The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part III

Updated: December 21st 2017

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the storylines, players and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my weekly picks, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  During the college bowl season, The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year.  Note: times listed are Eastern.

Wednesday, Dec. 27

Independence Bowl, Florida State (6-6) vs. Southern Miss (8-4), 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Florida State: 78th scoring offense, 92nd passing offense, 84th rushing offense; 34th scoring defense, 35th passing defense, 33rd rushing defense
  • Southern Miss: 48th scoring offense, 47th passing offense, 40th rushing offense; 40th scoring defense, 24th passing defense, 28th rushing defense

“Buzz, your girlfriend, woof.”  That’s how I’m feeling about this one.  Florida State just barely managed bowl eligibility after a late season makeup game against UL-Monroe.  They lost pro prospect QB Deondre Francois in the season opener and struggled with freshman James Blackman under center since.  They also lost head coach Jimbo Fisher who, mistakenly in my opinion, abandoned Tallahassee for College Station.  FSU will be playing the Independence Bowl without another potential pro: safety Derwin James.  James has decided to skip the bowl in order to preserve his NFL Draft stock; expect James to be in consideration for a Top 10 pick in April although he was surpassed by Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick as the top defensive back prospect.  If you’re looking for a reason to tune in to watch the Seminoles, check out freshman RB Cam Akers, WR Auden Tate and CB Tavarus McFadden.  McFadden will likely come out but his stock has definitely been dented by the team’s subpar season.  McFadden himself disappointed too going from 8 INTs in 2016 to zero in 2017.  He’s not great in run support (just 27 tackles this season) so he needs to remind scouts that he has ball skills.  Akers has been streaky this season but I would attribute that more to poor quarterback play than anything else.  He finished the season with a strong game against UL-Monroe (117 yards, 2 TDs) to give him a solid 931-7 line for the year; interestingly, he has not had a reception in the last three games.  Tate has just 60 receptions, 873 yards and 13 TDs in his career (35-464-7 this season) but is still an NFL Draft prospect because of his size (6’5″ and 225lbs) and ability to make contested catches.

Southern Mississippi is led by JUCO transfer QB Kwadra Griggs.  He has 15 TDs to just 2 INTs plus 2 rushing TDs.  Griggs started the year sharing the starting role and suffered a hand injury but since a dismal game against Tennessee he has played well (722 yards, 7 TDs, 0 INT).  I’m a big fan of South Miss RB Ito Smith.  He’s undersized at 5’9″ 195lbs but he’s durable (50 career games).  He’s a true three down back because he is a good receiver (36 for 370 and 2 scores this season) and a good pass blocker (94.6% pass blocking efficiency per Pro Football Focus).  Back in Week 8, I predicted that Smith might be the 2018 version of Kareem Hunt and Tarik Cohen for fantasy owners: an underappreciated prospect whose pass catching skill ensures he gets on the field early in his career.

Despite my love of Smith, FSU just has the better athletes.  Prediction: Florida State

New Era Pinstripe Bowl, Iowa (7-5) vs. Boston College (7-5), 5:15 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Iowa: 68th scoring offense, 89th passing offense, 94th rushing offense; 20th scoring defense, 50th passing defense, 38th rushing defense
  • Boston College: 82nd scoring offense, 115th passing offense, 24th rushing offense; 36th scoring defense, 31st passing defense, 102nd rushing defense

No team influenced the College Football Playoff picture more than Iowa did with their blowout of #5 Ohio State.  If it weren’t for that loss, the Buckeyes could be playing for a national championship.  The Hawkeyes are led by three guys who will be playing on Sundays next year: CB Joshua Jackson, LB Josey Jewell and RB Akrum Wadley.  Jackson offers solid run support (47 tackles), has good instincts when the ball is in the air (7 INTs, 18 passes defended) and is incredibly clutch.  In the two biggest games Iowa played this season, against Ohio State and Wisconsin, Jackson combined for 6 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 pass defended, 5 INTs and 2 return touchdowns.  One of those interceptions against Ohio State was an OBJ-esque one-hander; another was a hard fought battle with the receiver where he had the strength to rip the ball from the receiver’s hands.  Those two games established him as a Top 10 CB heading into the 2018 draft.  Josey Jewell enjoyed an equally impressive season that buoyed his draft stock.  Jewell has 120+ tackles in three straight seasons and is the conference’s #2 career tackler since 2005 (when www.sports-reference.com/cfb started tracking the record).  Jewell also set career highs for tackles for loss, sacks and passes defended on his way to being named the 2017 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.  Jewell trusts his instincts and play recognition which allows him to be the first to the hole or the ball carrier on most plays.  RB Akrum Wadley leads the offense.  He went over 1,000 yards again this season (1,021) but his yards per carry did decrease from 6.4 to 4.4.  He’s also a factor in the passing game with 62 receptions, 644 yards and 6 TDs over the last two years.  In my 2018 fantasy draft positional rankings I had Wadley at RB9 and would expect him to stay in the RB8-12 range when I update in the offseason.

Boston College’s best weapon is freshman RB AJ Dillon, other than that the cupboard is pretty bare on offense.  Starting QB Anthony Brown is out for the rest of the season (and wasn’t particularly effective anyway).  Career backup QB Darius Wade had his best game of his career in the season finale against Syracuse: 16-20, 248 yards and 1 TD.  Because of Brown’s ineffectiveness, the Eagles don’t have a WR of note (the leading receiver was Kobay White with 32-396-4).  Dillon has gained 1,432 yards (#2 in the ACC) on 268 attempts (#1 in the ACC).  Oddly, he doesn’t have a single reception; he had the most carries of any FBS back without a single catch.  Dillon has a rare combination of size (6’0″ and 240lbs) and speed (4.55 range coming out of high school) that compares to Leonard Fournette’s combine measureables.  Dillon has a way to go before we’re considering him for the NFL Draft but I’m optimistic.  Unfortunately, DE Harold Landry likely will not play in this one.  Landry will be a first round pick in the Spring but his stock has decreased due injury and decreased production.

Despite them having the same record, I don’t have a doubt about this one: Iowa is the better team.  Prediction: Iowa

Foster Farms Bowl, Purdue (6-6) vs. Arizona (7-5), 8 p.m. (FOX)

  • Purdue: 97th scoring offense, 55th passing offense, 83rd rushing offense; 18th scoring defense, 85th passing defense, 30th rushing defense
  • Arizona: 6th scoring offense, 110th passing offense, 3rd rushing offense; 110th scoring defense, 122nd passing defense, 89th rushing defense

In late October, it would have been tough to predict these two teams matching up in the Foster Farms Bowl.  Arizona was 4-1 in the conference (6-2 overall) and looking like a serious contender for the division.  Purdue meanwhile was 3-5 and coming off their third straight loss.  The fortunes for both teams changed though from that point forward.  Arizona lost three of their last four while Purdue won three of four.  So, here we are.

Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm was one of the many coaches in the running for Tennessee’s opening.  Brohm stayed put and used the courting as a bargaining chip to get a better contract.  Brohm has used a two-quarterback rotation throughout the season featuring David Blough (1,103 yards, 65% completion percentage, 9 TDs, 4 INTs) and Elijah Sindelar (1,730 yards, 55.6% completion percentage, 14 TDs, 6 INTs).  Blough suffered a serious knee injury against Illinois on November 4 and will not factor in here.  In the three games without Blough, Sindelar has thrown the ball a ton: 126 attempts.  In those three games he has 7 TDs and just 1 INT.  Sindelar’s best game came against #25 Iowa when he went 22-37 for 229 yards and 3 TDs.  Hindsight is always 20/20 but maybe if Brohm stuck with Sindelar all season they could have been better than 6-6.  The Boilermakers have a quartet of backs with 250+ yards each, the leader of which is junior Markell Jones (480 yards, 1 TD, 11 receptions).  On defense, Purdue is led by LB Markus Bailey.  Bailey is a redshirt sophomore and likely doesn’t have enough hype to come out in 2018 but if he continues to improve we’ll see him drafted in 2019 or 2020.  This season Bailey has an impressive stat line of: 78 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 1 INT, 2 passes defended, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery.

Arizona has two players that I wanted to highlight: QB Khalil Tate and CB Lorenzo Burns.  Burns is a redshirt freshman so he’s not draft eligible but his stats caught my eye.  He has 75 total tackles which is a lot for a corner.  He also has 5 INTs which led the PAC-12.  Tate took over the starting role in October and led the team to four straight victories.  He’s not the best passer but he’s efficient enough to keep the offense on the field until he can make a big play with his legs.  Tate threw for more than 200 yards just once this season and averages about 150 yards per game.  Amazingly, he actually has more yards rushing (1,353) than passing (1,289) on the year.  He has 9 passing TDs and 12 rushing TDs.  Tate’s biggest game of the year came against Colorado when he racked up 327 yards rushing and 4 TDs.  Something that is worth noting: Tate only has 60 total rushing yards over the last two regular season games.  I did not watch him in either contest so I cannot say whether it was due to scheme or maybe he has a minor injury.

This game is a toss-up for me so I’ll take the team featuring the best player on the field and that will be Khalil Tate.  Prediction: Arizona

Texas Bowl, Texas (6-6) vs. Missouri (7-5), 9 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Texas: 61st scoring offense, 36th passing offense, 95th rushing offense; 31st scoring defense, 108th passing defense, 6th rushing defense
  • Missouri: 10th scoring offense, 14th passing offense, 35th rushing offense; 96th scoring defense, 110th passing defense, 61st rushing defense

The Texas Bowl features two former conference foes in Texas and Missouri.  The teams last faced off in Big 12 play in 2011 before Mizzou left for the SEC; Texas leads the all-time series at 15-4 (not that it matters, these players were all in middle school, but it’s just interesting to see teams matching up with so many prior meetings in a bowl game).  Despite the teams having a combined 13-11 record, I found quite a few interesting storylines to research.

Texas started the season with sophomore QB Shane Buechele as the starter but they have gone back and forth between him and freshman Sam Ehlinger due to injury.  Neither guy has been great: they combine for 3,153 yards, 16 TDs and 11 INTs.  Based on the raw passing stats, Beuchele is the better play in the bowl game but Ehlinger offers a dimension as a rusher (364 yards, 2 TDs).  Since the start of bowl practices, both quarterbacks have reportedly been getting first team work.  My money would be on Ehlinger since he was the primary passer in the team’s last two games (66 attempts to Buechele’s nine).  WR Colin Johnson will be the main target no matter who is under center.  Johnson is huge (6’6″ 220lb) but just a sophomore so thankfully he’ll have another season to improve before hearing the siren song of the NFL Draft.  Johnson has 79 receptions, 1,050 yards and 5 TDs so far in his career – not amazing but encouraging given the struggles of the Texas offense the last two seasons.  The Longhorn running game is a mess.  Ehlinger is actually the team’s leading rusher by both attempts and yards, although he’s not very efficient as he averages just 3.5 yards per attempt.  Chris Warren, a big and bruising back who was slowed by injuries early in his career but looked promising, changed positions mid-season and is now transferring.  Freshman RB Daniel Young finished the season as the lead back with 58 rushes for 238 yards and 2 TDs over the last four games.  Leading the defense is LB Malik Jefferson who is one of the nation’s leading prospects at ILB.  Jefferson has 110 tackles this season.  Jefferson flashed in my eyes when playing against Sam Darnold and USC early in the season (he had 11 tackles and 2 tackles for loss).  He had six double-digit tackle games on the season and added four sacks.  Jefferson measures in at 6’3″ and 240lbs with a projected speed of 4.72 per NFLDraftScout.com.  Similar size and speed comps include a number of key IDP players: Sean Lee, Kiko Alonso, Blake Martinez and Nick Vigil.  Phil Steele’s preview magazine listed him as the #1 ILB for 2018 while NFLDraftScout.com has him listed as their #2 ILB in Jefferson’s 2019 class.  Chances are that he comes out and that he is a Top 15 pick.

Missouri’s season has been one of streaks.  They started the season with a loss over FCS also-ran Missouri State then lost five straight then won six straight.  Stories of the team’s turnaround all point to head coach Barry Odom as the rock that keep the team on track despite the struggles.  I don’t know Odom from Adam but it seems that the players love and respect him so that’s what matters.  Throughout Missouri’s winning streak, I continually wanted to spotlight QB Drew Lock but I never got the chance.  Lock is a three year starter who has improved on his stats year over year.  In 2017 he finished the regular season with 3,695 yards, 43 TDs and 12 INTs.  His completion percentage could be better (just 58.2%) but there is enough potential there to consider him as a draft prospect.  Lock is listed at 6’4″ and 225lb and will run in the 4.80-4.90 range at the combine should he declare.  Unfortunately, there aren’t many good comps in that size range, the best likely being AJ McCarron.  McCarron did not produce like Lock has though.  Lock led the SEC this year in attempts, yards and passing touchdowns (he also led the FBS in passing touchdowns).  I’ll do more research and film study on Lock in the offseason if he declares, for now he’s definitely a player to watch.  Lock’s top target is WR J’Mon Moore.  In three years with Lock throwing him the ball, Moore has totaled 151 receptions, 2,389 yards and 21 TDs.  His production in 2016 and 2017 was nearly identical, essentially 60 receptions and 1,000 yards.  Moore won’t be a draftable WR fantasy rookie but could get late round NFL Draft consideration because of his height (6’3″).

I think Texas’ defense will outperform their 108th ranking and that they’ll slow Lock enough to keep the game close just not close enough.  Prediction: Missouri

Thursday, Dec. 28

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman, Virginia (6-6) vs. Navy (6-6), 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Virginia: 101st scoring offense, 42nd passing offense, 126th rushing offense; 67th scoring defense, 14th passing defense, 80th rushing defense
  • Navy: 49th scoring offense, 128th passing offense, 2nd rushing offense; 84th scoring defense, 86th passing defense, 58th rushing defense

Since I was using Sports-Reference.com’s “Rivalry Finder” tool to look up the Texas/Missouri matchup I figured I might as well check out Virginia/Navy as well since that felt like a natural rivalry given the geography and military connections (it’s no coincidence the Military Bowl picked either team when given the chance).  Turns out that the teams have met 33 times in their history but not since 1994.  For what it’s worth, Navy leads the “rivalry” 23-10.

Navy is coming off a tough loss to Army on December 15 so there could be a bit of a “hangover” in this one.  Even aside from the Army loss in the snow, the Midshipmen have been cold as of late, winning just one of the last seven.  As most casual college football fans know, Navy, like the other service academies, runs a rush heavy triple-option offense.  So, it’s no surprise to see Navy with two 1,000+ yard rushers (and another at 500+).  What might be surprising is just how often the quarterback keeps the ball, eschewing his two other options.  Junior QB Zach Abey leads the team with 1,325 yards rushing and 14 TDs (plus 805 yards and 7 TDs passing).  Abey missed time during the season with both a concussion and a shoulder injury.  In his stead, sophomore QB/WR Malcolm Perry emerged as the primary playmaker.  If you watched the Army vs Navy game, you’ll no doubt remember Perry.  Perry is not a threat to pass (just two attempts) but he is electric with the ball in his hands, so much so that when Abey was healthy Navy got Perry involved as a a receiver (13-303-2) and as a kick returner (24.5 yards per return).  Even if Abey is fully healthy, expect to see more of Perry.

Bronco Mendenhall’s Cavaliers improved significantly after a 2-10 campaign last season.  It’s the first time UVA has been bowl eligible since 2011 and just the second time in a decade.  Leading the offense is senior QB Kurt Benkert.  Honestly, I did not know Benkert’s name to start the season but he had enough success this year (3,062 yards and 25 TDs) that he’s been getting some buzz.  I have not watched Benkert’s film so the bowl will be a good introduction against Navy’s mediocre pass defense.  Benkert’s favorite target is the versatile Olamide Zaccheaus.  Zaccheaus has 80 receptions for 833 yards and 5 TDs while adding 182 rushing yards and a rushing score.  Earlier in his career he also returned kicks and even threw a touchdown pass in 2015.  He’s the type of player that offensive coordinators love scheming for.  On defense, UVA features two mid-round NFL Draft prospects in LB Micah Kiser (132 tackles, 5 sacks this season) and S Quin Blanding (120 tackles, 4 INTs this season).  Both players are mutli-year starters who have nearly 900 career tackles between them.  Kiser and Blanding will be key against the Navy rushing attack.  In their November 11 matchup, Virginia held the Georgia Tech triple-option offense to just 220 yards.  Just 220 yards you ask?  It may sound like a lot but it’s the fourth lowest total of the season for Tech, so Virginia’s defense played well considering.  In that game, Kiser had 18 tackles while Blanding had just three but added an interception.

This one may be a home game for Navy but I believe UVA has the better athletes all over the field.  Prediction: Virginia

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl, #16 Michigan State (9-3) vs. #18 Washington State (9-3), 9 p.m. (FS1)

  • Michigan State: 106th scoring offense, 77th passing offense, 67th rushing offense; 23rd scoring defense, 30th passing defense, 5th rushing defense
  • Washington State: 42nd scoring offense, 2nd passing offense, 129th rushing offense; 47th scoring defense, 9th passing defense, 41st rushing defense

It’s not quite the “Grandaddy of them all” as Keith Jackson would say, but this Big Ten vs PAC-12 matchup is a good one.  I’m a Michigan and Rutgers fan, a Big Ten apologist and huge Rose Bowl fan.  My favorite pieces of memorabilia are a program and press pass from the 1998 Rose Bowl when Michigan won a share of the national championship; I found the pieces in a used bookstore in Ann Arbor, bought them immediately and had them framed.  So, you can see I’m a sucker for a Big Ten vs PAC-12 matchup.  I’ll call this one Rose Bowl Lite.

Michigan State’s mediocre offense is led by QB Brian Lewerke and RB LJ Scott.  Lewerke is a redshirt sophomore who is starting for the first time this season.  He has 2,580 yards, 17 TDs and 6 INTs plus 489 yards rushing and 5 rushing TDs.  Lewerke finished mid-pack in the conference in most passing statistics so he’s solid but he’s not on the level of recent Spartan QBs like Conor Cook and Kirk Cousins.  Scott started the year with some hype but he mostly disappointed.  In my early 2018 rookie mock draft, I had Scott as my 2.05; I had him ahead of other backs like Sony Michel and Ronald Jones who are definitely ahead of him now.  A running back of his size should see more TDs because of his utility near the goal line.  In 2016 Scott had just 6 TDs and he duplicated that output in 2017.  That’s just not good enough.  Scott did injure an ankle during the season but he was actually dressed and active for the Michigan game that he supposedly missed due to the injury.  I didn’t believe this when I first read it while doing my research but Scott was arrested in October for his seventh charge for driving without a valid license.  That is staggering.  I don’t know Scott and don’t want to cast aspersions but how can you be so irresponsible?  Either get your driver’s license right or stop driving.  If Scott is convicted, which I doubt would happen but who knows, he could face jail time.  Oh, I forgot to mention that despite being the primary ball carrier in each of his three years, Scott has failed to break 1,000 yards in a season.  Between the poor production, a small injury concern and an alarming pattern of behavior, I am out on Scott if he does declare early.  I would rather miss on him than draft him in my league and deal with dead cap if I have to cut him.  On defense, Sparty’s heart and soul is sophomore LB Joe Bachie.  He has 94 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 3 INTs, 2 forced fumbles and 1 fumble recovery on the season.

Cougar QB Luke Falk was my QB4 in early November when I did my early positional rankings for 2018 rookies.  I will probably bump Falk down a bit (or more accurately, bump Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield up a bit) but that doesn’t mean I am down on him.  Depending on his landing spot after the NFL Draft, I would consider drafting Falk late in my superflex leagues as a stash.  Falk is a three year starter at Washington State and has incredible career stats: 1,403 completions, 14,481 passing yards, 119 passing TDs, 39 INTs and a 68.3% completion percentage.  Falk’s stats did decrease a bit this year so that concerns me slightly but not enough to push him off my board.  Falk’s best attributes are his experience, size and accuracy – those traits will definitely get him drafted to be a backup behind an aging vet.  Washington State doesn’t bother running the ball too much (second worst rushing offense in the FBS at 71.1 yards per game) but that does not mean that RBs Jamal Morrow and James Williams are worthless.  Both backs excel in the passing game with 898 combined receiving yards.  The team’s leading receiver is junior Tavares Martin (70-831-9) but Falk spreads the love around because five guys have 50+ receptions.  One other prospect to keep an eye on, not that you could miss him, is G Cody O’Connell.  O’Connell’s nickname is “The Continent” and he deserves the title because he is listed at 6’9″ and 354lbs.  It’s odd to see such a big guard and that could be telling that he’s not playing tackle.  Per WalterFootball.com, one of my favorite draft resources, team sources think O’Connell will go undrafted.  Reading that tempered my excitement but still how often do we get to see a 6’9″ player?

Maybe I’m blinded by my Big Ten fandom but I’m going with Sparty here.  Michigan State has the better defense and is more likely to stop Washington State’s offense than vice versa.  Prediction: Michigan State

 


Note: When watching film for a player in the offseason, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had all season so they really need to jump off the screen.  I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability.  If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents.  Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

Early 2018 Positional Rankings

Updated: November 8th 2017

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the storylines, players and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my weekly picks, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  Check back throughout the season as The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

It may only be November but I think it’s time to start looking at positional rankings for 2018.  I did struggle at times with these rankings as to whether they should be based on my perceived fantasy value or in what order I believe players will be drafted.  Let’s say these rankings are a composite of both ideals.  I will separate out the two different mindsets in my future RSO and NFL mock drafts.  I have included brief notes on interesting players for each position.  For more detailed play analysis follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper or read my weekly The Watch List pieces which have, and will continue to, spotlight future fantasy relevant players.

Quarterbacks

Rosen is my QB1 because he is likely the most “pro ready” of the prospects since he is playing in a pro-style system with good size and stats.  Darnold looks likely to go back but if he does declare early he has hurt is stock with too many turnovers this year.  You may be surprised to see Finley and Litton on my list.  I have watched a bunch of NC State this year and have liked Finley’s ability to manage the game and limit mistakes.  Litton is a big (6’6″ 233lb) three year starter whose stats have been consistent through each season (including 590 yards and 4 TDs in his two games versus Power Five opponents); no guarantee he comes out but I’m intrigued.

Running Backs

The top of my list is pretty “chalk” for those who have been paying attention to the college season so far.  I did decide to put Chubb over Guice but they are so close it’s a pick’em.  Adams and Scarborough fall out of my Top 10 because I’m concerned about their size; few RBs at their height or taller (6’2″) have had sustained production in the NFL.  I sneak Jalin Moore in at RB15 because I think a team will take him for his pass protection skills as a great third down back; per Pro Football Focus he’s one of only a few RBs with a perfect “pass blocking efficiency.”

Wide Receivers

I have Ridley at WR1 even though he hasn’t put up huge numbers this season (or last).  I like his consistency because even though the offense focuses on the run, he still has three or more receptions in all but four of his 38 career games.  He also has a pedigree that few can match as he was the #1 receiver recruit in his class and had a breakout season as a freshman (89-1,045-7) in 2015.  He’s slight, just 190lb for his 6’1″ frame, which I have to acknowledge as a big negative because I am critical of guys like Pettis and Burnett for the same reason.  Read more about my Ridley opinion in my SEC season preview.  Sills, Cobbs and Burnett landed on my list because of seasons that beat my expectations so far.  I included two small school prospects in James and Wilson because I always need a sleeper to root for.  Watch for Wilson, he’s going to be a training camp riser for whatever team he lands on.

Tight Ends

The top four on this list may not quite compare to Howard, Engram and Njoku from 2017 but it is a very good group and I bet they will creep up fantasy draft boards given how barren the position has been this season with injury and ineffectiveness.  Jaylen Samuels is my favorite prospect in all of college football right now.  He has stat lines like no TE ever before (56-474-3 receiving and 39-209-7 rushing this season) and will likely project more as a FB or H-Back in the NFL.  Being position eligible at TE while getting goal line carries would be an incredible fantasy advantage.  If he lands with a creative offense he will be the ultimate third down weapon.  Never heard of Goedert or Yurachek?  Don’t worry I hadn’t either before I started my research but both are big and productive so I ranked them over some other smaller athletic types.


Note: When watching film for a player in the offseason, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had all season so they really need to jump off the screen.  I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability.  If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents.  Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

The Watch List: Big Ten Preview

Updated: August 30th 2017

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players, storylines and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  Check back throughout the Summer for previews on each conference and my preseason Heisman predictions.  During the regular season, The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

Players to Watch

  • Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State:  By now you’ve heard all about Barkley but I hope I can add to the narrative with a deeper dive into stats, measureables and film observations.  Let’s start with his stats.  In 2015, as a true freshman, Barkley rushed 182 times for 1,076 yards and 7 TDs; he added 20 receptions for 161 yards and a score.  In 2016, Barkley improved those numbers to 272 carries, 1,496 yards, a whopping 18 TDs, 28 receptions, 402 receiving yards and 4 receiving TDs.  Over his two seasons, Barkley has ten 100+ rushing yard games and five of at least 194 yards.  Before you dismiss these big games as box score stuffing outings versus FCS cupcakes, you should note that eight of the 100+ games came against Power 5 teams.  All five of the 194+ games came against Power 5 teams (Rutgers, Ohio State, Maryland, Purdue and USC).  That’s impressive, and in fact, Barkley has not played a single FCS team (I wish all FBS teams would take this approach).  So not only is Barkley productive but he’s productive against “real” teams.  For his career, Barkley has a 5.7 yards per rush average – good but not great.  After looking at his situational stats on CFBStats.com, I believe Barkley is about as clutch as a running back can be.  Most offenses turn to their passing game when losing, but in 2016 the Nittany Lions turned to Barkley who had 11 of his 18 TDs when losing (plus 2 of his 4 receiving TDs).  He’s also 16/32 on 3rd & Short in his career.  Compare that to recent 1.01 picks, Fournette was 16/31 and Elliott was a crazy 31/53 (bold prediction: Barkley will catch him).  Attentive readers may have noticed that Barkley had just 182 carries in 2015 (90 less than in 2016).  It wasn’t due to him sharing the load, it was because of injury.  Barkley injured his right ankle against San Diego State and missed the next two games.  He then injured the same ankle again in the 2016 regular season finale against Michigan State but he did not end up missing the Big Ten Championship (rushed for 19-83 against Wisconsin).  As far as measureables go, Barkley has a pretty good comp: Ezekiel Elliott.  Elliott is an inch taller but Barkley is a few pounds heavier.  Oh, I forgot to mention that Barkley is a tenth of a second faster though, at least.  During Spring practices in 2015, Barkley ran a 4.38 and in 2016 he ran a 4.33.  Since 2010, the only running back to run faster than 4.40 at 5’11” or taller and at over 220lbs was Knile Davis.  Barkley is a rare combination of size and speed that we have not seen recently.  Of course that does not mean he will automatically be a success (sorry Knile) but when you watch film of Barkley it is obvious that he will succeed at the next level.  I watched his film from Rutgers and Wisconsin.  No surprise here, Barkley looks like an NFL back.  He runs with balance, shows a quick jump cut, has above average vision, is not afraid of contact and is competent at the goal line.  As far as pass protection, it was a mixed bag but I would say he’s average at worst.  He had a number of positive blocks but allowed a crunching hit from TJ Watt that ended in a lost fumble.  Barkley would get his revenge against Watt though later in the game.  With Penn State losing in the 4th quarter, Barkley ran a wheel route from the 18 yard line, beat Watt by two steps and caught the ball beautifully over his shoulder while getting two or three feet in.  I had seen enough highlights of Barkley catching passes at or near the line of scrimmage so it was nice to see that he could be a threat further down field.  That touchdown catch ended up being the winning score, but it wasn’t the last time Barkley impressed me in the game.  With 52 seconds left, the Badgers were out of timeouts and the game was all but over.  Barkley took the 3rd down hand off, ran right for a few yards and slid like a quarterback to stay in bounds and keep the clock running.  It was a heady play that you don’t see that often in college.  I purposefully watched Barkley’s game against Wisconsin since it was after his second ankle injury – I wanted to see him managing an injury.  He was definitely a step slower than the film against Rutgers but he was still fast enough and explosive enough to make defenders miss.  Speaking of his speed, I noted that he seems to get faster the longer he is running so it will be interesting to see his 40 yard dash splits.  I’ll bet he starts slow but finishes the last quarter faster than anybody else.  Come April, Barkley will likely be a Top 10 pick in the NFL draft.  As for RSO drafts, I think he’ll be the consensus 1.01 much like Elliott was two years earlier.
  • Troy Fumagalli, TE, Wisconsin:  The nine-fingered Fumagalli has a long injury history but I’m still bullish on his prospects.  The missing finger was amputated after he was born due to a disorder and is not an “injury” but I think it’s an interesting story given that he has had two other hand injuries during his Wisconsin career.  It seems that Fumagalli can do more with seven or eight fingers than the rest of us with ten.  In addition to a broken thumb in 2015, Fumagalli suffered an ankle injury which combined to limit his production to 28 receptions, 313 yards and just a single touchdown.    In 2016, he nearly missed the first game of the season after a severe cut on his hand that required surgery; he also suffered a leg injury against Georgia Southern that forced him to exit early but he did not miss further time.  He ended 2016 with a line of 47-580-2.  I watched Fumagalli against Michigan because I thought their defense, chock-full of NFL talent, would be a good barometer for his blocking ability.  In the two seasons worth of film I have watched now, I can’t recall a better blocking TE.  At worst, I would grade him as an A, if not an A+.  He won’t be confused with a track star (DraftScout.com has him estimated at 4.84) but he’s not a “move tight end” so that shouldn’t hurt his draft stock.  He’s an old school tight end for sure.  If Fumagalli can stay healthy in 2017, a big if given the last two seasons, he should be one of the top two or three TEs drafted in the NFL but will be less desirable to fantasy owners.
  • Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State:  Weber will be a redshirt sophomore with more injuries than seasons played.  He tore his meniscus in 2015 and is battling a hamstring injury now.  I watched film of Weber against Rutgers and was impressed.  He looks like an NFL running back and could be the next great Buckeye back after Zeke Elliott and Carlos Hyde.  In that game against Rutgers, two runs stood out.  The first was a 50 yard gain where he burst through a wide open hole at the line, half-hurdled a defender and angled towards the sideline to try and get the most yards before the safety got to him; near the end of the run he had the presence of mind to change his ball carrying hand.  The second example showed his pure speed: two quick cuts and gone.  Weber carried 182 times in 2016 and gained 1,096 yards with 9 TDs.  He also contributed with 23 receptions (just 91 yards though).  I question it’s accuracy, but apparently Weber ran a 4.35 40 yard dash.  With that speed and his size, we’re looking at a very nice comparison to Lamar Miller.  There’s no certainty that Weber will come out after his sophomore season but if he does, based on what I see now, he should find himself with a 3rd-4th round NFL draft grade; if he comes out and officially runs a 4.35, we could be looking at somebody who would rise to the 2nd round.
  • Honorable Mentions:
    • Akrum Wadley, RB, Iowa:  Before starting my Big Ten preview research, I had not heard of Wadley to be honest.  I first came across his name while reviewing WalterFootball.com’s prospect rankings and decided to delve a little deeper.  Wadley is 5’11” and 190lbs which is worrisome.  If you look at combine history, since 2010, just a single running back has been 5’11” or taller and weighed less than 195lbs (Taiwan Jones).  Wadley’s stats from 2016 are impressive though: 1,081 yards, 6.4 yards per carry, 36 receptions, 315 receiving yards and 13 total TDs.  Wadley had considered going pro after 2016 but wisely chose to come back to the Hawkeyes.  I’ll keep an eye on him in 2017 to see if he repeats his two-way success.
    • JT Barrett, QB, Ohio State:  Interestingly, Barrett comps very closely, size-wise, to the three quarterbacks taken in the first twelve picks of the 2017 NFL draft.  He’s 6’2″ and 220lb, the same height and just a few pounds lighter than Trubisky, Mahomes and Watson.  Barrett should time faster than those three though.  Out of high school he was clocked at 4.79; a Sports Illustrated article about his backstory stated that he ran a 4.50; DraftScout.com has him estimated at 4.52.  If Barrett breaks the 4.50 barrier, he’ll be in the Tyrod Taylor realm (4.47).  Barrett has had a peculiar career arc to say the least.  He was the starter in 2014 as a true freshman before getting hurt and letting Cardale Jones steal the spotlight on the Buckeyes road to the National Championship.  Jones beat him out to start 2015, but Barrett eventually took the job back.  With Jones gone to the NFL, Barrett was free to start again in 2016, as he will in 2017.  While Barrett has had his share of adversity off the field battling for the job, once on the field he’s led a dominant team.  In his 36 career games, Barrett threw just 20% of his attempts while losing; just 9% of his passing TDs came while losing.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing but I think it will be cannon fodder for NFL scouts looking to knock him back.  He is the product of a great team and a productive system, with a major injury in his past, but he does have some potential if he continues to progress as a passer.  Barrett’s career completion percentage is 63%, he has 100 total career TDs and he has an impressive 3:1 TD:INT ratio.  Enjoy Barrett while you can this season because you likely won’t see too much more of him in the NFL.
    • Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State:  Gesicki is a big target, QB Trace McSorley’s biggest, at 6’6″ and 255lbs.  He is the Nittany Lions’ top returning receiver by receptions, yards and touchdowns and set team records in 2016 for TEs in both yards and receptions.  I watched film of Gesicki against Indiana and liked what I saw in the limited exposure.  He is versatile and lines up all over the field: on the line, split out, in the backfield.  He was a plus blocker.  He’s also pretty quick.  On a 3rd & 20 deep in their own territory, Gesicki caught a 45 yarder where he outran the defender and the ball, he adjusted back to the ball well and caught it with his hands.  I don’t think Gesicki will be a sexy name for fantasy owners but his well rounded game should help him see the NFL field early.
    • Simmie Cobbs, WR, Indiana:  The Big Ten is surprisingly light on top end wide receiver talent.  I chose Cobbs to highlight because of his elite size: 6’4″ and 220lbs.  There are plenty of negatives surrounding Cobbs though.  After a great sophomore season (60 receptions, 1,035 yards, 4 TDs), Cobbs was suspended for the first game of 2016.  Then, in game two, Cobbs suffered a season-ending ankle injury.   In July 2017, Cobbs was arrested after failing to follow police orders at a concert; he declined to take a breathalyzer.  Because of the off-field and injury concerns I decided not to delve too deeply into Cobbs but we should all keep an eye on him since others have been drafted highly with worse rap sheets.
    • Sam Hubbard & Tyquan Lewis, DEs, Ohio State:  This one-two punch will be demoralizing opposing offensive lines all season long.  Hubbard has 74 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in his career; Lewis has 92, 27.5 and 16.5.  Neither guy was a highly sought after recruit, both were just three star recruits, so they have worked for their success  Phil Steele has Lewis projected as his #1 draft eligible DE while Hubbard is #3.  If both come out, we could see both taken in the first round of the NFL draft and both taken in IDP drafts.
    • Marcus Allen, S, Penn State:  I wanted to like Allen more than I did when I watched film of his from a monster game against Minnesota from 2016 (22 total tackles).  Allen looks smaller than his 6’2″ 205lb frame and I did not note any highlight plays.  He’s often around the ball but that might be more a factor of where he lines up, close to the line of scrimmage, than his ball skills or instincts.  Right now, Allen is purely a run supporting free safety; he has zero interceptions in his 36 career games.  Allen had an impressive 110 tackles last year but needs to improve in coverage to get a true NFL look.  If he adds 10-15 pounds he could instead project as a linebacker-safety tweener similar to Jaylon Smith or Telvin Smith.  Best case, he improves or bulks up and finds a clear role on an NFL defense.  Worst case, he’ll be like TJ Green who was drafted by the Colts in the 2nd round out of Clemson in 2016 with a similar size and stat profile.  Not sure who TJ Green is?  Exactly.
    • Billy Price, G/C, Ohio State:  Price won’t be the highest player selected on this list in the 2018 draft but I’d bet that he is the first to contribute in a meaningful way in the NFL.  Price has good size for a guard or center at 6’4″ and 312lbs and could probably fill in at RT in a pinch.  He has 41 career starts combined at LG and RG.  In 2016 he was a Second Team All-American, improving on his Second Team Big Ten campaign of 2015.  For 2017 he’ll move inside to C, taking over the spot vacated by All-American Pat Elflein who was drafted by the Vikings.

Storylines to Watch

  • Versatile Big Ten OL Will Dominate Day Two of the NFL Draft:  It was interesting to find so many versatile Big Ten lineman at or near the top of the various rankings resources I consult.  At this point, I don’t think any of these guys will come out with first round grades but some could creep up as often happens with offensive lineman, quarterbacks and pass rushers as we get closer to April.  The aforementioned Billy Price should pace this group.  He’ll be joined by Michigan’s C Mason Cole.  Cole played at LT in 2014 and 2015 but moved to C for 2016 (a move you don’t often see).  Michigan State’s C/G Brian Allen is undersized at 6’2″ and 304lbs so he’ll project as a center at the next level.  Allen’s brother Jack is already plying his trade as a backup center with the Saints.  Wisconsin has a pair of junior guards in Beau Benzschawel and Michael Dieter who have starts at LG, C, RG and RT between them.  One, if not both, of them will emerge and hopefully follow in the footsteps of departed All-American Ryan Ramczyk, who snuck into the first round at pick 32.
  • Rowing the Boat in the Land of 10,000 Lakes:  PJ Fleck has moved on from Western Michigan to Minnesota where he will continue to “Row the Boat.”  Interestingly, he had to agree to donate $10,000 a year to WMU to continue to use the catchphrase which the school smartly licensed during his tenure.  Fleck has a ho-hum 30-22 career record but was a stellar 13-1 last season.  The Broncos perfect season ended in a close 24-16 Cotton Bowl loss to Wisconsin.  The good news for the Gophers is that Fleck’s squad beat two other Big Ten teams last year (Northwestern, Illinois) so he should be comfortable with the level of competition; both wins were on the road.  The non-conference schedule is easy (Buffalo, Oregon State, Middle Tennessee) so Fleck’s measuring stick will be conference wins.  Minnesota has not had six conference wins since 1973, so if he can get the Gophers to that mark (five in 2016) they’ll erect a monument in time for the 2018 season.
  • Indiana Will Win 8 Games:  This might not be the boldest of my predictions this preseason but it would be surprising for a lot of fans to look and see Indiana competing in the Big Ten East.  The Hoosiers, like the Gophers mentioned above, have not had too much success over the recent decades.  The last time Indiana won eight games was 1993 and it’s only happened three times since 1980.  Former defensive coordinator Tom Allen takes over as head coach.  Indiana had its best defense in years in 2016 (for example, they were 45th in the FBS by yards per game in 2016 versus 121st in 2015) so that continuity will be good for the team.  Speaking of continuity, BTN put out a stat that caught my eye: Indiana returns 93% of their defensive production from last year.  They don’t specify what exactly “production” means but I presume it’s at least counting tackles if not sacks and interceptions.  That huge percentage puts them first in the FBS; second best in the conference is Northwestern at 77%.  The biggest name on the defense is senior linebacker Tegray Scales, who had 126 tackles and 7 sacks last season.  The non-conference schedule is soft (Virginia, FIU, Georgia Southern) and two of their three conference crossover games are winnable (Illinois and Purdue; the third is Wisconsin).  I think the ingredients are there for the Hoosiers to win eight close, low scoring, games.

Games to Watch

  • August 31, Ohio State at Indiana:  I love seeing a conference game this early in the season.  If Indiana is to hit the heights I have predicted above, they will need to grab one big upset win against the likes of Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan or Wisconsin.  The Buckeyes are the best team of that bunch but if there’s ever a time for Indiana to steal a win against Ohio State it would be now.  I’m not predicting an upset here but I expect a closer game than the Vegas line will be and would not be surprised if Ohio State gets caught looking ahead to Oklahoma.
  • September 30, Iowa at Michigan State:  MSU is in full-on reboot mode.  They were a disappointing 3-9 last year and lost a lot of players.  Per Phil Steele’s experience research, Sparty is 117th in the FBS in terms of returning lettermen.  Maybe a fresh start is a good thing, but more likely it spells another long season for Mark D’Antonio.  This contest against Iowa will be a good early season test.  It’s the first conference game for Michigan State and they will be hosting an Iowa team coming off a tough game against Penn State.
  • September 30, Northwestern at Wisconsin:  Northwestern has the best chance of the rest of the West to topple the Badgers.  They are an experienced team that returns a solid nucleus on offense, including a 1,500+ yard rusher in Justin Jackson and a 3,000+ yard passer in Clayton Thorson.  I give Northwestern a shot over Nebraska based strictly on the experience – the Cornhuskers lose their top passer, rusher and receiver on offense as well as their top three tacklers.  Every conference game is technically a “must-win” if you want to win the division but the Wildcats don’t have a prayer if they don’t win this one on the road.
  • November 25, Ohio State at Michigan:  The Game has not been much of a rivalry lately despite its historic connotations.  Ohio State has won 14 of the last 16 games between the two giants since 2000.  Last year’s game was a classic which went to overtime; the Buckeyes were aided by a questionable 4th & 1 call that could have sealed the win for Michigan.  Admittedly I am a Michigan fan and will be rooting for the Wolverines in this one but I don’t think they stand a chance.  There’s a reason I haven’t mentioned Michigan much in this preview: they were decimated by the NFL draft.  Quarterback Wilton Speight returns but he’ll be surrounded by underclassmen on both sides of the ball.  By my count they lost at least ten key contributors from the last two 10-3 seasons.  If Michigan can pull off the upset it will be one that both fan bases will remember for years to come.  Ultimately, I don’t think it will happen and this game will simply be another stepping stone for Ohio State on their way to the CFP.

Note: When watching film for a player, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had all season so they really need to jump off the screen.  I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability.  If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents.  Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, ESPN’s First Draft podcast, draftek.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.