The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part IV

Updated: December 26th 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.

Thursday, Dec. 28

Camping World Bowl, #22 Virginia Tech (9-3) vs. #19 Oklahoma State (9-3), 5:15 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Virginia Tech: 65th scoring offense, 61st passing offense, 63rd rushing offense; 5th scoring defense, 21st passing defense, 16th rushing defense
  • Oklahoma State: 3rd scoring offense, 1st passing offense, 43rd rushing offense; 86th scoring defense, 120th passing defense, 27th rushing defense

Six weeks ago it seemed that both of these teams could be destined for their conference championship games but late season losses to #5 Oklahoma and #10 Miami dashed those hopes.  It’ll be an interesting strength vs strength matchup when Oklahoma State has the ball.

When Oklahoma State does have the ball, they often score.  They average 46.3 points per game.  Their lowest output of the season came against Texas with just 13 points but other than that they have scored 31+ in every game.  Responsible for those points are QB Mason Rudolph, RB Justice Hill,  WR James Washington and WR Marcell Ateman.  Rudolph is one of my top 2018 rookie QBs for fantasy purposes (he’s big, good accuracy, typically limits mistakes and is a better runner than the stats show because of negative yardage from sacks).  I profiled Rudolph twice this season, once in the preseason and once in Week 4 if you’d like to read more.  I also discussed Washington in depth in Week 6 but to recap, he is a burner who was a high school track star.  He caught 69 balls this year for 1,423 yards and 12 TDs.  That works out to a 20.6 yards per reception average which was 10th in the FBS this season.  Washington will be a Top 3 WR in most fantasy leagues this Spring.  The other two offensive stars, Hill and Ateman, don’t get enough publicity.  Hill is a second year starter as a sophomore and already has nearly 2,500 career yards; he improved as a pass catcher this year which allows him to stay on the field for more snaps.  Ateman may just end up being the best pro player out of the group.  He’s big at 6’4″ and 220lbs and uses that frame to high point the ball and fight for contested catches.  Highlight reels can be misleading, but check out the string of catches he makes in this recent Youtube video from 1:22 to 1:45.  Ateman won’t get drafted as high as Washington but he’ll be productive in the NFL if he keeps playing like that.

Unfortunately for Hokie fans, they will be without senior WR Cam Phillips in this one as he heals from a hernia.  Phillips led the FBS in receptions early in the season and ended with a 71-964-7 line.  He has had 40+ receptions in each of his four seasons which is great sustained productdion.  He hasn’t been super productive as far as touchdowns go though (just 17) but he did have mediocre quarterback play for his first two seasons.  That quarterback play has been decent this season with freshman Josh Jackson.  Jackson has 2,743 yards, 19 TDs and 8 INTs, completes 60.3% of his passes and added 4 rushing TDs.  There’s a drop off from Phillips to the team’s next receiver, freshman Sean Savoy (39-454-4), so I expect the offense to struggle.  On defense, LB Tremaine Edmunds does not struggle.  Edmunds is a two year starter who totaled 101 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks this season.  He also added 3 forced fumbles.  Edmunds has been getting a lot of hype on Twitter lately so I think he’ll start moving up draft boards as people digest more film.  Edmunds is WalterFootball.com’s 4th ranked OLB prospect so a first round pick is not out of the question but second round is more likely.

The Hokies defense is good but they won’t be able to stop Oklahoma State’s offense.  Sure, they might slow them down and keep the Cowboys under 35 points but there’s no way Virginia Tech can match that with Phillips out.  I originally was going VaTech but I’ve flipped.  Prediction: Oklahoma State

Valero Alamo Bowl, #12 Stanford (9-4) vs. #15 TCU (10-3), 9 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Stanford: 39th scoring offense, 98th passing offense, 32nd rushing offense; 29th scoring defense, 72nd passing defense, 73rd rushing defense
  • TCU: 34th scoring offense, 59th passing offense, 52nd rushing offense; 12th scoring defense, 74th passing defense, 4th rushing defense

Between the Camping World Bowl at 5:15pm and the Alamo Bowl at 9:00pm, we are looking at a great doubleheader Thursday night with just enough time to sneak in a quick, late dinner with your significant other.  Stanford may be ranked higher, likely because of Bryce Love love, but I think TCU is the stronger team.  Both teams are coming off of conference championship losses so it’ll be interesting to see how they rebound.

Stanford started the season with Keller Chryst starting at quarterback with occasional appearances by freshman backup KJ Costello.  Costello took over full-time in the November 4th game against Washington State and struggled (9-20, 105 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT).  He has played better since but his stats are those of a game-manager rather than a game-winner.  The game-winner for the Cardinal is Heisman runner-up Bryce Love.  Love finished the season with 1,793 yards and 17 TDs.  He battled through injuries but still managed to miss just one game.  He’s a bit undersized but is still a workhorse with seven games of 20+ carries.  He had eleven games of 100+ yards (the lone game he didn’t hit the century mark was against Washington State when he came in very questionable), including 263 and 301 yard games.  I covered Love many times throughout the season as he moved up the Heisman ballot – my deepest dive was in Week 7.  Love is currently my RB5 for 2018 rookies because I am a little concerned about his size and durability; I expect him to be a late 1st or early 2nd round rookie fantasy draft pick in 2018.  On defense, Stanford is led by safety Justin Reid who had 92 tackles and 5 INTs in 2017.  He was voted to the second team All-America team and was a first team PAC-12 selection.  Reid will be a second round pick and will factor into IDP leagues as a rookie.

Per my research, TCU does not have any clear cut draft prospects, except maybe for senior LB Travin Howard.  Instead, I’ll touch on a few offensive players who will make a difference in this game.  First up is QB Kenny Hill.  Hill is a former Texas A&M transfer who has started both years at TCU.  He significantly improved his rate stats in 2017 (including completion percentage, passer rating, TD:INT ratio and yards per attempt) but was less of a factor as a runner this year.  He still had 4 rushing TDs but that was significantly less than his 10 from 2016.  RB Darius Anderson (768-8) is injured and may not play.  In his place senior Kyle Hicks will get more carries. Hicks was a 1,000 yard rusher last season but saw a reduced role behind Anderson this season.  My prediction for the player who most benefits from Anderson’s injury will be KR/WR KaVontae Turpin.  Turpin is tiny (5’9″ and 153lbs) but a potential game breaker.  In his career he has 17 career TDs: 1 passing, 2 rushing, 10 receiving, 3 returning punts and 1 returning kicks.  He had seven touches (6 receptions, 1 punt return) and 91 all-purpose yards (39 receiving, 52 returning punts) against Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship; that was the most touches he had had in six games.  I would expect a similar number of touches in the bowl game and bet he’ll score in some unexpected or spectacular way.

It’s hard picking against somebody of Bryce Love’s caliber but I’m taking the Horned Frogs.  I think that TCU’s strong rush defense will keep Love under 150 yards which will be enough to win a close one.  Prediction: TCU

Friday, Dec. 29

Belk Bowl, Wake Forest (7-5) vs. Texas A&M (7-5), 1 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Wake Forest: 32nd scoring offense, 35th passing offense, 47th rushing offense; 62nd scoring defense, 104th passing defense, 93rd rushing defense
  • Texas A&M: 44th scoring offense, 65th passing offense, 74th rushing offense; 81st scoring defense, 67th passing defense, 65th rushing defense

The biggest storyline surrounding either of these teams is surely FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher leaving Tallahassee for College Station.  Jimbo won’t be coaching in the bowl game, that duty will fall to special teams coach Jeff Banks, but I’m sure his presence will be felt.

Wake Forest started the season strong with four straight wins, three over eventual bowl teams, but went on to lose five of their last eight.  Their crowning victory in the second half of the season came against #19 North Carolina State who could have tied Clemson for the division lead if it weren’t for the Wake Forest loss.  Wake Forest’s senior QB John Wolford had the best season of his career in 2017.  He threw for 2,792 yards, 25 TDs and just 6 INTs.  What is most encouraging when looking at his stats is the huge increase in efficiency this year.  Wolford is undersized at 6’1″ and 200lbs (it’s always a red flag when somebody weighs in exactly at 200lbs, surely he’s less than that).  I don’t think his that quick but he is productive as a runner with 615 yards and 10 TDs.  Wake’s most explosive player, WR Greg Dortch is injured and out for the bowl which is a shame.  Dortch set a school record with 4 TDs against Louisville.  I watched his highlights from that game and he’s like a punt returner whenever he gets the ball in the open field: fast, quick cuts, sets up blockers.  I’m looking forward to watching more of him next year.

Hot take alert: Texas A&M isn’t even as good as their 7-5 record indicates.  They did not beat a ranked opponent all season (in three tries) and their three wins over Power 5 teams were all just by one score.  The Aggie offense is paced by WR Christian Kirk.  Kirk first caught my eye in the preseason while writing my SEC preview.  Kirk is very fast, sub 4.40 speed, and is great when he has the ball in his hands.  Since many of his receptions are at or behind the line of scrimmage, I question his route running and ability to get open at the NFL level; but, as long as the team can scheme for him with screens and drag routes across the field he’ll succeed because of his running after the catch.  Kirk’s value as an NFL player is insulated by his return prowess.  He has 7 career return TDs and if he qualified with two more returns he would have led the FBS in punt return average (21.9 vs the leader who has 19.5) again in 2017, something he did in both 2015 and 2016.  Kirk will be an early second round rookie pick in 2018 so keep an eye on him.

One last note on the Aggies, take a look at their offensive and defensive rankings – they are no better than 44th in any category.  Of the twenty teams covered in this preview, all but three have a unit ranked 43rd or better: Kentucky, Utah State and Texas A&M.  Jimbo will surely shake things up next season but that won’t help in the Belk Bowl.  Prediction: Wake Forest

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Kentucky (7-5) vs. #21 Northwestern (9-3), 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Kentucky: 87th scoring offense, 100th passing offense, 58th rushing offense; 80th scoring defense, 113th passing defense, 60th rushing defense
  • Northwestern: 55th scoring offense, 51st passing offense, 71st rushing offense; 19th scoring defense, 100th passing defense, 9th rushing defense

If you told me you were watching a Kentucky vs Northwestern matchup in December, I would probably guess you were watching basketball not football because historically these are two weaker Power 5 programs.  Kentucky is playing in their second consecutive bowl while Northwestern’s streak is at three so both have found recent success under their current coaches.  As far as this season goes, Northwestern is on an impressive seven game winning streak which includes a win over #16 Michigan State.  Conversely, Kentucky lost their last two (both by nearly 30 points) and three of the last four.

Kentucky has two players that interest me after doing some research.  The first is sophomore RB Benjamin (Benny) Snell.  Snell set a number of Kentucky freshman records last year and was named a freshman All-American by the Football Writer’s Association of America.  In that freshman season he rushed for 1,039 yards and 13 TDs.  In 2017, Snell added 70 carries and managed to top 1,300 yards and scored 18 TDs.  He also became a slightly larger factor in the passing game (10 receptions vs 2).  Snell’s per-carry average fell in 2017 but it’s good to see that he has held up (he’s 5’11” and 223lbs which is a good size for a running back) without any serious injury.  On defense, SS Mike Edwards could be a mid-round draft pick if he declares early.  Phil Steele had him ranked as the #9 draft eligible SS in the preseason and NFLDraftScout.com has him ranked in the same spot in his 2019 draft class.  Since 2010, there were 17 safeties drafted between the 4th and 6th round that compare similarly to his size; there were also four safeties drafted higher but that’d be a reach for Edwards based on my limited research.  I watched some 2016 highlights of Edwards and noted his ball tracking and good form on a number of his tackles. Edwards has 228 career tackles and 8 INTs so he has been productive, just not at an elite level.

Wildcats QB Clayton Thorson will be best served by staying on campus for his senior season but I have seen some 2018 draft hype for him on Twitter.  The positives: he’s tall at 6’4″, is a good runner, has a lot of experience as a third year starter and improved his completion percentage year-over-year.  I watched tape of Thorson from last year’s Pinstripe Bowl and I had mixed feelings.  I believe Thorson has the requisite “arm talent” for the NFL but he gets sacked too often and seems to make a lot of one-read throws.  Regarding the sacks, in 2017 Thorson was sacked the 13th most in the FBS and in 2016 he was sacked the 3rd most.  He hasn’t missed a game for Northwestern but all of those hits must add up eventually.  Northwestern’s best prospect is RB Justin Jackson.  Jackson is a true three-down back who averages 3.12 receptions per game over the last two seasons.  Jackson has also rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons, the biggest total coming in 2016 with 1,524 yards.  Jackson lost carries this year to freshman backup Jeremy Larkin but he still managed 1,154 yards.  Jackson is quick and probably best suited for a zone-blocking scheme where he’s not plowing into the line head first.  He’ll probably start his career as a third down, situational back but I don’t think it’ll be long before he earns more touches.  The third round is probably the best case scenario and he’s a steal if he makes it midway through the fourth.

Despite the strength of the two lead running backs, this one will probably come down to the passing game due to how poor the passing defenses are.  Thorson is superior so I’ll go with Northwestern.  Prediction: Northwestern

Arizona Bowl, New Mexico State (6-6) vs. Utah State (6-6), 5:30 p.m. (CBSSN)

  • New Mexico State: 56th scoring offense, 4th passing offense, 124th rushing offense; 87th scoring defense, 78th passing defense, 64th rushing defense
  • Utah State: 45th scoring offense, 71st passing offense, 56th rushing offense; 70th scoring defense, 16th passing defense, 117th rushing defense

I’ll be honest, it’s hard to say much of anything positive regarding a bowl matchup featuring two 6-6 mid-majors after we’ve had a number of Top 25 matchups.  I’m tempted to do as my mother taught me, “if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all,” but I know you are here for some hard-hitting analysis.

Surprisingly, this isn’t the first time this season that I have written about New Mexico State.  In Week 11, I shined a spotlight on Aggies RB Larry Rose III.  I observed that Rose has good lateral and straight line speed and his explosiveness.  Unfortunately, he’s playing on a weak team (just 14 career wins as a four year starter) so his opportunities to shine have been few; he’s also dealt with a number of injuries, including a sports hernia and a knee.  Rose’s best attribute is his pass catching ability: he has 49 receptions for 474 yards and 2 TDs this year.  He probably doesn’t get drafted but it’s a name to monitor in training camp in case he catches on somewhere.  Speaking of four year starters with an injury history, QB Tyler Rogers threw for 3,825 yards, 26 TDs and 16 INTs this season.  He improved his rate stats in 2017 but was featured less frequently as a ball carrier.  His top target is 6’6″ JUCO transfer Jaleel Scott.  Scott is a red zone threat with 5 of his 8 TDs coming from inside the twenty.

After researching Utah State, I’m honestly surprised that head coach Matt Wells still has a job.  He took over for Gary Anderson after a big 11-2 season and subsequently won 19 games over his next two years at the helm.  In the three years since, he has just 15 combined wins.  Maybe he has some dirt on the athletic director?  Throughout the season, Wells has rotated quarterback snaps between Kent Myers and Jordan Love.  Combined they have about 2,500 passing yards, 16 TDs and 13 INTs.  The defense is led by junior LB Suliasi Tamaivena.  Tamaivena had 109 tackles and 3 sacks in his first season at Utah State.  He had a rough road to Logan and FBS football, which included a junior college stop and academic issues that kept him from joining Washington State.  He’s probably too old to be considered as a draft prospect but he’s a good story of perseverance nonetheless.

I don’t know enough about either team to make a truly informed decision about this one but since I like Larry Rose, I’ll go with his squad.  Prediction: New Mexico 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: September Heisman Ballot

Updated: September 6th 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. 

The Heisman should be the greatest trophy in all the land but it often leaves me wanting. I typically enjoy watching parts of the ceremony since it’s a great celebration of college football but all too often there is no drama and the hours drag. My biggest issue with the award is that it’s essentially become the “best quarterback” trophy. Since 2000, there have been fourteen quarterbacks who won and two running backs (but Reggie Bush’s was technically vacated). Charles Woodson is the only defensive player to win (1997) while Desmond Howard is the last receiver (1991). I strongly believe that receivers and defensive players should get more recognition in the Heisman balloting. Just going with the most eye-popping passer is lazy and voters should take the time to review all the positions for difference makers. If I were a voter, and I’m most certainly not, here is how my ballot would look (not necessarily how I think voters will vote) if I had to cast it on September 1st when this article was written.

1. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

Barkley is my clear-cut 1.01 pick for 2018 fantasy drafts and I think his numbers will be good enough to warrant winning the Heisman too despite not being the expert’s’ favorite. Barkley has two 1,000 yard rushing seasons and should get a third this year. In order to make a Heisman push he’ll have to add to his 22 total TDs from 2016 and bump his total yards over 2,000 – both of which should be attainable if he stays 100% healthy. For comparison, Derrick Henry had 2,300 total yards and 28 TDs in his Heisman campaign. Being a part of a productive offense with QB Trace McSorley will help Barkley’s odds, as will lots of national television exposure.

2. Sam Darnold, QB, USC

Darnold will likely be the favorite for most voters heading into the season. If I was a betting man, and getting even odds, Darnold would be my bet. My concern with Darnold, as I mentioned in my Pac-12 preview, is his throwing motion. It may be an overreaction but he could end up being more like Christian Hackenberg, with a draft stock ruining sophomore season, than any of the recent young Heisman winning QBs. Please don’t read that as a prediction, I’m just saying I don’t think he is as bulletproof of a prospect as he is being hyped. That uncertainty has me bumping him to #2 on my ballot. Darnold is clutch and will shine in some big time games so it’ll be tough not to have a knee jerk reaction every time the Trojans win – more telling will be Darnold’s performance in his bad games.

3. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU

The numbers that Guice put up last year were electric. He averaged 7.58 yards per carry (5th in NCAA) and 115.6 yards per game despite playing second fiddle to Leonard Fournette for part of the season. I don’t know if he’ll be able to keep up the rate stats now that he’s the BMOC but if he does he will be in the Heisman conversation. Of the offensive guys on this list, Guice may the widest range of outcomes and will see his Heisman odds fluctuate wildly so I’ll put him right in the middle of my Top 5.

4. Ed Oliver, DT, Houston

It didn’t take long to get to our first curveball, huh? Oliver is not draft eligible after this season so I only briefly mentioned him in my AAC preview but he is definitely somebody to keep an eye on. Oliver is a great example of a defensive player that should get a ton of attention from voters but won’t. Oliver is a big boy, 6’3″ and 290lbs, and had an impressive 2016 stat line. He totaled 65 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 6 passes defended and 2 forced fumbles. That’s a lot of production for an interior defensive lineman. Don’t forget he was also just a freshman last season. A year older, and probably bigger, I expect Oliver to eclipse last season’s totals. 75 tackles and 10 sacks are not out of the question and should at least land him on some ballots but definitely not as high as I’d like to see him.

5. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State

Rudolph will likely find himself behind Josh Rosen and Josh Allen in my quarterback draft rankings but his numbers will be so huge in 2017 that it will be hard not to put him on the Heisman ballot. Another 4,000+ yard season will impress me if he can keep his completion percentage and td:int ratio low.

6. Derwin James, S, Florida State

James missed most of 2016 but is still projected to be a top NFL prospect at his position and will be the defensive leader of a strong Seminole team. 100 tackles, 5 sacks and 3 INTs would put him on the national radar.

7. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama

I’m higher on Ridley than most because I believe his pedigree will overcome an offense that has not highlighted him fully the last two seasons.

8. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

The red-headed stepchild of the Pac-12 quarterback race, Rosen deserves a place on the ballot but I don’t think he really has a chance to win it because his pro-style offense will limit his production.

9. Harold Landry, DE, Boston College

If Landry played on a CFP contender, he would be higher on this list. He had 16.5 sacks last year and could make a run at the single season record of 20 this year.

10. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

I am not a fan of Jackson as an NFL prospect but as the reigning recipient he deserves a spot in my Top 10. His completion rate is too low for me to excuse. I think he and Louisville take a step back this season.

Others receiving votes:

  • JT Barrett, QB, Ohio State
  • Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
  • Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
  • Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
  • Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M

2018 RSO Rookie Mock Draft v1.0

Updated: September 6th 2017

Here it is, version 1.0 of my RSO rookie mock draft for 2018.  Remember, it’s early.  Very early.  Players will be overperform, underperform, go on hot streaks, go through slumps, get hurt, get suspended, get arrested or maybe not even declare early.  What I’m trying to say is use this as a tool to start your rookie research but don’t bank on it come May.  When creating this mock draft, I used two base assumptions: 1) a standard 1 QB roster setup and 2) any junior good enough to be considered will declare early.  For more information on most of these players, check out my Watch List previews which feature deeper dives on stats and film study.  Share your thoughts with me on Twitter @robertfcowper. Note: I wrote this article in August before the season began so any big games or injuries from the beginning of the season are not taken into account.  Updated versions will be posted throughout the season.

1.01, Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
1.02, Derrius Guice, RB, LSU

Preseason hype has these two locked into the first two slots. I would expect them to jockey with each other throughout the season as they have good and bad games. I believe Barkley will end up the consensus 1.01 due to his larger workload and his pass catching ability.

1.03, Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia

If it weren’t for Chubb’s serious knee injury last year he would have been in the 1.01 mix. I might be higher on him than some but I feel putting him at 1.03 already takes the injuries into consideration, no need to knock him down further.  Not a bad consolation prize if you miss out on Barkley or Guice.

1.04, Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
1.05, Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M

Having Ridley as the WR1 is not the norm per my research. Ridley was more highly sought as a high school recruit than Kirk and hasn’t done anything to dissuade my opinion yet. Kirk is electric and might have a higher ceiling (I compared him to Odell Beckham Jr. in my SEC preview), but a lower floor, so it comes down to your risk tolerance.

1.06, Bo Scarborough, RB, Alabama
1.07, Royce Freeman, RB Oregon

Like Chubb, Scarborough’s injury history drops him down my mock draft. He also had an academic related suspension to start his freshman season. If he can stay healthy, you would be getting a massive value here.  Freeman screams NFL running back to me when I look at his stats and his highlights. He may end up being a day three real life pick but I have a feeling he will be fantasy relevant very early in his career.

1.07, Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU
1.08, James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State
1.10, Deon Cain, WR, Clemson

Sutton and Washington are a clear tier break at the position for me after Ridley and Kirk. They both have negatives that concern me. Sutton racked up his 2016 stats against very weak defenses; Washington looks smaller to me than his 6’0″ and 205lb listing suggests. There are some bright spots though. Sutton has NFL size and the ability to make spectacular high-point or toe-tap catches; Washington has breakaway speed that I likened to Desean Jackson.  Cain really impressed me when I researched him. He contributed as an underclassmen on very successful Clemson teams that were full of NFL talent. Now that he’s the BMOC Cain should impress everybody else.  I have Sutton ranked highest of the three because he has the best chance to move up my rankings.

2.01, Sam Darnold, QB, USC

I really wanted to put Darnold at 1.10 but I didn’t have the guts to do it yet. For our purposes here, I am using a standard 1 QB format so Darnold isn’t quite that valuable. In a superflex? He’ll move up to the 1.06 range. I continue to believe that the value of second round quarterbacks in the RSO format is too good to pass up (pun intended).

2.02, Anthony Miller, WR, Memphis
2.03, Equanimeous St. Brown, WR, Notre Dame
2.04, Dante Pettis, WR, Washington

Despite the pedigree of St. Brown and Pettis, I put Miller ahead of them. Maybe it’s a foolish decision, but even though they have had good production, I have questions about the size of St. Brown and Pettis.  St. Brown is long and lean; of the seven WR who measured 6’4″ and 205lb or less at the combine since 2010, all were busts.  The list of successful NFL wide receivers who weigh less than 190lbs, like Pettis, is short. Miller isn’t really any bigger but he just popped when I watched him – maybe because he was playing against lesser defenders. He did have one insane OBJ-esque touchdown catch that itself made me want to bump him even higher.  All three of these guys could gain ground in my mock drafts if they gain some weight.

2.05, L.J. Scott, RB, Michigan State
2.06, Sony Michel, RB, Georgia
2.07, Ronald Jones, RB, USC

I’m lower on Jones than some of the devy sites I read. I just was not a fan after doing some early research. He’s too tall for his weight and he only has one career 20+ carry game. Scott does not have the weight concern – he’s a bruiser at 230lbs – but it was disappointing that his TD production slipped in 2016, albeit on a bad Spartans team. I’m expecting the team, and his stats, to improve in 2017. Michel has shared the Georgia backfield with more highly touted backs in Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb. He likely won’t rise to their fantasy draft pick heights, but he should be a decent NFL pick. I put Michel above Jones because of the dominant way Michel closed out 2015 after Chubb got hurt.

2.08, Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
2.09, Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

The two Joshes will battle for the QB2 spot behind Sam Darnold. I have Rosen ahead right now because I think he’s more NFL ready but I expect Allen to put up huge numbers against the MWC’s weaker opposition. Even more so than with Darnold at 2.01, the value here for either quarterback is too good to pass up.

2.10, Mark Andrews, TE, Oklahoma
3.01, Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State

I’m confident that these two tall Big 12 pass catchers will be solid pros but they aren’t very sexy hence the later picks. Andrews is 6’5″ and 250lbs and has 14 career receiving TDs on 50 receptions.  He is more of a “move tight end” and often lines up off the line of scrimmage in the Sooners’ spread offense; he isn’t the best TE in the class but will probably be drafted highest for fantasy purposes.  Lazard, a senior, is the same height as Andrews but weighs in at about 225lbs. He has been the best player on a struggling Iowa State team since he was a true freshman.

3.02, Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington
3.03, Damien Harris, RB, Alabama
3.04, Kalen Ballage, RB, Arizona State

These three Power Five running backs find themselves in the third round instead of the second because each has some negatives. I changed the order a number of times but settled on Gaskins first. Neither Harris nor Ballage have been “the guy” for their offenses and both have some minor injury concerns. Meanwhile, Gaskin has almost as many career carries as the other two combined but I think he will measure in smaller than advertised.

3.05, Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina
3.05, Troy Fumagalli, TE, Wisconsin

It’s unlikely that we see Top 12 prospects in 2018 like we did in 2017 but I’ll bet we get 3 or 4 of them taken in standard RSO drafts with owners who missed out on the 2017 class and hoping for a repeat in 2018.   Hurst was near the top in receptions and touchdowns by TEs last year with a true freshman quarterback so he will see improved production.  I watched his film against South Florida from last year and I’d say he’s a B to a B+ blocker, with good hands (evidenced by a nice one-handed touchdown catch) and good speed.  If it weren’t for Fumagalli’s injury history (it’s extensive) he’d be higher on this list.  He’s a better blocker than Hurst, probably the best blocking TE I have seen when watching film the last two seasons, and should see the NFL field quickly.

3.07, Michael Gallup, WR, Colorado State
3.08, Corey Willis, WR, Central Michigan
3.09, Jordan Chunn, RB, Troy

I’m calling my shots with these three small-school players. If they don’t put up stellar numbers they won’t make it this high in your fantasy drafts but I think each has a chance to rocket up expert rankings to find their way on your radar. Gallup is a high volume JUCO transfer who caught 14 TDs in his first NCAA season. Willis is a speedster with good hands who broke out for 72 receptions as a junior and caught my eye while writing my MAC preview. Chunn is the Sun Belt’s best hope at a fantasy relevant rookie in my opinion. In 2016, he rebounded from a 2015 medical redshirt to gain 1,288 yards and 16 TDs; he’s big at 6’1″ 230lbs and caught 30 balls last year.

3.10, Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida

I probably should have Callaway ranked higher but I was torn on whether to include him at all.  I’d rather move him up later if he shows me more than go against my gut now.  I put him here to acknowledge that he’s probably a Top 30 devy talent but I think he’s being rated too highly.

Honorable Mention, Adam Breneman, TE, UMass

Breneman is a small-school favorite of mine who had a 70-808-8 line last year.  I originally had him in the mix at 3.05 and 3.06 with Fumagalli and Hurst but ultimately I couldn’t justify having three TEs at that spot.  At this point in the process, I believe that Fumagalli and Hurst are more  NFL-ready so I gave them the nod over Breneman.

The Watch List: SEC Preview

Updated: August 16th 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

  • Derrius Guice, RB, LSU:  My fellow RSO writer Bernard Faller recently called Evan Engram the “RSO cheat code.”  I’d like to add that nickname to Derrius Guice.  My god are his stats electric.  You may have heard of the guy that Guice was behind on the LSU depth chart: Leonard Fournette.  That didn’t stop him from putting up good numbers with Fournette; more importantly, Guice took full advantage of Fournette’s injury last season.  I apologize in advance if I lose you with all of these numbers but I promise they are worth your attention.  In the five games Guice played without Fournette last year he rushed for 903 yards (129 per game).  In the ten career games when Guice has 10+ carries, he has 1,472 yards and 17 TDs (some quick fantasy math gets you just under 25 fantasy points per game).  For his career, Guice averages 7.8 yards per carry.  He had two 250+ games last season, one of which was against Arkansas with Fournette.  The only downside of Guice’s stats are his lack of receptions, just 14 for 126 yards and a lone touchdown.  I purposefully watched Guice against Florida which was not one of his highlight reel games.  There were a number of positives but enough negatives to temper my excitement.  Knowing about his high yards per carry average, I expected to see Guice running outside the tackle box more often but he really is a between the tackles runner.  He has great lateral cutting ability, sticking his foot in and getting around a defender.  He converted an early goal line attempt but failed on one that was the last play of the game (he jumped too early and was stopped easily, it also looked like he may have fumbled but the clock had expired anyway).  He had two targets, the first was a 29 yard screen pass but the second went right through his hands at a pivotal moment late in the game.  He did make up for that 3rd down miss by making a key pass protection block on a 4th down completion.  Unfortunately that drive ended in that disappointing goal line effort. Earlier in the game he also had a fumble inside the red zone (a scoring opportunity the Tigers would really miss later).  I’m very interested to see how Guice does without Fournette (funny enough Leonard’s younger brother Lanard is on the team now) 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.
  • Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M:  While taking notes on Kirk, I went back and forth on my opinion a number of times.  Ultimately, I can see why so many experts have him as the top draft eligible wide receiver but I’m not quite sure I’m there yet.  First, let’s examine his measureables.  Kirk checks in at 5’11” and 200lbs.  Coming out of high school he ran a 4.49; one of my trusted sites, DraftScout.com, among others I checked, predict that Kirk will run a sub 4.40 at the NFL combine.  If that’s the case, Kirk has the most elite of comps: Odell Beckham Jr.  Let’s look at his stats next.  Kirk put up nearly identical lines in his freshman and sophomore seasons (80-1,009-7 and 83-928-9) which were enough to get him named as an All-American both seasons.  In 2015 he made the list as a fourth teamer for his punt return skills; as a sophomore he was a first teamer.  Kirk has seven 100+ receiving yard games in two seasons which is less than fellow prospect Courtland Sutton (and less, on average, than James Washington who has twelve over his three seasons).  Conversely, Kirk only has one career game with less than three receptions meanwhile Sutton and Washington have many more.  I thought it was interesting that 73 of Kirk’s 163 career receptions (45%) came on first down.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just shows how the Aggies use him as an extension of their run game.  I briefly mentioned his punt return prowess above and it’s worth going into more detail.  In both 2015 and 2016 he led the NCAA in punt return average (23.1 career average); in both seasons he beat the second on the list by more than 4.0 yards (or the difference between #2 and #9 last year).  To go along with all those yards he has five touchdowns (also the most over the last two years).  So, he’s a very good punt returner.  How good?  Remember that Odell Beckham Jr. guy I mentioned earlier, well he had three times as many punt returns in college than Kirk has so far and had just two touchdowns.  And he averaged just 9.0 yards per (Kirk is at 23.1!).  Aside from punt return highlights, the first film I watched of Kirk was against Alabama from 2016.  I was nonplussed.  Kirk was targeted at, or behind, the line of scrimmage six times, a feature of their offense all season I’m sure, which helps inflate his number of receptions.  He did have a nice over-the-shoulder touchdown catch but to my eye it was more about the thrower than the catcher.  I was much more impressed with Kirk when I watched his tape against Tennessee.  Kirk ran more varied routes and showed how adept he is at quickly changing directions by leaving defenders behind on multiple pivot routes.  The key play I noted, and significantly raised my opinion of Kirk, came during a tie game in the 4th quarter on first down.  Kirk was lined up slot right, he came off the line and angles his route so he squeezes between two defenders and a referee.  My guess is that the route was not designed that way but he read the defense and adjusted on the fly.  He makes the catch and rather than trying to take on defenders with his A+ open field ability, he works to get out of bounds.  He breaks a tackle, staggers backward toward the sideline and manages to keep his feet until he falls out of bounds.  There was so much to unpack on the play I probably watched it five or six times.  He added a clutch catch in the second overtime where the ball was behind him so he adjusted back to it, dove and got his hands under the ball an inch from the turf.  What he did next though was the impressive part, rather than just falling to the ground as 99% of receivers would do, he sort of jerked up and rolled so that the ball couldn’t touch the ground.  Not that it will actually impact his draft stock but I did notice a number of missed blocks.  Kirk has as high of a ceiling for any prospect I’ve researched and because of that I’m willing to overlook some of my concerns.  When it comes time for me to rank wide receivers, Kirk will likely come in at #2.
  • Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama:  I’m going to contradict myself…  In my Pac-12 preview I pointed out how few NFL WRs came out of college at less than 190lbs when highlighting Dante Pettis and how that hurt his draft stock.  I don’t feel that way about Ridley who is an identical size to Pettis at 6’1″ 188lbs.  I believe that Ridley is a more complete prospect which is why I’m less concerned with his weight.  Ridley had a strong freshman season where he hauled in 89 balls for 1,045 yards and 7 TDs.  In 2016 he still had 7 TDs but his receptions and yards dropped (72, 769).  I attribute the drop more to a change in scheme, to accommodate freshman phenom quarterback Jalen Hurts, than a change in Ridley.  The total number of attempts was pretty consistent between seasons but they went for less yards.  It also didn’t help Ridley’s production that he was playing alongside two pass catchers who were drafted this Spring in TE O.J. Howard and WR Ardarius Stewart.  This season, Ridley will be the unquestioned top receiver.  Despite my positive opinion of Ridley, I do have to admit that he has had some poor games under the biggest spotlights (i.e. a combined 11 receptions and just 50 yards in two CFP games against Clemson).  Ridley came into Alabama as a true blue chip recruit.  He was Phil Steele’s #2 receiver of the class and ESPN’s #1.  During the recruiting process he ran a 4.65 per ESPN.  During Spring practice in 2016 he ran a 4.35; then a 4.43 in 2017.  How fast is he really?  I don’t think we know but the answer is probably fast enough.  I watched film of Ridley against both Kentucky and Clemson.  He has good field awareness which was evidenced by a number of sideline grabs.  He’s a plus blocker (he was a key blocker on a Bo Scarborough touchdown against Clemson).  Even though a plurality of his targets came near the line of scrimmage in the two games, I do believe he’s at least a decent route runner.  In the second quarter against Kentucky, he ran a nice route to find the hole in the zone defense and caught an uncontested touchdown.  In the third quarter, he ran another nice route where he stopped just past the goal line, turned around and showed Hurts a good target.  Hurts fired in a bullet and Ridley showed good hand strength by holding onto the ball with the defender’s hand fighting for the break up.  Again, I full admit that I am being a bit hypocritcal with my Ridley love but I trust that he will put on a few pounds and will live up to his pedigree.  In my opinion, Ridley is an NFL-ready prospect who would contribute on any offense right now.  Until he proves me otherwise, he’s going to be my WR1.
  • Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: If Chubb came out after 2016 he likely would have been a first round dynasty selection but he returns for 2017 looking to improve his stock.  Chubb burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2014 with 1,547 yards and 14 TDs.  His 2015 campaign was off to a solid start (747 yards, 7 TDs) before it was cut short by a knee injury; luckily he avoided the worst and did not tear his ACL.  In 2016 Chubb was back to health to start the season but suffered an ankle injury in the first half of the season.  He technically did not miss a game but had just one carry against Tennessee.  He rebounded for 121 yards against South Carolina but struggled against Florida and Vanderbilt, related to the injury I’d bet.  Chubb ended 2016 with 1,130 yards and 8 TDs.  He’s a workhorse type back with twelve career games of 20 or more carries.  I watched Chubb’s film against South Carolina, that bounce back game after his injured ankle.  I thought it would be a good game to watch because how often will he be fully healthy in the NFL?  Never, he’ll always be battling something so seeing that he could manage it was instructive.  Not surprisingly, Chubb didn’t have elite speed but he made up for it with good vision.  Georgia features a pro-style offense which lets Chubb showcase his ability to run between the tackles which NFL scouts will love.  He was adequate in pass protection, although he wasn’t called on that frequently; if it weren’t for a play near the end of the second quarter where he let Eason get lit up, I would have gave him higher marks as a blocker.  It’s a shame that Chubb is draft eligible with the two most talent rich running back classes in recent memory.  He’ll still be a top five dynasty pick in most leagues, despite the injuries, and will be a nice consolation for owners who miss out on Barkley and Guice.
  • Honorable Mentions:
    • Bo Scarborough, RB, Alabama:  Scarborough has lots of hype but not lots of career carries.  In fact, he has just 143 career carries (for comparison, Chubb passed that mark in November of his freshman season) and zero games with 20 or more carries.  The best game of his career came against Washington last year in the College Football Playoff: he exploded for 180 yards and 2 TDs on 19 carries.  Scarborough is big, but maybe a little too tall, at 6’1″ and 230lb.  He likely has 4.55 speed.  That combination nets him great comps in Jeremy Hill, Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson.  He was a top recruit, 12th overall in his class and the 2nd at his position per ESPN.  The ability I question most is his availability.  Scarborough was suspended four games to start his college career for academic reasons.  Then he tore his ACL in 2015 and broke his leg in 2016.  If it weren’t for the injuries, Scarborough could be challenging for the 1.01 based on his pedigree, let alone his potential.
    • Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida:  Callaway will be a junior and was a strong contributor his first two seasons on campus.  As a true freshman he gained 678 yards receiving and 4 receiving TDs and added two more return TDs; he was named 3rd Team All-American for his return prowess.  As a sophomore, he was more involved in the passing game.  He led the team in receptions, yards and receiving TDs (54-721-3).  A good stat that I uncovered when studying his game logs: Callaway’s five career games of 100+ receiving yards all came against the SEC.  I’d like to see more volume and more scoring this year to truly consider him as a top pick at the position.  At 5’11” he’s a little short to be considered an elite NFL receiver, but if he can run sub-4.50 he’ll get consideration as a first round NFL pick.  It’s worth noting that he did receive a drug possession citation in early 2017 – just something to keep an eye on that will surely factor into his draft process.
    • Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina:  This 6’5″ behemoth is just a junior so who knows if he’ll come out but if he does he’ll get some attention after 2016’s historic draft class.  Hurst was 13th in receptions and 15th in yards amongst TEs during the regular season.  Now that all of those elite names (OJ Howard, David Njoku, Evan Engram, etc) are gone, Hurst will jump to the top of the pecking order.  His QB, Jake Bentley, was a true freshman in 2016, so you’d expect some improvement which will help Hurst’s numbers progress.
    • Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia:  Circle this name for 2019 because he’s not eligible in 2018.  Eason started from Day One last year as a true freshman and led the Bulldogs to a 8-5 record that included a bowl game win over TCU and a win over #8 Auburn.  Eason’s rate stats have room to grow which I fully expect them to (55.1% completion percentage, 6.6 yards per attempt).
    • Minkah Fitzpatrick & Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama:  These two junior safeties have their sights set on a third straight National Championship game and being first round NFL picks.  Harrison is a strong safety who supports the run.  Fitzpatrick transitioned from corner to free safety in 2016 so he’s versatile.  He has two banner games on his game logs: 2 INTs and 2 TDs against Texas A&M in 2015 and 3 INTs and a TD against Arkansas in 2016.  Fitzpatrick will get more draft buzz but his play will help Harrison get noticed too.

Storylines to Watch

  • Mr. Freeze:  We have all heard about Hugh Freeze and his questionable phone calls by now.  Let’s not rehash those, although I will say, what a hypocrite.  Ole Miss was already self-imposing a bowl ban for 2017 due to unrelated infractions.  AD Ross Bjork said that because of the bowl ban, the Rebels will have to forfeit the SEC postseason bonus which would total $7.8 million this season.  That’s a huge hit to a program will have to fight tooth and nail to keep recruits and stay relevant in their division.  Ole Miss had four straight winning seasons from 2012-2015.  All of the distractions have hurt the program and will have a lasting effect.  It’ll be a decade before we see Ole Miss competing for the SEC West title again.
  • Can the East Finally Win One:  The SEC West has been dominant in recent years and has won eight consecutive conference championships (five of which by Alabama).  Florida has the best chance to unseat the West this season.  They were the only team to beat Alabama in Phil Steele’s conference positional rankings (receivers and special teams).  The Gators have the easiest cross-over games this year of the contending East teams; they avoid Alabama and Auburn while Georgia and Tennessee each have one away.  If I was a betting man, my money would still be on the West but it’ll be fun to keep an eye on.
  • Vanderbilt Will Win Eight Games:  My bold prediction for the SEC this season is that Vanderbilt will win eight games in 2017.  That may not sound like much but they only have 13 wins over the last three years.  I don’t think they’ll quite return to the nine win seasons of 2012 and 2013 under James Franklin but fourth year coach Derek Mason will get them close.  Vanderbilt has a winnable non-conference schedule with FBS games against Middle Tennessee State, Kansas State and Western Kentucky.  The hardest game on their schedule, Alabama, will be a home game.  Per Phil Steele’s experience charts, they return 93.7% of their offensive yards from last season.  That includes their quarterback, the top two rushers, the top eight receivers, the kicker and the punter.  If anybody is poised for a surprise season, it’s the Commodores.

Games to Watch

  • September 2, Florida vs Michigan: This neutral site game, hosted at Jerry’s World, is a rematch of the 2015 Citrus Bowl which Michigan won 41-7.  Few players remain from those teams, although Antonio Callaway is one of them.  The Wolverines could be Florida’s highest rated opponent of the year, pending their season finale against Florida State.  So, it will be important for them to win this one if they have CFP aspirations.
  • October 28, Florida vs Georgia:  Another neutral site game for Florida, this one is in Jacksonville.  In fact, Florida only has three true road games this season which is another reason why I think they could challenge the West this season.  Florida has won the last three matchups by a combined 56 points.  The winner of this game will inevitably take the East so it’s a shame it’s not later in the season.
  • November 25, Vanderbilt at Tennessee:  If my bold prediction is to come true, Vanderbilt will need to steal some SEC wins.  What better one to steal than on the road against your biggest in-state rival in the last game of the season.  If Vanderbilt is already bowl eligible and having a plus season as I expect, taking out the Volunteers will be the cherry atop the sundae.
  • November 25, Alabama at Auburn:  The Iron Bowl.  I don’t love the name, but the game is always good.  Lindy’s points out that the winner of this game has gone on to play for the National Championship in eight straight seasons.  That’s crazy.  I’ve spilled enough digital ink on Alabama in this preview so let’s spend a few quick sentences on Auburn.  The Tigers feature a rush heavy offense with Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson (combined for over 2,000 yards and 18 TDs last season) leading the way.  The quarterback play will be stronger this year with Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham taking the reigns (1,265 yards passing, 12 TDs and just 2 INTs in limited time as a freshman in 2015).  I’ll still take Alabama but it’s the closest Auburn will be to catching them in the last four years.

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.