The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part II

Updated: December 14th 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.

Friday, Dec. 22

Bahamas Bowl, UAB (8-4) vs. Ohio (8-4), 12:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • UAB: 67th scoring offense, 106th passing offense, 37th rushing offense; 46th scoring defense, 22nd passing defense, 72nd rushing defense
  • Ohio: 14th scoring offense, 94th passing offense, 17th rushing offense; 59th scoring defense, 109th passing defense, 10th rushing defense

The offensive/defensive rankings in this one make for an interesting matchup.  Neither team throws the ball well but both run the ball with aplomb (UAB averages 190 yards per game while Ohio averages 245).  When UAB is running the ball it’ll be strength against strength with the Ohio rush defense.  Ohio’s offense is led by the two-pronged ground attack of JUCO transfer QB Nathan Rourke and RB AJ Ouellette.  Rourke has an incredible amount of rushing touchdowns: 21.  That is 2nd overall in the FBS – not among QBs, among all players.  It’s four more than Lamar Jackson has.  Ouellette is injured and his status for the bowl is unknown.  He finished 5th in the MAC in rushing but durability is a concern as I pointed out back in Week 10 before his most recent injury.  Backup RB Dorian Brown is also questionable so the bulk of the carries may have to go to undersized freshman Julian Ross (who went 19-81 against Buffalo in the team’s last game).  UAB also has their own mobile QB, AJ Erdely, who transferred from Middle Tennessee State.  Eredely’s rushing stats pale in comparison to Rourke, but he completes more passes (61.8% vs 54.2%) and has a better TD:INT ratio.  UAB’s lead back is freshman Spencer Brown (1,292 yards, 10 TDs).  It’s worth noting that this is UAB’s first season back in the FBS after ending their football program in 2014.  Bill Clark is a name that nobody knows but that should be getting national recognition.  He has done a fantastic job getting UAB to just its second ever bowl while also setting the school record for wins in a season since joining the FBS in 1996.  I’m really torn on this one.  As much as I’d love to root for a UAB bowl victory, which would have been improbable in September, the Bahamas Bowl will come down to the health of Ohio’s running backs and whether their rush defense can slow down Brown.  I’ll guess that one of the injured Ohio backs can play and that UAB won’t be able to slow down the tandem with Nathan Rourke.  Prediction: Ohio

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Central Michigan (8-4) vs. Wyoming (7-5), 4 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Central Michigan: 54th scoring offense, 48th passing offense, 93rd rushing offense; 68th scoring defense, 23rd passing defense, 91st rushing defense
  • Wyoming: 108th scoring offense, 101st passing offense, 120th rushing offense; 13th scoring defense, 5th passing defense, 74th rushing defense

This is an odd game to break down.  When I first saw that Wyoming ended bowl eligible and was picked for a game, I figured I would have to go deep on QB Josh Allen but I find myself more excited by the Chippewas.  Allen, as you probably know, is a first round NFL Draft prospect who struggled mightily this season before hurting his shoulder.  That 101st ranking for the Cowboys’ passing offense is not a typo – they were that bad.  Honestly, the shoulder injury might have done more to help his draft stock rather than hurt it.  Before going down, Allen was averaging just 165.8 yards per game with a disappointing 56.2% completion percentage.  His passer rating was 124.0 (ranked 97th in the FBS).  Allen’s yards per pass also decreased about 25% from last season.  So, if the stats are so bad, why is Allen still considered a first round draft prospect?  Because he can do things like this.  That play is loaded with positives if you watch closely.  First off, Allen is under center (which he does a minority of the time but it’s more than most other QB prospects).  Second, he really sells the play fake, using his prototypical size to hide the ball from the defense.  Third, he delivers a nicely timed ball to his back who is running a wheel route from the backfield.  Despite all the negatives, it’s this potential that has scouts excited.  I’m hopeful that Allen plays so we can see him once more heading into the NFL Draft.  Heading into the season, I predicted good things for Central Michigan and thought they would be a “spoiler” in the conference.  Turns out, I had that right.  CMU won close games against Western Michigan and Northern Illinois, both of which were predicted to finish ahead of them in the division by Phil Steele; they even got a win over Ohio, the predicted best in the East division.  CMU has two players I like: former Michigan QB Shane Morris and big play WR Corey Willis.  Morris turns the ball over too much (13 INTs) and does not complete enough of his passes to be a real worry but he’s experienced and a former Michigan man so I like him.  If you throw out a bad game against Boston College his stats would look better (yeah, yeah, I know I’m cherry picking).  In the preseason, I compared Willis to John Brown from the Arizona Cardinals and thought his draft stock could mirror that of 2016 stat-stuffer Taywan Taylor.  Unfortunately, injuries slowed Willis and limited him to just eight games.  Still, those games were encouraging.  He totaled 42-625-9 on the season and had four big games since returning from injury.  Willis has at least one touchdown in five straight games, scoring eight of his nine touchdowns in that span.  It doesn’t get much more under the radar than Willis: NFLDraftScout.com has him as the 46th ranked receiver in his class while Phil Steele had him as the 72nd ranked draft eligible receiver.  I might be the only draft analyst advocating for Willis but I really am a believer and will enjoy watching him in the bowl game and at the combine.  Prediction: Central Michigan

Saturday, Dec. 23

Birmingham Bowl, Texas Tech (6-6) vs. South Florida (9-2), 12 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Texas Tech: 26th scoring offense, 11th passing offense, 96th rushing offense; 98th scoring defense, 124th passing defense, 53rd rushing defense
  • South Florida: 16th scoring offense, 54th passing offense, 9th rushing offense; 37th scoring defense, 58th passing defense, 23rd rushing defense

Here’s a prop bet for you: take the over on the total number of yards earned by Texas Tech and South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl.  I’ll guess that combined the teams gain somewhere between 950-1,000 yards combined.  This one may not feature the best football but it will be fun to watch.  It’ll be long too with all the scoring so I recommend DVRing it and watching it on fast forward later in the day.  Not surprisingly this is the first matchup between the two teams in their history and it was made possible by the fact that the SEC didn’t have enough teams to fulfill all of its bowl tie-ins.  That isn’t to say the SEC was weak, it’s just that Georgia, Alabama and Auburn will all be playing in a New Year’s Six bowl which means less teams for the lower bowls.  Texas Tech’s offense is led by junior QB Nic Shimonek and WR Keke Coutee.  Shimonek is very efficient as a passer and ranks near the top of many passing categories such as completions, completion percentage and passer rating.  His TD:INT ratio is 30:8 which is good too.  Even though he has thrown the ball well this season, he was briefly benched for a game by coach Kliff Klingsbury.  Shimonek came off the bench versus Texas in that game and led the team to a win; he’s already been confirmed as the bowl game starter.  His top target, Coutee, has an 82-1,242-9 line on the season.  South Florida is powered by the legs and the arm of QB Quinton Flowers.  Flowers has 31 total passing and rushing touchdowns this season and 107 during his career.  It’s a shame he’s so undersized (6’0″ and 210lbs) or he’d be a fun draft prospect to evaluate; chances are he’ll still give the NFL a shot but likely after a position change.  Flowers is a winner: he has led the Bulls to a 29-9 record over the last three seasons.  He should notch another one here to cap off a prolific career.  Prediction: South Florida

 

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, Army (8-3) vs San Diego State (10-2), 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Army: 43rd scoring offense, 130th passing offense, 1st rushing offense; 30th scoring defense, 40th passing defense, 54th rushing defense
  • San Diego State: 50th scoring offense, 118th passing offense, 12th rushing offense; 15th scoring defense, 26th passing defense, 8th rushing defense

Oh San Diego State, one of my favorite teams of the year.  Their 12th ranked rushing offense is paced by RB Rashaad Penny who has undoubtedly made himself a millionaire this season with his meteoric rise.  In the preseason, I mentioned Penny as a special teams difference maker.  In Week 3, I discussed how Penny helped the Aztecs overcome their first Power 5 opponent in Arizona State.  By Week 5, the Aztecs made it into my “Games to Watch” segment with Penny as the headliner.  Come Week 6, I spotlighted Penny as my top player to watch that week and had already run out of superlatives for his success.  A week later, Penny was in my “Heisman Watch” segment.  Sure, Penny’s meteor has fallen back to earth but he’s still a great player who deserves your attention.  Penny has 2,169 total yards (most in the FBS) and 24 total TDs on the season.  Those scores break down to 19 rushing, 2 receiving, 2 kick return and 1 punt return.  He truly is a jack-of-all-trades and may be a top ten RB in the 2018 rookie class.  Army is led by senior QB Ahmad Bradshaw.  Bradshaw is a “quarterback” only in the sense that he takes the ball from under center each play.  He passes so infrequently that Sports-Reference.com shows his rushing stats ahead of his passing stats (he went 1-1 for 20 yards against Navy).  He is a very effective rusher who averages 7.5 yards per attempt, for a total of 1,566 yards and 12 TDs this season.  Not surprisingly, Army has a stable of backs with 500+ yards including Darnell Woolfolk, Kell Walker and Andy Davidson.  If you didn’t watch Army’s last game against Navy in the snow, you missed one heck of a game that Army pulled out late.  The game against Navy is, without a doubt, the biggest game of their season but I’m sure they will get up again next week for SDSU.  Ultimately, I think the strong Aztec defense plus Penny will be too much to overcome for Army.  In case this one is close, I will note that San Diego State has a good kicker in John Baron; he only went 12-15 this season because the offense converted drives into touchdowns but he can be counted on in the clutch.  Prediction: San Diego State

Dollar General Bowl, Toledo (11-2) vs. Appalachian State (8-4), 7 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Toledo: 11th scoring offense, 20th passing offense, 26th rushing offense; 56th scoring defense, 49th passing defense, 68th rushing defense
  • Appalachian State: 33rd scoring offense, 72nd passing offense, 28th rushing offense; 33rd scoring defense, 45th passing defense, 43rd rushing defense

Saturday Dec. 23 is looking to be a great day of good games, finishing off with yet another high scoring affair in the Dollar General Bowl.  Toledo ended the season on a three game winning streak including the MAC Championship against Akron.  Toledo is led by the strength of their offense.  Senior RB Terry Swanson is the standout back of the bunch (1,319 yards, 14 TDs).  Swanson went for 466 yards and 3 TDs over the last three games of the season including 180-2 in the MAC Championship.  Freshman RB Shakif Seymour has earned a larger role of late, especially after a five touchdown game against Bowling Green.  The top target for QB Logan Woodside, more on him in a moment, is WR Diontae Johnson.  Johnson is a big play guy who averages 17.5 yards per reception and also has two return touchdowns this season.  The aforementioned Woodside is Toledo’s best draft prospect but he’s maybe a 7th rounder at best heading into the combine.  I watched Woodside earlier in the year against Eastern Michigan and he mostly disappointed in that one.  He had fantastic numbers last season (4,129 yards, 45 TDs, 69.1% completion percentage) but just about all of his stats except INTs has regressed in 2017.  It’s looking more and more like Woodside will be an UDFA but who knows maybe that works out the best for him so he can choose his landing spot.  I included Appalachian State RB Jalin Moore in my Early 2018 Positional Rankings for one reason: his pass blocking will get him drafted.  Per Pro Football Focus, Moore has the highest pass blocking efficiency by a running back in the FBS.  It was a good thing to see Moore get 12 receptions this year (just five in his first two seasons) because if he’s going to be on the field in pass blocking situations in the NFL he better work on his receiving skills.  Moore battled a foot injury this season and missed some time but when he was healthy he was very productive.  He had two games over 200 yards (239 and 241) and two games over 100 yards where he also scored 2 TDs.  The Mountaineers QB Taylor Lamb is a four year starter who will be playing in his last game for the team.  He’s a dual threat (539 yards and 5 TDs rushing) and careful with the ball (just 6 INTs this year).  I went into researching this game thinking I would take Toledo and Woodside but I’m now leaning towards App State.  They have the better defense and I have a gut feeling Lamb will show-out.  Prediction: Appalachian State

Sunday, Dec. 24

Hawaii Bowl, Fresno State (9-4) vs. Houston (7-4), 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Fresno State: 79th scoring offense, 66th passing offense, 77th rushing offense; 9th scoring defense, 37th passing defense, 14th rushing defense
  • Houston: 67th scoring offense, 38th passing offense, 54th rushing offense; 39th scoring defense, 118th passing defense, 46th rushing defense

Fresno State is probably the bowl team that I have the least feel for – I can’t recall watching a single minute of their games this season before the MWC Championship.  Fresno won four straight to earn that MWC Championship game berth, including a win over 23rd ranked Boise State.  Lead WR KeeSean Johnson could be a longshot 2019 NFL Draft prospect if he improves his stats again in 2018.  His receptions, yards, yards per reception and touchdowns have all increased year over year.  In 2017 he finished with 66 receptions, 918 yards and 8 TDs.  Fresno’s rush attack is led by a trio of underclassman including freshman Jordan Mims (142 attempts, 604 yards, 6 TDs), sophomore Josh Hokit (117-519-7) and freshman Ronnie Rivers (95-473-5).  Mims is the go-to guy, he had 10+ carries in eight straight games before the MWC Championship game, but it’s definitely a “hot hand” situation.  The Cougars offense is not in good shape, despite their middling rankings, and clearly misses former head coach Tom Herman.  They are currently on their third starting quarterback, having settled on dual threat freshman D’Erig King in late October.  Since taking over, King has 6 passing TDs and 7 rushing TDs.  Houston has one player that you must watch: DT Ed Oliver.  Oliver is just a sophomore so he’s not draft eligible but I’ll bet he’s in the conversation for a Top 10 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.  He’s 6’3″ and 290lbs but athletic.  His stats won’t be amazing because he is often double teamed but he still managed 69 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 3 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 2017.  Total gut call but I have more faith in Fresno State’s offense after doing my research so I’ll take them and the bonus that is their strong defense.  Prediction: Fresno State

Tuesday, Dec. 26

Heart of Dallas Bowl, West Virginia (7-5) vs. Utah (6-6), 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • West Virginia: 19th scoring offense, 12th passing offense, 72nd rushing offense; 92nd scoring defense, 101st passing defense, 105th rushing defense
  • Utah: 59th scoring offense, 43rd passing offense, 70th rushing offense; 42nd scoring defense, 54th passing defense, 36th rushing defense

West Virginia enters the Heart of Dallas Bowl with their 12th ranked pass offense in flux.  QB Will Grier is questionable after a finger injury ended his season early.  In the game and a half the Mountaineers played without Grier, backup Chris Chugunov went 24-46 for 326 yards and 1 TD.  The team did lose both of those games though, one against Texas and one against Oklahoma.  I covered Grier back in Week 8 but since he’s injured I won’t go into more detail here other than to say that I am lower on him than others.  The must-watch offensive prospect, in my opinion, on West Virginia is QB turned WR David Sills.  Sills has good height at 6’3″ and uses that size to be a dominant red zone target.  Sills totaled 18 TDs on the season (enough to lead the FBS); 12 of those TDs came in the red zone.  NFLDraftScout.com predicts Sills to have 4.58 speed which not elite but is good enough and subsequently has him as the 6th ranked WR in his 2019 draft class (note: that does not include other 2018 guys who come out early). WalterFootball.com has him as the 14th if he were to come out this season.  I have Sills as my 10th WR for 2018 so I really like his potential.   I’ll predict that coach Dana Holgorsen calls up a key trick play where Sills gets to throw the ball and remind everybody that he used to play QB.  Utah is also dealing with an injured quarterback as Tyler Huntley is questionable for the bowl.  Troy Williams, a former Washington transfer who started in 2016, has not played particularly well in relief duty this year (2 TDs, 4 INTs, 54.5% completion percentage).  Senior WR Darren Carrington was unable to cement his status as an NFL Draft prospect but he’ll still get a late round look (66-918-6 this season).  The Utes best shot at a win is to ride RB Zack Moss.  Moss has 1,023 yards rushing, 9 rushing TDs, 28 receptions and 234 yards receiving this season.  When Utah has the ball, pay attention to West Virginia S Kyzir White, brother of Bears WR Kevin White.  White is a top safety prospect who has 81 tackles and 3 INTs this season.  As long as Chugunov can get the ball to Sills and target-hog Gary Jennings (94 receptions) the Mountaineers will be fine against a mediocre Utah team.  Prediction: West Virginia

Quick Lane Bowl, Northern Illinois (8-4) vs. Duke (6-6), 5:15 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Northern Illinois: 51st scoring offense, 87th passing offense, 38th rushing offense; 26th scoring defense, 57th passing defense, 11th rushing defense
  • Duke: 86th scoring offense, 80th passing offense, 59th rushing offense; 25th scoring defense, 12th passing defense, 62nd rushing defense

Duke was recently in the college football headlines because head coach David Cutcliffe was offered, and declined, the Tennessee job.  Considering what a sideshow that search became, I think we would all agree that was a good decision by Cutcliffe.  Cutcliffe has brought relevance to a struggling Duke program (they went to four straight bowls from 2012-2015) but finished just 4-8 last season.  I’m not a Duke fan and don’t follow the team closely but from afar I have to say that I like Cutcliffe and appreciate that he shunned a bigger job to continue building at Duke.  Maybe one reason Cutcliffe decided to return was the opportunity to continue working with redshirt sophomore QB Daniel Jones.  Jones has prototypical height at 6’5″ but needs to add weight to his 215lb frame.  Of the 18 quarterbacks who were drafted since 2010 and measured at 6’5″ or taller at the combine, none weighed less than 223lbs.  Per my two favorite draft sources, WalterFootball.com has him as the 15th ranked quarterback if he came out in 2018 while NFLDraftScout pegs him as the 6th best if he waits until 2020.  Jones will be best served by another season or two in college because he wouldn’t get drafted today based on his production.  His completion percentage is too low (55.7%) and his TD:INT is poor (12:11).  Part of that could be excused by a lackluster supporting cast but a top quarterback prospect needs to transcend his team.  Keep an eye on Jones to see if he improves next season.  The NIU quarterback situation is the polar opposite of the stability that Duke enjoys.  Like the Houston Cougars, the Huskies are on their third starting quarterback this year, moving on from the first two due to injury and ineffectiveness.  They are currently starting dual threat freshman Marcus Childers.  Childers took over in October and has been productive: 20 combined passing and rushing TDs.  Protecting the blindside of Childers is a mountain of a man named Max Scharping.  Scharping, a junior, is 6’6″ and 312lbs.  Per Pro Football Focus he is third in the nation in pass blocking efficiency by offensive tackles.  According to their stat guide, Scharping has only allowed one hit and just four hurries.  If Scharping comes out, I’ll bet he’s a Day Two prospect.  Neither team really won my heart here but I’ll go with NIU and their stronger scoring offense.  Prediction: Northern Illinois

Cactus Bowl, Kansas State (7-5) vs. UCLA (6-6), 9 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Kansas State: 37th scoring offense, 99th passing offense, 42nd rushing offense; 58th scoring defense, 129th passing defense, 18th rushing defense
  • UCLA: 30th scoring offense, 5th passing offense, 114th rushing offense; 118th scoring defense, 39th passing defense, 129th rushing defense

Apologies to Kansas State and legendary head coach Bill Snyder but this preview is all about UCLA’s Josh Rosen because he will be the biggest topic of conversation in this one.  The Rosen discussion, is dominated by one thought: will Rosen even play?  One of the oft-mentioned negatives of Rosen is that he might lack the passion for the game that some players exude.  I’ve heard some pundits say something to the effect of Josh not “needing” the game.  I obviously don’t know Rosen personally and haven’t studied him enough to have my own opinion but it does worry me that if that is true maybe he won’t bother suiting up for this meaningless game.  We saw a number of top prospects take that approach last year (Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffery) and can you really blame them?  The first overall pick and millions of dollars are on the line for Rosen.  I would not at all be surprised to read reports of Rosen’s shoulder injury “lingering” long enough to keep him out of the Cactus Bowl.  Regardless of whether he plays or how well he plays, Rosen is my pick for the first  pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.  I have gone deep on Rosen earlier in the season so I won’t rehash everything here but long story short is that he is the most pro-ready quarterback in the class.  He plays in a pro-style offense, has good size and arm strength and has been very productive in college.  He’s not without his negatives (i.e. the aforementioned mentality questions, low completion percentage, some poor decisions) but he has a high floor.  His ceiling may not be as high as somebody like Sam Darnold, who is younger but needs more seasoning for the NFL level, but Rosen is worthy enough of the top pick and can start from Day One.  I lied about ignoring Kansas State because there are three things I want to touch on.  First, starting QB Jesse Ertz is out and has been replaced by freshman Skylar Thompson, a QB with the same size and skill set as Ertz.  Second, Junior CB D.J. Reed is a difference maker on defense (43 tackles, 4 INTs, 9 passes defended) and on special teams (2 TDs, led Big 12 in punt and kickoff yards per return) when he is healthy.  Unfortunately, Reed is hurt and it’s unsure if he’ll be able to play.  If he does, I’ll be interested to see him vs Rosen.  Third, Kansas State has an interesting OL prospect in junior Dalton Risner.  Risner was the team’s starting C as a redshirt freshman and has since switched over to RT.  He is ranked second in the pass block efficiency stat by PFF at the tackle position.  If Risner enters the NFL Draft as a C prospect he could be a Day Two pick due to his versatility.  It’s hard to throw out praise for a team’s starting quarterback like I did and then pick against them but that’s exactly what I’m going to do.  If Rosen can’t or won’t go, they could have to go to third stringer Matt Lynch because backup Devon Modster is questionable with his own injury.  No thanks, let’s go Wildcats.   Prediction: Kansas State


Note: When watching film for a player in the offseason, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had all season so they really need to jump off the screen.  I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability.  If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents.  Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

Early 2018 Positional Rankings

Updated: November 8th 2017

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the storylines, players and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my weekly picks, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  Check back throughout the season as The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

It may only be November but I think it’s time to start looking at positional rankings for 2018.  I did struggle at times with these rankings as to whether they should be based on my perceived fantasy value or in what order I believe players will be drafted.  Let’s say these rankings are a composite of both ideals.  I will separate out the two different mindsets in my future RSO and NFL mock drafts.  I have included brief notes on interesting players for each position.  For more detailed play analysis follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper or read my weekly The Watch List pieces which have, and will continue to, spotlight future fantasy relevant players.

Quarterbacks

Rosen is my QB1 because he is likely the most “pro ready” of the prospects since he is playing in a pro-style system with good size and stats.  Darnold looks likely to go back but if he does declare early he has hurt is stock with too many turnovers this year.  You may be surprised to see Finley and Litton on my list.  I have watched a bunch of NC State this year and have liked Finley’s ability to manage the game and limit mistakes.  Litton is a big (6’6″ 233lb) three year starter whose stats have been consistent through each season (including 590 yards and 4 TDs in his two games versus Power Five opponents); no guarantee he comes out but I’m intrigued.

Running Backs

The top of my list is pretty “chalk” for those who have been paying attention to the college season so far.  I did decide to put Chubb over Guice but they are so close it’s a pick’em.  Adams and Scarborough fall out of my Top 10 because I’m concerned about their size; few RBs at their height or taller (6’2″) have had sustained production in the NFL.  I sneak Jalin Moore in at RB15 because I think a team will take him for his pass protection skills as a great third down back; per Pro Football Focus he’s one of only a few RBs with a perfect “pass blocking efficiency.”

Wide Receivers

I have Ridley at WR1 even though he hasn’t put up huge numbers this season (or last).  I like his consistency because even though the offense focuses on the run, he still has three or more receptions in all but four of his 38 career games.  He also has a pedigree that few can match as he was the #1 receiver recruit in his class and had a breakout season as a freshman (89-1,045-7) in 2015.  He’s slight, just 190lb for his 6’1″ frame, which I have to acknowledge as a big negative because I am critical of guys like Pettis and Burnett for the same reason.  Read more about my Ridley opinion in my SEC season preview.  Sills, Cobbs and Burnett landed on my list because of seasons that beat my expectations so far.  I included two small school prospects in James and Wilson because I always need a sleeper to root for.  Watch for Wilson, he’s going to be a training camp riser for whatever team he lands on.

Tight Ends

The top four on this list may not quite compare to Howard, Engram and Njoku from 2017 but it is a very good group and I bet they will creep up fantasy draft boards given how barren the position has been this season with injury and ineffectiveness.  Jaylen Samuels is my favorite prospect in all of college football right now.  He has stat lines like no TE ever before (56-474-3 receiving and 39-209-7 rushing this season) and will likely project more as a FB or H-Back in the NFL.  Being position eligible at TE while getting goal line carries would be an incredible fantasy advantage.  If he lands with a creative offense he will be the ultimate third down weapon.  Never heard of Goedert or Yurachek?  Don’t worry I hadn’t either before I started my research but both are big and productive so I ranked them over some other smaller athletic types.


Note: When watching film for a player in the offseason, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had all season so they really need to jump off the screen.  I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability.  If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents.  Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

The Watch List: Sun Belt 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

  • Jordan Chunn, RB, Troy: Chunn is my pick for the player from the Sun Belt most likely to end up on your fantasy team next Spring.  He has good size for a RB at 6’1″ and 231 lb (very similar to D’onta Foreman and James Connor from this class).  As a true freshman in 2013, Chunn split time as the lead back and had a solid 514 rushing yards, 21 receptions and 104 receiving yards; he added an eye-popping 14 rushing TDs.  He was less of a pass catcher in 2014 but upped his per carry average slightly despite not getting the bulk of the carries.  He finished 2014 with a 111-509-6 rushing line.  In 2016, Chunn was the unquestioned top back and went for 279-1,288-16 while adding 30 receptions and 228 yards through the air.  I was able to view a find some student-made highlight reelss from last year’s Troy’s games.  Chunn is a straight ahead runner who would much rather go through the defender than around.  He didn’t show me much elusiveness or speed (maybe 4.60-4.65) but that’s not why you’d be drafting him.  Two negatives I’ll mention… First, he runs upright which the conventional wisdom says is a concern as it makes him a bigger target for tacklers.  Second, he was sidelined for nearly all of 2015 with a collarbone injury.  Luckily for his future pro prospects, a broken collarbone will give GMs less pause than a knee.  Come May 2018, Chunn could find himself on a team looking for a little “thunder” to go with their “lightning.”
  • Jalin Moore, RB, Appalachian State: It was even harder to find film out there for Moore.  I didn’t have the patience to sit through long highlight packages of random Sun Belt games just to see a glimpse of him two or three times on touchdowns or long runs.  It’s disappointing because he was the Sun Belt’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2016 and named to the All-Sun Belt First Team and I wanted to actually see him in action.  Funnily enough, it’s far easier to find high school highlights of his.  As a freshman in 2015, Moore ran for 731 yards on just 99 carries, a 7.4 per carry average.  In 2016, he was the lead guy and had a 237-1,402-10 rushing line.  Unfortunately, he adds very little in the passing game with just five career receptions, all in 2016.  Moore started 2016 slowly but exploded in the fourth game against Akron for 257 yards and 2 TDs on 39 carries.  He had seven more 100+ yard games after that to finish strong enough to make you forget about the earlier struggles (two of which came against Tennessee and Miami FL).  Moore is 5’11” and 205 lbs, lighter than you’d hope for in an every-down back; size-wise he compares similarly to Christian McCaffery.  Moore is only a junior so he has some time to bulk up (and put some good tape out there) but there’s no guarantee he comes out in 2018.
  • Matt Linehan, QB, Idaho: If I’m being honest, I had not heard of Matt Linehan before I started my Sun Belt research.  Idaho originally caught my eye because they are moving back to FCS (more on that below) so I decided to learn more about their quarterback.  He’s been the starter since 2014 as a true freshman when the Vandals joined the Sun Belt and now he will see them out of the conference.  Linehan has some inflated counting stats from a heavy pass offense but the stats aren’t great when you look closely.  He finished strong with 10 TDs and just 3 INTs in the final four games of the season (including a 4 TD game in the Idaho Potato Bowl against Colorado State), but he started the year with just 2 TDs and 1 INT in the first four (granted one was against Washington but the other three were against Montana State [FCS], Washington State [112th passing defense] and UNLV [81st]).  Despite a high volume of attempts, he just doesn’t hit paydirt often enough  (just 46 career TDs over 35 games).  His career completion percentage of 61.1% is good enough but in the film I watched he looked pretty inaccurate.  I watched Linehan play against Washington and predictably his teammates did him no favors: he was sacked, had to scramble and suffered a number of drops.  He does look comfortable throwing on the run, which is a positive because Idaho ranks 108th in returning offensive line starts per Phil Steele.  I also watched his tape against Colorado State and two plays from that game give me hope.  On two of his four TD tosses, Linehan identified the blitz and threw to a hot route receiver for a touchdown.  Maybe I’m being hard on the guy, but I just wasn’t impressed when delving into his stats or his tape.  Two of my favorite resources disagree though.  Phil Steele has Linehan as his #16 draft eligible QB, meanwhile DraftScout.com has Linehan as the #3 senior QB (notably ahead of Baker Mayfield).  For what it’s worth, his dad is Scott Linehan, Cowboys offensive coordinator and former Rams head coach so that will all but guarantee he gets a shot with an NFL team.  Linehan is a guy I will definitely be checking in on again in the future to see if my initial impressions were right or off base.
  • Blake Mack, TE, Arkansas State: Here’s a deep name for you.  I realized that in my first few previews, I didn’t list a single TE as a player to watch so I was determined to find one to write about from the Sun Belt.  Lindy’s lists Mack as the 10th best draft eligible player from the conference so maybe I’m on to something.  I was initially turned away from Mack because of his size.  At 6’3″ 231lb, he’s smaller than Evan Engram who was 2017’s smallest TE prospect.  Some talk, from myself included, supposed that Engram might transition to WR or at least play most of his snaps out of the slot.  That’s likely the future for Mack too.  I found a highlight reel for Mack from 2016 and was interested to see where the Red Wolves utilized him.  He was very versatile, lining up in the slot, on the outside and in the backfield.  He was not on the line often and I did not see a single highlight of him blocking (possibly more a feature of what constitutes a highlight, but my gut tells me he doesn’t block much).  He has the speed to beat safeties and linebackers in coverage, which he did on a number of plays.  Mack looks smaller on the field than expected so I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t even enter the combine as a TE but instead as a WR (or maybe with the RBs as an H-back).  Perhaps not the best comparison these days, but his usage and versatility reminded me of Aaron Hernandez at Florida.  You’ll have to be in a pretty deep league to consider Mack but hey that’s why I’m here!

Storylines to Watch

  • Idaho moving down to the FCS: As far as I can tell, no team has left the FBS for the FCS by choice in decades.  Some have left due to funding or NCAA sanctions, but to leave the top division willingly is unprecedented.  It’s an interesting story and one that gets more interesting when you think about the future of head coach Paul Petrino.  Petrino has been with Idaho since they moved up to the FBS in 2013 (they played as an independent for a season before joining the Sun Belt in 2014).  His overall record is bad (15-33) but the trend line is encouraging.  The Vandals started off with two 0-11 seasons but improved to 4-8 in 2015 and then 9-4 last season.  If Petrino can keep the team competitive, which should be made easier with such an experienced quarterback like Matt Linehan, I would expect him to stay in the FBS and latch on with another up-and-coming Group of 5 team.
  • Troy’s experience will help them surprise: As readers will know, I like to refer to Phil Steele’s experience charts to determine potential surprise teams.  What did I find for the Sun Belt?  Troy is returning an insane 98.7% of their offensive yards from last year – the highest percentage in the FBS.  Their top seven rushers and receivers will all be back for 2017, including standout RB Jordan Chunn.  Troy has two tough non-conference games against Boise State and LSU, which I’m assuming will be losses, but they avoid Appalachian State who should lead the conference.  If Troy can avoid a late season upset like they suffered in 2016 against Georgia Southern, they should challenge App State for the title.

Games to Watch

  • September 2, Appalachian State at Georgia: I’m a Michigan fan so I know all about opening weekend upsets against App State.  Georgia will be a preseason Top 25 team and features some bonafide NFL prospects (including RBs Nick Chub and Sony Michel) but they need to make sure they don’t get caught looking ahead to Notre Dame who they play the following weekend.  It’ll also be a good opportunity to see RB Jalin Moore play on what should be a national broadcast.
  • September 16, Coastal Carolina at UAB: This probably won’t be a football game featuring any future NFL talent but it is at least an interesting story.  UAB is returning to football after two seasons off and Coastal Carolina will be playing its first season in the FBS.  Both of these teams literally have nowhere to go but up.
  • December 2, Troy at Arkansas State: Without a conference championship game, this is probably the closest we’ll get.  As I mentioned above, I think Troy will challenge for first and you’d expect Arkansas State to be in the running since they have the best conference record over the last three, five and ten years.

Next up… the independents!

 

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.