The Watch List: Week 4

Updated: September 21st 2017

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

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Update: Mason Rudolph’s and Baker Mayfield’s stocks have risen while Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson remain in the middle of the pack.  My favorite non-QB is still Saquon Barkley but he’ll struggle to earn anything more than third place votes if Rudolph and Mayfield keep up their pace.  If I had a vote, and I don’t, my pick right now would be Rudolph.  I do think that other positions should get Heisman love other than QBs but it’s impossible to ignore what Rudolph is doing right now.  If you’re looking for a defensive dark horse, follow FSU S Derwin James and Texas LB Malik Jefferson closely.  I expect James to expand on a solid performance against Alabama where he only had six tackles but was a constant presence on the field.  Jefferson had 11 tackles in the close loss to USC and is the heart and soul of that Longhorn defense.
  • Florida State Back in Action: The Seminoles’ season is off to a strange start.  It feels like their loss to #1 Alabama was two months ago but it’s only been three weeks.  In that span though, FSU has had a game cancelled (UL-Monroe) and another postponed (Miami).  They haven’t been on the field since QB Deondre Francois went down with a season ending injury.  Ultimately, Hurricane Irma could have been a blessing in disguise as it has removed the spotlight from freshman QB James Blackman and given him time with the “ones” in practice.  Blackman was not a very highly touted recruit, in fact he was ranked as the 52nd quarterback by Phil Steele in his recruiting class.  Blackman won the job though and will rely on fellow freshman Cam Akers.  Akers only had 30 yards against Alabama but don’t let that belie his potential.  If you play devy or are just a college football fan, keep an eye on him.  Blackman and coach Jimbo Fisher will have to rely on Akers if FSU is to compete in the ACC this season without Francois.
  • Vandy is on the Come: Vanderbilt is just on the outside of the Top 25.  In the AP Poll they received 83 votes while in the Coaches Poll they received 92.  One of Vandy’s three wins came against Alabama A&M, the second was against Middle Tennessee State (who beat their other Power 5 opponent, Syracuse) and the crown jewel was a close win against #18 Kansas State.  The Commodores have been led by their defense which, based on yards per game, is the 1st ranked pass defense, the 32nd ranked rush defense and the 4th ranked total defense.  In terms of points, Vandy is ranked 1st.  The offense is not prolific but it is lead steadily by junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur (his father is Pat Shurmur, the Vikings OC).  Shurmur has thrown 8 TDs and zero picks and his completion percentage is much improved thus far (71.0% vs 54.4% last year).  My preseason prediction was 8 wins which is looking pretty good right now but they face a huge test this week against Alabama.

Players to Watch

  • Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State: Rudolph’s production so far is off the charts.  Literally.  Rudolph’s completion percentage and yards per attempt would beat Baker Mayfield’s 2016 FBS-leading numbers by a significant margin.  Rudolph’s completion percentage so far this season is 72.3%, compared to Mayfield’s 70.9% last year.  Rudolph’s yards per attempt is 12.1, better than Mayfield by a full yard.  That YPA is just crazy so let me give you context.  From 2000-2015, no quarterback averaged more than 10.7 YPA (RGIII in 2011).  I didn’t go back further than 2000, but I think it’s a safe bet to assume that Mayfield’s 2016 mark was a record and the fact that Rudolph is on pace to best that by a full yard means he has to get my Heisman vote.  The biggest knock against Rudolph is the competition he has faced so far.  I agree it’s not great but the Big 12 is not home to strong pass defenses so I have no doubt that the success will continue.  Pitt’s passing defense allowed 311 yards to FCS Youngstown State but then they bottled up Penn State QB Trace McSorley to 164 yards, 3 TDs, 5.9 YPA and 53.6% on completions.  Compare that to Rudolph the following week who went for 479 yards, 5 TDs, 15.5 YPA and 71%.  Rudolph faces his toughest test yet this week in TCU, ranked 36th in pass defense, but the schedule softens over the four following games (against the 101st, 95th, 84th and 73rd best pass defenses).  My favorite Rudolph stat so far?  He has not yet thrown a pass attempt in the 4th quarter, that is how dominant he and the Cowboys have been.  I can’t wait for the November 4th matchup against the Sooners.
  • Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: Like Rudolph, Barkley will be facing his strongest defensive opponent so far in the young season.  Barkley will be on the road in Iowa against their 26th ranked rush defense.  If you only look at the box score, last week’s game against Georgia Southern might be worrisome (just 10 attempts and 47 yards) but have no fear because Barkley contributes in the passing game too (4 receptions, 142 yards and a score).  There was no reason to load Barkley up with carries in a convincing win, he’ll be back to bell-cow status this weekend.  That receiving touchdown last week was great – go back and watch the highlight and just look at his acceleration thirty yards down the field, incredible.  Barkley has 548 total yards and 5 TDs and is still my 1.01.
  • Deontay Burnett, WR, USC: Burnett is moving his way up my WR ranks with a stellar start to 2017.  Burnett went for 7-142 in the opener against Western Michigan and followed that up with 9-121-2 against Stanford.  He really caught my eye against Texas (8-123-2) when he proved to be Sam Darnold’s favorite target yet again in the face of constant pressure.  For those counting at home that’s a 24-386-4 line which puts him halfway to his 2016 numbers already.  My only concern for Burnett is his slight frame and subsequent injury risk.  At 6’0″ and 170lb, he is just too lean.  Since 2010, no WRs have come into the combine at 5’11” or taller and less than 175lbs.  His closest body-size comp would be the Seahawks’ Paul Richardson who has potential but has been hampered by injuries.
  • Lorenzo Carter, OLB, Georgia: Carter is new name for me but grabbed my attention because he is leading a stout Bulldog defense.  He has 14 tackles so far along with 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries.  Carter is big (6’6″) and fast (possibly in the 4.60-4.65 range if you go by his Hudl and DraftScout.com profiles) and could end up with a first round grade like former Georgia star Leonard Floyd who was taken 9th overall by the Bears in 2016.
  • Anthony Winbush, DE/DT, Ball State: I don’t have any extensive research or film study of Winbush to share but I came across his name and figured I would share it with you dear reader.  Winbush is leading the NCAA in sacks at 6.5 and also has 20 tackles and 3 forced fumbles.  If you’re a big NFL Draft fan, file the name away and see if he keeps it up.

Games to Watch

  • Temple @ #21 South Florida, Thursday 7:30pm on ESPN: The NFL’s Thursday night games are pretty bad so I will definitely find myself checking into this game.  South Florida ended up winning convincingly against Illinois last Friday.  Both teams are coming off short rest after playing Friday so neither team is at a disadvantage in that department.  USF somehow held off San Diego State as the highest ranked Group of 5 team and another win keeps them in the driver’s seat for a New Year’s Six bowl game.
  • NC State @ #12 Florida State, Saturday 12:00pm on ABC: This is the best game of a pretty blah 12:00pm slate on Saturday.  I am interested in seeing how QB James Blackman assimilates so at least I won’t be tempted to flip channels too often.  I had high hopes for NC State to start the season but am not encouraged by the early results; they are 2-1 with a loss to South Carolina and they gave up too many points to Tulane and Furman in their victories.
  • #1 Alabama @ Vanderbilt, Saturday 3:30pm on CBS: #AnchorDown.  By now you know I’m a fan of Vanderbilt but not even I am predicting the upset here.  Alabama has too many horses and will overrun Vanderbilt.  Between QB Jalen Hurts and RBs Bo Scarborough and Damien Harris, the Tide will amass at least 200 yards rushing.  If Vanderbilt can keep it close, I think they jump into the Top 25 even with a loss.
  • #16 TCU @ #6 Oklahoma State, Saturday 3:30pm on ESPN: I used a lot of superlatives to describe Mason Rudolph above so it should be no surprise that I’m taking the Cowboys.  Keep an eye on WR Jalen McCleskey who had a humongous outing against Pitt (7-162-3) and thrived with focus on James Washington.  Despite the added attention that he inevitably receives, Washington is averaging an insane 28.2 yards per reception.  The Oklahoma State offense cannot be stopped.  Take the over.
  • #17 Mississippi State @ #11 Georgia, Saturday 7:00pm on ESPN:  This will be some back-to-back comparison for ESPN viewers.  The 3:30pm game between TCU and Oklahoma State will feature at least 70 points, meanwhile we will be lucky if either set of Bulldogs hits 7.  This one will be a knock down, drag out, SEC battle and not for the squeamish.  State is led by safety Mark McLaurin while Georgia is led by the aforementioned Lorenzo Carter.   Take the under.
  • #4 Penn State @ Iowa, Saturday 7:30pm on ABC: This is a good Saturday night to see family and friends.  Barkley, et al. will be facing a tougher defense than they have seen in 2017 but it won’t matter.  I don’t expect this one to be particularly close and it’s probably not worth scheduling your weekend around.  Check in for the Saquon highlights on College Football Final.
  • East Carolina @ UCONN, Sunday 12:00pm on ESPNU: It’s so rare to get a college game on a Sunday after Week 1 so I just had to include this on my Watch List.  There’s potential for 14 hours of consecutive football on Sunday.  Start with Baltimore and Jacksonville at 9:30am from London, switch over to this one at 12:00pm and then head back to the NFL for the 1:00pm kickoffs.  If you’re quick you can squeeze in dinner and a shower before SNF.

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

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

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

The Watch List: Big 12 Preview

Updated: July 31st 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

  • Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State: Rudolph is the top QB prospect in the conference and likely has the most to gain from a good 2017 season.  His Heisman odds stand at 20:1 right now, tied for 5th highest; interestingly, fellow Big 12 QB Baker Mayfield is higher on that list but is seen as less of a pro prospect by most.  Rudolph has prototypical size at 6’5″ 230lbs and is a better runner than his 61 yard and 6 TD stat line would have you believe (don’t forget college rushing stats for QBs minus sack yardage; per Phil Steele’s stats he had 264 positive rushing yards in 2017).  In 2014, Coach Mike Gundy decided to remove Rudolph’s redshirt to have him start the last three games of the season.  In 2015 he was the starter and finished with 3,770 yards, 21 TDs and 9 INTs.  He improved on those stats in 2016 finishing with 4,091/28/4; other categories like completion percentage and yards per attempt increased slightly as well.  My main concerns after watching film of Rudolph against Oklahoma and Colorado last year are his accuracy and his ball security.  During the game against Oklahoma he fumbled one snap and dropped the ball during a zone read fake (he recovered both himself).  The rain may have exacerbated his handle of the ball but it’s not like he’ll never play in the rain in the NFL.  He also made a very poor decision on a quick out that was behind the back and nearly returned for a pick six; the play was a 1st down early in the 4th quarter when the Cowboys were down by 11 – there was absolutely no reason to take the chance and possibly lose any chance at a comeback.  During that game he had multiple bad throws, some underthrown and some overthrown.  Rudolph does throw the ball with some touch though.  Against Colorado in the Alamo Bowl, he had a nice touch pass from the opposite hash on a key 3rd & 9 in the 2nd quarter.  It was an NFL throw and shows the confidence that Rudolph has in himself.  As I mentioned above, Rudolph does have some rushing ability but I do not think that will translate into the NFL.  He is not quick and looks more like a statue in the pocket than a scrambler.  Against Oklahoma, I did count four designed runs for him, one of which was a TD, but none against Colorado.  I only noted one play combined in both games, where Rudolph bootlegged out of the pocket and threw on the run (not counting scrambles forced by the rush).  It was an inaccurate throw which leads me to believe that he and his coaching staff know that throwing on the run is not an attribute of his.  One thing that stood out while studying his stats were his game logs: in 22 of 29 career starts he has 250+ yards.  One last, cautionary, stat to point out: Rudolph’s red zone completion percentage last year was just 56.5% (compared to 62.7% for top QB prospect Sam Darnold and 70% for Mayfield).  He’s Phil Steele’s 3rd ranked QB for the 2018 draft, he’s WalterFootball.com’s 9th ranked QB and he’s DraftScout.com’s 1st ranked senior QB.  Ultimately I think that Rudolph will start the mock draft season as a late 1st round pick but will creep up into the 12-18 range come April 2018.  For RSO owners, you’re probably looking at an early third rounder in single QB leagues, maybe a round earlier in superflex.
  • James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State: I got a sneak peek of Washington while I was watching Mason Rudolph’s tape and I honestly was not that impressed.  I was hoping that further study of his stats and game logs would help but I just can’t get excited about him as a pro prospect yet.  Washington has contributed since he was a true freshman in 2014.  In 2016 he totaled 71 receptions, 1,380 yards and 10 TDs.  He was 2nd Team Big 12 in 2015 and 3rd Team All-American in 2016.  I watched tape of Washington from 2016 against Texas and Kansas State.  It’s clear pretty quickly that he is fast (I would guess 4.30 fast) and a great open field runner (quick feet, good juke moves).  He has good hands and catches the ball away from his body – as evidenced by a double-clutch catch on a screen against Kansas State, I’m not sure how he ended up with it and gained positive yardage from it.  Also against K State, he had a beautiful high-point touchdown catch on a post.  His separation speed against single coverage reminded me of Desean Jackson (who is significantly smaller than Washington; his closest recent combine comp is Torrey Smith).  All that sounds great but there were a few things that gave me pause.  The Cowboys offense features Washington on a lot of short routes, screens and shallow crosses which help pad his stats a bit.  In the two games’ worth of film I watched, there were just two plays I noted that Washington was a plus blocker.  On other plays he was either to the opposite side or just disinterested (in fairness, the person making his film reels may be leaving out blocking plays).  On a number of plays across the middle when Washington was victimized by QB Mason Rudolph’s inaccuracy, Washington had alligator arms.  Rather than going all-out for the catch, he pulled back and let the ball fall incomplete (or worse, he let it be intercepted as happened against Kansas State which was then returned for a touchdown).  In the game against Texas, Washington ended up leaving early due to a concussion.  Not a huge red flag since I bet most of the 2018 prospects will have at least one in their history but it’s certainly not a positive.  I think most analysts will be higher on Washington than I.  As of today, I would say he’s a second round RSO target.
  • Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State: Lazard is a senior and is looking to improve his counting stats for the fourth year in a row.  He shows a nice progression in receptions (45-56-69), yards (593-808-1,018), yards per catch (13.2-14.4-14.8) and TDs (3-6-7).  Lazard’s best attribute his his size: 6’5″ and 225lb.  Frequent Watch List readers will know I love to check combine comparables and Lazard has one of the best in Mike Evans.  I did not watch enough film of Lazard, just a mostly forgettable game against Oklahoma last year, to judge his concentration, hands or blocking ability.  Either way, I have him circled in my notebook and will keep an eye on him.  He was by far the best player on a bad Cyclones team the last two seasons (3-9 in both) so at least we know he’ll get the lion’s share of the targets in 2017.
  • Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma: This redshirt junior is massive. Like, unbelievably so at 6’8″ 340lb. He was Phil Steele’s #1 ranked OT prospect in his high school class and is still that now that he’s looking forward to the NFL. He decided to stay in school one more year despite being draft eligible for 2017 – not a chance he stays for his senior season. I’m no expert on offensive linemen technique but even in the few minutes of tape I watched I can see how dominant he can be. Don’t be surprised to see Brown atop NFL draft boards come the Spring.

Storylines to Watch

  • OU’s Experienced OL: The Sooners return the most offensive lineman career starts in the Big 12 (9th overall in the FBS). Experienced offensive lineman often translate into reliable offensive production which should help Baker Mayfield & Co. eclipse the 43.9 points per game that they put up last year. OT Orlando Brown is the clear leader of the bunch but they also have versatile OG Dru Samia Jr., who is Phil Steele’s 18th ranked draft eligible player at the position, and has starts at RG, LG and RT in his career. This group will buoy Baker Mayfield’s NFL draft stock and will help an inexperienced RB corps decimated by the departures of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine.
  • Return to Relevance for Texas: New head coach Tom Herman comes into town hot off of two spectacular seasons at Houston. Herman managed to beat both Oklahoma and Louisville last year, both ranked 3rd in the nation at the time. If Herman can beat OU this year he will immediately endear himself to the Longhorn faithful. Herman had an impressive record at Houston (22-4, 3-0 vs Top 10, 6-0 vs Top 25) and with a larger recruiting base at Texas he should thrive if given time. The squad did lose their best offensive player in D’Onta Foreman but they return their top three receivers and sophomore QB Shane Buechle. As a true freshman, Buechle was solid enough to warrant some excitement this year under Herman (2,958 yards, 21 TDs and 11 INTs).
  • Baylor Under New Rhule: We all know that Baylor is a mess. I would not have been upset to see their program get the “death penalty” given how likely it is that the coaching staff and administration knew what was going on. Instead, the Bears are gearing up for another season and this one under Matt Rhule. Rhule’s resume is less impressive than Herman’s so I’m less bullish. Rhule is 28-23 in his career as a head coach but can hang his hat on back-to-back 10-4 seasons at Temple. If Rhule can win a game in the second half of the season, the Baylor fans should welcome the change with open arms (Baylor started 6-0 last year and finished 7-6 after a bowl win).

Games to Watch

  • September 16, Oklahoma State at Pitt: The 2016 version of this matchup ended up being a 45-38 shootout in which OKST prevailed. It’s the Cowboys toughest non-conference game and is in the middle of a stretch where three of four games are on the road. If OKST can come through unscathed, specifically against Pitt, they will be in good position to challenge Oklahoma for the title.
  • October 14, Oklahoma vs Texas: The Red River Rivalry is one of the best name-brand rivalries in college football. Despite Texas’ struggles in recent years, it is surprising to see how close it has been. In the past four years Oklahoma has come into the game ranked while Texas was unranked; they split the series 2-2. Texas coach Tom Herman will have a lot to prove and the Sooners will be looking to stay relevant in the conference championship race – this should be a good one.
  • November 4, Oklahoma at Oklahoma State: Over the last five years, Bedlam has been just that: the games average 73.6 total points. This matchup will likely be a conference championship game preview (new for 2017 for the Big 12) and that is likely the reason it is being played earlier in November than the usual late season date. If somehow both teams make it to Stillwater undefeated, I would bet that even the loser has an outside shot to factor into the College Football Playoff.

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.