The Watch List: Week 8

Updated: October 19th 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:  Penn State and Saquon Barkley were off so no change to his Heisman hopes, he’s my top choice.  The other RB in the running is Stanford’s Bryce Love who just keeps on producing with another 148 yards and 2 TDs against Oregon.  The bad news is that Love injured his ankle; the good news is they are off again and he has until October 26 to heal.  Lamar Jackson is still tremendous (especially on the ground where he added 180 yards and 3 TDs) but the Cardinals are not a good team so he’s likely out of the Heisman running.  I’ll bet that Jackson will be on every ballot this year, a nod to his win last year, but he shouldn’t win if Louisville keeps playing so poorly.  Sam Darnold and Mason Rudolph are still the other two front runners.  Darnold was inefficient but didn’t throw any picks which is a nice change; Rudolph lit up a poor Baylor defense for 459 yards and 3 TDs on just 19 completions.
  • Topsy Turvy Top 25:  Four Top 10 teams lost this past weekend so there is some turnover this week.  Those losses went to #2 Clemson, #5 Washington, #8 Washington State and #10 Auburn.  Clemson fell to #7 while the others fell out of the Top 10.  Meanwhile, #8 Miami, #9 Oklahoma and #10 Oklahoma State all move into playoff consideration.  Miami is undefeated but I think an inferior team to both Oklahoma teams (not to mention they lost starting RB Mark Walton for the season).  The losses last week make it likely that we’ll see two SEC teams in the final four.  Even after one of Georgia or Alabama loses to the other in the SEC Championship, the loss will be to such a superior team to the likes of TCU that the committee will have to put them both in.
  • Bowl Projections:  I am working on a full bowl projection piece but here’s a bit of a preview of some of my favorite make-believe matchups.  Check back later this week for the full slate of my bowl projections and then check back after the regular season to read my previews for all of the real bowl matchups.
    • Sun Bowl, UCLA vs Florida State: Before they both head to the NFL it would be fun to see top QB prospect Josh Rosen face off against top S prospect Derwin James.
    • TaxSlayer Bowl, LSU vs Michigan: Could be the most entertaining 9-6 game ever televised.  The game would feature two standout DL prospects in LSU’s Arden Key and Michigan’s Rashan Gary.  Who knew keeping your eye off the ball could be fun.
    • Cotton Bowl, South Florida vs Oklahoma State:  If the over was 100, I would take the over.  My god would this one be incredible to watch although it would probably last about five hours.

Players to Watch

  • Will Grier, QB, West Virginia:  A number of my draft/scouting Twitter follows have been talking about Will Grier lately so I figured it was time to look more closely since I knew the name but not much about the prospect. Grier has an interesting back story. He started at Florida where he started six games as a freshman but was then suspended for a failed drug test for a performance enhancing drug. Grier claims he took an over-the-counter supplement that had a banned substance in it but denies doing anything wrong willfully. I’m not sure if I believe him but it doesn’t really matter. Grier transferred to West Virginia and was cleared to start the 2017 season by the NCAA after they determined that the season he sat out as a transfer could count towards his season-long PED suspension. So, where does Grier find himself now that he is in Morgantown? How about atop the NCAA passing ranks. Grier has 21 passing TDs which paces the country and is 9th in yards (2,092). Grier’s completion percentage (65.6% vs 65.7%) and TD:INT ratio (10:3 vs 21:5) have stayed consistent between his starts in 2015 and 2017 so the time off did not cause any lingering effect. What has changed is that his yards per attempt is up to 9.1 from 7.5. Extrapolated out for a full 2017 season, that higher YPA would be worth an extra 800 yards. After looking closely at Grier’s stats, I question his “clutch” ability. When it matters most, in the 4th quarter and on 3rd down, Grier’s completion percentage takes a huge dip to less than 55%. His efficiency is buoyed by what he does on 1st down (71.2%, 11 TDs) rather than what he does afterwards (61% and 10 TDs for 2nd-4th down). I have not watched much film of Grier except for some highlight reels and a DraftBreakdown.com film of Grier against Virginia Tech.  After watching Grier’s tape, I have some concern about his mechanics and need to see more.  Something is wonky about his short throws to the left that looks like he’s almost shot-putting the ball; throws to the center and right look more natural.  File this under possibly related, I only counted two deep throws to the left, both inaccurate and incomplete, whereas many more were thrown deep down the middle or to the right.  Maybe it was coverage or personnel or maybe he’s less confident throwing left.  That’s purely a guess based off 12 minutes of tape so take it with a huge grain of salt.  There were also a number of throws off balance or off his back foot, some of which actually were completed.  He’s fast enough to be a rushing threat and kept the ball on a number of zone read plays.  Per ESPN’s recruiting service he ran a 4.73 as a recruit so I would expect him to now be in the 4.65-4.70 range (Trubisky was 4.67). As far as his size, Grier is below average at 6’2″ and 204lb (Mitch Trubisky was the same height but 18lb heavier last year).  There’s definitely some things to like about Grier but I am not ready to add him to my top 2018 QB prospect list. He would benefit from another season at WVU where he can get more time in the weight room and prove that the PED suspension was a fluke. If Grier does come out, I would expect him to be a late Day 3 prospect and off the board in RSO leagues.
  • Ito Smith, RB, Southern Miss:  As a proud owner of both Kareem Hunt and Tarik Cohen in three of my six leagues, I wanted to try and identify next season’s small school back who surprises in September. I’m not predicting he will have the pro premiere that either Hunt or Cohen did, but Ito Smith would get my vote if I had to pick somebody right now. Smith is a senior and has played a big role since late in his freshman season. Smith has played in 44 games so far in his career which means he has a ton of experience, few injury concerns and is durable despite his size. In 2015, Smith ran 171 times for 1,128 rushing yards, 10 TDs, 49 receptions, 515 receiving yards and 3 TDs. In 2016 his rushing line was 265-1459-17 while he added 43-459-2 receiving. Smith’s 2017 numbers are on pace to match or surpass 2016 (118-733-7, 21-192-0). I know, that’s a lot of numbers to digest. Let’s just summarize the above section to say that Ito Smith has been supremely productive. The two biggest positives for me are 1) his receiving ability and 2) the 250+ attempts he had last season and is on pace for this season. Given Smith’s measurables and pass catching prowess he likely projects as a passing down back. What will increase his draft stock is his ability to play every down, illustrated by the number of touches he racks up on a bad Southern Miss team. Film of Smith from 2017 is not yet available on DraftBreakdown.com so I watched some 2016 tape instead. In my short study, I would say that he is patient, has enough speed to get to the edge (but not elite speed, maybe 4.50) and is an average to below average blocker. I couldn’t put my finger on who he reminded me of visually but he is thick and stout below the waist.  Like Grier, Smith looks to be a Day 3 or UDFA NFL prospect and could find a home on some deeper league RSO teams a la Tarik Cohen or Matt Breida depending on team depth chart.

Games to Watch

  •  #25 Memphis @ Houston, Thursday 8:00pm on ESPN:  Two NFL prospects will be on display in Memphis WR Anthony Miller and Houston DT Ed Oliver.  Oliver is just a sophomore and is enduring a bit of a sophomore slump this season (just 0.5 sacks but 36 tackles).  Meanwhile, Miller has been playing incredibly over the last two weeks (25 receptions, 314 yards and 6 TDs).
  • Maryland @ #5 Wisconsin, Saturday 12:00pm on FOX:  Penn State has a tough conference game this week while Wisconsin gets an easier opponent so it’s very important for the Badgers to hold serve here.  A loss, even a close one, to Maryland in a week where two of Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State will win could be devastating to their CFP hopes.  After Maryland, Wisconsin has Illinois and Indiana so they can cement their Top 5 spot over the rest of the month before the stretch run.
  • #10 Oklahoma State @ Texas, Saturday 12:00pm on ABC:  I have written a lot about these two teams so I won’t go into much detail other than to say you know who to keep your eyes on: Mason Rudolph and James Washington.  Texas may have found their QB in Sam Ehlinger.  He now has 658 total yards in the last two contests against Kansas State and Oklahoma, neither of which are push overs.  Ehlinger is a true freshman so he won’t be draft eligible for awhile, but a name to monitor.
  • #19 Michigan @ #2 Penn State, Saturday 7:30pm on ABC:  The UM offense has been terrible, even with John O’Korn pressed into service.  The Wolverines are 79th and 89th in points and yards respectively.  Penn State has no such issues on offense with superstar RB Saquon Barkley and the oft-forgotten senior QB Trace McSorley.  McSorley quietly is having a better, more efficient season than last.  He has a 67% completion percentage which is ten points higher than 2016 and his TD:INT ratio is very good 13:4.  He has also added four rushing scores.  This will be a close rivalry game but give the nod to the home team Nittany Lions.
  • #11 USC @ #13 Notre Dame, Saturday 7:30pm on NBC:  My, oh my, will it feel like a throwback night of football with two simultaneous games featuring four of the all-time winningest programs in Division 1 history.  USC and Notre Dame won’t have as much CFP implication since I think both teams are out of the picture, but it will be a great game and a scout’s dream.  The usual suspects who we have covered in this space will be present: Sam Darnold, Ronald Jones and Equanimeous St. Brown to name a few.  Keep an eye on some other draftable names too: Josh Adams and Deontay Burnett.  Adams has 776 yards and 5 TDs despite being pulled from some lopsided wins; he is averaging a crazy 9.0 yards per carry to truly illustrate his dominance.  Burnett is slight of frame but looms large for the Trojan offense.  Burnett is a first down machine: 29 of 49 receptions have gone for a first down, while all 7 of his third down receptions have converted.

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