The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part VI

Updated: December 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.  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.

Monday, Jan. 1

Outback Bowl, Michigan (8-4) vs. South Carolina (8-4), 12 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • Michigan: 88th scoring offense, 112th passing offense, 44th rushing offense; 14th scoring defense, 1st passing defense, 21st rushing defense
  • South Carolina: 99th scoring offense, 79th passing offense, 108th rushing offense; 27th scoring defense, 71st passing defense, 42nd rushing defense

As my readers know, I am a Michigan homer but I’m going to be as impartial here as possible. There is no reason this game should be on New Year’s Day. I guess the NCAA (read as: ESPN) prefer to have some of the biggest games spaced out on Dec 29 and Dec 30 but it’s hard to get excited by this matchup. Both teams are 8-4 and were a combined 1-5 against ranked teams (notably that single win was Michigan over #17 Florida in the first game of the season before we knew how bad Florida was going to be). The teams are also banged up: per Sports-Reference.com’s injury reports, the teams have a combined 22 players injured with varying severity.

Since Gamecocks WR Deebo Samuel has not returned to practice and will not play in the bowl, the most significant injury is likely to Michigan QB Brandon Peters. Peters started the year as the third stringer but was elevated to the starting role on Oct 28 against Rutgers. Wilton Speight got hurt in the team’s fourth game but wasn’t playing well anyway. Wolverines fans like myself got a taste of truly dreadful quarterback play when John O’Korn took over and struggled mightily. Peters has not been great (57.6% completion percentage, 4 TDs and 0 INTs) but he’s a significant improvement over the turnover prone O’Korn. The offense is led by a trio of running backs: Karan Higdon (929 yards, 11 TDs), Chris Evans (661-6) and Ty Isaac (548-2). Not surprisingly, none of the WRs are a factor. The team’s leading receiver is TE Sean McKeon (29-285-3). Keep an eye on FB Khalid Hill near the goal line. Hill only has 34 yards on 17 carries this season but he has three scores and had ten last year. Michigan’s defense is chock-full of NFL talent and they alone should warrant their own full-length piece. The biggest difference makers on that unit are DT Maurice Hurst and DE Rashan Gary. Hurst has 58 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks; Gary has 55-10.5-4. Gary is the better pro prospect, don’t be surprised if he’s a Top 3 pick in 2018, but the stats belie his skill because of how often he’s double teamed. This Youtube video is a good cut-up of 2016 highlights for a number of 2017’s key defensive players, including LBs Chase Winovich and Mike McCray.

It’s a shame Deebo Samuel won’t be back for the bowl after a broken leg. Reports earlier in the season were that he could return but he has not practiced. Samuel is draft eligible but he should probably return for another year. He has fifteen career touchdowns (7 rushing, 5 receiving, 3 returning) and is an explosive game breaker. Sophomore QB Jake Bentley regressed in 2017 in terms of his rate stats and efficiency. I have not watched much of Bentley so I’m not able to provide much analysis here but I’ll bet that there’s a good chance he doesn’t start 2018 as the starter. TE Hayden Hurst is the team’s best NFL prospect. He had 41 receptions for 518 yards and 2 TDs this year. He has not been a high volume scorer (just 3 career TDs) but he is a good pass catcher and at least an average blocker in my film study. Hurst was my TE2 when I did 2018 rookie positional rankings in November; he’ll probably come in a little lower than that but he’s still a possible rookie pick in many fantasy leagues. LB Skai Moore is a four year contributor who has 346 career tackles, 5 career sacks and 14 career interceptions. Moore is WalterFootball.com’s 12th ranked OLB. His versatility in pass coverage should earn him a Day Two draft pick.

Michigan’s defense, without a doubt, will be the most dominant unit on the field in this one. I’ll make the homer pick and take my Wolverines. Prediction: Michigan

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, #7 Auburn (10-3) vs. #12 Central Florida (12-0), 12:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Auburn: 25th scoring offense, 68th passing offense, 22nd rushing offense; 10th scoring defense, 17th passing defense, 32nd rushing defense
  • UCF: 1st scoring offense, 7th passing offense, 34th rushing offense; 53rd scoring defense, 111th passing defense, 66th rushing defense

What a game this one is going to be.  We all know the story surrounding outgoing UCF head coach Scott Frost so let’s not beat the proverbial dead horse because the spotlight should be on the players.

Auburn had a roller coaster of a season.  Heading into SEC play they were 2-1 but with two poor wins and a close loss to #3 Clemson.  They made it up to #10 but a loss to LSU bumped them all the way down to #21.  From there they worked their way into the playoff picture with wins over #2 Georgia and #1 Alabama (both of whom are playing in the playoff despite their losses to Auburn).  A poor showing in the rematch against Georgia sealed their outside-looking-in fate.  Throughout the season they were led by two players on offense: QB Jarrett Stidham and RB Kerryon Johnson.  I was lukewarm regarding Stidham for most of the year but he won me over against Alabama.  I wrote him up that week and compared him favorably to Alex Smith.  He’s an efficient and athletic game manager which sounds like an insult but it’s actually high praise (don’t forget that Smith was taken first overall in 2005).  Stidham threw just one INT in SEC play but has a mixed bag of results in the year’s biggest games (good games against Georgia and Alabama, bad games against Georgia and Clemson).  UCF has a poor passing defense so I expect Stidham to put up big numbers.  Kerryon Johnson has battled some injuries this season but he was still very productive in eleven games (1,320 rushing yards, 23 rushing TDs, 23 receptions, 188 receiving yards, 2 receiving TDs).  I did not rank Johnson in my Top 15 for 2018 rookie RBs but his success in November has me re-thinking that: over 700 totals yards and 15 total TDs.  As far as non-offensive skill positions go, the Tigers have three NFL talents.  At corner, Carlton Davis could land near the end of the first round.  According to Pro Football Focus, Davis was the 50th ranked player in “Cover Snaps per Reception” and was average in passer rating against.  Still, my preferred draft sources (WalterFootball.com and NFLDraftScout.com) favor him over guys I like more like Josh Jackson or Jaire Alexander.  OG Braden Smith will be a second tier option for teams who miss on the elite prospects in a guard-heavy draft.  K Daniel Carlson will end up getting drafted before the 6th round by some team desperate to end their kicking woes; he has played in 52 career games and hit on 90 of his 111 attempts (plus a perfect 195-195 record on PATs).  In a game destined to come down to who has the ball last, Carlson could be a factor.

The UCF offense is all about QB McKenzie Milton.  I have been praising him for a few weeks now because he is one of the purest passers I remember watching in recent memory.  His deep ball looks effortless and he’s not afraid to throw it – he can just spin it.  Milton played as a freshman in 2016 but exploded in 2017.  He threw for 3,795 yards and 35 TDs and completed 69.2% of his passes.  The biggest knock on Milton is his size.  He’s listed at 5’11” and 177lbs and that might be soaking wet with two sets of shoulder pads on.  I don’t think there is any way we talk about Milton as a pro prospect next year so enjoy him now as a fun to watch college QB.  WR Tre’Quan Smith is the biggest benefactor of Milton’s prolific passing.  He only caught 54 balls but went for 1,082 yards (an outstanding 20.0 yards per reception) and 13 TDs.  Per PFF, Smith is fourth in the FBS in “Deep Receiving Catch Rate” by catching 68.4% of his deep attempts.  Smith has 50+ receptions in each of his three seasons so who knows maybe another solid 2018 gets him drafted.  UCF does not have any high level NFL hopefuls but you should read up on LB Shaquem Griffin.  He was the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2016 after finishing with 92 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.  His stats all decreased this year but that doesn’t make him any less fun to watch.  Griffin’s left hand was amputated in 1999 and against all odds he is pushing for a shot in the NFL.  I envy people like Griffin who can overcome their physical limitations to do great things, I’m not sure I would have the strength to do so myself, and I don’t doubt for a second that he’ll make an impression on NFL scouts.

I’m not a gambler but if I were, I would avoid this one.  I’m picking with my heart and not my head here: I love watching UCF and am rooting for them to show the playoff committee that they deserved a chance.  Prediction: Central Florida

Citrus Bowl, #17 LSU (9-3) vs. #14 Notre Dame (9-3), 1 p.m. (ABC)

  • LSU: 72nd scoring offense, 86th passing offense, 30th rushing offense; 16th scoring defense, 20th passing defense, 22nd rushing defense
  • Notre Dame: 22nd scoring offense, 104th passing offense, 7th rushing offense; 32nd scoring defense, 51st passing defense, 49th rushing defense

LSU has earned some headlines over the last 24 hours as reports have come out that offensive coordinator Matt Canada is leaving the team.  Canada’s offense is famous for its pre-snap shifts and movement.  Ironically, Canada’s career is famous for its movement too because he can’t stick around anywhere too long (six different schools since 2010); maybe the gimmick just isn’t worth all of the effort and time it must take to learn.  Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is always surrounded by rumors too because half the fan base hates him.

LSU was an enigma to me this season.  Midway through the year, I was honestly surprised to see that 5-2 LSU was ranked #24.  One of those losses was to Troy from the Sun Belt which would seem to be disqualifying.  Of the other Power 5 teams in the Top 25, only Stanford (vs San Diego State) has a loss to a Group of 5 team; and that is without a doubt a stronger loss than LSU’s.  I guess the committee felt that LSU’s win over then #10 Auburn more than made up for the bad loss (but by that logic Ohio State should have been in over Alabama).  LSU has two players who will go at the top of drafts: DE Arden Key in the NFL Draft and RB Derrius Guice in your rookie draft.  Guice has been as under the radar as the soon to be 1.02 can.  Saquon Barkley has, deservedly, received a ton of attention this season but second tier backs like Ronald Jones and Bryce Love have stolen some of the shine that should be on Guice.  He has confirmed that he will play in the Citrus Bowl which is good because I figured he might follow former teammate Leonard Fournette’s lead and skip the bowl.  Guice had a solid season but was not as dominant as he was last year when sharing the backfield with Fournette.  This year Guice finished with a 1,153-11 line.  He’s not a big receiving threat (just 29 career receptions, 15 of which came this year) which could limit his utility at the start of his NFL career.  It turns out that my feelings about Guice from August were spot-on: “I’m very interested to see how Guice does without Fournette…in 2017.  If he can repeat even 75% of his production from 2016 he’ll be a first round NFL back.  What I saw in Guice’s tape was not enough for me to push him to RB1 over Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, but at worst, Guice will be your 1.02 for 2018.”  Injuries derailed Arden Key’s season and will cause him to miss the bowl.  He still has an elite size and speed combination plus enough production to guarantee he finds the Top 10 in the NFL Draft.  WR DJ Chark had 47 touches for 874 total yards and 4 TDs; his production is undraftable but his 6’4″ height could get him a look.  CB Donte Jackson is WalterFootball.com’s 3rd ranked corner.

The strength of Notre Dame’s team, stop me if you’ve heard this before, is their offensive line.  I would not at all be surprised for Notre Dame to have both the first tackle and the first guard drafted, both likely in the Top 15.  T Mike McGlinchey (6’8″ and 315lbs) and G Quentin Nelson (6’5″ and 330lbs) were both first team All-Americans.  They pave the way for RB Josh Adams and QB Brandon Wimbush to rack up rushing yards.  Adams finished with 1,386 yards and 9 TDs while Wimbush had 766 and 14.  I am not a fan of Wimbush because he is such an inaccurate passer but you can’t deny his ability as a runner.  I have waffled on Adams throughout the season but I remain concerned about his size at the next level (he’s too tall – click the link for my analysis).  In Week 9, I predicted he’d be a 3rd round rookie draft pick and I’ll stand by that now.  It’s a shame that Wimbush has struggled to complete passes because WR Equanimeious St. Brown (my vote for the first player to break RSO’s draft software because of the length of this name) has such potential.  St. Brown is long and lean (he really needs to add about 10lbs to make it in the NFL) with a good pedigree (4 star recruit, offers from a number of big schools).  If he comes out he is going to have to dominate the combine because his production is below average (90-1,437-13 in two seasons as a starter).  LB Nyles Morgan considered coming out after his junior year (88 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 4 sacks) but returned to school; unfortunately for Morgan, 2017 probably hurt his stock more than helped it (82-6.5-1).  Both WalterFootball.com and NFLDraftScout.com have him as either a 7th rounder or undrafted.

I struggled to pick this one because I’m not a fan of either team.  I’ll take LSU because of Guice and the strength of their defense (even without Key).  Prediction: LSU

College Football Playoff Semifinal #1, Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual, #3 Georgia (12-1) vs #2 Oklahoma (12-1), 5 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Georgia: 23rd scoring offense, 111th passing offense, 11th rushing offense; 3rd scoring defense, 2nd passing defense, 12th rushing defense
  • Oklahoma: 4th scoring offense, 3rd passing offense, 27th rushing offense; 52nd scoring defense, 87th passing defense, 39th rushing defense

And here we are, finally the College Football Playoff, 39 games later.  The Georgia vs Oklahoma matchup may lack the familiarity of the Alabama vs Clemson matchup but it will be equally entertaining featuring a great matchup of Oklahoma’s offense against Georgia’s defense.  Baker Mayfield is apparently sick but there’s no way that it keeps him off the field.

Oklahoma’s season was momentarily disrupted by their Oct 7 loss to Iowa State but they went on to win eight straight including three wins against teams ranked #8, #10 and #11.  Coming into the season, I had serious doubts about whether Baker Mayfield was going to 1) win the Heisman and 2) become a top NFL prospect.  Turns out that I was wrong on both accounts.  Mayfield has been exceptional this season.  Who would have thought it would be possible to improve on his 2016 numbers, but he did.  Mayfield finished with 4,340 yards (2nd in FBS), 41 passing TDs (2nd) and completed 71.0% of his passes (1st).  His interceptions went down, his yards per attempt went up, and on and on.  There just aren’t enough superlatives for what Mayfield accomplished on the field this season, especially considering that he is a former walk-on at Texas Tech.  Mayfield does have some “character” question marks but I don’t think any of them are enough to ding his draft stock.  I had Mayfield as my QB6 when I ranked potential 2018 rookies but I think he’ll likely be in the QB4 range by moving ahead of Luke Falk and Lamar Jackson.  I expect Mayfield to be drafted in the first half of the first round in April; depending on his landing spot he could be a factor in fantasy leagues as a rookie.  Mayfield is surrounded by a strong supporting cast composed mostly of underclassmen.  That includes sophomore RB Rodney Anderson (960 yards, 11 TDs), freshman RB Trey Sermon (710-5) and freshman WR CeeDee Lamb (40 receptions, 741 yards, 7 TDs).  Aside from Mayfield, the best pro prospect is TE Mark Andrews.  Andrews is 6’5″ and 254lbs and often plays in the slot to maximize his size advantage over smaller corners and safeties.  Andrews is certainly not the most well-rounded TE in the class but he will likely be the first drafted in 2018 rookie drafts for his receiving ability.  In my early 2018 mock rookie draft I had Andrews as the 2.10 pick and the first TE off the board.  Andrews led the team in receptions (58) and receiving TDs (8) and was second in receiving yards (906).  LT Orlando Brown seems to be a polarizing player in mock drafts as I have seen him as high as the 2nd overall pick to the 18th overall pick to all the way down to 59th overall.  The Sooners defense is led by DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo.  Okoronkwo has two straight 70+ tackle and 8+ sack seasons.  He landed on numerous second team All-American lists and was the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year (shared with Malik Jefferson).

Georgia had some quarterback controversy very early in the year when freshman Jake Fromm took over for the injured Jacob Eason in the season opener.  Regardless of how well Eason played in 2016 as a freshman, there was no way he was getting the job back from Fromm once he took over.  By virtue of their strong rushing game, Fromm is not counted on to throw the ball much (he had six games with fewer than ten completions) but when he does he is efficient.  He ended the season with 21 TDs and 5 INTs and had rate stats significantly higher than those of Eason in 2016.  The run game is a three-headed monster featuring Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift.  Chubb led the way with 1,175 yards and 13 TDs; Michel had 948 yards and 13 TDs; Swift had 597 yards and 3 TDs.  Neither Chubb nor Michel are pass catchers but Swift did have 15 receptions.  Swift is a true freshman and a name to watch for next season after Chubb and Michel leave for the NFL.  Both Chubb and Michel were drafted in my 2018 early mock draft (Chubb at 1.03, Michel at 2.06).  Chubb has an injury history which may trouble some NFL teams but he’s been mostly healthy since his 2015 knee injury.  Swift closed out the SEC Championship game against Auburn and had 94 total yards on 10 touches – look for a similar output here in the bowl because Georgia will need to get the ball out quick to neutralize the pass rush.  The Georgia defense is led by two LBs who are bound to be IDP considerations in 2018.  The lesser prospect is DE/OLB rusher Lorenzo Carter.  Carter had 48 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries this season.  I researched him back in Week 4 and guessed he could end up as a first rounder – that may be a little high but he could still get picked on Day Two.  Roquan Smith is an elite prospect.  He was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year and is a first team All-American.  In 2016 he had 95 tackles with no sacks, this year he improved to 113 tackles and 5 sacks.  He’s the top draft eligible player at the position and will be a Top 10 draft pick.

I’m taking Oklahoma purely because of Baker Mayfield.  If the game is close, he’ll find a way to win it.  I worry that Georgia could get an early lead and milk to clock with their run game but if they start slow they’ll struggle to keep up with Mayfield, et al.  Prediction: Oklahoma

College Football Playoff Semifinal #2, Allstate Sugar Bowl, #4 Alabama (11-1) vs #1 Clemson (12-1), 8:45 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Alabama: 12th scoring offense, 83rd passing offense, 10th rushing offense; 1st scoring defense, 7th passing defense, 3rd rushing defense
  • Clemson: 21st scoring offense, 52nd passing offense, 33rd rushing offense; 2nd scoring defense, 8th passing defense, 13th rushing defense

How often is the third installment of a trilogy the best?  Probably never unless you’re a big Return of the Jedi fan.  I don’t think this one will have the juice of the last two matchups because we’re missing the star that is Deshaun Watson.  Don’t get me wrong it’ll be entertaining but we won’t be seeing this one on ESPN Classic in ten years.

Alabama snuck into the playoff in my opinion.  If it were up to me, I would have taken Ohio State because they won their conference and did not have any FCS wins.  Sure, Alabama has one less loss but in my mind they also have two less wins.  Alabama is full of familiar names so we’ll go through them quickly.  QB Jalen Hurts feels like he’s been around for half a decade but he’s just a sophomore.  He is a run-first quarterback (he led the team in rush attempts with 137) who really improved as a passer this year.  His yards per attempt went up to 9.0 from 7.3 and he threw just one INT (he also only lost one fumble).  He didn’t run as much in 2017 as he did in 2016 but he also increased his yards per rush this year.  Nick Saban trusts him with the ball in his hands and you can see why.  In the preseason, my preferred Crimson Tide RB was Bo Scarborough; he disappointed this year with just 549 yards and 8 TDs.  I will be lowering him in my 2018 rookie rankings (assuming he comes out).  The best back this year was Damien Harris who is also draft eligible; he leapfrogged Scarborough in my early 2018 positional rankings.  Harris ran for 906 yards and 11 TDs but added just 8 receptions.  He’ll probably be an early 2nd round rookie pick for me next year.  WR Calvin Ridley is still my WR1 despite the fact that many draft analysts disagree with me.  Ridley’s production has been hampered by a run-heavy offense so of course we aren’t going to see production like Amari Cooper or Julio Jones.  Ridley is a little too light so I would like to see him add about 10lbs in the offseason to approximate Cooper’s size.  Ridley has a pedigree that few prospects can match: he was ESPN’s #1 recruit in his class and was the leading receiver for Alabama in three straight seasons in which they contended for the national championship.  I’m not scared off by his decreasing production and will keep him as my WR1 until he proves me otherwise.  Alabama has a number of defensive prospects including LB Rashaan Evans, S Ronnie Harrison and DT Da’Shawn Hand but the number one guy is DB Minkah Fitzpatrick.  Fitzpatrick has played both corner and safety so he offers versatility in both pass coverage and run support.  His stats decreased from 2016 (66 tackles vs 55, 6 INTs vs 1) but he was battling a hamstring injury so that could have been the cause.  He has four career interception return touchdowns so when he has the ball in his hands he can change a game too.  Fitzpatrick is likely to go in the Top 3 in the NFL Draft and will instantly makeover a struggling defense.

I put out my first playoff ranking in Week 7 and had Clemson as the #1 team (I also had Alabama and Georgia, three out of four ain’t bad) and am happy to see them ascend back to the #1 spot after that loss to Syracuse.  Like Alabama, the strength of the team lies on defense.  There might be fix or six guys from the defense drafted this Spring.  DT Christian Wilkins started the season with some preseason hype, played well and increased his stats in 2017 (52 tackles, 5.0 sacks).  Wilkins will be a first rounder but challenging him to be the first pick from Clemson will be DE Clelin Ferrell.  Ferrell is just a redshirt sophomore but he broke out in 2017 for 62 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks.  The defense also has two tackle machines in Kendall Joseph and Dorian O’Daniel.  The Clemson offense is similar to that of Alabama in that it features an efficient rush-first quarterback.  That quarterback is Kelly Bryant.  Bryant managed to play in each game despite an ankle injury and a concussion (he left that loss to Syracuse early due to the concussion).  Bryant only threw for 13 TDs but rushed for 11 more.  Freshman RB Travis Etienne is a burner who came on early in the season with some big plays to close out blowout wins.  He finished strong too: he had six scores over the last four games.  Etienne only had double digit carries twice so he’s not a high volume player but his speed means he’s only one missed tackle away from a touchdown.  WR Deon Cain (55-659-6) is a top receiver prospect for many analysts but I’m not sold.  He does not have elite size or production; I’ll wait and see how he does at the combine but I’m not sure his speed will make up for the other aspects.  Cain was suspended for the semi-final and championship games in 2015 after a failed drug test which will factor into his draft evaluation too.  WRs Hunter Renfrow and Ray-Ray McCloud are undersized but trustworthy possession receivers.

I’m not sure they deserve to be here based on their resume but the Tide deserve to be here based on their roster.  Save for the defensive line, Alabama arguably has better players at every position than Clemson.  Roll Tide.  Prediction: Alabama


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.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Week 13

Updated: November 22nd 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 13 AP poll.  CFP rankings were not yet available at the time of writing.

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Update:  Despite some new “character concerns” about Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, he’s still my Heisman favorite.  Mayfield threw for 257 yards and 3 TDs against Kansas – solid but not standout.  What did standout was Mayfield grabbing his crotch and cursing at Kansas players.  The school has already announced that he will not start against West Virginia but whether that means he misses one play, one drive or one quarter we don’t know.  Chances are that however long the discipline lasts it won’t impact his Heisman hopes.  I’ve slightly wavered recently about who the #2 on the ballot should be between Saquon Barkley or Bryce Love.  This week clinched it for me.  Love went for 101 yards and a score against Cal but left early in the 4th quarter, still hampered by an ankle injury which has impacted him in multiple games.  Meanwhile, Barkley racked up 224 total yards and scored three rushing touchdowns.  I don’t really see a clear-cut defensive player who might land on the ballot and earn a trip to New York for the ceremony.  Preseason chalk favorites like Florida State S Derwin James or Alabama CB Minkah Fitzpatrick might get the nod but I would bet against them and take the field.  Realistically, a dark horse defensive hopeful needs to come from a Power 5 school and have some big games in conference.  I would look at North Carolina State DE Bradley Chubb as the top option.  Chubb has 66 tackles, 22 tackles for loss and 10 sacks.  Most of his sacks (8.5) came in conference games (I’m including the game against Notre Dame since they are effectively ACC football members); he had three 2+ sack games against Florida State, Syracuse and Boston College.  A darker-horse option might be Iowa CB Joshua Jackson.  Jackson has 43 tackles, 7 INTs and 17 passes defended.  The biggest reason Jackson could get a visit to NYC?  His performance in two nationally televised games versus Top 10 teams (Ohio State and Wisconsin).  In those two games, Jackson totaled 5 INTs and returned two for TDs against Wisconsin.  As much as I’d love for my sleeper defensive Heisman pick, Ball State DE Anthony Winbush, to get a vote it’s much more likely to go to a player from a Power 5 team who showed out when voters were watching.
  • Playoff Picture:  As of this writing on Monday evening, I do not expect the CFP committee to make any changes to the Top 4.  I think Alabama, Clemson, Miami and Oklahoma will still be there but I would not be surprised if Clemson and Miami flip spots.  Proponents of an 8- or 16-team playoff format should really pay attention to the schedule this week and next.  9 of the Top 10 in the current AP poll will play another Top 10 team over the next two weeks.  That makes all of those games playoff play-in games essentially.  If Auburn loses to Alabama – they’re out.  If Wisconsin loses to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship – they’re out.  And so on.  I’m not even sure that undefeated Alabama or Miami can get by with a loss and still stay in the Top 4.  The biggest knock on both teams this season has been their strength of schedule and a loss, albeit against another Top 10 team, would bump them out.  My current prediction is: Alabama (over Auburn and Georgia), Clemson (over Miami), Wisconsin (over Ohio State) and Oklahoma (over TCU).  I think Wisconsin lands ahead of Oklahoma because Wisconsin’s win over Ohio State should rate better than Oklahoma’s against TCU.
  • Coaching Carousel:  There’s a phrase used in the NFL to describe the day after the season ends when most coaches are fired: Black Monday.  The FBS is coming up on it’s own “Black Sunday” in less than a week so I thought it was a good time to check in on the coaching carousel.  Rather than spotlighting players this week, we are going to briefly examine a number of coaches who are under the microscope.  You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to follow the rumors but two useful pages I came across are here and here.  Why should you care?  Aside from the ridiculousness of the will-he-won’t-he, the impending coaching changes will greatly impact the draft stock of certain players.  Some key draft prospects could decide to declare early or stay for an extra season depending on what happens with their head coach; some players, typically underclassmen, could decide to transfer and sit out a season; coaching changes could also be a factor with graduate transfers where the player doesn’t have to sit out and can pick their landing spot like an NFL free agent.

Coaches to Watch

  • Chip Kelly, ESPN “Analyst”:  Kelly is probably the sexiest name that’s been bandied about because of his immense success at Oregon (his failures in the NFL notwithstanding).  I have heard Kelly connected to both the Florida job and the UCLA job.  I’d guess that Kelly would lean towards UCLA given his PAC-12 experience but that’s just a gut call.  Kelly belongs in the college game so I’ll be happy to see him back.  Wouldn’t it be fun if he signs with UCLA and convinces Josh Rosen to come back for another season?  Hmm.  Is a return to Oregon completely out of the question?  Double hmm.
  • Jon Gruden, ESPN Analyst:  Gruden’s name has come up with Florida and also Tennessee.  One of the reasons I heard that he would consider Tennessee is that his wife was a cheerleader there.  The real connection is that Gruden was a graduate assistant at Tennessee in 1986.  Yeah, I’m still not buying it.  I will continue to believe that Gruden stays in the booth until proven otherwise.  He has passed up better jobs than either Florida or Tennessee in both college and the NFL.  Also, don’t forget that he’s never been a head coach at the college level so why start now?
  • Scott Frost, UCF Coach:  Frost is a Nebraska alum so the connect-the-dots analysis has him going there whenever the Huskers fire coach Mike Riley.  Nebraska does play in the weaker Big Ten West but I don’t see them unseating Wisconsin anytime soon even with Frost.  In my opinion, his best shot at playing in New Year’s Six bowls is by staying at UCF for another season or two.  By then he might get a shot at a true A+ job.  Frost to Oregon instead of Nebraska isn’t that far off either, he worked there under Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich from 2009-2015.
  • Willie Taggart, Oregon Coach:  Speaking of Oregon, the SB Nation article I linked to above has multiple mentions of Willie Taggart being considered for other positions.  Why?  Taggart is just 6-5 so far in his first season with Oregon.  I like his potential as he salvaged two programs in Western Kentucky and USF but it’s a bit premature to jump to another premier job for Taggart.  If he does move on (or maybe is fired, who knows) I’ll bet rumors about Oregon will swirl faster than Florida and Tennessee.  It’s fun to imagine Chip Kelly returning to Eugene or an offensive mind like Scott Frost bringing some excitement back to the Ducks.  If Oregon was guaranteed to get either Kelly or Frost, I think they would part ways with the underwhelming Taggart in a blink.
  • Jimbo Fisher, Florida State Coach:  The Seminoles are having a bad season for sure but is it bad enough for Jimbo to jump ship?  I don’t think so.  He’ll have Deondre Francois back next year and has a great young running back in Cam Akers.  He’ll lose some NFL talent like WR Auden Tate and S Derwin James but the cupboard is perpetually full in Tallahassee.  If Jimbo leaves for Texas A&M as was speculated last week, I think it would be a big mistake.  I also heard that Auburn could be a possibility for Jimbo if that job opened up.  I don’t see that one either.  Moving into a division with Nick Saban is a good way to get yourself fired in three years.

Games to Watch

  • #22 USF at #15 UCF, Friday 3:30pm on ABC:  The Friday after Thanksgiving usually gives us a few good college football games but this year is a pretty poor slate despite featuring #3 Miami and #12 TCU.  The game with the biggest possibility to create bowl chaos is UCF’s matchup against USF.  If UCF wins, they likely guarantee themselves a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl as I don’t think Memphis would overtake them even with the head-to-head championship win (don’t forget UCF already beat them 40-13 this season so the series would be tied at 1-1).  If USF wins, they put themselves back in the AAC conversation.
  • #9 Ohio State at #24 Michigan, Saturday 12:00pm on FOX:  Simply, “The Game.”  Michigan is adding injury to insult now that third string QB Brandon Peters is hurt along with recently banged up RBs Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac.  John O’Korn will likely be under center and I have zero confidence in him as a Michigan fan.  Ohio State’s QB JT Barrett has struggled in November and needs to finish his career with three strong games to get NFL draft consideration.  I was encouraged to see that RB Mike Weber was back in the fold the last two weeks (162-2 and 108-2).  I was high on him to start the season but have tempered expectations after freshman JK Dobbins took over the lead role.  It’s good to see Weber dominate again, even if in a blowout.  It goes without saying but this one means a lot this season as Ohio State must have it to stay in consideration for the playoff.
  • #1 Alabama at #6 Auburn, Saturday 3:30pm on CBS:  Stop me if you’ve heard this before… the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn will be the best matchup of the weekend.  I did not realize just how high powered the Auburn offense was until I started to research.  They have scored 40+ points in nine of twelve games and in four straight.  They are led by RB Kerryon Johnson (1,172 yards, 16 TDs) but keep an eye on sophomore Kam Martin.  Martin had 83 yards and a score last week against UL-Monroe and is getting more touches with Kamryn Pettway injured.  QB Jarrett Stidham continues to be efficient (68.7% completion percentage) and careful with the ball (just 4 INTs).  Alabama’s rush-heavy offense is still paced by the familiar names of Damien Harris, Bo Scarborough, Najee Harris and QB Jalen Hurts but there is one other player who will factor in: sophomore Josh Jacobs.  Jacobs has 50+ total yards in five of the last six games and is a factor in the passing game.  In those five games, Jacobs has two receptions in each game and is averaging 15.9 yards per catch with two touchdowns.  If you haven’t watched much of the Alabama’s defense this season, now is your chance against a good Auburn offense.  CB/S Minkah Fitzpatrick says he’s 100% healthy now and will be a Top 5 draft pick come April.  S Ronnie Harrison is also looking at a first round draft grade.  If you play in an IDP league, check these two out now so you can be ahead of your opponents.
  • #14 Washington State at #18 Washington, Saturday 8:00pm on FOX:  If the Cougars can win The Apple Cup they will earn the PAC-12 North’s championship berth against USC.  Washington is out of contention; if Washington wins, it means that Stanford gets the spot (regardless of the outcome of their game against Notre Dame).  I don’t have a dog in the fight so I’m just hoping for a good game and some good performances from the NFL prospects on the field (i.e. Washington State QB Luke Falk and Washington WR Dante Pettis).  The Stanford vs Notre Dame game may actually be a better game to watch but since Stanford cannot control their own destiny, this is the one to tune into at 8:00pm.

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.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Week 9

Updated: October 25th 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: I am officially out of superlatives for Penn State RB Saquon Barkley. Barkley made mincemeat of the usually strong Michigan defense for 161 total yards and 3 TDs last week. As mentioned in this space last week, Stanford RB Bryce Love was off this past weekend and is questionable for their Thursday night game against Oregon State. I think the Heisman will be out of reach if he misses any time with injury. Lamar Jackson would likely be my number three vote at this point. Jackson had 334 yards and 2 TDs combined passing and rushing. USC QB Sam Darnold had another down game, he threw his tenth interception and lost his sixth fumble.  There are louder murmurs now about the possibility of Darnold returning for another year instead of coming out as a redshirt sophomore.  Maybe my Christian Hackenburg comparison was apt.  Sadly, I don’t see any strong defensive player candidates but somebody who needs your attention is Ball State DE Anthony Winbush.  I tried to get his name out there heading into Week 4 but I still never see him mentioned online.  He is leading the FBS in sacks (9.5) and adds 34 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 4 forced fumbles. Winbush may get one lone Heisman vote from some like-minded writer but I’m throwing his name out more for draft consideration instead.
  • AAC Battle: The three top teams in the AAC are battling it out to be the best Group of 5 team left standing at the end of the season. That is important because the best Group of 5 team will get a New Year’s Six bowl bid. Guessing whether that representative will be South Florida (#17), Central Florida (#18) or Memphis (#25) is a pointless endeavor at this point. USF and UCF are undefeated and will presumably stay that way until their late season matchup, but Memphis has the best out-of-conference win (UCLA).
  • Big 12 Standings are a Big Mess: The Big 12 has one team at 4-0 (TCU) and four tied at 3-1 (Iowa State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and West Virginia); all five are ranked in the Top 25. Four of those five play this weekend in a pair of games that could completely throw the conference standings into chaos. Personally, I’m rooting for an Iowa State win over TCU and a West Virginia win over Oklahoma State – that would all but guarantee that no Big 12 team gets into the playoff (all the better for my Big 10 fandom).

Players to Watch

  • Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU: Sutton has not attracted as much attention this season as he did last year, at least per my Twitter feed.  Perhaps part of that is the incredible surge from junior WR Trey Quinn over the last three games.  In those three games, Quinn has 49 receptions, 458 yards and 3 TDs.  Sutton is no slouch, he went 24-353-4 in the same span, but he’s definitely not getting the same social media buzz as Quinn this month.  Don’t get it twisted: Sutton is still a top WR prospect.  On the season, Sutton has 37 receptions, 570 yards and 9 TDs (last year was 76-1,246-10).  Sutton has elite size (6’4″ and 216lb) which puts him on par with dynasty favorites like Michael Thomas and Allen Robinson.  If Sutton times faster than 4.50, it would put him in range of AJ Green.  Sutton ran a 4.75 as a recruit per ESPN and NFLDraftScout.com has him in the 4.55 vicinity.  I watched Sutton’s 2017 film against Houston.  There were two great plays that Sutton made that I noted.  The first came late in the second quarter where he caught one over his left shoulder while running towards the left sideline, a very difficult play that his body control made possible.  The second play was in the third quarter when Sutton took a screen pass and used his speed and open-field running skills to turn it into a 30+ yard play.  He got a great block from a teammate but still his juke and hesitation move froze a defender and allowed him to turn it into a big play.  There were a number of other times when Sutton made the first defender miss in an effort to pick up an extra yard or two.  Unfortunately, Sutton did have multiple drops in the first half and he followed up that great over the shoulder grab with an offensive pass interference in the end zone.  The DraftBreakdown.com film I watched only showed two plays when Sutton was called on to block and neither was very convincing.  Per Pro Football Focus, Sutton has a drop rate of 8.8% which is middle of the pack for somebody of his draft potential (for comparison, his teammate Quinn is 1.8% while James Washington is 5.6%).  Sutton clearly has elite size and ability and will be somewhere in my WR2-5 range for the 2018 draft which means he should end up with a first round RSO grade.
  • Josh Adams, RB, Notre Dame: I did a quick preview of Adams in the offseason and was nonplussed, however, at the rate that he’s producing it was time for a second look.  Adams went for 191 yards and 3 scores against USC last week which was impressive to say the least (that Trojan defense is full of NFL talent).  More impressive is that Adams is averaging 9.2 yards per carry on 105 carries.  Averaging 9.2 yards per carry is impressive if the sample size is 20, let alone 105.  One knock on Adams is that he is not a big part of the passing game, just 8 receptions in 2017.  Adams measures in at 6’2″ and 225lb.  For a running back that is quite tall.  Adams would be one of the biggest RB prospects since 2010 (5th biggest per my review of combine stats).  In his weight range, 220-230, he would be just the second to measure 6’2″ or taller (Alfred Blue).  If you increase the upper bound of the weight, you add in guys like Derrick Henry and Matt Jones.  Unfortunately, none of those are great comps.  Henry has a lot of potential but he has not yet been able to unseat Demarco Murray, has been average in his limited role (7 TDs is nice but just 4.4 yards per carry) and the biggest concern of his would be his height making him a bigger target for injury-inducing hits.  There are a number of elite comps who are about an inch or so shorter, so it may seem trivial to care about one inch.  I would argue though that one inch is significant because NFL RBs only measure between 66-75″ which is a range of 9 inches.  So, that one inch is an 11% difference.  Use that 11% difference in terms of weight and we would have a very different outlook on a RB prospect if he weighed 200, 225 or 250lb.  Unfortunately, DraftBreakdown.com does not yet have any 2017 film for Adams so I was stuck watching highlights.  While I don’t love watching highlight reels, I do think Adams’ three rushing scores against USC are instructive.  One the first, Adams shows some patience behind the line of scrimmage as he cuts right then left through the hole and dives forward for the goal line.  One the second, he simply runs past everybody untouched showing his straight line speed; the nearest defender didn’t get within five yards even as Adams ran 86 yards at a sprint.  On the third, he shows some vision and play strength as he finds his way through a narrow hole on the right side of the line and avoids a tackle at the five yard line with a half-hop, half-cut move that gets him into the end zone with the defender on his back.  I need to see way more of Adams to make an educated guess about his draft stock but I am ready and willing to revise my original opinion.  For now, let’s call Adams a 4th-5th round NFL prospect and a 3rd round RSO target pending the team fit.

Games to Watch

  • #11 Oklahoma State at #22 West Virginia, 12:00pm Saturday on ABC: This matchup features the 1st and 5th ranked offenses by total yards and the 41st and 112nd ranked defenses. This is the new normal in the Big 12 so embrace it.  I took a closer look at WVU QB Will Grier last week and will need to focus on WR David Sills in a future piece; he has 46 receptions for 737 yards and a FBS-leading 15 TDs.
  • Rutgers at Michigan, 12:00pm Saturday on BTN: I will be at this game, making my periodic pilgrimage to the Big House, so of course I need to include it here. Michigan has lost two of three (the win was a close one against Indiana) while Rutgers has won two straight conference games (albeit versus Illinois and Purdue). The Michigan offense has struggled mightily and it might be time to see former 4 star recruit Brandon Peters; Peters was the #3 QB recruit per ESPN in 2016. Rutgers’ freshman RB Raheem Blackshear has touchdowns in back to back games and is a big play guy (7.3 yards per touch).
  • #2 Penn State at #6 Ohio State, 3:30pm Saturday on FOX: This game gets my vote for the Game of the Year; it will not disappoint. I’ve talked a lot about Penn State in recent weeks, specifically about Barkley and QB Trace McSorley, so I’m going to focus on the Buckeyes here. I fear that casual fans may be sleeping on OSU after their early loss to Oklahoma because they have been passed over for nationally televised games. Since then they have dominated, outscoring opponents 266-49 (including three conference foes and a bowl-bound Army). QB JT Barrett started slow and there were calls for his job but he has played better recently; he has thrown for 872 yards, 11 TDs and 0 INTs over the last three weeks. Add in 185 yards rushing and 3 TDs and you have 2015 level Barrett under center. True freshman RB JK Dobbins stole the focus from NFL hopeful Mike Weber and hasn’t looked back (775-5). Forget the rankings, don’t sleep on Ohio State.
  • #4 TCU at #25 Iowa State, 3:30pm Saturday on ABC/ESPN2: I have been a fan of Iowa State RB David Montgomery since early in the season when I first heard about his personal story and first took note of his tackle breaking ability. Pro Football Focus tracks a stat they call “missed tackles forced” that Montgomery leads by a sizable margin. Montgomery has put a number of highlight plays on film this year and it will be interesting to track him in 2018 when he is draft eligible. As noted above, a Cyclones win would throw the Big 12 standings into, well, a whirlwind.
  • #15 Washington State at Arizona, 9:30pm Saturday on PAC-12: It’s time for east coasters like myself to watch Arizona QB Khalil Tate. Tate has started the last three games and is playing very well, especially as a runner. As a passer he is an efficient, if underwhelming, 31-41 for 468 yards, 4 TDs and 1 INT in those three starts. As a runner he is simply unstoppable. He’s racked up 694 yards and 7 TDs in those contests including 327 yards against Colorado. Those three starts for Tate ended up in three big Ws over Colorado, UCLA and Cal. Arizona is now 3-1 in the conference and could challenge for a spot in the PAC-12 Championship if USC falters.

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.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper