The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part III

Updated: December 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.  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.

Wednesday, Dec. 27

Independence Bowl, Florida State (6-6) vs. Southern Miss (8-4), 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Florida State: 78th scoring offense, 92nd passing offense, 84th rushing offense; 34th scoring defense, 35th passing defense, 33rd rushing defense
  • Southern Miss: 48th scoring offense, 47th passing offense, 40th rushing offense; 40th scoring defense, 24th passing defense, 28th rushing defense

“Buzz, your girlfriend, woof.”  That’s how I’m feeling about this one.  Florida State just barely managed bowl eligibility after a late season makeup game against UL-Monroe.  They lost pro prospect QB Deondre Francois in the season opener and struggled with freshman James Blackman under center since.  They also lost head coach Jimbo Fisher who, mistakenly in my opinion, abandoned Tallahassee for College Station.  FSU will be playing the Independence Bowl without another potential pro: safety Derwin James.  James has decided to skip the bowl in order to preserve his NFL Draft stock; expect James to be in consideration for a Top 10 pick in April although he was surpassed by Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick as the top defensive back prospect.  If you’re looking for a reason to tune in to watch the Seminoles, check out freshman RB Cam Akers, WR Auden Tate and CB Tavarus McFadden.  McFadden will likely come out but his stock has definitely been dented by the team’s subpar season.  McFadden himself disappointed too going from 8 INTs in 2016 to zero in 2017.  He’s not great in run support (just 27 tackles this season) so he needs to remind scouts that he has ball skills.  Akers has been streaky this season but I would attribute that more to poor quarterback play than anything else.  He finished the season with a strong game against UL-Monroe (117 yards, 2 TDs) to give him a solid 931-7 line for the year; interestingly, he has not had a reception in the last three games.  Tate has just 60 receptions, 873 yards and 13 TDs in his career (35-464-7 this season) but is still an NFL Draft prospect because of his size (6’5″ and 225lbs) and ability to make contested catches.

Southern Mississippi is led by JUCO transfer QB Kwadra Griggs.  He has 15 TDs to just 2 INTs plus 2 rushing TDs.  Griggs started the year sharing the starting role and suffered a hand injury but since a dismal game against Tennessee he has played well (722 yards, 7 TDs, 0 INT).  I’m a big fan of South Miss RB Ito Smith.  He’s undersized at 5’9″ 195lbs but he’s durable (50 career games).  He’s a true three down back because he is a good receiver (36 for 370 and 2 scores this season) and a good pass blocker (94.6% pass blocking efficiency per Pro Football Focus).  Back in Week 8, I predicted that Smith might be the 2018 version of Kareem Hunt and Tarik Cohen for fantasy owners: an underappreciated prospect whose pass catching skill ensures he gets on the field early in his career.

Despite my love of Smith, FSU just has the better athletes.  Prediction: Florida State

New Era Pinstripe Bowl, Iowa (7-5) vs. Boston College (7-5), 5:15 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Iowa: 68th scoring offense, 89th passing offense, 94th rushing offense; 20th scoring defense, 50th passing defense, 38th rushing defense
  • Boston College: 82nd scoring offense, 115th passing offense, 24th rushing offense; 36th scoring defense, 31st passing defense, 102nd rushing defense

No team influenced the College Football Playoff picture more than Iowa did with their blowout of #5 Ohio State.  If it weren’t for that loss, the Buckeyes could be playing for a national championship.  The Hawkeyes are led by three guys who will be playing on Sundays next year: CB Joshua Jackson, LB Josey Jewell and RB Akrum Wadley.  Jackson offers solid run support (47 tackles), has good instincts when the ball is in the air (7 INTs, 18 passes defended) and is incredibly clutch.  In the two biggest games Iowa played this season, against Ohio State and Wisconsin, Jackson combined for 6 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 pass defended, 5 INTs and 2 return touchdowns.  One of those interceptions against Ohio State was an OBJ-esque one-hander; another was a hard fought battle with the receiver where he had the strength to rip the ball from the receiver’s hands.  Those two games established him as a Top 10 CB heading into the 2018 draft.  Josey Jewell enjoyed an equally impressive season that buoyed his draft stock.  Jewell has 120+ tackles in three straight seasons and is the conference’s #2 career tackler since 2005 (when www.sports-reference.com/cfb started tracking the record).  Jewell also set career highs for tackles for loss, sacks and passes defended on his way to being named the 2017 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.  Jewell trusts his instincts and play recognition which allows him to be the first to the hole or the ball carrier on most plays.  RB Akrum Wadley leads the offense.  He went over 1,000 yards again this season (1,021) but his yards per carry did decrease from 6.4 to 4.4.  He’s also a factor in the passing game with 62 receptions, 644 yards and 6 TDs over the last two years.  In my 2018 fantasy draft positional rankings I had Wadley at RB9 and would expect him to stay in the RB8-12 range when I update in the offseason.

Boston College’s best weapon is freshman RB AJ Dillon, other than that the cupboard is pretty bare on offense.  Starting QB Anthony Brown is out for the rest of the season (and wasn’t particularly effective anyway).  Career backup QB Darius Wade had his best game of his career in the season finale against Syracuse: 16-20, 248 yards and 1 TD.  Because of Brown’s ineffectiveness, the Eagles don’t have a WR of note (the leading receiver was Kobay White with 32-396-4).  Dillon has gained 1,432 yards (#2 in the ACC) on 268 attempts (#1 in the ACC).  Oddly, he doesn’t have a single reception; he had the most carries of any FBS back without a single catch.  Dillon has a rare combination of size (6’0″ and 240lbs) and speed (4.55 range coming out of high school) that compares to Leonard Fournette’s combine measureables.  Dillon has a way to go before we’re considering him for the NFL Draft but I’m optimistic.  Unfortunately, DE Harold Landry likely will not play in this one.  Landry will be a first round pick in the Spring but his stock has decreased due injury and decreased production.

Despite them having the same record, I don’t have a doubt about this one: Iowa is the better team.  Prediction: Iowa

Foster Farms Bowl, Purdue (6-6) vs. Arizona (7-5), 8 p.m. (FOX)

  • Purdue: 97th scoring offense, 55th passing offense, 83rd rushing offense; 18th scoring defense, 85th passing defense, 30th rushing defense
  • Arizona: 6th scoring offense, 110th passing offense, 3rd rushing offense; 110th scoring defense, 122nd passing defense, 89th rushing defense

In late October, it would have been tough to predict these two teams matching up in the Foster Farms Bowl.  Arizona was 4-1 in the conference (6-2 overall) and looking like a serious contender for the division.  Purdue meanwhile was 3-5 and coming off their third straight loss.  The fortunes for both teams changed though from that point forward.  Arizona lost three of their last four while Purdue won three of four.  So, here we are.

Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm was one of the many coaches in the running for Tennessee’s opening.  Brohm stayed put and used the courting as a bargaining chip to get a better contract.  Brohm has used a two-quarterback rotation throughout the season featuring David Blough (1,103 yards, 65% completion percentage, 9 TDs, 4 INTs) and Elijah Sindelar (1,730 yards, 55.6% completion percentage, 14 TDs, 6 INTs).  Blough suffered a serious knee injury against Illinois on November 4 and will not factor in here.  In the three games without Blough, Sindelar has thrown the ball a ton: 126 attempts.  In those three games he has 7 TDs and just 1 INT.  Sindelar’s best game came against #25 Iowa when he went 22-37 for 229 yards and 3 TDs.  Hindsight is always 20/20 but maybe if Brohm stuck with Sindelar all season they could have been better than 6-6.  The Boilermakers have a quartet of backs with 250+ yards each, the leader of which is junior Markell Jones (480 yards, 1 TD, 11 receptions).  On defense, Purdue is led by LB Markus Bailey.  Bailey is a redshirt sophomore and likely doesn’t have enough hype to come out in 2018 but if he continues to improve we’ll see him drafted in 2019 or 2020.  This season Bailey has an impressive stat line of: 78 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 1 INT, 2 passes defended, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery.

Arizona has two players that I wanted to highlight: QB Khalil Tate and CB Lorenzo Burns.  Burns is a redshirt freshman so he’s not draft eligible but his stats caught my eye.  He has 75 total tackles which is a lot for a corner.  He also has 5 INTs which led the PAC-12.  Tate took over the starting role in October and led the team to four straight victories.  He’s not the best passer but he’s efficient enough to keep the offense on the field until he can make a big play with his legs.  Tate threw for more than 200 yards just once this season and averages about 150 yards per game.  Amazingly, he actually has more yards rushing (1,353) than passing (1,289) on the year.  He has 9 passing TDs and 12 rushing TDs.  Tate’s biggest game of the year came against Colorado when he racked up 327 yards rushing and 4 TDs.  Something that is worth noting: Tate only has 60 total rushing yards over the last two regular season games.  I did not watch him in either contest so I cannot say whether it was due to scheme or maybe he has a minor injury.

This game is a toss-up for me so I’ll take the team featuring the best player on the field and that will be Khalil Tate.  Prediction: Arizona

Texas Bowl, Texas (6-6) vs. Missouri (7-5), 9 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Texas: 61st scoring offense, 36th passing offense, 95th rushing offense; 31st scoring defense, 108th passing defense, 6th rushing defense
  • Missouri: 10th scoring offense, 14th passing offense, 35th rushing offense; 96th scoring defense, 110th passing defense, 61st rushing defense

The Texas Bowl features two former conference foes in Texas and Missouri.  The teams last faced off in Big 12 play in 2011 before Mizzou left for the SEC; Texas leads the all-time series at 15-4 (not that it matters, these players were all in middle school, but it’s just interesting to see teams matching up with so many prior meetings in a bowl game).  Despite the teams having a combined 13-11 record, I found quite a few interesting storylines to research.

Texas started the season with sophomore QB Shane Buechele as the starter but they have gone back and forth between him and freshman Sam Ehlinger due to injury.  Neither guy has been great: they combine for 3,153 yards, 16 TDs and 11 INTs.  Based on the raw passing stats, Beuchele is the better play in the bowl game but Ehlinger offers a dimension as a rusher (364 yards, 2 TDs).  Since the start of bowl practices, both quarterbacks have reportedly been getting first team work.  My money would be on Ehlinger since he was the primary passer in the team’s last two games (66 attempts to Buechele’s nine).  WR Colin Johnson will be the main target no matter who is under center.  Johnson is huge (6’6″ 220lb) but just a sophomore so thankfully he’ll have another season to improve before hearing the siren song of the NFL Draft.  Johnson has 79 receptions, 1,050 yards and 5 TDs so far in his career – not amazing but encouraging given the struggles of the Texas offense the last two seasons.  The Longhorn running game is a mess.  Ehlinger is actually the team’s leading rusher by both attempts and yards, although he’s not very efficient as he averages just 3.5 yards per attempt.  Chris Warren, a big and bruising back who was slowed by injuries early in his career but looked promising, changed positions mid-season and is now transferring.  Freshman RB Daniel Young finished the season as the lead back with 58 rushes for 238 yards and 2 TDs over the last four games.  Leading the defense is LB Malik Jefferson who is one of the nation’s leading prospects at ILB.  Jefferson has 110 tackles this season.  Jefferson flashed in my eyes when playing against Sam Darnold and USC early in the season (he had 11 tackles and 2 tackles for loss).  He had six double-digit tackle games on the season and added four sacks.  Jefferson measures in at 6’3″ and 240lbs with a projected speed of 4.72 per NFLDraftScout.com.  Similar size and speed comps include a number of key IDP players: Sean Lee, Kiko Alonso, Blake Martinez and Nick Vigil.  Phil Steele’s preview magazine listed him as the #1 ILB for 2018 while NFLDraftScout.com has him listed as their #2 ILB in Jefferson’s 2019 class.  Chances are that he comes out and that he is a Top 15 pick.

Missouri’s season has been one of streaks.  They started the season with a loss over FCS also-ran Missouri State then lost five straight then won six straight.  Stories of the team’s turnaround all point to head coach Barry Odom as the rock that keep the team on track despite the struggles.  I don’t know Odom from Adam but it seems that the players love and respect him so that’s what matters.  Throughout Missouri’s winning streak, I continually wanted to spotlight QB Drew Lock but I never got the chance.  Lock is a three year starter who has improved on his stats year over year.  In 2017 he finished the regular season with 3,695 yards, 43 TDs and 12 INTs.  His completion percentage could be better (just 58.2%) but there is enough potential there to consider him as a draft prospect.  Lock is listed at 6’4″ and 225lb and will run in the 4.80-4.90 range at the combine should he declare.  Unfortunately, there aren’t many good comps in that size range, the best likely being AJ McCarron.  McCarron did not produce like Lock has though.  Lock led the SEC this year in attempts, yards and passing touchdowns (he also led the FBS in passing touchdowns).  I’ll do more research and film study on Lock in the offseason if he declares, for now he’s definitely a player to watch.  Lock’s top target is WR J’Mon Moore.  In three years with Lock throwing him the ball, Moore has totaled 151 receptions, 2,389 yards and 21 TDs.  His production in 2016 and 2017 was nearly identical, essentially 60 receptions and 1,000 yards.  Moore won’t be a draftable WR fantasy rookie but could get late round NFL Draft consideration because of his height (6’3″).

I think Texas’ defense will outperform their 108th ranking and that they’ll slow Lock enough to keep the game close just not close enough.  Prediction: Missouri

Thursday, Dec. 28

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman, Virginia (6-6) vs. Navy (6-6), 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Virginia: 101st scoring offense, 42nd passing offense, 126th rushing offense; 67th scoring defense, 14th passing defense, 80th rushing defense
  • Navy: 49th scoring offense, 128th passing offense, 2nd rushing offense; 84th scoring defense, 86th passing defense, 58th rushing defense

Since I was using Sports-Reference.com’s “Rivalry Finder” tool to look up the Texas/Missouri matchup I figured I might as well check out Virginia/Navy as well since that felt like a natural rivalry given the geography and military connections (it’s no coincidence the Military Bowl picked either team when given the chance).  Turns out that the teams have met 33 times in their history but not since 1994.  For what it’s worth, Navy leads the “rivalry” 23-10.

Navy is coming off a tough loss to Army on December 15 so there could be a bit of a “hangover” in this one.  Even aside from the Army loss in the snow, the Midshipmen have been cold as of late, winning just one of the last seven.  As most casual college football fans know, Navy, like the other service academies, runs a rush heavy triple-option offense.  So, it’s no surprise to see Navy with two 1,000+ yard rushers (and another at 500+).  What might be surprising is just how often the quarterback keeps the ball, eschewing his two other options.  Junior QB Zach Abey leads the team with 1,325 yards rushing and 14 TDs (plus 805 yards and 7 TDs passing).  Abey missed time during the season with both a concussion and a shoulder injury.  In his stead, sophomore QB/WR Malcolm Perry emerged as the primary playmaker.  If you watched the Army vs Navy game, you’ll no doubt remember Perry.  Perry is not a threat to pass (just two attempts) but he is electric with the ball in his hands, so much so that when Abey was healthy Navy got Perry involved as a a receiver (13-303-2) and as a kick returner (24.5 yards per return).  Even if Abey is fully healthy, expect to see more of Perry.

Bronco Mendenhall’s Cavaliers improved significantly after a 2-10 campaign last season.  It’s the first time UVA has been bowl eligible since 2011 and just the second time in a decade.  Leading the offense is senior QB Kurt Benkert.  Honestly, I did not know Benkert’s name to start the season but he had enough success this year (3,062 yards and 25 TDs) that he’s been getting some buzz.  I have not watched Benkert’s film so the bowl will be a good introduction against Navy’s mediocre pass defense.  Benkert’s favorite target is the versatile Olamide Zaccheaus.  Zaccheaus has 80 receptions for 833 yards and 5 TDs while adding 182 rushing yards and a rushing score.  Earlier in his career he also returned kicks and even threw a touchdown pass in 2015.  He’s the type of player that offensive coordinators love scheming for.  On defense, UVA features two mid-round NFL Draft prospects in LB Micah Kiser (132 tackles, 5 sacks this season) and S Quin Blanding (120 tackles, 4 INTs this season).  Both players are mutli-year starters who have nearly 900 career tackles between them.  Kiser and Blanding will be key against the Navy rushing attack.  In their November 11 matchup, Virginia held the Georgia Tech triple-option offense to just 220 yards.  Just 220 yards you ask?  It may sound like a lot but it’s the fourth lowest total of the season for Tech, so Virginia’s defense played well considering.  In that game, Kiser had 18 tackles while Blanding had just three but added an interception.

This one may be a home game for Navy but I believe UVA has the better athletes all over the field.  Prediction: Virginia

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl, #16 Michigan State (9-3) vs. #18 Washington State (9-3), 9 p.m. (FS1)

  • Michigan State: 106th scoring offense, 77th passing offense, 67th rushing offense; 23rd scoring defense, 30th passing defense, 5th rushing defense
  • Washington State: 42nd scoring offense, 2nd passing offense, 129th rushing offense; 47th scoring defense, 9th passing defense, 41st rushing defense

It’s not quite the “Grandaddy of them all” as Keith Jackson would say, but this Big Ten vs PAC-12 matchup is a good one.  I’m a Michigan and Rutgers fan, a Big Ten apologist and huge Rose Bowl fan.  My favorite pieces of memorabilia are a program and press pass from the 1998 Rose Bowl when Michigan won a share of the national championship; I found the pieces in a used bookstore in Ann Arbor, bought them immediately and had them framed.  So, you can see I’m a sucker for a Big Ten vs PAC-12 matchup.  I’ll call this one Rose Bowl Lite.

Michigan State’s mediocre offense is led by QB Brian Lewerke and RB LJ Scott.  Lewerke is a redshirt sophomore who is starting for the first time this season.  He has 2,580 yards, 17 TDs and 6 INTs plus 489 yards rushing and 5 rushing TDs.  Lewerke finished mid-pack in the conference in most passing statistics so he’s solid but he’s not on the level of recent Spartan QBs like Conor Cook and Kirk Cousins.  Scott started the year with some hype but he mostly disappointed.  In my early 2018 rookie mock draft, I had Scott as my 2.05; I had him ahead of other backs like Sony Michel and Ronald Jones who are definitely ahead of him now.  A running back of his size should see more TDs because of his utility near the goal line.  In 2016 Scott had just 6 TDs and he duplicated that output in 2017.  That’s just not good enough.  Scott did injure an ankle during the season but he was actually dressed and active for the Michigan game that he supposedly missed due to the injury.  I didn’t believe this when I first read it while doing my research but Scott was arrested in October for his seventh charge for driving without a valid license.  That is staggering.  I don’t know Scott and don’t want to cast aspersions but how can you be so irresponsible?  Either get your driver’s license right or stop driving.  If Scott is convicted, which I doubt would happen but who knows, he could face jail time.  Oh, I forgot to mention that despite being the primary ball carrier in each of his three years, Scott has failed to break 1,000 yards in a season.  Between the poor production, a small injury concern and an alarming pattern of behavior, I am out on Scott if he does declare early.  I would rather miss on him than draft him in my league and deal with dead cap if I have to cut him.  On defense, Sparty’s heart and soul is sophomore LB Joe Bachie.  He has 94 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 3 INTs, 2 forced fumbles and 1 fumble recovery on the season.

Cougar QB Luke Falk was my QB4 in early November when I did my early positional rankings for 2018 rookies.  I will probably bump Falk down a bit (or more accurately, bump Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield up a bit) but that doesn’t mean I am down on him.  Depending on his landing spot after the NFL Draft, I would consider drafting Falk late in my superflex leagues as a stash.  Falk is a three year starter at Washington State and has incredible career stats: 1,403 completions, 14,481 passing yards, 119 passing TDs, 39 INTs and a 68.3% completion percentage.  Falk’s stats did decrease a bit this year so that concerns me slightly but not enough to push him off my board.  Falk’s best attributes are his experience, size and accuracy – those traits will definitely get him drafted to be a backup behind an aging vet.  Washington State doesn’t bother running the ball too much (second worst rushing offense in the FBS at 71.1 yards per game) but that does not mean that RBs Jamal Morrow and James Williams are worthless.  Both backs excel in the passing game with 898 combined receiving yards.  The team’s leading receiver is junior Tavares Martin (70-831-9) but Falk spreads the love around because five guys have 50+ receptions.  One other prospect to keep an eye on, not that you could miss him, is G Cody O’Connell.  O’Connell’s nickname is “The Continent” and he deserves the title because he is listed at 6’9″ and 354lbs.  It’s odd to see such a big guard and that could be telling that he’s not playing tackle.  Per WalterFootball.com, one of my favorite draft resources, team sources think O’Connell will go undrafted.  Reading that tempered my excitement but still how often do we get to see a 6’9″ player?

Maybe I’m blinded by my Big Ten fandom but I’m going with Sparty here.  Michigan State has the better defense and is more likely to stop Washington State’s offense than vice versa.  Prediction: Michigan 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.

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: C-USA Preview

Updated: July 23rd 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

  • Ray Lawry, RB, Old Dominion: Lawry wasn’t the first player I researched from C-USA but something about his running style caught my eye.  He doesn’t have much wiggle, but he has a low center of gravity and is always moving forward.  Size wise, he compares to Paul Perkins and Theo Riddick.  He will be a senior and four year contributor (528 carries, 3,338 yards, 38 rushing TDs, 49 receptions, 441 yards, 2 receiving TDs so far) who will likely stay under the radar.  Keep an eye on him and I’ll bet he’ll be available late in your 2018 rookie draft.
  • Mike White, QB, Western Kentucky: White has prototypical NFL quarterback size at 6’4″ and 215lb, although in reality his height is probably exaggerated as most college media guide measurables are.  White is a pocket passer, out of the gun, who does not offer anything on the ground.  Ironically, the highlight of his that stood out came against North Texas when he scrambled, making multiple defenders miss, and had the presence to find an open receiver streaking through the middle for a long gain.  He’s a former USF transfer who moved to Western Kentucky to start.  In 2016, his TD:INT ratio was spectacular (37:7) and if he can repeat that type of production without Taywan Taylor then he could get some mid-round NFL consideration.
  • Ito Smith, RB, Southern Miss: Smith is small and I couldn’t avoid the inevitable Darren Sproles comparison while taking notes.  In the right offense, he could offer some great PPR value.  He has good lateral quickness, he loves to jump cut and even has a cool looking jump-cut-swim-move he uses occasionally to avoid a tackle.  That lateral quickness lets him keep his pads parallel to the line and find holes – which don’t have to be that big for him to fit through.  I can’t imagine he gets much draft buzz but depending on landing spot he could have some limited fantasy value early in his career.

Storylines to Watch

  • Lane Kiffin and Butch Davis rebooting their careers in the C-USA.  Even casual college football fans likely know the names Lane Kiffin and Butch Davis.  Kiffin has managed to get jobs at the highest level – USC, Oakland Raiders, Alabama – but seems to always find a way to run himself out of town.  Meanwhile, Davis won three conference championships with the Miami Hurricanes in the early aughts, flamed out with the Cleveland Browns after promisingly making the playoffs in his second year and then found himself in the middle of an academic scandal at UNC.  Scandal or not, Davis was mostly mediocre at UNC and might have been let go soon anyway (28-23 regular season record if you count the vacated wins and a 1-2 bowl record).  Both coaches are seeking a chance to rebuild their careers with low level jobs in Florida: Kiffin at Florida Atlantic and Davis at Florida International.  If I had to guess which one gets another chance at a big job I would go with Kiffin mostly because he’s younger and will inevitably convince another AD (or NFL owner) that he’s worth the shot.  If nothing else, it’s going to be a boon for Florida high school players because recruiting is going to ratchet up.

Games to Watch

  • October 20, Western Kentucky at Old Dominion:  This game will be a good measuring stick for two of my players mentioned above.  ODU back Ray Lawry was shut out last year against Western Kentucky, rushing eight times for 27 yards and catching two passes for -2 yards.  If he can put up a respectable game against what should be the top conference foe, it will speak wonders to his pro prospects.  WKU QB Mike White lit up the Monarchs for 378 yards and 4 TDs last season; he also had a season-high completion percentage of 87.5%.  ODU could challenge in the division but no matter, these are the types of games a hopeful pro quarterback needs to excel in.
  • November 18, Florida International at Florida Atlantic: Call it the Reboot Bowl.  Kiffin vs Davis.  Chances are that come November 18, none of us will be able to name a single player on either team but this one should still be entertaining.  Over/under on the number of graphics showing each coach’s previous jobs?  Both coaches are working mostly with the previous regime’s players but in a year or two this might really be a game to watch – assuming both coaches are still there.

Thanks for reading!  Check back soon for the MAC preview.


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.