David Fox Rivals.com College Football Staff Writer
Bowl seasons often end up as an opportunity for seniors (or NFL-bound juniors and sophomores) to end their careers with an exclamation point.
At the same time, a handful of underclassmen often use bowl games as springboards into the next season. This bowl season had its fair share of underclassmen who took full advantage of extra practices and one more game.
All of the players on this list have something in common - they were more or less in the background on their teams until the bowl. That changes next season, when their teams will need them to build on the momentum from the 2010 postseason.
Here's a look at players who broke out in the bowls and could become big-timers next season:
QB Tahj Boyd, Clemson The buzz: Things couldn't have gone worse for Clemson in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. The Tigers lost 31-26 but trailed by 18 early in the fourth quarter. Boyd entered the game for injured starter Kyle Parker. Boyd threw an interception early but closed the game with a flurry, with two touchdown passes in the final two minutes. The fifth-ranked quarterback in the class of 2009, Boyd should open next season as the starting quarterback. His first season as the starter could be key to the future of coach Dabo Swinney.
RB Marcus Coker, Iowa The buzz: Coker was one of the unlikeliest heroes in an early bowl upset. Missouri won 10 games this season while Iowa was a mild disappointment at 7-5. Moreover, the Hawkeyes were without starting RB Adam Robinson and all-conference WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos because of off-field issues. Coker had rushed for 129 yards earlier in the season against Indiana, but, hey, it was against Indiana. Against Missouri, Coker, a freshman, helped Iowa jump out to an early lead with two first-half touchdown runs. He finished with 217 yards on 33 carries. Robinson eventually was dismissed from the team, but wants to return. Regardless, Coker's bowl performance means Iowa has a back it can count on.
QB Jake Heaps, BYU The buzz: BYU overcame a 2-5 start to win five of its last six games, including the New Mexico Bowl against UTEP. True, quite a bit of that turnaround was because of an easy schedule after mid-October. At the same time, BYU has to feel good about the development of Heaps, who was the nation's top pro-style quarterback in the class of 2010. He was 25-of-34 for 264 yards and four touchdowns in a 52-24 rout of UTEP in the bowl. Heaps completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 1,261 yards and 13 touchdowns (against two interceptions) in the final five games.
LB DeDe Lattimore, USF The buzz: Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers will be one of the first players taken in the NFL draft, but Lattimore had the more impressive showing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Lattimore, a freshman, was a starter all season, but he had one of his best games with nine tackles and 2.5 tackles for a loss against the Tigers. With Jacquain Williams and Terrell McClain gone, Lattimore will be counted on to lead the Bulls' defense as a sophomore.
QB EJ Manuel, Florida State The buzz: Manuel won't go into his first full season as a starter cold. All he has to do is prepare for every game as if it's a bowl. Manuel was Christian Ponder's backup the past two seasons, but he already has two bowl victories on his resume, including last season's Gator Bowl win over West Virginia. Against South Carolina in this season's Chick-fil-A Bowl, Manuel came on in the second quarter after Ponder was injured and completed 11-of-15 passes. He passed for just 84 yards but he completed all seven of his passes on a touchdown drive that sealed the 26-17 win.
QB Ryan Nassib and WR Marcus Sales, Syracuse The buzz: Syracuse improved from 4-8 to 8-5 in coach Doug Marrone's second season. Could the next step be a Big East championship? Much will depend on the passing game. Few Big East teams distinguished themselves with quarterback play, but next season could be different, at least for Syracuse. Nassib and Sales had their best games of the season against Kansas State in the Pinstripe Bowl. Nassib was 13-of-21 for 239 yards and three touchdown passes, all to Sales; he finished with 172 yards receiving. With RB Delone Carter gone, the Nassib-Sales tandem could be a key to Syracuse's continued improvement.
LB Shayne Skov, Stanford The buzz: Stanford fans probably aren't shocked to see Skov on this list. He was impressive all season. But he moved from impressive to dominant in the Orange Bowl. Outside of Andrew Luck, Skov was the best player on the field. He finished with 12 tackles, four tackles for loss and three sacks of Hokies QB Tyrod Taylor. The Stanford defense will have a handful of key players back, and none will be more important than Skov.
FS Harrison Smith, Notre Dame The buzz: He was listed as a senior, but he is expected back in 2011 as a fifth-year senior (Notre Dame does not count redshirts until their fifth season). His three interceptions against Miami in the Sun Bowl gave him seven for the season. Can Smith carry over that success next season?
LB Courtney Upshaw, Alabama The buzz: Like Skov, Upshaw is a familiar face for his team's fans. But like Skov, he's on this list because he will need to be a team leader in 2011. With five tackles, three tackles for a loss, two sacks and a forced fumble in the Capital One Bowl rout of Michigan State, Upshaw showed he could be a key playmaker for what could be an imposing Alabama defense in 2011.
RB Spencer Ware, LSU The buzz: A top-20 recruit in the 2010 Rivals100, Ware had only 24 carries as a freshman. Ten of those came in the Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M, and he made the most of his opportunities with 102 yards against the Aggies. With Stevan Ridley leaving early for the NFL draft, Ware could emerge as the feature back as a sophomore on a team that expects to contend for a national title.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.