The Watch List: Week 4

Updated: September 21st 2017

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the storylines, players and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my weekly picks, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  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: Mason Rudolph’s and Baker Mayfield’s stocks have risen while Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson remain in the middle of the pack.  My favorite non-QB is still Saquon Barkley but he’ll struggle to earn anything more than third place votes if Rudolph and Mayfield keep up their pace.  If I had a vote, and I don’t, my pick right now would be Rudolph.  I do think that other positions should get Heisman love other than QBs but it’s impossible to ignore what Rudolph is doing right now.  If you’re looking for a defensive dark horse, follow FSU S Derwin James and Texas LB Malik Jefferson closely.  I expect James to expand on a solid performance against Alabama where he only had six tackles but was a constant presence on the field.  Jefferson had 11 tackles in the close loss to USC and is the heart and soul of that Longhorn defense.
  • Florida State Back in Action: The Seminoles’ season is off to a strange start.  It feels like their loss to #1 Alabama was two months ago but it’s only been three weeks.  In that span though, FSU has had a game cancelled (UL-Monroe) and another postponed (Miami).  They haven’t been on the field since QB Deondre Francois went down with a season ending injury.  Ultimately, Hurricane Irma could have been a blessing in disguise as it has removed the spotlight from freshman QB James Blackman and given him time with the “ones” in practice.  Blackman was not a very highly touted recruit, in fact he was ranked as the 52nd quarterback by Phil Steele in his recruiting class.  Blackman won the job though and will rely on fellow freshman Cam Akers.  Akers only had 30 yards against Alabama but don’t let that belie his potential.  If you play devy or are just a college football fan, keep an eye on him.  Blackman and coach Jimbo Fisher will have to rely on Akers if FSU is to compete in the ACC this season without Francois.
  • Vandy is on the Come: Vanderbilt is just on the outside of the Top 25.  In the AP Poll they received 83 votes while in the Coaches Poll they received 92.  One of Vandy’s three wins came against Alabama A&M, the second was against Middle Tennessee State (who beat their other Power 5 opponent, Syracuse) and the crown jewel was a close win against #18 Kansas State.  The Commodores have been led by their defense which, based on yards per game, is the 1st ranked pass defense, the 32nd ranked rush defense and the 4th ranked total defense.  In terms of points, Vandy is ranked 1st.  The offense is not prolific but it is lead steadily by junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur (his father is Pat Shurmur, the Vikings OC).  Shurmur has thrown 8 TDs and zero picks and his completion percentage is much improved thus far (71.0% vs 54.4% last year).  My preseason prediction was 8 wins which is looking pretty good right now but they face a huge test this week against Alabama.

Players to Watch

  • Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State: Rudolph’s production so far is off the charts.  Literally.  Rudolph’s completion percentage and yards per attempt would beat Baker Mayfield’s 2016 FBS-leading numbers by a significant margin.  Rudolph’s completion percentage so far this season is 72.3%, compared to Mayfield’s 70.9% last year.  Rudolph’s yards per attempt is 12.1, better than Mayfield by a full yard.  That YPA is just crazy so let me give you context.  From 2000-2015, no quarterback averaged more than 10.7 YPA (RGIII in 2011).  I didn’t go back further than 2000, but I think it’s a safe bet to assume that Mayfield’s 2016 mark was a record and the fact that Rudolph is on pace to best that by a full yard means he has to get my Heisman vote.  The biggest knock against Rudolph is the competition he has faced so far.  I agree it’s not great but the Big 12 is not home to strong pass defenses so I have no doubt that the success will continue.  Pitt’s passing defense allowed 311 yards to FCS Youngstown State but then they bottled up Penn State QB Trace McSorley to 164 yards, 3 TDs, 5.9 YPA and 53.6% on completions.  Compare that to Rudolph the following week who went for 479 yards, 5 TDs, 15.5 YPA and 71%.  Rudolph faces his toughest test yet this week in TCU, ranked 36th in pass defense, but the schedule softens over the four following games (against the 101st, 95th, 84th and 73rd best pass defenses).  My favorite Rudolph stat so far?  He has not yet thrown a pass attempt in the 4th quarter, that is how dominant he and the Cowboys have been.  I can’t wait for the November 4th matchup against the Sooners.
  • Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: Like Rudolph, Barkley will be facing his strongest defensive opponent so far in the young season.  Barkley will be on the road in Iowa against their 26th ranked rush defense.  If you only look at the box score, last week’s game against Georgia Southern might be worrisome (just 10 attempts and 47 yards) but have no fear because Barkley contributes in the passing game too (4 receptions, 142 yards and a score).  There was no reason to load Barkley up with carries in a convincing win, he’ll be back to bell-cow status this weekend.  That receiving touchdown last week was great – go back and watch the highlight and just look at his acceleration thirty yards down the field, incredible.  Barkley has 548 total yards and 5 TDs and is still my 1.01.
  • Deontay Burnett, WR, USC: Burnett is moving his way up my WR ranks with a stellar start to 2017.  Burnett went for 7-142 in the opener against Western Michigan and followed that up with 9-121-2 against Stanford.  He really caught my eye against Texas (8-123-2) when he proved to be Sam Darnold’s favorite target yet again in the face of constant pressure.  For those counting at home that’s a 24-386-4 line which puts him halfway to his 2016 numbers already.  My only concern for Burnett is his slight frame and subsequent injury risk.  At 6’0″ and 170lb, he is just too lean.  Since 2010, no WRs have come into the combine at 5’11” or taller and less than 175lbs.  His closest body-size comp would be the Seahawks’ Paul Richardson who has potential but has been hampered by injuries.
  • Lorenzo Carter, OLB, Georgia: Carter is new name for me but grabbed my attention because he is leading a stout Bulldog defense.  He has 14 tackles so far along with 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries.  Carter is big (6’6″) and fast (possibly in the 4.60-4.65 range if you go by his Hudl and DraftScout.com profiles) and could end up with a first round grade like former Georgia star Leonard Floyd who was taken 9th overall by the Bears in 2016.
  • Anthony Winbush, DE/DT, Ball State: I don’t have any extensive research or film study of Winbush to share but I came across his name and figured I would share it with you dear reader.  Winbush is leading the NCAA in sacks at 6.5 and also has 20 tackles and 3 forced fumbles.  If you’re a big NFL Draft fan, file the name away and see if he keeps it up.

Games to Watch

  • Temple @ #21 South Florida, Thursday 7:30pm on ESPN: The NFL’s Thursday night games are pretty bad so I will definitely find myself checking into this game.  South Florida ended up winning convincingly against Illinois last Friday.  Both teams are coming off short rest after playing Friday so neither team is at a disadvantage in that department.  USF somehow held off San Diego State as the highest ranked Group of 5 team and another win keeps them in the driver’s seat for a New Year’s Six bowl game.
  • NC State @ #12 Florida State, Saturday 12:00pm on ABC: This is the best game of a pretty blah 12:00pm slate on Saturday.  I am interested in seeing how QB James Blackman assimilates so at least I won’t be tempted to flip channels too often.  I had high hopes for NC State to start the season but am not encouraged by the early results; they are 2-1 with a loss to South Carolina and they gave up too many points to Tulane and Furman in their victories.
  • #1 Alabama @ Vanderbilt, Saturday 3:30pm on CBS: #AnchorDown.  By now you know I’m a fan of Vanderbilt but not even I am predicting the upset here.  Alabama has too many horses and will overrun Vanderbilt.  Between QB Jalen Hurts and RBs Bo Scarborough and Damien Harris, the Tide will amass at least 200 yards rushing.  If Vanderbilt can keep it close, I think they jump into the Top 25 even with a loss.
  • #16 TCU @ #6 Oklahoma State, Saturday 3:30pm on ESPN: I used a lot of superlatives to describe Mason Rudolph above so it should be no surprise that I’m taking the Cowboys.  Keep an eye on WR Jalen McCleskey who had a humongous outing against Pitt (7-162-3) and thrived with focus on James Washington.  Despite the added attention that he inevitably receives, Washington is averaging an insane 28.2 yards per reception.  The Oklahoma State offense cannot be stopped.  Take the over.
  • #17 Mississippi State @ #11 Georgia, Saturday 7:00pm on ESPN:  This will be some back-to-back comparison for ESPN viewers.  The 3:30pm game between TCU and Oklahoma State will feature at least 70 points, meanwhile we will be lucky if either set of Bulldogs hits 7.  This one will be a knock down, drag out, SEC battle and not for the squeamish.  State is led by safety Mark McLaurin while Georgia is led by the aforementioned Lorenzo Carter.   Take the under.
  • #4 Penn State @ Iowa, Saturday 7:30pm on ABC: This is a good Saturday night to see family and friends.  Barkley, et al. will be facing a tougher defense than they have seen in 2017 but it won’t matter.  I don’t expect this one to be particularly close and it’s probably not worth scheduling your weekend around.  Check in for the Saquon highlights on College Football Final.
  • East Carolina @ UCONN, Sunday 12:00pm on ESPNU: It’s so rare to get a college game on a Sunday after Week 1 so I just had to include this on my Watch List.  There’s potential for 14 hours of consecutive football on Sunday.  Start with Baltimore and Jacksonville at 9:30am from London, switch over to this one at 12:00pm and then head back to the NFL for the 1:00pm kickoffs.  If you’re quick you can squeeze in dinner and a shower before SNF.

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: ACC Preview

Updated: August 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. 

Players to Watch

  • Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville:  My grandmother once told me that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.”  So… onto Deon Cain.  Just kidding, I have plenty to say and plan on sharing with you, my fellow RSO owner.  Let’s start with Jackson’s statistics.  He had some gaudy numbers in 2016 like 3,543 passing yards, 1,571 rushing yards and 51 total TDs (hence the Heisman).  My concern lies in his completion percentage: 56.2 in 2016.  It was even lower in limited action in 2015 at just 54.7%.  To get a better feel for when Jackson was completing his passes, I used CFBStats.com’s situational stats.  In the red zone, his completion percentage falls even lower to 50.7% (albeit with 19 TDs).  When the score is tied or worse, it was 54%.  I was really hoping that when it counted most that Jackson’s accuracy would improve but it did not; in fact it is buoyed by less important game situations.  Using Sports-Reference.com’s play index, I was able to find a strange, but possibly telling stat for Jackson: he led the NCAA in games with 300+ passing yards but with a completion percentage below 60% (4 games).  When he completes a pass, it’s often for a chunk of yards but there are many negative plays in between.  It’s also important to notice that 15 of his 51 total TDs (or nearly 30%) came against Charlotte and Marshall who were the 102nd and 107th worst defenses last season.  Maybe it’s unfair to pick out his best games but I’d be less worried if they came against stronger teams.  My accuracy concerns were borne out in the film I watched of Jackson against Marshall.  Early in the first half I counted four consecutive plays where the ball was behind his receiver.  He does not appear to be great at leading a receiver.  There were two very poor decisions that Jackson made while scrambling – both balls should have been thrown away but were instead lofted up and one led to an interception.  His lack of pocket presence showed in the Clemson game too.  In fairness the Clemson defense victimized the Louisville offensive line (5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss) but Jackson did not adjust and was consistently rattled by the rush.  Want some good news?  Okay fine.  Jackson is an electric player when he has the ball in his hand and he’s rushing.  DraftScout.com has him in the 4.32-4.52 range and it would not surprise me to see him hit the top end of that (in March, Louisville announced he ran a 4.34 at Spring practice).  If he ran that at the combine, it would make him the second fastest QB since 2010 (RGIII).  Hopefully Jackson measures in true to the listed 6’3″ and 205lb but I’m not so sure.  Don’t let the accolades and awards fool you, Jackson does not warrant consideration as a top prospect in this year’s class.  If I had to guess now, I would probably have him as my 7th or 8th quarterback and likely undraftable in most RSO formats.
  • Deon Cain, WR, Clemson: In 2015, when Mike Williams was out with injury and Deon Cain was a freshman, Cain caught 34 balls for 582 yards and 5 TDs.  In 2016, in Williams’ shadow, Cain caught about the same number of balls (38) but improved to 724 yards and 9 TDs.  In both seasons he led the team in yards per reception (17.1 and 19.1).  Because of his second-fiddle status, I feared that most of Cain’s production would have been against FCS and weak non-conference foes.  Per CFBStats.com, Cain had 34 of his 38 receptions and 7 of his 9 TDs against Power Five teams in 2016.  The only caveat is that a plurality of his yards and 4 of his TDs came in garbage time when the Tigers were up by 15+ points.  Cain’s biggest game of 2016 came against Syracuse when he had 5-125-2.  I watched film of that game and came away impressed.  Cain blew past corners with straight line speed on multiple occasions, one of which went for a score.  I was most impressed by his concentration and focus at the catch.  At the end of the first half, he had a play where he went over the corner on a fade, managed to find the ball, and got his toe down in the end zone.  Unfortunately his heel came down out of bounds and it was called back.  He had a similar concentration grab later in the game near the sideline.  He let the ball come over his shoulder, stopped the ball with his right hand, secured it with both hands and then managed to get both feet in bounds.  It was an NFL worthy catch and he was pretty nonchalant about it after the fact.  I was even more encouraged about Cain when I checked his combine size comps: Amari Cooper, Sammy Watkins, Justin Blackmon, Davante Adams and DeAndre Hopkins.  That’s quite a group of talented players to be compared to (with varying levels of success in the NFL of course).  I’m bullish on Cain and am thinking he will be a 3rd-4th round NFL selection if he comes out this year and should be a target late in your RSO draft.
  • Mark Walton, RB, Miami:  Walton is a small back with quick feet and a penchant for bouncing off tackles.  In the clips package I watched, there were multiple plays against both FAU and Pitt where Walton showed supreme patience at the line.  He would shuffle his feet either left or right, keep his pads parallel to the line of scrimmage and wait for his hole.  Once he hits the hole he has the speed (DraftScout.com predicts him in the 4.49 range which is exactly what Dalvin Cook ran) and bounce-off ability to break big plays.  In 2016, as a sophomore, Walton rushed for 1,117 yards and 14 TDs.  He also added 27 receptions which will be a necessary skill in the NFL given his smaller size.  The good news for Walton is that Miami has 100 OL starts returning which is the 6th best in the NCAA per Phil Steele.  The bad news for Walton is that 2018 will be a crowded RB class (Barkley, Guice, Chubb, Scarborough to name the top four) so even if he improves this season he should stay put and wait for his senior season.
  • Honorable Mentions
    • Deondre Francois, QB, FSU:  I fell in love watching Francois during one of FSU’s nationally televised games last year (can’t remember which).  He was getting battered but took the hits and kept getting up.  He looks bigger than his 6’2″ and 205 lb frame to my eye.  He’s just a redshirt sophomore, with a lot to improve on, so I don’t think he comes out but he could be in the Heisman race.
    • Max Browne, QB, Pitt: Browne has one more shot to prove his potential.  Per Rivals.com he was a five star recruit and the #1 QB recruit in the 2013 class.  He landed at USC where he threw 112 career passes, most coming last year before he lost the job to Sam Darnold.  Browne has the pedigree and the size (6’5″) to force NFL scouts to take a look.
    • Derwin James, S, FSU:  Don’t know the name?  Don’t worry I didn’t either.  James missed most of 2016 with a knee injury but will still be a top IDP prospect if he comes out as a junior.  As a true freshman he had 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 4 passes defended, 2 fumbles forced and 2 fumble recoveries.  He has linebacker type size and would be one of the bigger safeties in recent classes (a close combine comp is former FSU LB Telvin Smith).
    • Christian Wilkins & Dexter Lawrence, DTs, Clemson: This dynamic duo of disruptive DTs combined to put up 110 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, 10 passes defended and 4 fumble recoveries last year.  Lawrence did so as a true freshman and won the ACC Rookie of the Year award (unfortunately that means he isn’t draft eligible until 2019).  Coach Dabo Swinney even likes to use Wilkins on trick plays – in 2016 he rushed for a first down on a fake punt and also caught a TD pass.
    • Harold Landry, DE, Boston College:  Landry is a rising senior who could have come out after a tremendous 2016 campaign.  He had 50 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, 4 passes defended and 7 forced fumbles.  As a sophomore, before fine-tuning his pass rushing ability, he had 60 tackles.  Landry is WalterFootball.com’s 6th ranked DE for 2018 and is projected to be a 1st or 2nd round pick right now.  He’s a bit undersized for a 4-3 end but could be a valuable IDP if he lands in a productive 3-4 scheme.

Storylines to Watch

  • Clemson Let Down:  There’s simply no way that Clemson can stay in the national title picture for a third year in a row.  The Tigers lost first round talents in QB Deshaun Watson and WR Mike Williams and also lost other offensive contributors (including one of my favorites, RB Wayne Gallman).  Per Phil Steele’s experience charts, Clemson is ranked 128th in returning offensive yards.  The only team worse that played in the FBS last year?  Conference foe North Carolina.  If Dabo can keep Clemson in the division race and finish the season at 9-3 or better it would do more for him in my eyes as a head coach than winning last year’s title.
  • Heisman Distractions Abound:  The ACC has two of the top five Heisman hopefuls, according to an ESPN study of the Vegas odds, in Lamar Jackson and Deondre Francois.  The shadow of expectations, will follow those two and their teammates throughout the season.  Jackson has to carry the burden of trying to repeat as the winner – a feat only accomplished by Archie Griffin.  Francois will likely be faced with paint-by-numbers comparisons to former FSU QB Jameis Winston who won the Heisman and national championship in 2013.  Also on the list of Heisman candidates are Mark Walton, Derwin James and Deon Cain (albeit all at 100:1 odds).
  • Wolfpack Lurking: Repeat readers know that I highly value Phil Steele’s annual experience charts.  I think they are a great tool to help identify teams who will outperform expectations.  What caught my eye was how high Steele had North Carolina State ranked – 8th in the NCAA – so I did a bit more research.  The Wolfpack ended 2016 on a high note winning 3 of 4, including a 41-17 domination of Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl.  They lost leading RB Matt Dayes but they return the top four receivers, QB Ryan Finley and eight defensive starters.  WR Nyheim Hines is switching to RB so technically they have a returner there as well.  Finley is a transfer from Boise State, where he also worked with current NC State OC Eliah Drinkwitz (great name, by the way).  He threw for just over 3,000 yards last year with 18 TDs and 8 INTs and should improve further in 2017.  Three of the toughest games for NC State come at home: Louisville, Clemson and the rivalry game against UNC.  I won’t go as far as to say that they will win the tougher Atlantic Division, but they will finish above two of FSU, Clemson and Louisville.

Games to Watch

  • September 2, Alabama vs Florida State:  What a doozy to end the first true Saturday of the college football season.  Both teams are preseason championship contenders and whoever wins this game will probably be the favorite.  There will be plenty of NFL talent on display, including Dondre Francois, Derwin James, Bo Scarborough, Calvin Ridley, and as usual most of the Crimson Tide defense.
  • September 16, Clemson at Louisville:  This is pretty early in the season to get such a meaningful in-conference game.  Beating Louisville would go a long way to proving whether Clemson will stay relevant or if they will collapse after hemorrhaging all of their top players to the NFL.  For Louiville’s Lamar Jackson and his Heisman hopes, the consecutive games against UNC and Clemson will be vitally important to overcome the let down of finishing September against Kent State and Murray State.
  • November 4, Virginia Tech at Miami:  If second year Hurricanes coach Mark Richt wants to aspire to more than the Russell Athletic Bowl he’ll have to hold off the Hokies who won the Coastal last year.  The Hurricanes are more experienced and have an easier schedule so they likely have the edge this season but this game will be a must-win.  It’ll be in Miami and it’s been designated as their homecoming game – maybe there’s a mind game at work.
  • November 25, North Carolina at North Carolina State and Florida State at Florida:  These in-state rivalry games will make for a fun post-Thanksgiving Saturday.  One of the two will end up as the 8pm showcase game on ABC because Ohio State/Michigan will be at noon and Alabama/Auburn will likely be the CBS 3:30pm game.  The North Carolina game will feature teams fighting for their respective division titles, or at least bowl eligibility.  The Florida game will feature teams looking to stay in the CFP bracket.  The “last” button on your remote will be your friend if they both end up in primetime.

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.