The 2018 bowl season is packed with talented matchups, and the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl showdown between the Washington Huskies and Penn State Nittany Lions is no exception. Both squads spent a large portion of the season in the top 10 of the national rankings, competing for conference division titles while flirting with College Football Playoff contention along the way, but finished with identical 10-2 records that included a 7-2 mark in league play.
As we look ahead to the game itself, we can’t help but also take a closer look at five players who will hope to solidify their position in the 2018 NFL Draft.
1. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
Just about every draft analyst expects the Cleveland Browns to select a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick, but Barkley (above, right) could be the safer choice. Given his speed, strength and playmaking ability as a runner, receiver and returner, Barkley would make a strong case as the best overall prospect in this year’s class. ESPN’s Mel Kiper, Jr. even has Barkley No. 1 on his Big Board.
A junior who has yet to officially declare, Barkley ran for 1,134 yards and 16 touchdowns on 199 carries during the regular season. He also caught 47 passes for 594 yards and three TDs and averaged 28.4 yards per kick return, scoring twice on 15 returns. Showing his incredible versatility and explosiveness, Barkley scored on an 80-yard run, and 85-yard reception and both 98- and 97-yard kick returns. It wouldn’t be a shock for Barkley to have a Todd Gurley-like impact in the NFL.
2. Vita Vea, DT, Washington
Listed at 6-foot-5 and 344 pounds, Vea has the size to clog rushing lanes in the NFL for a long time — he also has the skills, as evidenced by his resume. Via was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2017 and also was honored with the Morris Trophy given annually to the top defensive lineman in the conference. A two-time All-Pac-12 and Academic All-Pac-12 selection, Vea was also a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award (given to the nation’s top defensive player), and has earned All-American consideration as well.
Interior defensive linemen don’t typically rack up gaudy statistics, but Vea tallied an impressive 36 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks as a junior. He also batted down four passes and blocked a kick. Though he has yet to officially declare for the 2018 NFL Draft, it’s likely. ESPN’s Todd McShay and Kiper, as well as Athlon Sports' initial mock draft, all see Vea as a late first-round pick.
3. Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State
There are a handful of tight ends in the 2018 draft class capable of making a splash in the NFL, and Gesicki (right) is one of them. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound senior has ideal NFL size, and he’s proven to be a productive receiver at the position. Gesicki has posted 51 receptions for 501 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior, including multiple touchdowns in four separate games.
A two-time, second-team All-Big Ten selection, Gesicki was just as productive as a junior, hauling in 679 yards and five TDs on 48 catches. Overall, he holds the Penn State record for receptions (123) and receiving yards (1,419) for a tight end.
4. Marcus Allen, S, Penn State
One of the most active and productive defensive backs in the Big Ten, Allen has tallied more than 300 career tackles in four seasons in Happy Valley. The 6-foot-2, 207-pound senior accounted for 64 total tackles during the regular season, which ranked second on the team, and notched 4.0 tackles for a loss, one sack, one interception (which he returned for 50 yards), two forced fumbles and three pass breakups.
5. Dante Pettis, WR, Washington
Speaking of production, Pettis has career totals of 162 receptions, 2,216 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns entering the Fiesta Bowl. This season, Pettis leads the Huskies with 62 receptions, 721 yards and seven TDs, including a 73-yarder. In 2016, when he started alongside first-round wideout John Ross, Pettis caught 11 touchdown passes and averaged 15.5 yards per reception.
Pettis also has left his mark as a return sepecialist. Earlier this season he became the NCAA's career leader with his ninth punt return for a touchdown. An ankle injury has slowed down the 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior, but he has practiced and will hopefully take the field a final time for the Huskies before moving on to the NFL.
Penn State has several more elite draft-eligible players on the roster with wide receivers DaeSean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall, guard Brandon Mahon, and defenders Curtis Cothran, Jason Cabinda, Christian Campbell and Grant Haley all likely to garner interest from NFL scouts, but several Washington players also have pro potential. Offensively, undersized but highly effective running back Myles Gaskin would likely be drafted if he chose to forego his senior season, as would quarterback Jake Browning. Injured tackle Trey Adams, a junior, and linebacker Azeem Victor, who is suspended, are both surefire pro prospects, but will not play in the Fiesta Bowl.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.