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: Big Ten Preview

Updated: August 30th 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

  • Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State:  By now you’ve heard all about Barkley but I hope I can add to the narrative with a deeper dive into stats, measureables and film observations.  Let’s start with his stats.  In 2015, as a true freshman, Barkley rushed 182 times for 1,076 yards and 7 TDs; he added 20 receptions for 161 yards and a score.  In 2016, Barkley improved those numbers to 272 carries, 1,496 yards, a whopping 18 TDs, 28 receptions, 402 receiving yards and 4 receiving TDs.  Over his two seasons, Barkley has ten 100+ rushing yard games and five of at least 194 yards.  Before you dismiss these big games as box score stuffing outings versus FCS cupcakes, you should note that eight of the 100+ games came against Power 5 teams.  All five of the 194+ games came against Power 5 teams (Rutgers, Ohio State, Maryland, Purdue and USC).  That’s impressive, and in fact, Barkley has not played a single FCS team (I wish all FBS teams would take this approach).  So not only is Barkley productive but he’s productive against “real” teams.  For his career, Barkley has a 5.7 yards per rush average – good but not great.  After looking at his situational stats on CFBStats.com, I believe Barkley is about as clutch as a running back can be.  Most offenses turn to their passing game when losing, but in 2016 the Nittany Lions turned to Barkley who had 11 of his 18 TDs when losing (plus 2 of his 4 receiving TDs).  He’s also 16/32 on 3rd & Short in his career.  Compare that to recent 1.01 picks, Fournette was 16/31 and Elliott was a crazy 31/53 (bold prediction: Barkley will catch him).  Attentive readers may have noticed that Barkley had just 182 carries in 2015 (90 less than in 2016).  It wasn’t due to him sharing the load, it was because of injury.  Barkley injured his right ankle against San Diego State and missed the next two games.  He then injured the same ankle again in the 2016 regular season finale against Michigan State but he did not end up missing the Big Ten Championship (rushed for 19-83 against Wisconsin).  As far as measureables go, Barkley has a pretty good comp: Ezekiel Elliott.  Elliott is an inch taller but Barkley is a few pounds heavier.  Oh, I forgot to mention that Barkley is a tenth of a second faster though, at least.  During Spring practices in 2015, Barkley ran a 4.38 and in 2016 he ran a 4.33.  Since 2010, the only running back to run faster than 4.40 at 5’11” or taller and at over 220lbs was Knile Davis.  Barkley is a rare combination of size and speed that we have not seen recently.  Of course that does not mean he will automatically be a success (sorry Knile) but when you watch film of Barkley it is obvious that he will succeed at the next level.  I watched his film from Rutgers and Wisconsin.  No surprise here, Barkley looks like an NFL back.  He runs with balance, shows a quick jump cut, has above average vision, is not afraid of contact and is competent at the goal line.  As far as pass protection, it was a mixed bag but I would say he’s average at worst.  He had a number of positive blocks but allowed a crunching hit from TJ Watt that ended in a lost fumble.  Barkley would get his revenge against Watt though later in the game.  With Penn State losing in the 4th quarter, Barkley ran a wheel route from the 18 yard line, beat Watt by two steps and caught the ball beautifully over his shoulder while getting two or three feet in.  I had seen enough highlights of Barkley catching passes at or near the line of scrimmage so it was nice to see that he could be a threat further down field.  That touchdown catch ended up being the winning score, but it wasn’t the last time Barkley impressed me in the game.  With 52 seconds left, the Badgers were out of timeouts and the game was all but over.  Barkley took the 3rd down hand off, ran right for a few yards and slid like a quarterback to stay in bounds and keep the clock running.  It was a heady play that you don’t see that often in college.  I purposefully watched Barkley’s game against Wisconsin since it was after his second ankle injury – I wanted to see him managing an injury.  He was definitely a step slower than the film against Rutgers but he was still fast enough and explosive enough to make defenders miss.  Speaking of his speed, I noted that he seems to get faster the longer he is running so it will be interesting to see his 40 yard dash splits.  I’ll bet he starts slow but finishes the last quarter faster than anybody else.  Come April, Barkley will likely be a Top 10 pick in the NFL draft.  As for RSO drafts, I think he’ll be the consensus 1.01 much like Elliott was two years earlier.
  • Troy Fumagalli, TE, Wisconsin:  The nine-fingered Fumagalli has a long injury history but I’m still bullish on his prospects.  The missing finger was amputated after he was born due to a disorder and is not an “injury” but I think it’s an interesting story given that he has had two other hand injuries during his Wisconsin career.  It seems that Fumagalli can do more with seven or eight fingers than the rest of us with ten.  In addition to a broken thumb in 2015, Fumagalli suffered an ankle injury which combined to limit his production to 28 receptions, 313 yards and just a single touchdown.    In 2016, he nearly missed the first game of the season after a severe cut on his hand that required surgery; he also suffered a leg injury against Georgia Southern that forced him to exit early but he did not miss further time.  He ended 2016 with a line of 47-580-2.  I watched Fumagalli against Michigan because I thought their defense, chock-full of NFL talent, would be a good barometer for his blocking ability.  In the two seasons worth of film I have watched now, I can’t recall a better blocking TE.  At worst, I would grade him as an A, if not an A+.  He won’t be confused with a track star (DraftScout.com has him estimated at 4.84) but he’s not a “move tight end” so that shouldn’t hurt his draft stock.  He’s an old school tight end for sure.  If Fumagalli can stay healthy in 2017, a big if given the last two seasons, he should be one of the top two or three TEs drafted in the NFL but will be less desirable to fantasy owners.
  • Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State:  Weber will be a redshirt sophomore with more injuries than seasons played.  He tore his meniscus in 2015 and is battling a hamstring injury now.  I watched film of Weber against Rutgers and was impressed.  He looks like an NFL running back and could be the next great Buckeye back after Zeke Elliott and Carlos Hyde.  In that game against Rutgers, two runs stood out.  The first was a 50 yard gain where he burst through a wide open hole at the line, half-hurdled a defender and angled towards the sideline to try and get the most yards before the safety got to him; near the end of the run he had the presence of mind to change his ball carrying hand.  The second example showed his pure speed: two quick cuts and gone.  Weber carried 182 times in 2016 and gained 1,096 yards with 9 TDs.  He also contributed with 23 receptions (just 91 yards though).  I question it’s accuracy, but apparently Weber ran a 4.35 40 yard dash.  With that speed and his size, we’re looking at a very nice comparison to Lamar Miller.  There’s no certainty that Weber will come out after his sophomore season but if he does, based on what I see now, he should find himself with a 3rd-4th round NFL draft grade; if he comes out and officially runs a 4.35, we could be looking at somebody who would rise to the 2nd round.
  • Honorable Mentions:
    • Akrum Wadley, RB, Iowa:  Before starting my Big Ten preview research, I had not heard of Wadley to be honest.  I first came across his name while reviewing WalterFootball.com’s prospect rankings and decided to delve a little deeper.  Wadley is 5’11” and 190lbs which is worrisome.  If you look at combine history, since 2010, just a single running back has been 5’11” or taller and weighed less than 195lbs (Taiwan Jones).  Wadley’s stats from 2016 are impressive though: 1,081 yards, 6.4 yards per carry, 36 receptions, 315 receiving yards and 13 total TDs.  Wadley had considered going pro after 2016 but wisely chose to come back to the Hawkeyes.  I’ll keep an eye on him in 2017 to see if he repeats his two-way success.
    • JT Barrett, QB, Ohio State:  Interestingly, Barrett comps very closely, size-wise, to the three quarterbacks taken in the first twelve picks of the 2017 NFL draft.  He’s 6’2″ and 220lb, the same height and just a few pounds lighter than Trubisky, Mahomes and Watson.  Barrett should time faster than those three though.  Out of high school he was clocked at 4.79; a Sports Illustrated article about his backstory stated that he ran a 4.50; DraftScout.com has him estimated at 4.52.  If Barrett breaks the 4.50 barrier, he’ll be in the Tyrod Taylor realm (4.47).  Barrett has had a peculiar career arc to say the least.  He was the starter in 2014 as a true freshman before getting hurt and letting Cardale Jones steal the spotlight on the Buckeyes road to the National Championship.  Jones beat him out to start 2015, but Barrett eventually took the job back.  With Jones gone to the NFL, Barrett was free to start again in 2016, as he will in 2017.  While Barrett has had his share of adversity off the field battling for the job, once on the field he’s led a dominant team.  In his 36 career games, Barrett threw just 20% of his attempts while losing; just 9% of his passing TDs came while losing.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing but I think it will be cannon fodder for NFL scouts looking to knock him back.  He is the product of a great team and a productive system, with a major injury in his past, but he does have some potential if he continues to progress as a passer.  Barrett’s career completion percentage is 63%, he has 100 total career TDs and he has an impressive 3:1 TD:INT ratio.  Enjoy Barrett while you can this season because you likely won’t see too much more of him in the NFL.
    • Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State:  Gesicki is a big target, QB Trace McSorley’s biggest, at 6’6″ and 255lbs.  He is the Nittany Lions’ top returning receiver by receptions, yards and touchdowns and set team records in 2016 for TEs in both yards and receptions.  I watched film of Gesicki against Indiana and liked what I saw in the limited exposure.  He is versatile and lines up all over the field: on the line, split out, in the backfield.  He was a plus blocker.  He’s also pretty quick.  On a 3rd & 20 deep in their own territory, Gesicki caught a 45 yarder where he outran the defender and the ball, he adjusted back to the ball well and caught it with his hands.  I don’t think Gesicki will be a sexy name for fantasy owners but his well rounded game should help him see the NFL field early.
    • Simmie Cobbs, WR, Indiana:  The Big Ten is surprisingly light on top end wide receiver talent.  I chose Cobbs to highlight because of his elite size: 6’4″ and 220lbs.  There are plenty of negatives surrounding Cobbs though.  After a great sophomore season (60 receptions, 1,035 yards, 4 TDs), Cobbs was suspended for the first game of 2016.  Then, in game two, Cobbs suffered a season-ending ankle injury.   In July 2017, Cobbs was arrested after failing to follow police orders at a concert; he declined to take a breathalyzer.  Because of the off-field and injury concerns I decided not to delve too deeply into Cobbs but we should all keep an eye on him since others have been drafted highly with worse rap sheets.
    • Sam Hubbard & Tyquan Lewis, DEs, Ohio State:  This one-two punch will be demoralizing opposing offensive lines all season long.  Hubbard has 74 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in his career; Lewis has 92, 27.5 and 16.5.  Neither guy was a highly sought after recruit, both were just three star recruits, so they have worked for their success  Phil Steele has Lewis projected as his #1 draft eligible DE while Hubbard is #3.  If both come out, we could see both taken in the first round of the NFL draft and both taken in IDP drafts.
    • Marcus Allen, S, Penn State:  I wanted to like Allen more than I did when I watched film of his from a monster game against Minnesota from 2016 (22 total tackles).  Allen looks smaller than his 6’2″ 205lb frame and I did not note any highlight plays.  He’s often around the ball but that might be more a factor of where he lines up, close to the line of scrimmage, than his ball skills or instincts.  Right now, Allen is purely a run supporting free safety; he has zero interceptions in his 36 career games.  Allen had an impressive 110 tackles last year but needs to improve in coverage to get a true NFL look.  If he adds 10-15 pounds he could instead project as a linebacker-safety tweener similar to Jaylon Smith or Telvin Smith.  Best case, he improves or bulks up and finds a clear role on an NFL defense.  Worst case, he’ll be like TJ Green who was drafted by the Colts in the 2nd round out of Clemson in 2016 with a similar size and stat profile.  Not sure who TJ Green is?  Exactly.
    • Billy Price, G/C, Ohio State:  Price won’t be the highest player selected on this list in the 2018 draft but I’d bet that he is the first to contribute in a meaningful way in the NFL.  Price has good size for a guard or center at 6’4″ and 312lbs and could probably fill in at RT in a pinch.  He has 41 career starts combined at LG and RG.  In 2016 he was a Second Team All-American, improving on his Second Team Big Ten campaign of 2015.  For 2017 he’ll move inside to C, taking over the spot vacated by All-American Pat Elflein who was drafted by the Vikings.

Storylines to Watch

  • Versatile Big Ten OL Will Dominate Day Two of the NFL Draft:  It was interesting to find so many versatile Big Ten lineman at or near the top of the various rankings resources I consult.  At this point, I don’t think any of these guys will come out with first round grades but some could creep up as often happens with offensive lineman, quarterbacks and pass rushers as we get closer to April.  The aforementioned Billy Price should pace this group.  He’ll be joined by Michigan’s C Mason Cole.  Cole played at LT in 2014 and 2015 but moved to C for 2016 (a move you don’t often see).  Michigan State’s C/G Brian Allen is undersized at 6’2″ and 304lbs so he’ll project as a center at the next level.  Allen’s brother Jack is already plying his trade as a backup center with the Saints.  Wisconsin has a pair of junior guards in Beau Benzschawel and Michael Dieter who have starts at LG, C, RG and RT between them.  One, if not both, of them will emerge and hopefully follow in the footsteps of departed All-American Ryan Ramczyk, who snuck into the first round at pick 32.
  • Rowing the Boat in the Land of 10,000 Lakes:  PJ Fleck has moved on from Western Michigan to Minnesota where he will continue to “Row the Boat.”  Interestingly, he had to agree to donate $10,000 a year to WMU to continue to use the catchphrase which the school smartly licensed during his tenure.  Fleck has a ho-hum 30-22 career record but was a stellar 13-1 last season.  The Broncos perfect season ended in a close 24-16 Cotton Bowl loss to Wisconsin.  The good news for the Gophers is that Fleck’s squad beat two other Big Ten teams last year (Northwestern, Illinois) so he should be comfortable with the level of competition; both wins were on the road.  The non-conference schedule is easy (Buffalo, Oregon State, Middle Tennessee) so Fleck’s measuring stick will be conference wins.  Minnesota has not had six conference wins since 1973, so if he can get the Gophers to that mark (five in 2016) they’ll erect a monument in time for the 2018 season.
  • Indiana Will Win 8 Games:  This might not be the boldest of my predictions this preseason but it would be surprising for a lot of fans to look and see Indiana competing in the Big Ten East.  The Hoosiers, like the Gophers mentioned above, have not had too much success over the recent decades.  The last time Indiana won eight games was 1993 and it’s only happened three times since 1980.  Former defensive coordinator Tom Allen takes over as head coach.  Indiana had its best defense in years in 2016 (for example, they were 45th in the FBS by yards per game in 2016 versus 121st in 2015) so that continuity will be good for the team.  Speaking of continuity, BTN put out a stat that caught my eye: Indiana returns 93% of their defensive production from last year.  They don’t specify what exactly “production” means but I presume it’s at least counting tackles if not sacks and interceptions.  That huge percentage puts them first in the FBS; second best in the conference is Northwestern at 77%.  The biggest name on the defense is senior linebacker Tegray Scales, who had 126 tackles and 7 sacks last season.  The non-conference schedule is soft (Virginia, FIU, Georgia Southern) and two of their three conference crossover games are winnable (Illinois and Purdue; the third is Wisconsin).  I think the ingredients are there for the Hoosiers to win eight close, low scoring, games.

Games to Watch

  • August 31, Ohio State at Indiana:  I love seeing a conference game this early in the season.  If Indiana is to hit the heights I have predicted above, they will need to grab one big upset win against the likes of Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan or Wisconsin.  The Buckeyes are the best team of that bunch but if there’s ever a time for Indiana to steal a win against Ohio State it would be now.  I’m not predicting an upset here but I expect a closer game than the Vegas line will be and would not be surprised if Ohio State gets caught looking ahead to Oklahoma.
  • September 30, Iowa at Michigan State:  MSU is in full-on reboot mode.  They were a disappointing 3-9 last year and lost a lot of players.  Per Phil Steele’s experience research, Sparty is 117th in the FBS in terms of returning lettermen.  Maybe a fresh start is a good thing, but more likely it spells another long season for Mark D’Antonio.  This contest against Iowa will be a good early season test.  It’s the first conference game for Michigan State and they will be hosting an Iowa team coming off a tough game against Penn State.
  • September 30, Northwestern at Wisconsin:  Northwestern has the best chance of the rest of the West to topple the Badgers.  They are an experienced team that returns a solid nucleus on offense, including a 1,500+ yard rusher in Justin Jackson and a 3,000+ yard passer in Clayton Thorson.  I give Northwestern a shot over Nebraska based strictly on the experience – the Cornhuskers lose their top passer, rusher and receiver on offense as well as their top three tacklers.  Every conference game is technically a “must-win” if you want to win the division but the Wildcats don’t have a prayer if they don’t win this one on the road.
  • November 25, Ohio State at Michigan:  The Game has not been much of a rivalry lately despite its historic connotations.  Ohio State has won 14 of the last 16 games between the two giants since 2000.  Last year’s game was a classic which went to overtime; the Buckeyes were aided by a questionable 4th & 1 call that could have sealed the win for Michigan.  Admittedly I am a Michigan fan and will be rooting for the Wolverines in this one but I don’t think they stand a chance.  There’s a reason I haven’t mentioned Michigan much in this preview: they were decimated by the NFL draft.  Quarterback Wilton Speight returns but he’ll be surrounded by underclassmen on both sides of the ball.  By my count they lost at least ten key contributors from the last two 10-3 seasons.  If Michigan can pull off the upset it will be one that both fan bases will remember for years to come.  Ultimately, I don’t think it will happen and this game will simply be another stepping stone for Ohio State on their way to the CFP.

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.