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7 players to watch in an intriguing Liberty Bowl

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Rather than skipping the bowl, both of these teams have a lot of players looking to use this postseason matchup to raise their draft stock.

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of the discussions surrounding Texas Tech’s matchup against Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl have centered on off-the-field issues and coaching grudges rather than the players suiting up.

It’s a shame, really, when you consider the talent that will be on display Dec. 28, 2021, and at least in this article, we’re going to give them their due attention. We’ve listed seven players to watch, all making the list for a variety of reasons - from the impact of their performance on draft stock to the potential to earn more playing time for underclassmen returning next year. We’ll include players from both teams, of course. Texas Tech is a 10-point underdog vs. Mississippi State.

Here goes:

Texas Tech Red Raiders

Erik Ezukanma

At one point in his career, Ezukanma was projected to be a rock-solid second round NFL draft pick. Inconsistency at quarterback throughout his career in Lubbock plus a relatively recent injury (broken arm) have combined to lower his stock considerably, with most sites projecting the Fort Worth product to go undrafted at worst and fifth round at best in April.

But on the biggest stages we see the biggest improvements to draft stock, and Ezukanma has a chance to prove he still has legitimate NFL potential against an SEC defense that’s top-15 nationally in yards-per play. Lining up across from Ezukanma will be Bulldogs cornerback Martin Emerson, a 6’2, 200-pound playmaker projected to be a late-first/early-second-round draft pick. If Ezukanma goes off, he’ll not only put the Red Raiders in a position to win its first bowl game since the 2013 Holiday Bowl, but surely sway the minds of scouts in his favor.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Donovan Smith

There’s a good chance we’ll see more than one quarterback play for Tech, but I’m most curious about how Smith handles the pressure of a bowl game against a tenacious defense. The freshman has put together a statistically strong season in limited action but also has shown need for improvement in multiple areas. At times, he’s looked like the future of the program (who needs Quinn Ewers anyway?), but he’s also made some freshman mistakes that make Tech fans question the future of the quarterback room. With a strong performance against Mississippi State, Smith can go into the offseason with confidence and hopefully evolve into a leader on this team.

Colin Schooler

All-Big 12 Second Team linebacker Colin Schooler is one of the best pure tacklers in all of college football and he’ll have a challenge ahead of him against a Mississippi State offense that will force the senior to play in coverage more than stop the run. This will test Schooler’s versatility and it’ll be interesting to see if Sonny Cumbie tries to use him more in a pass-rushing role. Schooler has only registered one sack on the season, but Tech fans know well his ability to get in the backfield and make big hits.

Dadrion Taylor-Demerson

The Rabbit has a chance to eat against this Air Raid offense. Tech’s leader in interceptions will try and snag one or two more to add to his season total while helping the Red Raiders pull off an upset against the 8.5-point favorite Bulldogs. It’s been a joy to watch Taylor-Demerson emerge from an overlooked prospect (just one Power 5 offer) to Big 12 Honorable Mention during his junior campaign, and he will be instrumental in slowing down Will Rodgers and the MSU offense.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Will Rogers

It’s obviously not uncommon for Mike Leach quarterbacks to fill the stat sheet, but Rogers has done an unbelievable job executing this offense as a sophomore. Going into the bowl game, Rogers has completed 473-630 (75.1 percent) passes for 4,449 yards, 35 touchdowns and eight interceptions. True to form, the Tech defense is among the worst in the country in opponent completion percentage (119th), opponent yards per pass (103rd), opponent passing yards per game (103rd), and sack percentage (121st). Rogers is likely salivating over these numbers and it’s hard to blame him for doing so.

Makai Polk

The Cal transfer led the SEC in receiving this year and looks primed for a big performance against Tech. Polk is shaping up to be one of the top receivers for the 2023 draft, so MSU fans will get to enjoy his presence for at least one more season. At 6’3, 200 pounds, Polk is a big target for Rogers and has shown incredible athleticism and hands throughout his sophomore season. The Tech defensive backs will certainly key in on him, though that hasn’t stopped Polk from lighting up opponents before.

Syndication: The Tennessean Andrew Nelles / Tennessean.com / USA TODAY NETWORK

Fred Peters

The veteran leader of the secondary, redshirt senior Fred Peters has done everything the Bulldogs have asked of him in a season where he racked up 67 tackles and two interceptions. He’s extremely quick, hard-hitting and has tons of experience that’ll help him thrive in a game like this one. He’ll be all over the field in Memphis and must be accounted for when taking shots downfield.