The Watch List: National Championship Preview

Updated: January 5th 2018

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.

The finish line is in sight, the marathon that is the bowl season is nearly over, just one more game remaining.  While listening to ESPNU Radio these past few days (a must-listen for anybody with SiriusXM) a number of callers and pundits have expressed disappointment in an all-SEC championship.  I say, “who cares,” because they are the two best teams in the country in my mind.  Let’s not forget that despite all the banter about Bama’s playoff resume, they were still ranked #1 in the AP Poll until they lost to Auburn on Nov 25.  Georgia didn’t get that high but was #2 for about a month in the middle of the year.  I have covered these two teams a lot this season so I wanted to avoid rehashing the same analysis and the same talking points.  So, I decided to go with a “tale of the tape” type preview.  I will compare the teams’ various units to see who has the advantage before making my prediction.

Quarterback: Alabama

Ironically the first unit I looked at was probably the hardest for me to determine my pick.  Jake Fromm leads Jalen Hurts in most passing categories but I give Hurts the nod for two reasons: 1) his experience and 2) his ability to protect the ball.  Hurts may only be a sophomore but he’s literally been here before.  This game will be Hurts fourth College Football Playoff game.  He has played okay in those games but it’s less about what he does do and more about what he doesn’t do: turn the ball over.  Hurts has just one interception and two fumbles lost this season.  Fromm has five and two – not a huge increase but he had far fewer “touches” this season than Hurts.  The two had basically the same number of passing attempts (248 vs 259) but Hurts had a hundred more carries and played in one less game.  Fromm will likely outplay Hurts as a passer but I’d rather have Hurts.

Running Backs: Georgia

Both teams feature a stable of backs that contribute.  Georgia uses Nick Chubb and Sony Michel almost equally but also sprinkles in freshman D’Andre Swift.  Meanwhile, Alabama uses Damien Harris, Bo Scarborough, Najee Harris and Joshua Jacobs.  Najee Harris and Jacobs only combined for three touches against Clemson but they were both utilized more during the regular season.  Damien Harris is the lead back (19 carries for 77 yards last week) but Scarborough will still see plenty of action.  Damien Harris averages 7.6 yards per carry on the season which is great but is actually eclipsed by Georgia’s Sony Michel (8.0).  If you watched Georgia beat Oklahoma you were surely impressed by Michel.  He out-touched Chubb 15-14 because of his four receptions.  Michel is a better pass catcher than Chubb but his receiving against Oklahoma was mostly unexpected; he had just nine receptions on the season and only once in his four season career has he had four receptions in a game.  My guess is that they did not feel they could trust freshman D’Andre Swift, the leading pass catcher among running backs this season, in pass protection which meant Michel getting more snaps on passing downs.  If Georgia’s backs can match half their Rose Bowl output (367 total yards, 6 TDs) they’ll give the Bulldogs a shot.

Receivers: Alabama

Neither team had a receiver crack 60 receptions or 1,000 yards this season which is surprising to me.  In an atmosphere that is so pass-heavy right now in college football, the nation’s two best teams are run-first and run-second offenses.  Georgia WR Javon Wims arguably had the best game of his career in the Rose Bowl (6-73-1) but was not a huge factor in the offense until later in the season (25 of his 44 receptions came in the last five games, just 19 in the first eight).  Alabama’s leading receiver is Calvin Ridley.  Statistically, Ridley had the worst season of his career (59-935-4) but I’m not deterred: he’s still my WR1 for 2018 rookie drafts.  Ridley is fast, has good hands, catches the ball away from his body and is a very good route runner.  In Alabama’s rush oriented offense he may not put up big numbers but he’s a difference maker.

Defensive Line: Alabama

I’ll venture a guess that none of Georgia’s defensive lineman have a receiving touchdown this season like Daron Payne does now.  That’s not why I’m taking the Tide’s line though, it’s the combination of Payne, Da’Shawn Hand and Raekwon Davis that clinches it.  Payne, a 308lb DT, should be a first round pick this year if he declares early.  Davis is a 6’7″ monster at DE who had 9.5 tackles for loss and 7 sacks this season; he was a factor in the Sugar Bowl with 5 tackles, 2 tackles for loss and a sack.  Hand has been limited by injuries throughout his career but is still an early Day Two prospect.  Phil Steele ranked Alabama as the 6th best d-line corps in the preseason and they lived up to that billing this season (for what it’s worth, Georgia was not far behind at 11th).  Georgia’s Trenton Thompson was a top high school recruit, had a good sophomore season (capped off by an 8 tackle, 3 sack bowl game vs TCU) but didn’t live up to his potential in 2017 (just 35 tackles, no sacks).  DE Jonathan Ledbetter recorded a sack and six tackles last week against Oklahoma so keep an eye on him too.  There’s a funny pun somewhere in the names of Davis, Hand and Payne but all I can come up with is “On MonDavis, Da’Shawn’s Hands will cause Jake Fromm some Payne.”  I’m sorry.

Linebackers: Georgia

Alabama is used to having a “next man up” mentality on defense because they graduate so many players to the NFL.  That was no truer than at linebacker this year when they lost Reuben Foster and Ryan Anderson last season and then lost Shaun Dion Hamilton to injury earlier this year.  The Tide’s linebacker room sustained another blow this week when they heard that Anfernee Jennings underwent knee surgery.  Rashaan Evans has stepped up in the meantime, especially in the Sugar Bowl tallying 9 tackles and a sack.  Evans has 9+ tackles in four of the five games since Shaun Dion Hamilton went down.  Unquestionably, the best linebacker on the field will be Roquan Smith.  Smith is a potential Top 10 pick in the Spring (a la Reuben Foster last year).  He’s a tackle monster, 218 combined the last two years, and added 5.5 sacks in 2017.  Not surprisingly, he had 11 tackles in the Rose Bowl and made a key tackle to prevent a first down late in the game.  The Bulldogs’ best OLB is Lorenzo Carter.  Carter is long at 6’6″ and plays well in coverage when he’s not rushing the passer (Carter was PFF’s 11th ranked pass rusher in the FBS).  Like Smith, Carter also went for double digit sacks against Oklahoma; that’s the first time he’s done that in his career so maybe he has a knack for the big game.  If Alabama wasn’t facing injuries this unit matchup would be closer but it would still be tough to beat consensus All-American Roquan Smith.

Secondary: Alabama

Similar to how Georgia has one standout in the linebacker unit, so does Alabama in the secondary.  Meet Minkah Fitzpatrick, a guy guaranteed to go in the Top 5 in the NFL Draft (maybe higher if any of the QBs return to college).  Fitzpatrick is also a consensus All-American despite battling injury this season.  He missed a game but still managed 55 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception.  That lone INT was a big drop from the six he had last season but it won’t hurt his draft stock, he has ball skills.  What Fitzpatrick also has is versatility: he has played at both corner and safety and will be an immediate starter at the next level.  Safety Ronnie Harrison and CB Anthony Averett will also get drafted high, maybe Day Two for both of them.  Levi Wallace led the team in passes defended (14) and won SEC Defensive Player of the Week twice.  He wasn’t even on my radar prior to writing this preview but the stats caught my eye.  Safety Dominck Sanders is Georgia’s most well-rounded and productive DB with 37 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 4 INTs and 5 passes defended.  He’s been a durable three year starter and could be a late round draft prospect but I honestly have not done any research on him.  There won’t be a ton of passing in this one so spending more time on the secondary is probably not worth it, just don’t forget to pay attention to Fitzpatrick.

Specialists: Alabama

If this game turns out to be a defensive battle, the specialists will figure.  Alabama punter JK Scott is an all-time great punter in SEC history (5th best average in the FBS since 2000).  He averages 45.5 yards per punt for his career so he can flip the field and give the Tide the field position advantage.  Georgia’s Cameron Nizialek is no slouch either; he averaged 44.9 yards per punt this year which was fourth best in the SEC and actually better than Scott this year.  I have a feeling we could be seeing Hurts and Fromm starting a lot of drives from their own eleven yard line.  The slight field goal kicking edge goes to Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship (17-20 on FG, 61-61 on PAT) over Andy Pappanastos (16-21, 54-54).  Blankenship wears a sweet pair of rec-specs while he plays so maybe I should give him a larger advantage than I am.  Neither team has returned a single kick or punt for a touchdown this season but now that I say that we’ll probably get two in the final.  This unit matchup is almost too close to call.  Since it’s close, I will go with Alabama because they have the best individual player in the bunch, JK Scott.

Prediction: Roll Tide

 

 


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: 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: Bowl Game Previews, Part III

Updated: December 21st 2017

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

Wednesday, Dec. 27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, Dec. 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

The Watch List: Week 13

Updated: November 22nd 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 13 AP poll.  CFP rankings were not yet available at the time of writing.

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Update:  Despite some new “character concerns” about Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, he’s still my Heisman favorite.  Mayfield threw for 257 yards and 3 TDs against Kansas – solid but not standout.  What did standout was Mayfield grabbing his crotch and cursing at Kansas players.  The school has already announced that he will not start against West Virginia but whether that means he misses one play, one drive or one quarter we don’t know.  Chances are that however long the discipline lasts it won’t impact his Heisman hopes.  I’ve slightly wavered recently about who the #2 on the ballot should be between Saquon Barkley or Bryce Love.  This week clinched it for me.  Love went for 101 yards and a score against Cal but left early in the 4th quarter, still hampered by an ankle injury which has impacted him in multiple games.  Meanwhile, Barkley racked up 224 total yards and scored three rushing touchdowns.  I don’t really see a clear-cut defensive player who might land on the ballot and earn a trip to New York for the ceremony.  Preseason chalk favorites like Florida State S Derwin James or Alabama CB Minkah Fitzpatrick might get the nod but I would bet against them and take the field.  Realistically, a dark horse defensive hopeful needs to come from a Power 5 school and have some big games in conference.  I would look at North Carolina State DE Bradley Chubb as the top option.  Chubb has 66 tackles, 22 tackles for loss and 10 sacks.  Most of his sacks (8.5) came in conference games (I’m including the game against Notre Dame since they are effectively ACC football members); he had three 2+ sack games against Florida State, Syracuse and Boston College.  A darker-horse option might be Iowa CB Joshua Jackson.  Jackson has 43 tackles, 7 INTs and 17 passes defended.  The biggest reason Jackson could get a visit to NYC?  His performance in two nationally televised games versus Top 10 teams (Ohio State and Wisconsin).  In those two games, Jackson totaled 5 INTs and returned two for TDs against Wisconsin.  As much as I’d love for my sleeper defensive Heisman pick, Ball State DE Anthony Winbush, to get a vote it’s much more likely to go to a player from a Power 5 team who showed out when voters were watching.
  • Playoff Picture:  As of this writing on Monday evening, I do not expect the CFP committee to make any changes to the Top 4.  I think Alabama, Clemson, Miami and Oklahoma will still be there but I would not be surprised if Clemson and Miami flip spots.  Proponents of an 8- or 16-team playoff format should really pay attention to the schedule this week and next.  9 of the Top 10 in the current AP poll will play another Top 10 team over the next two weeks.  That makes all of those games playoff play-in games essentially.  If Auburn loses to Alabama – they’re out.  If Wisconsin loses to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship – they’re out.  And so on.  I’m not even sure that undefeated Alabama or Miami can get by with a loss and still stay in the Top 4.  The biggest knock on both teams this season has been their strength of schedule and a loss, albeit against another Top 10 team, would bump them out.  My current prediction is: Alabama (over Auburn and Georgia), Clemson (over Miami), Wisconsin (over Ohio State) and Oklahoma (over TCU).  I think Wisconsin lands ahead of Oklahoma because Wisconsin’s win over Ohio State should rate better than Oklahoma’s against TCU.
  • Coaching Carousel:  There’s a phrase used in the NFL to describe the day after the season ends when most coaches are fired: Black Monday.  The FBS is coming up on it’s own “Black Sunday” in less than a week so I thought it was a good time to check in on the coaching carousel.  Rather than spotlighting players this week, we are going to briefly examine a number of coaches who are under the microscope.  You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to follow the rumors but two useful pages I came across are here and here.  Why should you care?  Aside from the ridiculousness of the will-he-won’t-he, the impending coaching changes will greatly impact the draft stock of certain players.  Some key draft prospects could decide to declare early or stay for an extra season depending on what happens with their head coach; some players, typically underclassmen, could decide to transfer and sit out a season; coaching changes could also be a factor with graduate transfers where the player doesn’t have to sit out and can pick their landing spot like an NFL free agent.

Coaches to Watch

  • Chip Kelly, ESPN “Analyst”:  Kelly is probably the sexiest name that’s been bandied about because of his immense success at Oregon (his failures in the NFL notwithstanding).  I have heard Kelly connected to both the Florida job and the UCLA job.  I’d guess that Kelly would lean towards UCLA given his PAC-12 experience but that’s just a gut call.  Kelly belongs in the college game so I’ll be happy to see him back.  Wouldn’t it be fun if he signs with UCLA and convinces Josh Rosen to come back for another season?  Hmm.  Is a return to Oregon completely out of the question?  Double hmm.
  • Jon Gruden, ESPN Analyst:  Gruden’s name has come up with Florida and also Tennessee.  One of the reasons I heard that he would consider Tennessee is that his wife was a cheerleader there.  The real connection is that Gruden was a graduate assistant at Tennessee in 1986.  Yeah, I’m still not buying it.  I will continue to believe that Gruden stays in the booth until proven otherwise.  He has passed up better jobs than either Florida or Tennessee in both college and the NFL.  Also, don’t forget that he’s never been a head coach at the college level so why start now?
  • Scott Frost, UCF Coach:  Frost is a Nebraska alum so the connect-the-dots analysis has him going there whenever the Huskers fire coach Mike Riley.  Nebraska does play in the weaker Big Ten West but I don’t see them unseating Wisconsin anytime soon even with Frost.  In my opinion, his best shot at playing in New Year’s Six bowls is by staying at UCF for another season or two.  By then he might get a shot at a true A+ job.  Frost to Oregon instead of Nebraska isn’t that far off either, he worked there under Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich from 2009-2015.
  • Willie Taggart, Oregon Coach:  Speaking of Oregon, the SB Nation article I linked to above has multiple mentions of Willie Taggart being considered for other positions.  Why?  Taggart is just 6-5 so far in his first season with Oregon.  I like his potential as he salvaged two programs in Western Kentucky and USF but it’s a bit premature to jump to another premier job for Taggart.  If he does move on (or maybe is fired, who knows) I’ll bet rumors about Oregon will swirl faster than Florida and Tennessee.  It’s fun to imagine Chip Kelly returning to Eugene or an offensive mind like Scott Frost bringing some excitement back to the Ducks.  If Oregon was guaranteed to get either Kelly or Frost, I think they would part ways with the underwhelming Taggart in a blink.
  • Jimbo Fisher, Florida State Coach:  The Seminoles are having a bad season for sure but is it bad enough for Jimbo to jump ship?  I don’t think so.  He’ll have Deondre Francois back next year and has a great young running back in Cam Akers.  He’ll lose some NFL talent like WR Auden Tate and S Derwin James but the cupboard is perpetually full in Tallahassee.  If Jimbo leaves for Texas A&M as was speculated last week, I think it would be a big mistake.  I also heard that Auburn could be a possibility for Jimbo if that job opened up.  I don’t see that one either.  Moving into a division with Nick Saban is a good way to get yourself fired in three years.

Games to Watch

  • #22 USF at #15 UCF, Friday 3:30pm on ABC:  The Friday after Thanksgiving usually gives us a few good college football games but this year is a pretty poor slate despite featuring #3 Miami and #12 TCU.  The game with the biggest possibility to create bowl chaos is UCF’s matchup against USF.  If UCF wins, they likely guarantee themselves a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl as I don’t think Memphis would overtake them even with the head-to-head championship win (don’t forget UCF already beat them 40-13 this season so the series would be tied at 1-1).  If USF wins, they put themselves back in the AAC conversation.
  • #9 Ohio State at #24 Michigan, Saturday 12:00pm on FOX:  Simply, “The Game.”  Michigan is adding injury to insult now that third string QB Brandon Peters is hurt along with recently banged up RBs Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac.  John O’Korn will likely be under center and I have zero confidence in him as a Michigan fan.  Ohio State’s QB JT Barrett has struggled in November and needs to finish his career with three strong games to get NFL draft consideration.  I was encouraged to see that RB Mike Weber was back in the fold the last two weeks (162-2 and 108-2).  I was high on him to start the season but have tempered expectations after freshman JK Dobbins took over the lead role.  It’s good to see Weber dominate again, even if in a blowout.  It goes without saying but this one means a lot this season as Ohio State must have it to stay in consideration for the playoff.
  • #1 Alabama at #6 Auburn, Saturday 3:30pm on CBS:  Stop me if you’ve heard this before… the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn will be the best matchup of the weekend.  I did not realize just how high powered the Auburn offense was until I started to research.  They have scored 40+ points in nine of twelve games and in four straight.  They are led by RB Kerryon Johnson (1,172 yards, 16 TDs) but keep an eye on sophomore Kam Martin.  Martin had 83 yards and a score last week against UL-Monroe and is getting more touches with Kamryn Pettway injured.  QB Jarrett Stidham continues to be efficient (68.7% completion percentage) and careful with the ball (just 4 INTs).  Alabama’s rush-heavy offense is still paced by the familiar names of Damien Harris, Bo Scarborough, Najee Harris and QB Jalen Hurts but there is one other player who will factor in: sophomore Josh Jacobs.  Jacobs has 50+ total yards in five of the last six games and is a factor in the passing game.  In those five games, Jacobs has two receptions in each game and is averaging 15.9 yards per catch with two touchdowns.  If you haven’t watched much of the Alabama’s defense this season, now is your chance against a good Auburn offense.  CB/S Minkah Fitzpatrick says he’s 100% healthy now and will be a Top 5 draft pick come April.  S Ronnie Harrison is also looking at a first round draft grade.  If you play in an IDP league, check these two out now so you can be ahead of your opponents.
  • #14 Washington State at #18 Washington, Saturday 8:00pm on FOX:  If the Cougars can win The Apple Cup they will earn the PAC-12 North’s championship berth against USC.  Washington is out of contention; if Washington wins, it means that Stanford gets the spot (regardless of the outcome of their game against Notre Dame).  I don’t have a dog in the fight so I’m just hoping for a good game and some good performances from the NFL prospects on the field (i.e. Washington State QB Luke Falk and Washington WR Dante Pettis).  The Stanford vs Notre Dame game may actually be a better game to watch but since Stanford cannot control their own destiny, this is the one to tune into at 8:00pm.

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: 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.