The Watch List: Conference Championship Week

Updated: November 30th 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. 

Note: the rankings referenced below refer to the Week 14 AP poll.  CFP rankings were not yet available at the time of writing.

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Update:  Baker Mayfield finished off his regular season with a 281 yard, 3 TD outing.  The Heisman winner is Mayfield.  Moving on to more important topics.
  • Playoff Picture: Last week, I postulated that Alabama and Miami would be in danger of missing the playoff even if they lost and finished with one loss.  I was not expecting them to both lose!  Having them both lose keeps a potential playoff spot open for the other if championship results fall properly.  As of this writing on Sunday evening, I anticipate the Top 7 to be: Clemson, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Auburn, Georgia, Miami and Alabama.  The order of Georgia, Miami and Alabama is tough but I put Alabama last because while their loss was “better” than Miami’s, they do not have as good of a win on their resume as Miami over #3 Notre Dame.  Two of the four spots are easy: the winner of Auburn/Georgia is in, as is the winner of Clemson/Miami.  If Oklahoma and Wisconsin win, they are obviously in too and the playoff is set.  Things get very interesting though if one of them loses, specifically Oklahoma.  If Oklahoma loses, there is no obvious replacement like if Wisconsin loses (a win against #3 Wisconsin might be enough to jump Ohio State to the #4 spot and squeak in, see below for an alternate possibility).  I think that if Oklahoma and Clemson lose, we might see Clemson hang in with the #4 ranking (they would have five Top 25 wins, a 3-point loss when their quarterback was hurt and a loss to my projected #6 in Miami – that is still a better two loss resume than others).  For now, I’m predicting chalk but am hoping for some chaos.
  • Undefeated UCF:  Here’s a fun thought experiment for you… is there anyway we get an undefeated UCF into the Top 4?  Probably not but here’s what I think you would need:
    • Stanford win over USC in the PAC-12 Championship so that both finish behind UCF in the final rankings.
    • Oklahoma win over TCU in the Big 12 Championship.  TCU would move up in the rankings and stay ahead of UCF with a win over Oklahoma.  Better for UCF to cede one of the playoff spots to Oklahoma and jump ahead of TCU.
    • Georgia win over Auburn in the SEC Championship.  Auburn would be totally out of contention with 3 losses; if Georgia loses they probably stay ahead of UCF with a strong two loss resume.  I think we’d all take Auburn in a head-to-head matchup against UCF but it’ll be hard for the committee to put an undefeated UCF behind a three loss team.
    • Clemson wins big over Miami in the ACC Championship.  If Miami loses two straight, especially an embarrassing one to Clemson, they should fall out of the Top 10.
    • Ohio State wins close over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship.  If Wisconsin wins, they are in but the reverse is not guaranteed.  In three iterations of the CFP, we have not yet had a two loss team make the cut.  If Ohio State gets a close, unconvincing win against Wisconsin, is it possible that the committee leaves a two loss Ohio State out in favor of an undefeated UCF?  Maybe the injury to JT Barrett factors into the decision if it lingers and the committee says that a weakened Ohio State is not worthy of the playoff.
  • Florida State vs History:  Florida State will be playing this week but not in the ACC Championship as they would have hoped a few months ago.  Instead, the Seminoles will be battling 4-7 UL-Monroe (the game was cancelled earlier in the year due to Hurricane Irma).  Florida State has a lot of history riding on this inconsequential game because they have not finished with less than six wins in a season since 1976 which was Bobby Bowden’s first season at the helm.  What an incredible run of success for a team.  I don’t know for sure but I assume that has to be a record for most consecutive seasons with a .500 record or better.  It’s a little iffy to get that sixth win in a game like this but hey it counts in the record books and in a few years nobody will even remember the circumstance.

Players to Watch

  • Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn:  I haven’t been the highest on Stidham so far this season but boy did he standout against Alabama last week, especially with his legs.  One thing I have previously pointed out about Stidham is his efficiency.  Stidham’s completion percentage (68.5%) ranks 4th in the FBS; his passing efficiency rating (160.0) is 9th; his yards per attempt (9.1) is 8th.  If you only look at his games since Week 3 following the Clemson loss, Stidham’s completion percentage rises to 70.8%, including six games 74% or higher.  So, the rate stats are all fantastic but what about the counting stats?  They are less eye-popping because of Auburn’s tendency to lean on RB Kerryon Johnson.  Stidham has 2,682 yards and just 16 TDs but he has also only thrown 4 INTs.  Those only looking at the stats and not watching the film will underestimate Stidham’s athleticism and his rushing ability as I had.  The game logs say he only has 153 yards but don’t forget that factors in all of his sacks.  If I had to guess, I would say that that Stidham probably has gained about 300 yards rushing (figuring about 10-15 rushing yards per game lost to sacks).  Side note: if you don’t typically purchase Phil Steele’s annual preview magazine, this is one big reason why you should because they break down yards gained and lost to get a true sense for a quarterback’s rushing ability.  Going back to that Alabama game, Stidham went 21-28 for 237 yards in the passing game which is expected but what surprised me was the 51 rushing yards.  A few plays stood out, one passing and three rushing.  On one of the first plays of the game, Stidham double clutched to force the rushing lineman into the air for an attempted pass breakup so he had a throwing lane for the quick screen.  The color commentator compared it to a shot fake in basketball which was a perfect analogy.  To me, it showed Stidham’s composure under pressure when it would have been understandable for him to be skittish in the first drive of the biggest game of his career.  The next play I highlighted was a late third quarter scramble on third and long when Auburn was down 14-13.  Stidham took a three step drop out of shotgun so he was nine yards behind the line of scrimmage.  He goes through his progressions, evades a rusher, slips out of the pocket, beats CB Tony Brown to the first down and dives head first to ensure he gets enough yardage.  It was a turning point play in the game.  A few plays later he ran again for 13 yards right up the gut.  Those two runs kept the drive alive and led to a touchdown for Kerryon Johnson.  The last play where Stidham surprised me was in the 4th quarter with Auburn up 20-14.  Stidham fakes the handoff to Johnson on the zone read and keeps the ball himself.  He quickly directs his blockers and rolls left.  He accelerates as he turns up field and just beats all of the Alabama defenders to the goal line.  Ultimately five players were close enough to get a hand on him but he just wanted it more and made the play.  I knew Stidham was an efficient and effective passer and was really happy to see this side of his game.  Stidham is playing in his first season at Auburn after transferring from Baylor in 2015, so it’s probably more likely that he stays in college for another season rather than declaring for the draft.  As I was watching Stidham play against Alabama I saw Alex Smith.  They are very similar in size and speed and have a similar game.  If he stays in, he will be a preseason target of mine next season.

Games to Watch

  •  #14 Stanford vs #11 USC, Friday 8:00pm on ESPN:  The PAC-12 Championship isn’t worth all that much this season.  Neither team has a shot at the playoff and since the Rose Bowl is part of the playoff, a PAC-12 championship doesn’t even get you a bid into the “granddaddy of them all.”  If nothing else, this game will be a true showcase game for a few draft prospects, namely Stanford RB Bryce Love (who is within reach of a 2,000 yard season at 1,848) and USC QB Sam Darnold (whose wavering play has some thinking he’ll stay in college another season).  I’ll have my eye on USC WR Deontay Burnett too – he isn’t getting much draft love, mostly because of his size, but I really like him and am significantly higher than most.
  • #10 TCU vs #2 Oklahoma, Saturday 12:30pm on FOX:  Oklahoma has much more to play for than TCU so I’ll bet the Sooners come out firing and bury the Frogs.  Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield is incredibly efficient (71.4% completion percentage and just 5 INTs) and is my no-brainer Heisman winner.  The good news is that TCU has the conference’s best passing defense (227.5 yards per game); the bad news is that puts them at 73rd in the FBS overall.  When these two teams last faced off, TCU’s conference-best defense allowed 333 passing yards and 200 rushing yards, forced zero turnovers and lost by 18.  Unless they hold Oklahoma to under 300 total yards they don’t stand a chance at keeping Oklahoma from their playoff berth.
  • #6 Georgia vs #4 Auburn, Saturday 4:00pm on CBS:  For me, this will be the best game of the weekend if Auburn RB Kerryon Johnson is able to play.  Johnson played through an injured shoulder against Alabama but it sounds like there is a chance he misses the SEC Championship.  Jonhson had 33 touches (for 125 total yards and a score) in the Alabama game which is the third time in four weeks that he has had 30+ touches, 125+ total yards and a touchdown.  Like TCU/Oklahoma, this game is a rematch from earlier in the year.  Auburn shellacked Georgia in that one by a final score of 40-17 (and it wasn’t even that close because of a late garbage time Georgia TD).  Georgia has the SEC’s second best defense, led by LB prospects Roquan Smith (100 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Lorenzo Carter (42-4), so I’ll bet that they’ll keep it closer the second time around.  This one is for all the marbles: the winner is onto the playoff without question while the loser is out of contention.
  • #7 Miami vs #1 Clemson, Saturday 8:00pm on ABC:  I have been picking against Miami all season long and it finally paid off with their upset against 4-7 Pitt.  I just don’t trust QB Malik Rosier because he is so inaccurate (55.2% on the season and 44.1% against Pitt).  Sophomore RB Travis Homer has filled in reasonably well for the injured Mark Walton but you’ll be hard pressed to find a tailback that can compensate for a quarterback missing half his passes.  Miami’s defense is 14th in points but 42nd in yards allowed which is an odd dichotomy.  Clemson has been my #2 squad for awhile and is now my top team.  I haven’t been a huge Kelly Bryant fan but he is a solid game manager as a passer and a dynamic rushing threat (639 yards and 10 TDs).  True freshman RB Travis Etienne is a burner who carved out a role for himself after a hot start.  Etienne has had more carries than incumbent Tavien Feaster in four straight games.  His stats have been mediocre but I am interested in seeing WR Deon Cain against Miami’s defense; Cain is a prospect that I have been lower on than the consensus.  I have highlighted many of the Clemson defensive stars (i.e. Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins) but a name that you may not know is LB Dorian O’Daniel.  O’Daniel has 80 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 INTs (both of which returned for scores in key Top 15 wins over Louisville and Virginia Tech).  If I had to bet meaningful money on any of the championship games, this would be the one.
  • #3 Wisconsin vs #8 Ohio State, Saturday 8:00pm on FOX:  As a Michigan and a Rutgers fan, I don’t know who to root for in this one.  It’s a shame there are no ties in college football.  Since Ohio State isn’t a shoo-in for the playoff with a win, it’s probably best for the conference for Wisconsin to win it.  The bright spot on Wisconsin’s offense is freshman RB Jonathan Taylor.  Ohio State has the 13th ranked rush defense in the FBS (112.8 yards per game) and has held opponents to 100 rushing yards or less in seven games this season (including three straight after they were gashed for 243 yards against Iowa).  Taylor has 125+ rushing yards in seven of his last eight games and I expect him to continue that streak.  Wisconsin’s rush defense is actually better than Ohio State’s (1st in the FBS at 80.5 yards per game) so I doubt that either JK Dobbins or Mike Weber will be a major factor.  Much of this game will come down to whether JT Barrett can return from a knee injury sustained against Michigan.  Ironically, I think that the Buckeyes might be better off with Dwayne Haskins under center because he’s more of a pass-oriented quarterback.  Wisconsin’s pass defense is ranked 2nd so while it may be weaker it’s hardly a weakness.  Regardless of who is under center, I think Ohio State will struggle to move the ball like they did early against Michigan, and the Badgers will win a close one.

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.

The Watch List: Week 3

Updated: September 12th 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. 

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Update: After two strong games to start the season, Josh Rosen will be climbing up ballots.  More on Rosen below.  Lamar Jackson, the reigning winner, will have to move up my personal ballot even though I am not a fan.  Through two games he has 771 passing yards, 5 TDs and zero INTs; plus 239 yards rushing and 3 TDs.  I can’t knock Jackson for his opponents either: both of those big games came against Power 5 teams in Purdue and North Carolina.  Darnold redeemed his Heisman hopes with a solid Week 2 outing against Stanford (316 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs) after a disappointing opener against Western Michigan (289-0-2).
  • Brian Kelly on the Hot Seat: The Irish kept it close against Georgia (20-19 final score) but the final score belies the situation.  Georgia was forced to start a true freshman at quarterback (Jake Fromm in for injured Jacob Eason) and should have taken advantage.  The more damning thing for Kelly might be the photos of the sea of red clad fans that peppered social media.  Georgia showed up en masse.  SB Nation tried to play it down but I think it will be tough for the administration to ignore the fact that fans may be turned off and staying home, whether or not it’s Kelly’s fault.  Landing on Deadspin with stories about his handling of the media won’t endear himself to university decision makers either.  I believe Kelly must win the next four games, and compete against USC in the fifth, in order to keep his job.  The opponents in that stretch are: Boston College, Michigan State, Miami of Ohio and North Carolina.  None of those teams should scare Notre Dame so a bad loss could mean Kelly doesn’t make it out of October.
  • Matt Rhule on a Hotter Seat: It’s odd to write that somebody is on the hot seat after coaching just two games but that must be the case for Rhule.  Baylor lost in Week 1 to Liberty of the FCS.  And to answer your question, no they are not some FCS powerhouse.  Liberty was 6-5 last year and was ranked 28th in the FCS heading into 2017.  After the win over Baylor they are just 19th in the FCS poll.  Baylor couldn’t possibly follow up that loss with a worse game, could they?  The Bears put up just 274 total yards in Week 2 against UTSA.  UTSA was 55th in total defense last year by yards, allowing 392 per game.  Between the two games Baylor also had 17 penalties.  So, not only are they losing but they are also undisciplined.  If Baylor doesn’t look better this week against Duke, I fear that Rhule might not even make it out of September (up after Duke in September are #2 Oklahoma and #18 Kansas State).

Players to Watch

  • Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA: There has been a lot to love so far about Rosen.  By now everybody has seen highlights of, and heard all about, the miraculous Week 1 comeback over Texas A&M.  If you were paying attention, you would have seen that Rosen followed that up with a 5 TD game against Hawaii.  Through two weeks, Rosen’s totals are eye popping: 820 yards, 9 TDs, 0 INTs and a 67.9% completion percentage.  I am most impressed with the improvement of his TD:INT ratio (just better than 2:1 in his career) and his completion percentage (60% in 2015, 59.3% in 2016).  It’s not all rainbows though as I did take note of some concerning things during that miracle against the Aggies.  Two of Rosen’s late touchdown tosses were bad throws that should have been intercepted.  If either was picked off it likely would have spelled the end of the comeback attempt.  There were also three penalties down the stretch that were costly, but not killer.  One was a delay of game and the other two were false starts because he called for the snap before the team was set.  These negatives make me question his awareness and will hopefully be corrected with experience.  If he limits mental mistakes, keeps his completion percentage north of 63% and his TD:INT ratio above 3:1, Rosen will be the top pick come the NFL Draft.
  • Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon: Staying within the Pac-12, let’s take a look at Freeman thus far…  He started off strong with 150 yards and 4 TDs against FCS squad Southern Utah.  Freeman kept it up against Nebraska last week with 153 yards and 2 TDs.  He’s a workhorse that had 23 and 29 carries in the two games respectively.  If you happen to be in a devy league, Freeman should be on your radar right now because his stock is bound to skyrocket over the next two months due to the weak rush defenses he will be facing.  The next time he faces a team that is currently ranked 70th or better is October 28 against Utah.  Up next are: Wyoming (83rd so far in rushing yards allowed per game), Arizona State (108th), Cal (96th), Washington State (71st), Stanford (114th), USC (110th) and UCLA (128th).  The Stanford and USC rankings are thrown off a bit by their matchup against each other but still, the schedule is very favorable.  Freeman is a big back who runs upright and looks like he’s running downhill.  He doesn’t show much wiggle but he doesn’t need it.  I’m looking forward to watching a ton of film of his in the offseason.
  • Rashaad Penny, RB/KR, San Diego State: In the preaseason, I predicted that the Aztecs would steal a Power 5 win because of their special teams play.  In addition to kicker John Baron going a perfect 3/3 on field goals against Arizona State, Penny contributed with a kick-off return touchdown to start the second quarter when the game was tied 7-7.  Penny has also been a huge factor on offense with 451 combined rushing and receiving yards and 4 combined TDs.  He’s a multi-dimensional player that is fun to watch.  SDSU is a contender for a New Year’s Six bowl berth and a win against #19 Stanford this week should get them into the Top 25 and cement those chances.  If Penny keeps it up he’ll follow former Aztec Donnel Pumphrey to the NFL (a 4th round pick by the Eagles, although he was much more accomplished as the NCAA all-time leading rusher).
  • Michael Gallup, WR, Colorado State: Gallup is leading the NCAA in receptions with 26 (he played an extra game than most) but he has just 304 yards and a single score.  Gallup will need to step it up over the next few weeks to keep his draft prospects high.  In Week 3 he will go up against the stout Alabama secondary which is full of future NFL talent, so let’s see how he does.

Games to Watch

  • Illinois @ #22 South FloridaFriday 7:00pm on ESPN: USF is currently the only Group of 5 team ranked in the Top 25.  Their non-conference schedule is laughably weak, with Illinois as the only Power 5 team.  Phil Steele had their strength of schedule ranked 110 out of 130 teams heading into the season.  Regardless, an undefeated campaign would likely land the Bulls in a New Year’s Six bowl game so there is some cash on the line this Friday night.
  • #23 Tennessee @ #24 Florida, Saturday 3:30pm on CBS: The Gators are off to a rough start.  The team suspended a number of players, including their leading rusher (Jordan Scarlett) and receiver (Antonio Callaway) from 2016 for the opener.  Subsequently, their offense was horrible with both Feleipe Franks and Malik Zaire versus Michigan.  Last week’s game against Northern Colorado, which would have been a good “get right” game was cancelled due to Hurricane Irma.  To make things even worse, word is that the suspensions may be extended and force Scarlett and Callaway to miss this matchup as well.  I’m not sold on either Franks or Zaire after seeing them against Michigan so I fear this may already be a lost season for Florida.  Tennessee’s offense is lead by RB John Kelly who started strong with 208 yards and 4 TDs; he also has added 10 receptions in two games.
  • #18 Kansas State @ Vanderbilt, Saturday 7:30pm on ESPNU: In my SEC preview, I predicted that Vandy would win 8 games this year.  They are off to a 2-0 headstart with convincing wins over Middle Tennessee State and Alabama A&M.  In order to hit my 8 win mark, the Commodores will likely need to steal a game against a ranked opponent.  Kansas State will be an easier get than #1 Alabama and #13 Georgia who they have coming up over the next three weeks.
  • #3 Clemson @ #14 Louisville, Saturday 8:00pm on ABC:  The quarterback matchup here will be an interesting contrast.  Lamar Jackson’s numbers are about as good as they can be (see above) while Kelly Bryant’s have been nowhere near those of the departed Deshaun Watson.  Bryant did show his toughness last week when he came back from injury to lead the team to a W.  Bryant has just one passing touchdown but does lead the team in rushing with 136 yards and 3 TDs.  If any defense can slow down, notice I didn’t say stop, Lamar Jackson, it will be Clemson’s.  The Tigers have 16 tackles for loss through two games and 11 sacks.  DE Austin Bryant outshined Christian Watkins and Dexter Lawrence last week with 7 tackles and 4 sacks.
  • Texas @ #3 USC, Saturday 8:30pm on FOX:  Texas is in turmoil at quarterback.  Sophomore Shane Buechel was supposed to be the starter after a decent freshman season but he bruised his shoulder during the upset to Maryland.  Apparently, head coach Tom Herman is now saying that even if he is healthy, there is no guarantee that Buechel starts over freshman Sam Ehlinger.  It might just be coach speak but it’s a mess already and not a good way to head into the biggest game of the young season.  Texas isn’t doing great on defense either where they are 79th against the run and are facing a Trojans team averaging 269.5 rushing yards a game so far.  Ronald Jones and Stephen Carr have caught my eye, specifically against Stanford, and have combined for 463 rushing yards and 7 TDs thus far.  They will continue to roll against the Longhorns.  Of course you should also keep an eye on Sam Darnold.
  • #19 Stanford @ San Diego State, Saturday 10:30pm on CBSSN: Not sure that I’m willing to call the straight-up upset here but I will definitely be taking SDSU with the points, especially since they are at home.  Rashaad Penny is quickly becoming one of my favorite players and I am looking forward to seeing him against another Power 5 team this week.

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.