West champion San Diego State. Gallup’s emergence has been a huge boost for a receiving corps that entered the year with question marks, as the former junior college recruit earned first-team All-Mountain West honors after grabbing 70 receptions for 1,164 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Chase Hansen, DB, Utah
Hansen started his Utah career at quarterback but shifted to safety last season. In his first full year as a starter in 2016, Hansen has been an impact defender for coordinator Morgan Scalley. The sophomore has recorded a team-high 86 tackles (7.5 for a loss), one sack, three interceptions, six pass breakups and three forced fumbles.
Quadree Henderson, WR, Pitt
Pat Narduzzi’s hire of Matt Canada as coordinator has paid big dividends for this offense. The Panthers rank second in the ACC by averaging 42.3 points a game and rank third by recording 6.67 yards per play. Canada didn’t inherit a wealth of proven options at receiver this offseason, but he’s effectively utilized the players in place, with Henderson emerging as a breakout player. The sophomore ranks second in the ACC by averaging 159.8 all-purpose yards per game and has scored 10 total touchdowns in 2016. Counting special teams, Henderson averages 16.1 yards per touch.
Justice Hill, RB, Oklahoma State
The Cowboys had a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 2012, as Hill rushed for 1,042 yards and five scores on 187 attempts. The Tulsa native also ranked third among Big 12 players in conference-only games with 953 yards. Oklahoma State takes on a tough Colorado defense in the Alamo Bowl, but the emergence of Hill has provided some much-needed balance for coach Mike Gundy’s offense.
Harold Landry, DL, Boston College
The ACC has its share of talented defensive linemen, but Landry is a player deserving of more national recognition. The junior has wreaked havoc all year around the line of scrimmage, leading the Eagles in sacks (15), tackles for a loss (20.5) and forced fumbles (seven). Keeping Landry in check will be a tough assignment for a Maryland offensive line that’s allowed 41 sacks in 2016.
Gus Ragland, QB, Miami (Ohio)
After an 0-6 start, Miami (Ohio) rebounded to win its final six games and entered the final week of MAC play with a chance to win the East Division. A big reason for the six-game winning streak was the return of Ragland from an offseason ACL tear in April. The sophomore was almost flawless in his return, throwing for 1,274 yards and 15 touchdowns to zero interceptions. Ragland also chipped in two more scores and rushed for 151 yards on the ground. With Ragland at the controls, the RedHawks averaged 29.8 points per game – up from 17 through the first six contests.
Kyle Shurmur, QB, Vanderbilt
Shurmur’s development is a big reason why Vanderbilt reached a bowl for the first time under coach Derek Mason. The sophomore was a different quarterback in November, throwing for at least 200 yards in each of the Commodores’ last four games, including a career-high 416 in the 45-34 upset over Tennessee. Of Shurmur’s nine touchdown passes in 2016, six have come over the last five games.
Benny Snell, RB, Kentucky
For the first time in school history, Kentucky had two players reach 1,000 rushing yards in a season. Boom Williams accumulated 1,135 yards to lead the team, but freshman Benny Snell came on strong at the end of the year to record 1,057 yards and 13 scores. The freshman did not record a carry through the first two games, yet reached the 1,000-yard plateau thanks to 100 or more yards in four out of Kentucky’s final six contests. Snell and Williams should be able to add to that total in the TaxSlayer Bowl, as Georgia Tech’s defense ranks 10th in the ACC against the run.
Auden Tate, WR, Florida State
Florida State’s passing game has a tough matchup in the Orange Bowl against Michigan’s standout secondary. However, the month to prepare should help redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois, especially in his rapport with young receivers Auden Tate and Nyqwan Murray. At 6-foot-5, Tate is a big target for Francois in the red zone, and the sophomore ranked second on the team with six touchdown grabs in 2016. Tate also caught 25 passes for 409 yards, leading all Florida State wide receivers by averaging 16.4 yards per catch.
Josiah Tauaefa, LB, UTSA
New coach Frank Wilson guided the Roadrunners to the first bowl trip in program history with a 6-6 regular season mark. One of the breakout performers for Wilson was redshirt freshman linebacker Josiah Tauaefa. In 12 games, Tauaefa led the defense with 104 tackles (7.5 for a loss), five sacks, one interception, one pass breakup and seven quarterback hurries. The redshirt freshman was all over the field for UTSA’s defense, and he’s going to be a key cog for this unit to slow down a New Mexico offense averaging 360.9 rushing yards per game.
Logan Wilson, LB, Wyoming
Wilson was an impact addition to Wyoming’s defense this season. The Casper native earned Mountain West Freshman of the Year honors after recording 88 tackles (7.5 for a loss), three sacks, three pass breakups and one forced fumble. The Cowboys have a tough matchup ahead in the Poinsettia Bowl against BYU’s standout running back Jamaal Williams, and this unit needs Wilson to be active around the line of scrimmage once again.
Jonah Williams, OL, Alabama
Cam Robinson attracts most of the accolades for Alabama’s offensive line, but Williams – a true freshman from California – is an emerging star and arguably one of the SEC’s top offensive linemen after just one year in Tuscaloosa. Williams started all 13 games for the Crimson Tide and helped this offense average 40.5 points a game. With Alabama taking on a talented Washington defense and either Clemson or Ohio State in a potential national championship matchup, Williams will be matched against some of the nation's top talent in the trenches.
Antoine Winfield Jr., DB, Minnesota
It’s no secret Minnesota’s secondary is going to be under attack in the Holiday Bowl against Washington State. The Cougars have attempted 613 passes this season, ranking third nationally behind Texas Tech and California. Quarterback Luke Falk and receiver Gabe Marks form one of the nation’s top pass-catch combinations, leading the offense to an average of 40.3 points a game. Winfield – the son of former Ohio State star Antoine Winfield – played in all 12 games for the Golden Gophers in 2016, recording 52 tackles (2.5 for a loss), three pass breakups and one interception. Containing Washington State’s pass-first attack isn’t going to be easy. However, Winfield figures to play a key role for coach Tracy Claeys, and the freshman is a name to remember for 2017.
Arion Worthman, QB, Air Force
Worthman replaced an injured Nate Romine in Air Force’s 31-21 victory over Fresno State on Oct. 28 and hasn’t looked back. The Illinois native has rushed for at least 63 yards in each of the last five games and has reached the end zone six times on just 109 carries. Worthman is averaging 5.5 yards per rush and has led the Falcons to 31 points or more in three out of the last four contests. The sophomore is still developing as a passer (16 of 29), but the future of Air Force’s offense is in good hands with Worthman at the controls. Against South Alabama’s run defense (allowing 212.1 ypg), Worthman could have a breakout performance in the Arizona Bowl.