The average football fan might view the first two weeks of bowl season as pick-and-choose hors d'oeuvres before the New Year's Day buffet of recognizable bowl games and traditional powers kicks off the Bowl Championship Series.
For NFL scouts, bowl season starts Saturday. There are three games scheduled on the first day of bowl season -- each possesses legitimate prospects worthy of attention. For the 35 bowl games on the 2010-11 schedule, NFLDraftScout.com will provide a viewers guide, or "watch list" of prospects who pro scouts and fans alike should get to know in the next three weeks. Bowl games provide scouts with better information than a regular-season game because evaluators can analyze not only the on-field performance, but how the players prepared with a extended practice and film sessions. An extraordinary performance -- good or bad -- in a bowl game can have a dramatic impact on a player's stock. Two years ago, Mark Sanchez began his rise up the draft charts because of a spectacular performance against Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
Last year, a strong showing by Iowa offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga against Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan helped the Hawkeyes finish their season with an Orange Bowl win and assure Bulaga a spot in the first round. All-star games such as the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game also play a dramatic role. However, with prospects asked to acclimate to new coaches, schemes and teammates in only days, NFL teams don't always view these cram sessions as an accurate gauge of how a player will prepare or perform. Here are prospects you should be watching closely this weekend:
Dec. 18 New Mexico Bowl (BYU vs. UTEP)
• BYU OT Matt Reynolds* (6-6, 322, 5.14): Reynolds, a junior, may lack the athleticism to remain at left tackle in the pros, but his size, strength and durability (has started every game of his career) could make him one of the more coveted right tackles in the 2011 draft.
• UTEP WR Kris Adams (6-3, 195, 4.48): Tall and fast, Adams is the Miners' game-breaker. His 11 touchdown receptions this season are more than the rest of the team (nine) combined.
Humanitarian Bowl (Northern Illinois vs. Fresno State)
• Northern Illinois RB Chad Spann (5-8, 198, 4.58): Don't let his lack of size fool you -- Spann is a legitimate pro prospect. The MAC 2010 Offensive Player of the Year, Spann passed by NFL backs Michael Turner and Garrett Wolfe with 20 rushing touchdowns to take over as the Huskies' single-season record-holder.
• Northern Illinois DE Jake Coffman (6-5, 255, 4.85): Having served two tours in Iraq with the Marines, Coffman is older (26) than scouts would prefer, but his production (40 tackles and team-leading 12 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) and dependability warrant attention.
• Fresno State DE/OLB Chris Carter (6-2, 240, 4.73): An undersized DE for the Bulldogs, Carter appears to have the flexibility and speed to make the transition to outside linebacker. He can attack the line of scrimmage, and his 55 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks earned him the WAC Defensive Player of the Year award.
• Fresno State OG Andrew Jackson (6-5, 295, 5.42): A high ankle sprain robbed "The President" of seven games this season, but he entered the year as one of the nation's highest-rated guards. Jackson isn't a great athlete, but scouts like his size and strength as a drive-blocker.
• Fresno State QB Ryan Colburn (6-3, 220, 4.95): The Bulldogs are quietly one of the country's best at producing pro quarterbacks and in Colburn they have another potential developmental prospect. Colburn has all of the physical tools and has cut down on his mistakes this season, throwing a career-high 21 touchdown passes and only nine interceptions.
New Orleans Bowl (Ohio vs. Troy)
• Ohio FS Steven Jackson (6-0, 202, 4.56): The Raiders made former Bobcat safety Mike Mitchell a surprise second-round pick. Considering the lack of talent this season at free safety, Jackson, a second-team All-MAC pick, could be the Bobcats' next pro.
• Troy WR Jerrel Jernigan (5-09, 190, 4.34): NFLDraftScout.com's No. 2-rated senior wide receiver, Jernigan is a playmaking dynamo who earned All-Sun Belt honors as a receiver, returner and all-purpose player in 2010.
Dec. 21 Beef O'Brady's Bowl (Southern Miss vs. Louisville)
• Southern Miss DT Anthony Gray (6-0, 317, 5.08): A virtual bowling ball of butcher knives, Gray has earned all-conference recognition after each of the past three seasons. He's shorter than scouts would like, but is tough to move and plays hard.
• Louisville CB Johnny Patrick (5-11, 190, 4.47): Patrick quietly ranks among the nation's top senior cornerbacks. His 16 passes defensed and five interceptions this season rank first and second, respectively, in the Big East.
• Louisville RB Bilal Powell (6-0, 215, 4.52): Barely a blip on the radar heading into this season, Powell jumped from 392 rushing yards as a junior to 1,330 in 2010. With 100 yards against Southern Miss, he'll break the Cardinals' single-season rushing record.
Dec. 22 Maaco Bowl (Utah vs. Boise State)
• Utah C Zane Taylor (6-2, 309, 5.19): A three-time All-Mountain West pick, Taylor's lack of bulk will scare off some teams, but this dependable and surprisingly athletic center could find a spot on a zone-blocking offense.
• Utah CB Brandon Burton* (6-0, 185, 4.49): Burton has developed into one of the West's better cornerbacks, but is perhaps generously listed at 6-0. He has struggled this season against bigger receivers, so his performance in this game could prove critical to his draft stock.
• Boise State WR Titus Young (5-11, 170, 4.48): A bit overshadowed by teammate Austin Pettis, Young's speed and return skills give him might make him more valued on draft day.
• Boise State WR Austin Pettis (6-3, 201, 4.59): A reliable route-runner and possessing perhaps the most-sure hands in FBS football, Pettis is a classic possession receiver. His final draft stock could hinge on his 40-yard dash.
• Boise State SS Jeron Johnson (5-10, 195, 4.53): A versatile defender and underrated component of Boise State's success, Johnson has earned All-WAC recognition after each of the past three seasons. In a weak safety class, his versatility and consistency stand out.
• Boise State OT Nate Potter* (6-6, 295, 5.07): Not as athletic as former Bronco Ryan Clady, Potter might struggle at left tackle in the NFL. He's done a fine job in the WAC, however, earning first-team all-conference honors each of the past two years.
• Boise State QB Kellen Moore* (6-0, 190, 4.87): While he doesn't have the size or arm strength scouts desire, Moore's anticipation, accuracy and poise earn high grades. The junior Heisman finalist faces an athletic Utah secondary.
Dec. 23 Poinsettia Bowl (Navy vs. San Diego State)
• Navy QB Ricky Dobbs (5-10, 222, 4.66): Dobbs ranked in the top 25 in rushing three straight years. He is elusive in the open field but lacks the quick burst off the line and straight-line speed to be an elite-level receiver at the next level.
• San Diego State WR Vincent Brown (6-0, 195, 4.52): Featured as a "Diamond in the Rough," Brown is quietly considered one of the better senior receivers in the country. His reliable hands and route-running stand out as much on tape as does his production (201 career receptions for 2,945 yards and 22 touchdowns) on the stat sheet.
• San Diego State QB Ryan Lindley* (6-4, 218, 4.86): Only a junior, but already on the short lists of the nation's top young quarterback prospects, Lindley has steadily progressed in Brody Hoke's offense and has thrown for 3,554 yards and 26 touchdowns this season.
Rob Rang is a Senior Draft Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.