With all due respect to the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl (Troy beat Ohio) and the Advo Care V100 Independence Bowl (Air Force beat Georgia Tech), tonight begins the real bowl season -- at least when it comes to scouting future NFL prospects.
My fellow senior analyst Chad Reuter did a fine job of pointing out which prospects you should be watching in tonight's games . I wanted to make special mention of the underclassmen who might be playing in their final collegiate games tonight, however.
In the "early" game pitting North Carolina State against West Virginia in the Champs Sports Bowl, the "battle" between Wolfpack quarterback Russell Wilson and Mountaineer free safety Robert Sands should be intriguing. Russell, 5-11 and 202 pounds, lacks the size scouts are looking for, but is a savvy and surprisingly accurate passer. Sands has spectacular size (6-4, 221), is a hard-hitter whose athleticism pops off the tape. He's allowed to freelance a great deal in WVU's 3-3-5 scheme, which could result in big plays one way or the other in this game. I listed this "one on one" matchup as one of the five I'm most looking forward to scouting in the entire bowl season.
Though statistics say that he won't be a huge component of the Wolfpack's offense, junior tight end George Bryan is another underclassman to key in on in this contest. The 6-5, 265 pounder has "only" caught 32 passes for 344 yards and three scores on the year, but NFL scouts are already paying very close attention to him due to the fact that he's considering leaving early for the NFL. It isn't just because his size and ability to compete as a receiver and blocker intrigue scouts, Bryan recognizes that in this year's weak senior class of tight ends, his stock may never be higher than it is right now.
The more intriguing young talent won't be on the field until the second game tonight, however. Considering the talent Iowa boasts among its seniors -- including first round cinch Adrian Clayborn (as well as Senior Bowl invites Ricky Stanzi and Christian Ballard) it might surprise you that scouts are actually more interested in the talent that will be playing this game with the Missouri "M" on their helmets during tonight's Insight Bowl.
The focus will, of course, be on quarterback Blaine Gabbert . Possessing an ideal combination of size (6-5, 235) and arm strength, Gabbert certainly looks the part of a first round pick and has the quick release and downfield accuracy scouts are looking for, as well. Among Gabbert's weapons is junior tight end Michael Egnew , himself a potential early entry candidate, who at 6-6, 235 pounds certainly has the size potential scouts are looking for and, unlike Bryan from the Wolfpack, does have the production. In fact, Egnew led all FBS tight ends with 83 receptions for 698 yards and four scores this year.
Considering that Gabbert takes virtually all of his snaps out of the shotgun, he'll be better protected than most in dealing with Iowa's fearsome defensive line, but should they create pressure on him, it will be interesting to see how well Gabbert is able to move in and out of the pocket. At times, when his feet haven't been set, Gabbert's trademark accuracy has suffered. A strong game against Iowa, however, could springboard Gabbert into the draft.
I'm ever more curious to see how Missouri's pass rushing star Aldon Smith , only a redshirt sophomore, is able to get after Iowa's quarterback. Smith, who earned First Team All-Big 12 honors despite missing the first three games with a broken leg, is a dynamic playmaker (44 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks) who rates as one of the more intriguing rushers potentially available in 2011.
Under the tutelage of Kirk Ferentz, Iowa is as well coached along the offensive line as any team in the country. Like his teammate Gabbert, if Smith puts together an eye-popping performance, it may force him to strongly consider leaving school early.
If you'd like to scout "alongside me" during these and the other bowl games throughout the rest of the college football season, you can follow me on Twitter @RobRang.
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