The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part VI

Updated: December 30th 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.

Monday, Jan. 1

Outback Bowl, Michigan (8-4) vs. South Carolina (8-4), 12 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • Michigan: 88th scoring offense, 112th passing offense, 44th rushing offense; 14th scoring defense, 1st passing defense, 21st rushing defense
  • South Carolina: 99th scoring offense, 79th passing offense, 108th rushing offense; 27th scoring defense, 71st passing defense, 42nd rushing defense

As my readers know, I am a Michigan homer but I’m going to be as impartial here as possible. There is no reason this game should be on New Year’s Day. I guess the NCAA (read as: ESPN) prefer to have some of the biggest games spaced out on Dec 29 and Dec 30 but it’s hard to get excited by this matchup. Both teams are 8-4 and were a combined 1-5 against ranked teams (notably that single win was Michigan over #17 Florida in the first game of the season before we knew how bad Florida was going to be). The teams are also banged up: per Sports-Reference.com’s injury reports, the teams have a combined 22 players injured with varying severity.

Since Gamecocks WR Deebo Samuel has not returned to practice and will not play in the bowl, the most significant injury is likely to Michigan QB Brandon Peters. Peters started the year as the third stringer but was elevated to the starting role on Oct 28 against Rutgers. Wilton Speight got hurt in the team’s fourth game but wasn’t playing well anyway. Wolverines fans like myself got a taste of truly dreadful quarterback play when John O’Korn took over and struggled mightily. Peters has not been great (57.6% completion percentage, 4 TDs and 0 INTs) but he’s a significant improvement over the turnover prone O’Korn. The offense is led by a trio of running backs: Karan Higdon (929 yards, 11 TDs), Chris Evans (661-6) and Ty Isaac (548-2). Not surprisingly, none of the WRs are a factor. The team’s leading receiver is TE Sean McKeon (29-285-3). Keep an eye on FB Khalid Hill near the goal line. Hill only has 34 yards on 17 carries this season but he has three scores and had ten last year. Michigan’s defense is chock-full of NFL talent and they alone should warrant their own full-length piece. The biggest difference makers on that unit are DT Maurice Hurst and DE Rashan Gary. Hurst has 58 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks; Gary has 55-10.5-4. Gary is the better pro prospect, don’t be surprised if he’s a Top 3 pick in 2018, but the stats belie his skill because of how often he’s double teamed. This Youtube video is a good cut-up of 2016 highlights for a number of 2017’s key defensive players, including LBs Chase Winovich and Mike McCray.

It’s a shame Deebo Samuel won’t be back for the bowl after a broken leg. Reports earlier in the season were that he could return but he has not practiced. Samuel is draft eligible but he should probably return for another year. He has fifteen career touchdowns (7 rushing, 5 receiving, 3 returning) and is an explosive game breaker. Sophomore QB Jake Bentley regressed in 2017 in terms of his rate stats and efficiency. I have not watched much of Bentley so I’m not able to provide much analysis here but I’ll bet that there’s a good chance he doesn’t start 2018 as the starter. TE Hayden Hurst is the team’s best NFL prospect. He had 41 receptions for 518 yards and 2 TDs this year. He has not been a high volume scorer (just 3 career TDs) but he is a good pass catcher and at least an average blocker in my film study. Hurst was my TE2 when I did 2018 rookie positional rankings in November; he’ll probably come in a little lower than that but he’s still a possible rookie pick in many fantasy leagues. LB Skai Moore is a four year contributor who has 346 career tackles, 5 career sacks and 14 career interceptions. Moore is WalterFootball.com’s 12th ranked OLB. His versatility in pass coverage should earn him a Day Two draft pick.

Michigan’s defense, without a doubt, will be the most dominant unit on the field in this one. I’ll make the homer pick and take my Wolverines. Prediction: Michigan

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, #7 Auburn (10-3) vs. #12 Central Florida (12-0), 12:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Auburn: 25th scoring offense, 68th passing offense, 22nd rushing offense; 10th scoring defense, 17th passing defense, 32nd rushing defense
  • UCF: 1st scoring offense, 7th passing offense, 34th rushing offense; 53rd scoring defense, 111th passing defense, 66th rushing defense

What a game this one is going to be.  We all know the story surrounding outgoing UCF head coach Scott Frost so let’s not beat the proverbial dead horse because the spotlight should be on the players.

Auburn had a roller coaster of a season.  Heading into SEC play they were 2-1 but with two poor wins and a close loss to #3 Clemson.  They made it up to #10 but a loss to LSU bumped them all the way down to #21.  From there they worked their way into the playoff picture with wins over #2 Georgia and #1 Alabama (both of whom are playing in the playoff despite their losses to Auburn).  A poor showing in the rematch against Georgia sealed their outside-looking-in fate.  Throughout the season they were led by two players on offense: QB Jarrett Stidham and RB Kerryon Johnson.  I was lukewarm regarding Stidham for most of the year but he won me over against Alabama.  I wrote him up that week and compared him favorably to Alex Smith.  He’s an efficient and athletic game manager which sounds like an insult but it’s actually high praise (don’t forget that Smith was taken first overall in 2005).  Stidham threw just one INT in SEC play but has a mixed bag of results in the year’s biggest games (good games against Georgia and Alabama, bad games against Georgia and Clemson).  UCF has a poor passing defense so I expect Stidham to put up big numbers.  Kerryon Johnson has battled some injuries this season but he was still very productive in eleven games (1,320 rushing yards, 23 rushing TDs, 23 receptions, 188 receiving yards, 2 receiving TDs).  I did not rank Johnson in my Top 15 for 2018 rookie RBs but his success in November has me re-thinking that: over 700 totals yards and 15 total TDs.  As far as non-offensive skill positions go, the Tigers have three NFL talents.  At corner, Carlton Davis could land near the end of the first round.  According to Pro Football Focus, Davis was the 50th ranked player in “Cover Snaps per Reception” and was average in passer rating against.  Still, my preferred draft sources (WalterFootball.com and NFLDraftScout.com) favor him over guys I like more like Josh Jackson or Jaire Alexander.  OG Braden Smith will be a second tier option for teams who miss on the elite prospects in a guard-heavy draft.  K Daniel Carlson will end up getting drafted before the 6th round by some team desperate to end their kicking woes; he has played in 52 career games and hit on 90 of his 111 attempts (plus a perfect 195-195 record on PATs).  In a game destined to come down to who has the ball last, Carlson could be a factor.

The UCF offense is all about QB McKenzie Milton.  I have been praising him for a few weeks now because he is one of the purest passers I remember watching in recent memory.  His deep ball looks effortless and he’s not afraid to throw it – he can just spin it.  Milton played as a freshman in 2016 but exploded in 2017.  He threw for 3,795 yards and 35 TDs and completed 69.2% of his passes.  The biggest knock on Milton is his size.  He’s listed at 5’11” and 177lbs and that might be soaking wet with two sets of shoulder pads on.  I don’t think there is any way we talk about Milton as a pro prospect next year so enjoy him now as a fun to watch college QB.  WR Tre’Quan Smith is the biggest benefactor of Milton’s prolific passing.  He only caught 54 balls but went for 1,082 yards (an outstanding 20.0 yards per reception) and 13 TDs.  Per PFF, Smith is fourth in the FBS in “Deep Receiving Catch Rate” by catching 68.4% of his deep attempts.  Smith has 50+ receptions in each of his three seasons so who knows maybe another solid 2018 gets him drafted.  UCF does not have any high level NFL hopefuls but you should read up on LB Shaquem Griffin.  He was the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2016 after finishing with 92 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.  His stats all decreased this year but that doesn’t make him any less fun to watch.  Griffin’s left hand was amputated in 1999 and against all odds he is pushing for a shot in the NFL.  I envy people like Griffin who can overcome their physical limitations to do great things, I’m not sure I would have the strength to do so myself, and I don’t doubt for a second that he’ll make an impression on NFL scouts.

I’m not a gambler but if I were, I would avoid this one.  I’m picking with my heart and not my head here: I love watching UCF and am rooting for them to show the playoff committee that they deserved a chance.  Prediction: Central Florida

Citrus Bowl, #17 LSU (9-3) vs. #14 Notre Dame (9-3), 1 p.m. (ABC)

  • LSU: 72nd scoring offense, 86th passing offense, 30th rushing offense; 16th scoring defense, 20th passing defense, 22nd rushing defense
  • Notre Dame: 22nd scoring offense, 104th passing offense, 7th rushing offense; 32nd scoring defense, 51st passing defense, 49th rushing defense

LSU has earned some headlines over the last 24 hours as reports have come out that offensive coordinator Matt Canada is leaving the team.  Canada’s offense is famous for its pre-snap shifts and movement.  Ironically, Canada’s career is famous for its movement too because he can’t stick around anywhere too long (six different schools since 2010); maybe the gimmick just isn’t worth all of the effort and time it must take to learn.  Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is always surrounded by rumors too because half the fan base hates him.

LSU was an enigma to me this season.  Midway through the year, I was honestly surprised to see that 5-2 LSU was ranked #24.  One of those losses was to Troy from the Sun Belt which would seem to be disqualifying.  Of the other Power 5 teams in the Top 25, only Stanford (vs San Diego State) has a loss to a Group of 5 team; and that is without a doubt a stronger loss than LSU’s.  I guess the committee felt that LSU’s win over then #10 Auburn more than made up for the bad loss (but by that logic Ohio State should have been in over Alabama).  LSU has two players who will go at the top of drafts: DE Arden Key in the NFL Draft and RB Derrius Guice in your rookie draft.  Guice has been as under the radar as the soon to be 1.02 can.  Saquon Barkley has, deservedly, received a ton of attention this season but second tier backs like Ronald Jones and Bryce Love have stolen some of the shine that should be on Guice.  He has confirmed that he will play in the Citrus Bowl which is good because I figured he might follow former teammate Leonard Fournette’s lead and skip the bowl.  Guice had a solid season but was not as dominant as he was last year when sharing the backfield with Fournette.  This year Guice finished with a 1,153-11 line.  He’s not a big receiving threat (just 29 career receptions, 15 of which came this year) which could limit his utility at the start of his NFL career.  It turns out that my feelings about Guice from August were spot-on: “I’m very interested to see how Guice does without Fournette…in 2017.  If he can repeat even 75% of his production from 2016 he’ll be a first round NFL back.  What I saw in Guice’s tape was not enough for me to push him to RB1 over Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, but at worst, Guice will be your 1.02 for 2018.”  Injuries derailed Arden Key’s season and will cause him to miss the bowl.  He still has an elite size and speed combination plus enough production to guarantee he finds the Top 10 in the NFL Draft.  WR DJ Chark had 47 touches for 874 total yards and 4 TDs; his production is undraftable but his 6’4″ height could get him a look.  CB Donte Jackson is WalterFootball.com’s 3rd ranked corner.

The strength of Notre Dame’s team, stop me if you’ve heard this before, is their offensive line.  I would not at all be surprised for Notre Dame to have both the first tackle and the first guard drafted, both likely in the Top 15.  T Mike McGlinchey (6’8″ and 315lbs) and G Quentin Nelson (6’5″ and 330lbs) were both first team All-Americans.  They pave the way for RB Josh Adams and QB Brandon Wimbush to rack up rushing yards.  Adams finished with 1,386 yards and 9 TDs while Wimbush had 766 and 14.  I am not a fan of Wimbush because he is such an inaccurate passer but you can’t deny his ability as a runner.  I have waffled on Adams throughout the season but I remain concerned about his size at the next level (he’s too tall – click the link for my analysis).  In Week 9, I predicted he’d be a 3rd round rookie draft pick and I’ll stand by that now.  It’s a shame that Wimbush has struggled to complete passes because WR Equanimeious St. Brown (my vote for the first player to break RSO’s draft software because of the length of this name) has such potential.  St. Brown is long and lean (he really needs to add about 10lbs to make it in the NFL) with a good pedigree (4 star recruit, offers from a number of big schools).  If he comes out he is going to have to dominate the combine because his production is below average (90-1,437-13 in two seasons as a starter).  LB Nyles Morgan considered coming out after his junior year (88 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 4 sacks) but returned to school; unfortunately for Morgan, 2017 probably hurt his stock more than helped it (82-6.5-1).  Both WalterFootball.com and NFLDraftScout.com have him as either a 7th rounder or undrafted.

I struggled to pick this one because I’m not a fan of either team.  I’ll take LSU because of Guice and the strength of their defense (even without Key).  Prediction: LSU

College Football Playoff Semifinal #1, Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual, #3 Georgia (12-1) vs #2 Oklahoma (12-1), 5 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Georgia: 23rd scoring offense, 111th passing offense, 11th rushing offense; 3rd scoring defense, 2nd passing defense, 12th rushing defense
  • Oklahoma: 4th scoring offense, 3rd passing offense, 27th rushing offense; 52nd scoring defense, 87th passing defense, 39th rushing defense

And here we are, finally the College Football Playoff, 39 games later.  The Georgia vs Oklahoma matchup may lack the familiarity of the Alabama vs Clemson matchup but it will be equally entertaining featuring a great matchup of Oklahoma’s offense against Georgia’s defense.  Baker Mayfield is apparently sick but there’s no way that it keeps him off the field.

Oklahoma’s season was momentarily disrupted by their Oct 7 loss to Iowa State but they went on to win eight straight including three wins against teams ranked #8, #10 and #11.  Coming into the season, I had serious doubts about whether Baker Mayfield was going to 1) win the Heisman and 2) become a top NFL prospect.  Turns out that I was wrong on both accounts.  Mayfield has been exceptional this season.  Who would have thought it would be possible to improve on his 2016 numbers, but he did.  Mayfield finished with 4,340 yards (2nd in FBS), 41 passing TDs (2nd) and completed 71.0% of his passes (1st).  His interceptions went down, his yards per attempt went up, and on and on.  There just aren’t enough superlatives for what Mayfield accomplished on the field this season, especially considering that he is a former walk-on at Texas Tech.  Mayfield does have some “character” question marks but I don’t think any of them are enough to ding his draft stock.  I had Mayfield as my QB6 when I ranked potential 2018 rookies but I think he’ll likely be in the QB4 range by moving ahead of Luke Falk and Lamar Jackson.  I expect Mayfield to be drafted in the first half of the first round in April; depending on his landing spot he could be a factor in fantasy leagues as a rookie.  Mayfield is surrounded by a strong supporting cast composed mostly of underclassmen.  That includes sophomore RB Rodney Anderson (960 yards, 11 TDs), freshman RB Trey Sermon (710-5) and freshman WR CeeDee Lamb (40 receptions, 741 yards, 7 TDs).  Aside from Mayfield, the best pro prospect is TE Mark Andrews.  Andrews is 6’5″ and 254lbs and often plays in the slot to maximize his size advantage over smaller corners and safeties.  Andrews is certainly not the most well-rounded TE in the class but he will likely be the first drafted in 2018 rookie drafts for his receiving ability.  In my early 2018 mock rookie draft I had Andrews as the 2.10 pick and the first TE off the board.  Andrews led the team in receptions (58) and receiving TDs (8) and was second in receiving yards (906).  LT Orlando Brown seems to be a polarizing player in mock drafts as I have seen him as high as the 2nd overall pick to the 18th overall pick to all the way down to 59th overall.  The Sooners defense is led by DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo.  Okoronkwo has two straight 70+ tackle and 8+ sack seasons.  He landed on numerous second team All-American lists and was the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year (shared with Malik Jefferson).

Georgia had some quarterback controversy very early in the year when freshman Jake Fromm took over for the injured Jacob Eason in the season opener.  Regardless of how well Eason played in 2016 as a freshman, there was no way he was getting the job back from Fromm once he took over.  By virtue of their strong rushing game, Fromm is not counted on to throw the ball much (he had six games with fewer than ten completions) but when he does he is efficient.  He ended the season with 21 TDs and 5 INTs and had rate stats significantly higher than those of Eason in 2016.  The run game is a three-headed monster featuring Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift.  Chubb led the way with 1,175 yards and 13 TDs; Michel had 948 yards and 13 TDs; Swift had 597 yards and 3 TDs.  Neither Chubb nor Michel are pass catchers but Swift did have 15 receptions.  Swift is a true freshman and a name to watch for next season after Chubb and Michel leave for the NFL.  Both Chubb and Michel were drafted in my 2018 early mock draft (Chubb at 1.03, Michel at 2.06).  Chubb has an injury history which may trouble some NFL teams but he’s been mostly healthy since his 2015 knee injury.  Swift closed out the SEC Championship game against Auburn and had 94 total yards on 10 touches – look for a similar output here in the bowl because Georgia will need to get the ball out quick to neutralize the pass rush.  The Georgia defense is led by two LBs who are bound to be IDP considerations in 2018.  The lesser prospect is DE/OLB rusher Lorenzo Carter.  Carter had 48 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries this season.  I researched him back in Week 4 and guessed he could end up as a first rounder – that may be a little high but he could still get picked on Day Two.  Roquan Smith is an elite prospect.  He was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year and is a first team All-American.  In 2016 he had 95 tackles with no sacks, this year he improved to 113 tackles and 5 sacks.  He’s the top draft eligible player at the position and will be a Top 10 draft pick.

I’m taking Oklahoma purely because of Baker Mayfield.  If the game is close, he’ll find a way to win it.  I worry that Georgia could get an early lead and milk to clock with their run game but if they start slow they’ll struggle to keep up with Mayfield, et al.  Prediction: Oklahoma

College Football Playoff Semifinal #2, Allstate Sugar Bowl, #4 Alabama (11-1) vs #1 Clemson (12-1), 8:45 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Alabama: 12th scoring offense, 83rd passing offense, 10th rushing offense; 1st scoring defense, 7th passing defense, 3rd rushing defense
  • Clemson: 21st scoring offense, 52nd passing offense, 33rd rushing offense; 2nd scoring defense, 8th passing defense, 13th rushing defense

How often is the third installment of a trilogy the best?  Probably never unless you’re a big Return of the Jedi fan.  I don’t think this one will have the juice of the last two matchups because we’re missing the star that is Deshaun Watson.  Don’t get me wrong it’ll be entertaining but we won’t be seeing this one on ESPN Classic in ten years.

Alabama snuck into the playoff in my opinion.  If it were up to me, I would have taken Ohio State because they won their conference and did not have any FCS wins.  Sure, Alabama has one less loss but in my mind they also have two less wins.  Alabama is full of familiar names so we’ll go through them quickly.  QB Jalen Hurts feels like he’s been around for half a decade but he’s just a sophomore.  He is a run-first quarterback (he led the team in rush attempts with 137) who really improved as a passer this year.  His yards per attempt went up to 9.0 from 7.3 and he threw just one INT (he also only lost one fumble).  He didn’t run as much in 2017 as he did in 2016 but he also increased his yards per rush this year.  Nick Saban trusts him with the ball in his hands and you can see why.  In the preseason, my preferred Crimson Tide RB was Bo Scarborough; he disappointed this year with just 549 yards and 8 TDs.  I will be lowering him in my 2018 rookie rankings (assuming he comes out).  The best back this year was Damien Harris who is also draft eligible; he leapfrogged Scarborough in my early 2018 positional rankings.  Harris ran for 906 yards and 11 TDs but added just 8 receptions.  He’ll probably be an early 2nd round rookie pick for me next year.  WR Calvin Ridley is still my WR1 despite the fact that many draft analysts disagree with me.  Ridley’s production has been hampered by a run-heavy offense so of course we aren’t going to see production like Amari Cooper or Julio Jones.  Ridley is a little too light so I would like to see him add about 10lbs in the offseason to approximate Cooper’s size.  Ridley has a pedigree that few prospects can match: he was ESPN’s #1 recruit in his class and was the leading receiver for Alabama in three straight seasons in which they contended for the national championship.  I’m not scared off by his decreasing production and will keep him as my WR1 until he proves me otherwise.  Alabama has a number of defensive prospects including LB Rashaan Evans, S Ronnie Harrison and DT Da’Shawn Hand but the number one guy is DB Minkah Fitzpatrick.  Fitzpatrick has played both corner and safety so he offers versatility in both pass coverage and run support.  His stats decreased from 2016 (66 tackles vs 55, 6 INTs vs 1) but he was battling a hamstring injury so that could have been the cause.  He has four career interception return touchdowns so when he has the ball in his hands he can change a game too.  Fitzpatrick is likely to go in the Top 3 in the NFL Draft and will instantly makeover a struggling defense.

I put out my first playoff ranking in Week 7 and had Clemson as the #1 team (I also had Alabama and Georgia, three out of four ain’t bad) and am happy to see them ascend back to the #1 spot after that loss to Syracuse.  Like Alabama, the strength of the team lies on defense.  There might be fix or six guys from the defense drafted this Spring.  DT Christian Wilkins started the season with some preseason hype, played well and increased his stats in 2017 (52 tackles, 5.0 sacks).  Wilkins will be a first rounder but challenging him to be the first pick from Clemson will be DE Clelin Ferrell.  Ferrell is just a redshirt sophomore but he broke out in 2017 for 62 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks.  The defense also has two tackle machines in Kendall Joseph and Dorian O’Daniel.  The Clemson offense is similar to that of Alabama in that it features an efficient rush-first quarterback.  That quarterback is Kelly Bryant.  Bryant managed to play in each game despite an ankle injury and a concussion (he left that loss to Syracuse early due to the concussion).  Bryant only threw for 13 TDs but rushed for 11 more.  Freshman RB Travis Etienne is a burner who came on early in the season with some big plays to close out blowout wins.  He finished strong too: he had six scores over the last four games.  Etienne only had double digit carries twice so he’s not a high volume player but his speed means he’s only one missed tackle away from a touchdown.  WR Deon Cain (55-659-6) is a top receiver prospect for many analysts but I’m not sold.  He does not have elite size or production; I’ll wait and see how he does at the combine but I’m not sure his speed will make up for the other aspects.  Cain was suspended for the semi-final and championship games in 2015 after a failed drug test which will factor into his draft evaluation too.  WRs Hunter Renfrow and Ray-Ray McCloud are undersized but trustworthy possession receivers.

I’m not sure they deserve to be here based on their resume but the Tide deserve to be here based on their roster.  Save for the defensive line, Alabama arguably has better players at every position than Clemson.  Roll Tide.  Prediction: Alabama


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: Conference Championship Week

Updated: November 30th 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. 

Note: the rankings referenced below refer to the Week 14 AP poll.  CFP rankings were not yet available at the time of writing.

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Update:  Baker Mayfield finished off his regular season with a 281 yard, 3 TD outing.  The Heisman winner is Mayfield.  Moving on to more important topics.
  • Playoff Picture: Last week, I postulated that Alabama and Miami would be in danger of missing the playoff even if they lost and finished with one loss.  I was not expecting them to both lose!  Having them both lose keeps a potential playoff spot open for the other if championship results fall properly.  As of this writing on Sunday evening, I anticipate the Top 7 to be: Clemson, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Auburn, Georgia, Miami and Alabama.  The order of Georgia, Miami and Alabama is tough but I put Alabama last because while their loss was “better” than Miami’s, they do not have as good of a win on their resume as Miami over #3 Notre Dame.  Two of the four spots are easy: the winner of Auburn/Georgia is in, as is the winner of Clemson/Miami.  If Oklahoma and Wisconsin win, they are obviously in too and the playoff is set.  Things get very interesting though if one of them loses, specifically Oklahoma.  If Oklahoma loses, there is no obvious replacement like if Wisconsin loses (a win against #3 Wisconsin might be enough to jump Ohio State to the #4 spot and squeak in, see below for an alternate possibility).  I think that if Oklahoma and Clemson lose, we might see Clemson hang in with the #4 ranking (they would have five Top 25 wins, a 3-point loss when their quarterback was hurt and a loss to my projected #6 in Miami – that is still a better two loss resume than others).  For now, I’m predicting chalk but am hoping for some chaos.
  • Undefeated UCF:  Here’s a fun thought experiment for you… is there anyway we get an undefeated UCF into the Top 4?  Probably not but here’s what I think you would need:
    • Stanford win over USC in the PAC-12 Championship so that both finish behind UCF in the final rankings.
    • Oklahoma win over TCU in the Big 12 Championship.  TCU would move up in the rankings and stay ahead of UCF with a win over Oklahoma.  Better for UCF to cede one of the playoff spots to Oklahoma and jump ahead of TCU.
    • Georgia win over Auburn in the SEC Championship.  Auburn would be totally out of contention with 3 losses; if Georgia loses they probably stay ahead of UCF with a strong two loss resume.  I think we’d all take Auburn in a head-to-head matchup against UCF but it’ll be hard for the committee to put an undefeated UCF behind a three loss team.
    • Clemson wins big over Miami in the ACC Championship.  If Miami loses two straight, especially an embarrassing one to Clemson, they should fall out of the Top 10.
    • Ohio State wins close over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship.  If Wisconsin wins, they are in but the reverse is not guaranteed.  In three iterations of the CFP, we have not yet had a two loss team make the cut.  If Ohio State gets a close, unconvincing win against Wisconsin, is it possible that the committee leaves a two loss Ohio State out in favor of an undefeated UCF?  Maybe the injury to JT Barrett factors into the decision if it lingers and the committee says that a weakened Ohio State is not worthy of the playoff.
  • Florida State vs History:  Florida State will be playing this week but not in the ACC Championship as they would have hoped a few months ago.  Instead, the Seminoles will be battling 4-7 UL-Monroe (the game was cancelled earlier in the year due to Hurricane Irma).  Florida State has a lot of history riding on this inconsequential game because they have not finished with less than six wins in a season since 1976 which was Bobby Bowden’s first season at the helm.  What an incredible run of success for a team.  I don’t know for sure but I assume that has to be a record for most consecutive seasons with a .500 record or better.  It’s a little iffy to get that sixth win in a game like this but hey it counts in the record books and in a few years nobody will even remember the circumstance.

Players to Watch

  • Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn:  I haven’t been the highest on Stidham so far this season but boy did he standout against Alabama last week, especially with his legs.  One thing I have previously pointed out about Stidham is his efficiency.  Stidham’s completion percentage (68.5%) ranks 4th in the FBS; his passing efficiency rating (160.0) is 9th; his yards per attempt (9.1) is 8th.  If you only look at his games since Week 3 following the Clemson loss, Stidham’s completion percentage rises to 70.8%, including six games 74% or higher.  So, the rate stats are all fantastic but what about the counting stats?  They are less eye-popping because of Auburn’s tendency to lean on RB Kerryon Johnson.  Stidham has 2,682 yards and just 16 TDs but he has also only thrown 4 INTs.  Those only looking at the stats and not watching the film will underestimate Stidham’s athleticism and his rushing ability as I had.  The game logs say he only has 153 yards but don’t forget that factors in all of his sacks.  If I had to guess, I would say that that Stidham probably has gained about 300 yards rushing (figuring about 10-15 rushing yards per game lost to sacks).  Side note: if you don’t typically purchase Phil Steele’s annual preview magazine, this is one big reason why you should because they break down yards gained and lost to get a true sense for a quarterback’s rushing ability.  Going back to that Alabama game, Stidham went 21-28 for 237 yards in the passing game which is expected but what surprised me was the 51 rushing yards.  A few plays stood out, one passing and three rushing.  On one of the first plays of the game, Stidham double clutched to force the rushing lineman into the air for an attempted pass breakup so he had a throwing lane for the quick screen.  The color commentator compared it to a shot fake in basketball which was a perfect analogy.  To me, it showed Stidham’s composure under pressure when it would have been understandable for him to be skittish in the first drive of the biggest game of his career.  The next play I highlighted was a late third quarter scramble on third and long when Auburn was down 14-13.  Stidham took a three step drop out of shotgun so he was nine yards behind the line of scrimmage.  He goes through his progressions, evades a rusher, slips out of the pocket, beats CB Tony Brown to the first down and dives head first to ensure he gets enough yardage.  It was a turning point play in the game.  A few plays later he ran again for 13 yards right up the gut.  Those two runs kept the drive alive and led to a touchdown for Kerryon Johnson.  The last play where Stidham surprised me was in the 4th quarter with Auburn up 20-14.  Stidham fakes the handoff to Johnson on the zone read and keeps the ball himself.  He quickly directs his blockers and rolls left.  He accelerates as he turns up field and just beats all of the Alabama defenders to the goal line.  Ultimately five players were close enough to get a hand on him but he just wanted it more and made the play.  I knew Stidham was an efficient and effective passer and was really happy to see this side of his game.  Stidham is playing in his first season at Auburn after transferring from Baylor in 2015, so it’s probably more likely that he stays in college for another season rather than declaring for the draft.  As I was watching Stidham play against Alabama I saw Alex Smith.  They are very similar in size and speed and have a similar game.  If he stays in, he will be a preseason target of mine next season.

Games to Watch

  •  #14 Stanford vs #11 USC, Friday 8:00pm on ESPN:  The PAC-12 Championship isn’t worth all that much this season.  Neither team has a shot at the playoff and since the Rose Bowl is part of the playoff, a PAC-12 championship doesn’t even get you a bid into the “granddaddy of them all.”  If nothing else, this game will be a true showcase game for a few draft prospects, namely Stanford RB Bryce Love (who is within reach of a 2,000 yard season at 1,848) and USC QB Sam Darnold (whose wavering play has some thinking he’ll stay in college another season).  I’ll have my eye on USC WR Deontay Burnett too – he isn’t getting much draft love, mostly because of his size, but I really like him and am significantly higher than most.
  • #10 TCU vs #2 Oklahoma, Saturday 12:30pm on FOX:  Oklahoma has much more to play for than TCU so I’ll bet the Sooners come out firing and bury the Frogs.  Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield is incredibly efficient (71.4% completion percentage and just 5 INTs) and is my no-brainer Heisman winner.  The good news is that TCU has the conference’s best passing defense (227.5 yards per game); the bad news is that puts them at 73rd in the FBS overall.  When these two teams last faced off, TCU’s conference-best defense allowed 333 passing yards and 200 rushing yards, forced zero turnovers and lost by 18.  Unless they hold Oklahoma to under 300 total yards they don’t stand a chance at keeping Oklahoma from their playoff berth.
  • #6 Georgia vs #4 Auburn, Saturday 4:00pm on CBS:  For me, this will be the best game of the weekend if Auburn RB Kerryon Johnson is able to play.  Johnson played through an injured shoulder against Alabama but it sounds like there is a chance he misses the SEC Championship.  Jonhson had 33 touches (for 125 total yards and a score) in the Alabama game which is the third time in four weeks that he has had 30+ touches, 125+ total yards and a touchdown.  Like TCU/Oklahoma, this game is a rematch from earlier in the year.  Auburn shellacked Georgia in that one by a final score of 40-17 (and it wasn’t even that close because of a late garbage time Georgia TD).  Georgia has the SEC’s second best defense, led by LB prospects Roquan Smith (100 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Lorenzo Carter (42-4), so I’ll bet that they’ll keep it closer the second time around.  This one is for all the marbles: the winner is onto the playoff without question while the loser is out of contention.
  • #7 Miami vs #1 Clemson, Saturday 8:00pm on ABC:  I have been picking against Miami all season long and it finally paid off with their upset against 4-7 Pitt.  I just don’t trust QB Malik Rosier because he is so inaccurate (55.2% on the season and 44.1% against Pitt).  Sophomore RB Travis Homer has filled in reasonably well for the injured Mark Walton but you’ll be hard pressed to find a tailback that can compensate for a quarterback missing half his passes.  Miami’s defense is 14th in points but 42nd in yards allowed which is an odd dichotomy.  Clemson has been my #2 squad for awhile and is now my top team.  I haven’t been a huge Kelly Bryant fan but he is a solid game manager as a passer and a dynamic rushing threat (639 yards and 10 TDs).  True freshman RB Travis Etienne is a burner who carved out a role for himself after a hot start.  Etienne has had more carries than incumbent Tavien Feaster in four straight games.  His stats have been mediocre but I am interested in seeing WR Deon Cain against Miami’s defense; Cain is a prospect that I have been lower on than the consensus.  I have highlighted many of the Clemson defensive stars (i.e. Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins) but a name that you may not know is LB Dorian O’Daniel.  O’Daniel has 80 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 INTs (both of which returned for scores in key Top 15 wins over Louisville and Virginia Tech).  If I had to bet meaningful money on any of the championship games, this would be the one.
  • #3 Wisconsin vs #8 Ohio State, Saturday 8:00pm on FOX:  As a Michigan and a Rutgers fan, I don’t know who to root for in this one.  It’s a shame there are no ties in college football.  Since Ohio State isn’t a shoo-in for the playoff with a win, it’s probably best for the conference for Wisconsin to win it.  The bright spot on Wisconsin’s offense is freshman RB Jonathan Taylor.  Ohio State has the 13th ranked rush defense in the FBS (112.8 yards per game) and has held opponents to 100 rushing yards or less in seven games this season (including three straight after they were gashed for 243 yards against Iowa).  Taylor has 125+ rushing yards in seven of his last eight games and I expect him to continue that streak.  Wisconsin’s rush defense is actually better than Ohio State’s (1st in the FBS at 80.5 yards per game) so I doubt that either JK Dobbins or Mike Weber will be a major factor.  Much of this game will come down to whether JT Barrett can return from a knee injury sustained against Michigan.  Ironically, I think that the Buckeyes might be better off with Dwayne Haskins under center because he’s more of a pass-oriented quarterback.  Wisconsin’s pass defense is ranked 2nd so while it may be weaker it’s hardly a weakness.  Regardless of who is under center, I think Ohio State will struggle to move the ball like they did early against Michigan, and the Badgers will win a close one.

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 7

Updated: October 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.  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:  No player did more for their Heisman chances in Week 6 than Bryce Love.  Love is finally getting some national attention and just when more viewers started paying attention he shined again.  Against Utah, a decent rush defense, Love ran 20 times for 152 yards and a score.  What if I told you that that stat line was Love’s worst of the season?  Strange but true because he’s been that good.  More on Love below so let’s not dive too deep yet.  I thought it was very interesting to see the top ten players as far as current Heisman odds.  I ended up needing to go to the eleventh spot to get to my man crush, Rashaad Penny.  I think Penny is criminally undervalued and would be worth a bet if I were so inclined; meanwhile Jalen Hurts and Jake Browning are at least five spots too high but buoyed because their teams are undefeated and in the Top 5.  Here are the current odds per OddsShark.com:
    1. Saquon Barkley
    2. Baker Mayfield
    3. Bryce Love
    4. Mason Rudolph
    5. Lamar Jackson
    6. Sam Darnold
    7. Luke Falk
    8. JT Barrett
    9. Jalen Hurts
    10. Jake Browning
    11. Rashaad Penny
  • Winter is Coming:  The first College Football Playoff rankings will be released in three weeks.  When I saw that I couldn’t believe it – we are already half way through the season, wow.  I can’t share my thoughts on the actual CFP ranks yet but here is how I would have them:
    1. Clemson – based on resume more so than the eye test.  Clemson has beaten three top teams (#13 Auburn, #14 Louisville, #12 Virginia Tech) and up until this point has the harder schedule between them and Alabama.
    2. Alabama – the Tide may end up being a victim of a weaker SEC and their weak cross-division schedule this season.  There’s no regular season matchup against Florida or Georgia this season and the jewel non-conference win against Florida State is looking less special as the weeks progress.  Alabama will likely have two back-to-back Top 10 games to end the season against Auburn and in the SEC Championship game but by then I think Clemson will be well established as #1.
    3. Georgia – There’s no way the CFP committee would actually have Alabama and Georgia play in the semi-finals since it’s likely a SEC Championship repeat but it would still be awesome to see.  Georgia is a lot of fun to watch and they will challenge Alabama if they both make it to the end undefeated.
    4. TCU – I struggled with putting TCU over Penn State for the last spot.  Ultimately, I went with resume over the eye test again as I did above.  TCU has two Top 25 wins (#6 Oklahoma and #12 West Virginia) while PSU has zero.
    5. Penn State – However, Penn State will have a chance to prove themselves over the next three game stretch.  They are off this weekend but will then face #17 Michigan, #9 Ohio State and #21 Michigan State in successive weeks.
  • Co-Backups in Clemson:  File this under something I have never seen before, Clemson has named Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson as “co-backups” on their updated depth chart.  Hmm.  The reason for the subterfuge is starting quarterback Kelly Bryant’s ankle injury.  Some reports say that he’ll play while others say it is a game time decision.  Who knows.  My gut says that he will not play and Dabo is just playing with Syracuse’s ability to gameplan.  Bryant is also the team’s leading rusher (97 carries, 401 yards, 7 TDs) so having to factor for him is a big deal if all that goes out the window when he is inactive.  If Bryant can’t go, I expect Hunter Johnson to take the lead.  He went 5-5 for 42 yards and a score against Wake Forest when he split relief duties with Cooper.  Johnson is a former 4-star recruit who was #21 in the ESPN300 and was the top quarterback recruit of his class.  The concern is less about Syracuse, I would expect Clemson to win either way, but more about the tougher games against North Carolina State and Florida State coming later in the month.

Players to Watch

  • Bryce Love, RB, Stanford:  There’s a lot of talk about the East Coast Bias that is going against Love and that he’s being ignored.  That’s certainly not the case here at Reality Sports.  It’s unfortunate that there is not more tape of Love available – DraftBreakdown.com has just one game from 2017 and one from 2016.  I decided to fire up that lone 2017 film and take a closer look.  Let’s start with the negatives.  Love is not a pass catcher with just 4 receptions this season and 8 last year.  I was looking for positive pass protection moments and found one in the 4th quarter during Stanford’s comeback bid where he capably picked up the blitz and gave Keller Chryst time to throw.  Unfortunately, on his next offensive play, later in the quarter, he whiffed on a block and let Chryst get blown up.  It’ll take more film study to see which of those plays was closer to the reality.  When you watch Love two things stand out, his spectacular speed and his tackle breaking ability.  To illustrate those two skills, we’ll take a closer look at two plays from the first half.  In the 1st quarter, Love took a toss left and sprinted through a massive hole for a 75 yard score.  The blocking was great, yes, but Love was at the second level before anybody on the defense could even react let alone catch him.  With seconds left to go in the 2nd quarter, Love took a pointless handoff meant to kill the clock.  Most backs would probably run up the back of their center and head into the locker room but not so for Love.  He immediately breaks a tackle five yards behind the line of scrimmage as he tries to break right, he then reverses field and breaks another tackle still five yards deep, he then makes his way up field for a minimal gain.  It was a nothing play, barely a blip in the play-by-play, but it illustrated his elusiveness and also his heart.  It didn’t matter to him that it was a clock killing play while the team was out of field goal range, he still gave it his all.  Love is 5’10” and 196lb.  He was a 4 star recruit and #215 in the ESPN300.  A definitive 40-yard dash time is hard to find but there were two numbers quoted online: 4.30 and a 4.32.  He ran a 10.7 second 100m dash in high school which is Olympian speed (8th place in the men’s 100m gold medal race at the 2016 Olympics ran a 10.6 for comparison).  To further illustrate how dominant his speed is, let’s look at combine comparables in his size range.  CJ Spiller ran a 4.37 and Jahvid Best ran a 4.34 – Love would have both of them beat.  Love is on his way to being a top RB prospect.  Right now I would have him in the RB5-RB7 range but might have to move him above guys like Bo Scarborough, Mike Weber and Ronald Jones if he keeps the production up.  Oh, hey, speaking of production… Love has 1,240 yards and is averaging 10.5 yards per carry.
  • Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn:  I haven’t seen enough of Kerryon Johnson to have a full formed opinion yet but I am definitely intrigued by his potential and production thus far.  While watching Michigan vs Michigan State last weekend a stat on the bottom line caught my eye: that Johnson had rushed for 3 TD in three consecutive games.  That stat doesn’t even give the full story because one of those games was 5 TDs (!!) and all three came against the SEC.  I was sure one of them must have been against McNeese State or some directional school.  I’m not saying that Missouri, Mississippi State and Ole Miss all have good run defenses but they are all respectable Power 5 teams.  Johnson did miss two games this season with a hamstring injury but it is encouraging that all three of these monster games have come after his return – at least we know there is no lingering injury.  Johnson is 6’0″ and 212lb and looks to have a long stride which helps him cover ground without elite speed (NFLDraftScout.com estimates 4.45 speed).  I watched film of Johnson against Mississippi State and noted his power at the goal line and in short yardage.  He also looks to be a patient runner at the line of scrimmage; on multiple runs he placed his hand on the blockers back to follow them through the hole.  One negative that was apparent is that Johnson is not much of a receiving threat: he has just 36 career receptions (14, 17, 5).  I need to see more before I can properly give him a draft projection but he’s probably a 5th-6th round NFL prospect now and a fringe RSO prospect depending on how deep your league is.

Games to Watch

  • #2 Clemson @ Syracuse, Friday 7:00pm on ESPN:  If you can only devote one weekend night to watching college football this week, make it Friday since there are two good games.  As discussed above, there is some intrigue around who will be starting for Clemson.  Either way, I don’t expect it to matter.  It will be interesting to see Clemson’s smothering defense against Syracuse QB Eric Dungey.  Dungey is 2nd in the NCAA in passing attempts and 8th in yards; plus he leads the team in rushing yards (325) and rushing TDs (8).  He’s not as skilled as Bryant but he does pose the same type of dual-threat as Bryant.   I’m not calling for the upset but, pending the line, I will be tempted to take the Orangemen with the points.
  • #8 Washington State @ Cal, Friday 10:30pm on ESPN:  It’s not often that you get a Friday night doubleheader featuring two Top 10 teams on the road.  Wazzou’s defense is for real – 6th against the pass, 11th in total yards and 8th most turnovers.  They will be facing a turnover prone QB in Cal’s Ross Bowers.  Bowers has thrown 9 INTs so far which is 5th worst in the NCAA.  He’s a high volume, low efficiency passer so I expect the Cougars to be opportunistic.  This one won’t be nearly as close as the Clemson matchup but it’s worth staying up for since in addition to seeing one of the country’s best defenses, you’ll also get to watch Heisman hopeful Luke Falk pepper the Bears defense (he had 373 yards and 5 TDs against Cal last year).
  • #6 TCU @ Kansas State, Saturday 12:00pm on FS1:  The Horned Frogs disappointed me a bit last week, I thought they would have played better against West Virginia.  Specifically, I thought RB Darius Anderson would do well (he went just 9-43).  Kenny Hill did score his first rushing touchdown of the season but was less efficient than he has been in past weeks.  Kansas State was ranked earlier in the season but lost last week to Texas and is trending in the wrong direction.  If TCU wants to be in the CFP conversation, this is the type of game they need to win convincingly.
  • #10 Auburn @ LSU, Saturday 3:30pm on CBS:  You wouldn’t know it by listening to sports talk radio, but the LSU Tigers are 4-2.  Coach Ed Orgeron has been under fire, from his own supporters no less.  They pulled off a nice 17-16 win against #21 Florida last week so hopefully that has bought Coach O some time.  Auburn’s been led lately by the aforementioned Kerryon Johnson, but it’s also important to point out QB Jarrett Stidham’s recent improvement.  He started slow but since the poor outing against Clemson, he has just 19 incompletions in the last four games.  The Auburn defense is 21st or better in just about every stat category except turnovers forced.  Expect this one to be a low scoring 16-9 type affair.
  • #13 Oklahoma @ Texas, Saturday 3:30pm on ESPN:  The Red River Rivalry is usually good for a fun game.  In my Big 12 season preview, I noted that the last four matchups have featured a ranked Oklahoma and an unranked Texas.  They have split those four.  OU is coming off a disappointing loss to Iowa State, a team that Texas beat.  Texas has still vacillated at QB but went with freshman Sam Ehlinger last week against Kansas State.  He ended up playing well and went 30-50 for 380 yards with 2 TDs and an INT.  Baker Mayfield & Co were not at fault for the Sooners’ loss last week, it was the defense that allowed the comeback from a walk-on QB and a remarkable two-way performance from LB/QB Joel Lanning.  This game feels like a true toss up, regardless of the early line (Oklahoma -8).

 


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: SEC Preview

Updated: August 16th 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

  • Derrius Guice, RB, LSU:  My fellow RSO writer Bernard Faller recently called Evan Engram the “RSO cheat code.”  I’d like to add that nickname to Derrius Guice.  My god are his stats electric.  You may have heard of the guy that Guice was behind on the LSU depth chart: Leonard Fournette.  That didn’t stop him from putting up good numbers with Fournette; more importantly, Guice took full advantage of Fournette’s injury last season.  I apologize in advance if I lose you with all of these numbers but I promise they are worth your attention.  In the five games Guice played without Fournette last year he rushed for 903 yards (129 per game).  In the ten career games when Guice has 10+ carries, he has 1,472 yards and 17 TDs (some quick fantasy math gets you just under 25 fantasy points per game).  For his career, Guice averages 7.8 yards per carry.  He had two 250+ games last season, one of which was against Arkansas with Fournette.  The only downside of Guice’s stats are his lack of receptions, just 14 for 126 yards and a lone touchdown.  I purposefully watched Guice against Florida which was not one of his highlight reel games.  There were a number of positives but enough negatives to temper my excitement.  Knowing about his high yards per carry average, I expected to see Guice running outside the tackle box more often but he really is a between the tackles runner.  He has great lateral cutting ability, sticking his foot in and getting around a defender.  He converted an early goal line attempt but failed on one that was the last play of the game (he jumped too early and was stopped easily, it also looked like he may have fumbled but the clock had expired anyway).  He had two targets, the first was a 29 yard screen pass but the second went right through his hands at a pivotal moment late in the game.  He did make up for that 3rd down miss by making a key pass protection block on a 4th down completion.  Unfortunately that drive ended in that disappointing goal line effort. Earlier in the game he also had a fumble inside the red zone (a scoring opportunity the Tigers would really miss later).  I’m very interested to see how Guice does without Fournette (funny enough Leonard’s younger brother Lanard is on the team now) in 2017.  If he can repeat even 75% of his production from 2016 he’ll be a first round NFL back.  What I saw in Guice’s tape was not enough for me to push him to RB1 over Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, but at worst, Guice will be your 1.02 for 2018.
  • Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M:  While taking notes on Kirk, I went back and forth on my opinion a number of times.  Ultimately, I can see why so many experts have him as the top draft eligible wide receiver but I’m not quite sure I’m there yet.  First, let’s examine his measureables.  Kirk checks in at 5’11” and 200lbs.  Coming out of high school he ran a 4.49; one of my trusted sites, DraftScout.com, among others I checked, predict that Kirk will run a sub 4.40 at the NFL combine.  If that’s the case, Kirk has the most elite of comps: Odell Beckham Jr.  Let’s look at his stats next.  Kirk put up nearly identical lines in his freshman and sophomore seasons (80-1,009-7 and 83-928-9) which were enough to get him named as an All-American both seasons.  In 2015 he made the list as a fourth teamer for his punt return skills; as a sophomore he was a first teamer.  Kirk has seven 100+ receiving yard games in two seasons which is less than fellow prospect Courtland Sutton (and less, on average, than James Washington who has twelve over his three seasons).  Conversely, Kirk only has one career game with less than three receptions meanwhile Sutton and Washington have many more.  I thought it was interesting that 73 of Kirk’s 163 career receptions (45%) came on first down.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just shows how the Aggies use him as an extension of their run game.  I briefly mentioned his punt return prowess above and it’s worth going into more detail.  In both 2015 and 2016 he led the NCAA in punt return average (23.1 career average); in both seasons he beat the second on the list by more than 4.0 yards (or the difference between #2 and #9 last year).  To go along with all those yards he has five touchdowns (also the most over the last two years).  So, he’s a very good punt returner.  How good?  Remember that Odell Beckham Jr. guy I mentioned earlier, well he had three times as many punt returns in college than Kirk has so far and had just two touchdowns.  And he averaged just 9.0 yards per (Kirk is at 23.1!).  Aside from punt return highlights, the first film I watched of Kirk was against Alabama from 2016.  I was nonplussed.  Kirk was targeted at, or behind, the line of scrimmage six times, a feature of their offense all season I’m sure, which helps inflate his number of receptions.  He did have a nice over-the-shoulder touchdown catch but to my eye it was more about the thrower than the catcher.  I was much more impressed with Kirk when I watched his tape against Tennessee.  Kirk ran more varied routes and showed how adept he is at quickly changing directions by leaving defenders behind on multiple pivot routes.  The key play I noted, and significantly raised my opinion of Kirk, came during a tie game in the 4th quarter on first down.  Kirk was lined up slot right, he came off the line and angles his route so he squeezes between two defenders and a referee.  My guess is that the route was not designed that way but he read the defense and adjusted on the fly.  He makes the catch and rather than trying to take on defenders with his A+ open field ability, he works to get out of bounds.  He breaks a tackle, staggers backward toward the sideline and manages to keep his feet until he falls out of bounds.  There was so much to unpack on the play I probably watched it five or six times.  He added a clutch catch in the second overtime where the ball was behind him so he adjusted back to it, dove and got his hands under the ball an inch from the turf.  What he did next though was the impressive part, rather than just falling to the ground as 99% of receivers would do, he sort of jerked up and rolled so that the ball couldn’t touch the ground.  Not that it will actually impact his draft stock but I did notice a number of missed blocks.  Kirk has as high of a ceiling for any prospect I’ve researched and because of that I’m willing to overlook some of my concerns.  When it comes time for me to rank wide receivers, Kirk will likely come in at #2.
  • Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama:  I’m going to contradict myself…  In my Pac-12 preview I pointed out how few NFL WRs came out of college at less than 190lbs when highlighting Dante Pettis and how that hurt his draft stock.  I don’t feel that way about Ridley who is an identical size to Pettis at 6’1″ 188lbs.  I believe that Ridley is a more complete prospect which is why I’m less concerned with his weight.  Ridley had a strong freshman season where he hauled in 89 balls for 1,045 yards and 7 TDs.  In 2016 he still had 7 TDs but his receptions and yards dropped (72, 769).  I attribute the drop more to a change in scheme, to accommodate freshman phenom quarterback Jalen Hurts, than a change in Ridley.  The total number of attempts was pretty consistent between seasons but they went for less yards.  It also didn’t help Ridley’s production that he was playing alongside two pass catchers who were drafted this Spring in TE O.J. Howard and WR Ardarius Stewart.  This season, Ridley will be the unquestioned top receiver.  Despite my positive opinion of Ridley, I do have to admit that he has had some poor games under the biggest spotlights (i.e. a combined 11 receptions and just 50 yards in two CFP games against Clemson).  Ridley came into Alabama as a true blue chip recruit.  He was Phil Steele’s #2 receiver of the class and ESPN’s #1.  During the recruiting process he ran a 4.65 per ESPN.  During Spring practice in 2016 he ran a 4.35; then a 4.43 in 2017.  How fast is he really?  I don’t think we know but the answer is probably fast enough.  I watched film of Ridley against both Kentucky and Clemson.  He has good field awareness which was evidenced by a number of sideline grabs.  He’s a plus blocker (he was a key blocker on a Bo Scarborough touchdown against Clemson).  Even though a plurality of his targets came near the line of scrimmage in the two games, I do believe he’s at least a decent route runner.  In the second quarter against Kentucky, he ran a nice route to find the hole in the zone defense and caught an uncontested touchdown.  In the third quarter, he ran another nice route where he stopped just past the goal line, turned around and showed Hurts a good target.  Hurts fired in a bullet and Ridley showed good hand strength by holding onto the ball with the defender’s hand fighting for the break up.  Again, I full admit that I am being a bit hypocritcal with my Ridley love but I trust that he will put on a few pounds and will live up to his pedigree.  In my opinion, Ridley is an NFL-ready prospect who would contribute on any offense right now.  Until he proves me otherwise, he’s going to be my WR1.
  • Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: If Chubb came out after 2016 he likely would have been a first round dynasty selection but he returns for 2017 looking to improve his stock.  Chubb burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2014 with 1,547 yards and 14 TDs.  His 2015 campaign was off to a solid start (747 yards, 7 TDs) before it was cut short by a knee injury; luckily he avoided the worst and did not tear his ACL.  In 2016 Chubb was back to health to start the season but suffered an ankle injury in the first half of the season.  He technically did not miss a game but had just one carry against Tennessee.  He rebounded for 121 yards against South Carolina but struggled against Florida and Vanderbilt, related to the injury I’d bet.  Chubb ended 2016 with 1,130 yards and 8 TDs.  He’s a workhorse type back with twelve career games of 20 or more carries.  I watched Chubb’s film against South Carolina, that bounce back game after his injured ankle.  I thought it would be a good game to watch because how often will he be fully healthy in the NFL?  Never, he’ll always be battling something so seeing that he could manage it was instructive.  Not surprisingly, Chubb didn’t have elite speed but he made up for it with good vision.  Georgia features a pro-style offense which lets Chubb showcase his ability to run between the tackles which NFL scouts will love.  He was adequate in pass protection, although he wasn’t called on that frequently; if it weren’t for a play near the end of the second quarter where he let Eason get lit up, I would have gave him higher marks as a blocker.  It’s a shame that Chubb is draft eligible with the two most talent rich running back classes in recent memory.  He’ll still be a top five dynasty pick in most leagues, despite the injuries, and will be a nice consolation for owners who miss out on Barkley and Guice.
  • Honorable Mentions:
    • Bo Scarborough, RB, Alabama:  Scarborough has lots of hype but not lots of career carries.  In fact, he has just 143 career carries (for comparison, Chubb passed that mark in November of his freshman season) and zero games with 20 or more carries.  The best game of his career came against Washington last year in the College Football Playoff: he exploded for 180 yards and 2 TDs on 19 carries.  Scarborough is big, but maybe a little too tall, at 6’1″ and 230lb.  He likely has 4.55 speed.  That combination nets him great comps in Jeremy Hill, Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson.  He was a top recruit, 12th overall in his class and the 2nd at his position per ESPN.  The ability I question most is his availability.  Scarborough was suspended four games to start his college career for academic reasons.  Then he tore his ACL in 2015 and broke his leg in 2016.  If it weren’t for the injuries, Scarborough could be challenging for the 1.01 based on his pedigree, let alone his potential.
    • Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida:  Callaway will be a junior and was a strong contributor his first two seasons on campus.  As a true freshman he gained 678 yards receiving and 4 receiving TDs and added two more return TDs; he was named 3rd Team All-American for his return prowess.  As a sophomore, he was more involved in the passing game.  He led the team in receptions, yards and receiving TDs (54-721-3).  A good stat that I uncovered when studying his game logs: Callaway’s five career games of 100+ receiving yards all came against the SEC.  I’d like to see more volume and more scoring this year to truly consider him as a top pick at the position.  At 5’11” he’s a little short to be considered an elite NFL receiver, but if he can run sub-4.50 he’ll get consideration as a first round NFL pick.  It’s worth noting that he did receive a drug possession citation in early 2017 – just something to keep an eye on that will surely factor into his draft process.
    • Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina:  This 6’5″ behemoth is just a junior so who knows if he’ll come out but if he does he’ll get some attention after 2016’s historic draft class.  Hurst was 13th in receptions and 15th in yards amongst TEs during the regular season.  Now that all of those elite names (OJ Howard, David Njoku, Evan Engram, etc) are gone, Hurst will jump to the top of the pecking order.  His QB, Jake Bentley, was a true freshman in 2016, so you’d expect some improvement which will help Hurst’s numbers progress.
    • Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia:  Circle this name for 2019 because he’s not eligible in 2018.  Eason started from Day One last year as a true freshman and led the Bulldogs to a 8-5 record that included a bowl game win over TCU and a win over #8 Auburn.  Eason’s rate stats have room to grow which I fully expect them to (55.1% completion percentage, 6.6 yards per attempt).
    • Minkah Fitzpatrick & Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama:  These two junior safeties have their sights set on a third straight National Championship game and being first round NFL picks.  Harrison is a strong safety who supports the run.  Fitzpatrick transitioned from corner to free safety in 2016 so he’s versatile.  He has two banner games on his game logs: 2 INTs and 2 TDs against Texas A&M in 2015 and 3 INTs and a TD against Arkansas in 2016.  Fitzpatrick will get more draft buzz but his play will help Harrison get noticed too.

Storylines to Watch

  • Mr. Freeze:  We have all heard about Hugh Freeze and his questionable phone calls by now.  Let’s not rehash those, although I will say, what a hypocrite.  Ole Miss was already self-imposing a bowl ban for 2017 due to unrelated infractions.  AD Ross Bjork said that because of the bowl ban, the Rebels will have to forfeit the SEC postseason bonus which would total $7.8 million this season.  That’s a huge hit to a program will have to fight tooth and nail to keep recruits and stay relevant in their division.  Ole Miss had four straight winning seasons from 2012-2015.  All of the distractions have hurt the program and will have a lasting effect.  It’ll be a decade before we see Ole Miss competing for the SEC West title again.
  • Can the East Finally Win One:  The SEC West has been dominant in recent years and has won eight consecutive conference championships (five of which by Alabama).  Florida has the best chance to unseat the West this season.  They were the only team to beat Alabama in Phil Steele’s conference positional rankings (receivers and special teams).  The Gators have the easiest cross-over games this year of the contending East teams; they avoid Alabama and Auburn while Georgia and Tennessee each have one away.  If I was a betting man, my money would still be on the West but it’ll be fun to keep an eye on.
  • Vanderbilt Will Win Eight Games:  My bold prediction for the SEC this season is that Vanderbilt will win eight games in 2017.  That may not sound like much but they only have 13 wins over the last three years.  I don’t think they’ll quite return to the nine win seasons of 2012 and 2013 under James Franklin but fourth year coach Derek Mason will get them close.  Vanderbilt has a winnable non-conference schedule with FBS games against Middle Tennessee State, Kansas State and Western Kentucky.  The hardest game on their schedule, Alabama, will be a home game.  Per Phil Steele’s experience charts, they return 93.7% of their offensive yards from last season.  That includes their quarterback, the top two rushers, the top eight receivers, the kicker and the punter.  If anybody is poised for a surprise season, it’s the Commodores.

Games to Watch

  • September 2, Florida vs Michigan: This neutral site game, hosted at Jerry’s World, is a rematch of the 2015 Citrus Bowl which Michigan won 41-7.  Few players remain from those teams, although Antonio Callaway is one of them.  The Wolverines could be Florida’s highest rated opponent of the year, pending their season finale against Florida State.  So, it will be important for them to win this one if they have CFP aspirations.
  • October 28, Florida vs Georgia:  Another neutral site game for Florida, this one is in Jacksonville.  In fact, Florida only has three true road games this season which is another reason why I think they could challenge the West this season.  Florida has won the last three matchups by a combined 56 points.  The winner of this game will inevitably take the East so it’s a shame it’s not later in the season.
  • November 25, Vanderbilt at Tennessee:  If my bold prediction is to come true, Vanderbilt will need to steal some SEC wins.  What better one to steal than on the road against your biggest in-state rival in the last game of the season.  If Vanderbilt is already bowl eligible and having a plus season as I expect, taking out the Volunteers will be the cherry atop the sundae.
  • November 25, Alabama at Auburn:  The Iron Bowl.  I don’t love the name, but the game is always good.  Lindy’s points out that the winner of this game has gone on to play for the National Championship in eight straight seasons.  That’s crazy.  I’ve spilled enough digital ink on Alabama in this preview so let’s spend a few quick sentences on Auburn.  The Tigers feature a rush heavy offense with Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson (combined for over 2,000 yards and 18 TDs last season) leading the way.  The quarterback play will be stronger this year with Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham taking the reigns (1,265 yards passing, 12 TDs and just 2 INTs in limited time as a freshman in 2015).  I’ll still take Alabama but it’s the closest Auburn will be to catching them in the last four years.

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.