The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part V

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.

Friday, Dec. 29

Hyundai Sun Bowl, Arizona State (7-5) vs. #24 North Carolina State (8-4), 2 p.m. (CBS)

  • Arizona State: 40th scoring offense, 49th passing offense, 50th rushing offense; 88th scoring defense, 119th passing defense, 82nd rushing defense
  • NC State: 47th scoring offense, 29nd passing offense, 51st rushing offense; 50th scoring defense, 97th passing defense, 29th rushing defense

Both of these teams have endured some coaching carousel drama over the last month.  NC State’s Dave Doeren was an early target in Tennessee’s never-ending coach search but ultimately he spurned the Vols to stick with the Wolfpack.  Doeren has NC State playing in their fourth straight bowl and should the team stay competitive next year he’ll probably be in the running for an even bigger job at the end of 2018.  Arizona State made the odd, in my opinion, hire of Herm Edwards.  Herm is a master motivator for sure but Herm has not been involved with the college game since 1989.  Even more odd is that outgoing coach Todd Graham is sticking around to coach the bowl.

Arizona State’s offense is led by two NFL hopefuls in senior RB Kalen Ballage and sophomore WR N’Keal Harry.  Ballage is a big back at 6’3″ and 230lbs.  His size concerns me because few backs have been successful in the NFL at that height.  Since 2010, only four backs have measured 6’2″ and 225lbs or bigger at the combine: Derrick Henry, Matt Jones, Dominique Brown and James Wilder.  Henry has potential but he has not yet earned the starting role in Tennessee and teams may be hesitant to roll the dice on a big back like Ballage.  Ballage has not handled a full load in any of his four seasons but he is a productive pass catcher (44 receptions in 2016, 19 this year).  His high number of carries came this year with 153.  He has under 2,000 yards in his career.  I’m just not able to get that excited about him, honestly.  I have read comparisons to David Johnson but I think that is crazy: Johnson was more than twice as productive in most stat categories in college.  Ballage will get drafted in fantasy leagues but it won’t be by me.  The other big name for the Sun Devils is WR N’Keal Harry.  Harry is not draft eligible so it’s not worth a deep dive yet but you will hear his name constantly next season.  He has elite height (6’4″) and has been very productive as a young receiver on a mediocre team (career line of 131-1,659-12).  Add Harry to your 2019 short list now!

North Carolina State has three draft prospects that I will touch on.  First and foremost is DE Bradley Chubb.  I mentioned Chubb a few times in the middle of the season when NC State was looking like it could challenge Clemson for the conference title.  He has 25 sacks and 54.5 tackles for loss in his career.  Chubb is relentless and should be a Top 5 pick in the NFL Draft.  Sadly, he’s banged up and may miss the bowl game.  On offense, QB Ryan Finley and TE Jaylen Samuels are the two to watch.  Samuels is one of my favorite players of the season because he transcends position.  He is listed as a TE but he’s really too small to play the position in the NFL.  Instead he’ll probably factor in as a hybrid RB, FB, TE who lines up all over the field.  To give you an idea of Samuels’ versatility, look at his 2017 stats: 68 receptions, 547 receiving yards, 4 rushing TDs, 72 rushing attempts, 387 rushing yards and 11 rushing TDs.  Samuels was the only player in the FBS with more than 65 receptions and rushing attempts.  More so than any other prospect, Samuels’ 2018 fantasy value relies heavily on his landing spot.  If he gets drafted by a team with a creative offense he could turn into the ultimate third down and short yardage weapon.  Finley is a late round quarterback prospect that is hard for me to get excited about.  He should add a few pounds to his 6’4″ frame because he’s listed at just 210lbs and may be lighter.  He’s efficient and does not turn the ball over often.  Finley does have another year of eligibility so we could see him come back for another season to improve his draft stock.  WalterFootball.com has him as QB16 for 2018 while NFLDraftScout.com has him as QB14 in his 2019 class.  If he can show a more prolific side to his game in 2018, he could become a mid-rounder next year.

Even if it weren’t for the Sun Devils coaching distractions, I would have gone for NC State because Arizona State’s defense is so bad.  Prediction: North Carolina State

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, #8 USC (11-2) vs. #5 Ohio State (11-2), 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • USC: 24th scoring offense, 19th passing offense, 36th rushing offense; 61st scoring defense, 98th passing defense, 57th rushing defense
  • Ohio State: 5th scoring offense, 28th passing offense, 13th rushing offense; 22nd scoring defense, 18th passing defense, 7th rushing defense

I don’t care what the name of this bowl is, it’s the Rose Bowl to me.  I hate the fact that with the new CFP we lose the historical tradition of some of the biggest games.  The folks running the Cotton Bowl got themselves a doozy of a matchup with two Power 5 conference champions and a slew of NFL prospects.  Covering each and every one of the draft hopefuls in this game is impossible – I will touch on a few but by no means is this a comprehensive list.

Let’s start with Ohio State.  By now, we have all heard and participated in the debate about whether or not Ohio State should have been in the playoff.  I fear that topic will be prominent during the telecast and will overshadow some of the great players on the field for the Buckeyes.  QB JT Barrett improved on a number of stats this season but probably hurt his chances of playing quarterback in the NFL after poor performances in three big games (against Iowa, Michigan [before the injury], and Wisconsin).  I don’t have an opinion yet on whether Barrett should enter the draft process as a QB but my gut says he will.  The RB duo of freshman JK Dobbins and redshirt sophomore Mike Weber was very productive (nearly 2,000 combined rushing yards and 17 TDs).  Dobbins took advantage of an early, and lingering, injury to Weber to steal the lead role.  If Weber comes out for the 2018 draft, I think his stock is less now than it was four months ago.  He could return but it’s clear he won’t be the first choice back.  Maybe he transfers, sits out a year, and dominates at a lower level Power 5 school in 2019.  I listed Weber as my RB13 in November so if he does come out he’s a mid-rounder at best.  The strength of Ohio State’s team lies outside of the offensive skill positions.  Drafttek.com has six Buckeyes ranked in their Top 10 NFL draft prospects from the Big Ten: three defensive linemen (Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis, Dante Booker), one corner (Denzel Ward) and two offensive linemen (Jamarco Jones and Billy Price).  I’ll venture a guess that four of the six go in the first round (Ward, Hubbard, Price, Jones) with the other two following on Day Two.  The best prospect on the defense, sophomore DE Nick Bosa, is not yet draft eligible but he’d be a first rounder too if he were.

The biggest name on USC’s team is QB Sam Darnold but he has really hurt his draft stock this season.  Darnold was a walking turnover in 2017: 12 INTs and 10 fumbles (7 of which were lost).  Elite quarterback prospects just can’t turn the ball over that often; for comparison, Rosen (13) and Mayfield (5) combine for fewer turnovers than Darnold.  Darnold is only a redshirt sophomore so he is young and still has two more years of eligibility should he decide to return to college for further seasoning.  Ultimately, I think Darnold comes out and is a Top 3 pick because of the potential the he has shown.  Despite his turnovers, the yardage, scoring and efficiency are all above average.  He’s also an above average runner with enough speed to earn first downs when flushed from the pocket.  What Darnold has that doesn’t show up in the box score is his confidence and swagger.  If I had to pick one college QB to lead my team in a comeback, I would take Darnold because he wouldn’t shrink from the challenge.  One negative: Darnold’s throwing motion.  I noticed this in the offseason and plan on watching more film before the draft to see if it’s improved.  Darnold’s favorite receiver is WR Deontay Burnett.  Burnett is undersized (6’0″ and 170lbs) so he likely won’t garner early round attention but I’ve raved about him numerous times this season.  A close size comp for Burnett would be Travis Benjamin who was a 4th round pick back in 2012.  Burnett was good, but not great, this season going for 74-975-9.  I started the season low on RB Ronald Jones but I came around by mid-September.  He is just so quick and agile that it’s almost not fair to defenders.  I was previously concerned about his size but no longer.  Even though he missed a game due to injury, Jones totaled 1,486 yards and 18 rushing TDs; he added 13 receptions for 165 yards and another score.  After a down game against Notre Dame, Jones ended the season strong with over 800 yards and 10 TDs in the last five games.  He’s fun to watch and I am so happy he won’t be skipping the Cotton Bowl.  On defense, the Trojans have a number of prospects including Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin.  Gustin missed most of the season, and is doubtful for the bowl, but could get drafted based on a solid sophomore season if he comes out (68 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks).  Smith is a prototypical MLB who has 263 career tackles and has been a big part of the USC defense for three years; according to WalterFootball.com he is looking at a mid-round grade.

Ohio State’s defense will be the best unit on the field and is strong enough to limit Darnold and Jones.  I expect the Buckeyes to win in a game where they beat USC in time of possession.  Prediction: Ohio State

Saturday, Dec. 30

TaxSlayer Bowl, Louisville (8-4) vs. #23 Mississippi State (8-4), 12 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Louisville: 13th scoring offense, 15th passing offense, 14th rushing offense; 71st scoring defense, 77th passing defense, 52nd rushing defense
  • Mississippi State: 38th scoring offense, 109th passing offense, 15th rushing offense; 24th scoring defense, 13th passing defense, 24th rushing defense

As far as the NFL Draft prospects go this matchup is all about Louisville, let’s touch on Mississippi State first though.  QB Nick Fitzgerald could be an interesting study in 2019 but I don’t think he has enough of a resume to warrant coming out for 2018, especially after a season-ending ankle injury sustained on Thanksgiving.  NFLDraftScout.com has him as the QB6 in his 2019 draft class.  Fitzgerald will need to improve on his efficiency in 2018 because he doesn’t complete enough passes (55.6%) and throws too many INTs (15:11 ratio this season).  He’s a tremendous rushing threat with 33 career rushing TDs and nearly 2,500 yards but that won’t matter to scouts if he’s missing throws.  The backup QB is freshman Keytaon Thompson.  I don’t think I have seen any of Thompson play this season but I am intrigued by the combination of his size (6’4″ 222lbs) and rushing ability (he played in nine games this season totaling 299 yards and 3 TDs rushing).  Thompson played significant snaps in the Egg Bowl vs Ole Miss after Fitzgerald went down so at least he’s not coming in cold.  He rushed for 121 yards and a score but only completed 13 of his 27 passes for 195 yards.  I came across the name of DB JT Gray on NDT Scouting’s website while researching potential draft prospects from Mississippi State.  He has played at both linebacker and safety and his listed measureables are similar to those of Jabril Peppers who was a first rounder last year; maybe he could be a poor man’s Pepper in the late rounds.  Per Pro Football Focus, Gray did not allow a single TD in coverage this year and the passer rating against him was 70.4 which is above average.

Louisville has their own DB, Jaire Alexander, who excels in those same metrics.  Alexander has also shut out opposing receivers and, this is not a typo, has allowed a passer rating against of just 17.7.  For comparison, a QB who had one completion for negative nine yards would have a rating of 16.  Alexander allowed just five receptions on the season and ranks 5th in PFF’s “Cover Snaps per Reception” stat, meaning he is in coverage a lot and allows few receptions.  Alexander declared for the 2018 draft already and is skipping the bowl so you won’t get to see him play against Mississippi State but you’ll see him playing on Sundays soon.  You may be thinking to yourself, how has he not mentioned Lamar Jackson yet?  You’re right I may be burying the lede but Jackson has been talked about ad nauseam on every platform this season.  That includes me too: I tagged Jackson in eight of my weekly The Watch List pieces and focused on him in my preseason preview.  Talk of Jackson changing position is useless, in my opinion, because Jackson will go into the NFL as a quarterback.  If anything, the brief spark of Deshaun Watson this season shows NFL teams that a lightning quick deep-ball thrower with accuracy issues can still lead a team to victory.  Some team will take Jackson in the first round but I don’t think I’ll be taking him in any of my fantasy drafts.  Jackson’s top target is junior WR Jaylen Smith.  Smith is 6’4″ and 219lbs which is great size for a receiver but it’s his speed and deep-ball ability that makes him a threat to the defense.  To illustrate this, despite his size, only three of his 53 receptions came in the red zone; meanwhile he had seven receptions of 25+ yards.  He totaled 873 yards and 6 TDs (he missed three games due to a wrist injury).  I’m not as high on Smith as some, including our friends at Dynasty Command Center who have him as their WR5 for 2018 rookies.  Jackson and Smith versus the stout Bulldog defense will be fun to watch, regardless of what you think of their NFL chances.

Defense wins championships, sure, but offense wins college bowl games.  Take the Cardinals.  Prediction: Louisville

AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Iowa State (7-5) vs. #20 Memphis (10-2), 12:30 p.m. (ABC)

  • Iowa State: 53rd scoring offense, 32nd passing offense, 112th rushing offense; 28th scoring defense, 81st passing defense, 31st rushing defense
  • Memphis: 2nd scoring offense, 8th passing offense, 31st rushing offense; 104th scoring defense, 123rd passing defense, 100th rushing defense

Iowa State had a whirlwind of a season.  Get it?  The Cyclones had a whirlwind…. okay, okay I’ll stop.  Seriously though, Iowa State was a surprisingly fun team to watch this season.  They had a number of interesting story lines throughout the season including 1) an up-and-coming head coach in Matt Campbell, 2) jack-of-all-trades Joel Lanning playing at both LB and QB in a number of games, 3) the continued emergence of RB David Montgomery, 4) the revolving door at quarterback including underclassmen, walk-ons and transfers and 5) the upset of #3 Oklahoma and #4 TCU.  Montgomery is fantastic.  He has good speed, is amazing at breaking tackles and gaining yards after contact and is a reliable receiver.  He is just a sophomore so he’s not coming out in 2018 but there’s a chance he is my top RB next year.  Leading receiver Allen Lazard is a 6’5″ red zone monster (15 of his 25 career touchdowns came inside the twenty).  I think Lazard is underappreciated as far as draftniks go.  I had him as WR13 a few weeks ago but will likely move him up into the WR10 range.  The Iowa State defense has played well most of the season and is led by emotional leader Joel Lanning (the aforementioned former QB).  As much as I enjoy rooting for Lanning, I don’t think he’ll be considered by NFL teams.

Memphis has an incredibly efficient and high scoring offense that will be fun to watch against the solid Iowa State defense.  QB Riley Ferguson is a former Tennessee transfer who has played exceptionally well in his two seasons at Memphis.  Ferguson throws a lot of touchdowns, completes more than 63% of his passes, has never thrown more than 10 INTs in a season and has 10 career rushing touchdowns.  He’s also 6’4″; like Ryan Finley at NC State he is just 210lbs so needs to add some weight for the NFL.  I think Ferguson sneaks up NFL draft boards and gets taken on Day Two.  Ferguson’s top target was undoubtedly WR Anthony Miller.  I fell in love with Miller in the preseason when I jokingly compared him to Antonio Brown.  In hindsight that comp may have been more accurate than I could have guessed.  Miller caught 92 balls for 1,407 yards and 17 TDs.  Miller has unreal hands, great body control and is tough.  If you watched the AAC Championship game you might recall how exhausted and banged up he was yet he was on the field and still making plays when it mattered the most.  I want him on my NFL team and my fantasy team and I don’t care what pick it takes.  In September, I had him at 2.02 for 2018 rookie drafts but now I would even be willing to part with a late first for him.

By the rankings this may not be the best game of the day but I bet it’s the most entertaining.  The Tigers offense is just too good to stop.  Prediction: Memphis

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, #11 Washington Huskies (10-2) vs. #9 Penn State (10-2), 4 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Washington: 17th scoring offense, 73rd passing offense, 39th rushing offense; 6th scoring defense, 19th passing defense, 2nd rushing defense
  • Penn State: 7th scoring offense, 26th passing offense, 62nd rushing offense; 7th scoring defense, 43rd passing defense, 17th rushing defense

This PAC-12 vs Big Ten matchup definitely has less going for it than the Ohio State vs USC matchup but it’s still a game with some key NFL prospects to keep an eye on.  Thankfully, Penn State RB Saquon Barkley confirmed back in November that he planned to play in the team’s bowl game.

Penn State was looking like a favorite to make the playoff when they were ranked #2 in late October but back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Michigan State put an end to that.  Even the most casual of fan knows about Barkley and I have covered him exhaustively for RSO.  In fact, I tagged Barkley in thirteen different articles this season.  My deepest dive on Barkley came in the preseason in my Big Ten conference preview.  At some point you just run out of things to say but he was so dominant at points he just demanded to be discussed.  Barkley ran the ball less this year but he increased his yards per attempt (5.5 to 5.7) and became more involved as a receiver (47 receptions, 594 yards and 3 TDs).  He’ll likely be a Top 5 NFL Draft pick and will be the unanimous 1.01 pick in fantasy rookie drafts.  QB Trace McSorley is also draft eligible but he will probably return for another season.  He won’t be able to improve on his size (just 6’0″ and 202lbs) but he can continue to improve his efficiency and yards per attempt.  The pass catcher with the highest draft grade in my opinion will be TE Mike Gesicki.  Gesicki went for 51-501-9 this season and had one of my favorite highlights of the season when he hurdled McSorley after a touchdown.  Penn State keeps track of some combine-like measureables and supposedly Gesicki ran a 4.54 40 yard dash – that is crazy good for somebody his size.  I expect that number to increase at the combine, it must be the benefit of some “home cooking,” but still he’s looking at a favorable size/speed comp to the likes of Jimmy Graham and Travis Kelce.  The first round may be too early for Gesicki realistically but he’s a Day Two guy at worst.  The Nittany Lions’ top defensive prospect is senior safety Marcus Allen.  I researched him in the preseason and was nonplussed.  I felt he needed to show scouts that he was equally as good in coverage as he is in run support.  He still succeeded in run support (just two missed tackles against the run per Pro Football Focus) but he only had one interception (the first of his career) and had just two pass break-ups (just ten in his career).  He’ll probably start his career as a situational player and won’t be an IDP factor right away unless he can prove he should stay on the field for every snap.

Washington QB Jake Browning finished 6th in Heisman voting in 2016 after a huge 43 TD season.  Unfortunately for Huskies fans, that season was the outlier for Browning as he returned to his 2015 levels with just 18 TDs this year.  His completion percentage did increase significantly this year (62.1% to 68.8%) but all of his other rate stats decreased.  One of my favorite plays in football is the quick kick from a quarterback and Browning excels at that: he has 11 career punts, averaging about 35 yards per kick.  The two offensive standouts are WR Dante Pettis and RB Myles Gaskin.  I’ve never been a huge fan of either and I am willing to admit it is probably an east coast bias since I don’t see them play that often.  I previewed Pettis in the preseason and expressed concerns that his size would limit him in the NFL.  Pettis played in thirteen games each of his first three seasons so he’s avoid any long-term injuries but he is currently hurt (but probabl for the bowl game).  He is a good receiver (averaging 40 receptions, 500 yards and 6 TDs per year over his four year career) but a better punt returner (9 career punt return TDs, including 4 in 2017).  He’s currently my WR8 and should find himself drafted in the late second round.  RB Myles Gaskin is ranked a little lower in my positional rankings (RB13) but he’s somebody that I definitely need to revisit.  Gaskin’s numbers are great and if they were attached to a different name I would probably be higher on him.  He rushed for 1,282 yards this season and rushed for 19 TDs.  He also added 18 grabs for 228 yards and 3 receiving scores.  He has been consistent, and healthy, throughout his three year career.  He’s gone over 1,300 total yards each year and has 47 career TDs.  He’s slightly undersized (think Theo Riddick) but not so small that he can’t play a heavy role in an NFL offense.  On defense, LB Azeem Victor and DT Vita Vea are both likley Day Two prospects.  Victor’s college career has been marred by injuries and off-field issues (he was suspended to start 2017 for a failed drug test and was suspended late in the season after a DUI arrest).  In 2015, his only full season, Victor had 95 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception.  Vea is an agile, space-eating DT who could end up going in the late first if he dominates the combine.  Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports had Vea going 19th overall in his December 5th mock; Trapasso thinks that Vea may be the most physically strong prospect in the entire draft class.

Given the strength of the two defenses, I expect this one to be a low scoring affair.  I’ll take the team with the best player on the field.  Prediction: Penn State

Capital One Orange Bowl, #10 Miami (10-2) vs. #6 Wisconsin (12-1), 8 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Miami: 58th scoring offense, 50th passing offense, 73rd rushing offense; 21st scoring defense, 52nd passing defense, 44th rushing defense
  • Wisconsin: 31st scoring offense, 95th passing offense, 21st rushing offense; 4th scoring defense, 4th passing defense, 1st rushing defense

The Orange Bowl may feature two Top 10 teams but I’m just not finding the matchup all that intriguing.  I was down on Miami for most of the season before the team imploded against an unranked Pitt team and laid an egg against Clemson in the ACC Championship game.  At least Wisconsin was competitive in their conference championship and proved that they belonged in the playoff conversation despite a weak schedule.

Hurricanes QB Malik Rosier was overrated, in my opinion, during Miami’s unbeaten run to start the season.  He ranks 89th in adjusted completion percentage according to Pro Football Focus; that metric is meant to give a better picture of a quarterback’s accuracy by not counting spikes/throwaways against them and by giving them credit for drops.  Per their stats, the Miami receivers dropped 22 passes, which is about average, but even after factoring those back in he is still at the bottom of the list (there are only twelve worse qualifying QBs).  Rosier did rush for 427 yards and 5 TDs which helps make up for his negative plays but it’s not enough in big games.  Case in point: Rosier was pulled late in the Pitt game to give redshirt sophomore backup Evan Shirreffs a shot.  Shirreffs had five career passing attempts at that point so in that moment the coaches though he gave them a better shot than Rosier (predictably, Shirreffs did nothing and was replaced by Rosier).  Miami lost RB Mark Walton early in the season but sophomore Travis Homer has emerged in his stead.  Homer has over 1,100 total yards and scored 8 TDs.  He had a big game against #3 Notre Dame (18 rushes for 146 yards) but had just 55 combined rushing and receiving yards in the late losses to Pitt and Clemson.  If Miami is to stand a chance against Wisconsin’s great defense it will fall on Walton.  Senior DE Chad Thomas had 30 total pressures per PFF and finished the year with 3.5 sacks.  Safety Jaquon Johnson improved his stats in 2017 to end with 85 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries and 4 INTs.  Miami’s defense did get better in 2017 but gone are the days when the NFL Draft was littered with Hurricane defenders; Thomas and Johnson could be mid-round picks but I doubt anybody goes higher than that.

Speaking of defense, Wisconsin’s is a juggernaut.  They are 4th in scoring, 4th against the pass and 1st against the run.  They don’t have a weakness and it’s unfortunate we did not get to see them play a stronger schedule.  We may never know if this was a historic unit or just a product of a soft schedule.  Their leader, LB TJ Edwards, is good in both run support (27th ranked in run stop percentage per PFF) and in coverage (4 INTs).  According to DraftTek.com, he’s the 11th ranked prospect in the conference and according to WalterFootball.com he’s looking at a 3rd-5th round grade.  Edwards may not be a Watt brother but he’s keeping up the tradition of productive Wisconsin linebackers with initials instead of first names!  The Badgers offense is all about freshman RB Jonathan Taylor.  Taylor had 1,847 rushing yards and 13 TDs this season and he finished 6th in Heisman voting.  Those rushing yards ranked him first in the conference and third in the FBS.  Not bad for a three star recruit.  Taylor still has two more seasons before he’s draft eligible so we have to wait and see what he develops into but he’ll probably be on my Heisman watch list for next season.  Aside from offensive tackle Beau Benzschawel, the best offensive prospect is TE Troy Fumagalli.  Fumagalli has a long injury history that I discussed in my Big Ten preview, but I still like his chances in the NFL.  He’s more of a traditional TE than the “move TE” that is en vogue right now so that may lower how high he is drafted.  Regardless of where he is drafted, he will be on the field from day one because of his above average blocking ability.  Fumagalli led the team with 43 receptions, 516 yards and 4 TDs.  He has already declared for the NFL Draft but Fumagalli has confirmed that he will play in the bowl.    Fumagalli may not be a fantasy factor in his rookie season but he’ll still be worth a third round pick.

I don’t have a doubt in my mind that Wisconsin will win this one.  Prediction: Wisconsin

 


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.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Week 9

Updated: October 25th 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: I am officially out of superlatives for Penn State RB Saquon Barkley. Barkley made mincemeat of the usually strong Michigan defense for 161 total yards and 3 TDs last week. As mentioned in this space last week, Stanford RB Bryce Love was off this past weekend and is questionable for their Thursday night game against Oregon State. I think the Heisman will be out of reach if he misses any time with injury. Lamar Jackson would likely be my number three vote at this point. Jackson had 334 yards and 2 TDs combined passing and rushing. USC QB Sam Darnold had another down game, he threw his tenth interception and lost his sixth fumble.  There are louder murmurs now about the possibility of Darnold returning for another year instead of coming out as a redshirt sophomore.  Maybe my Christian Hackenburg comparison was apt.  Sadly, I don’t see any strong defensive player candidates but somebody who needs your attention is Ball State DE Anthony Winbush.  I tried to get his name out there heading into Week 4 but I still never see him mentioned online.  He is leading the FBS in sacks (9.5) and adds 34 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 4 forced fumbles. Winbush may get one lone Heisman vote from some like-minded writer but I’m throwing his name out more for draft consideration instead.
  • AAC Battle: The three top teams in the AAC are battling it out to be the best Group of 5 team left standing at the end of the season. That is important because the best Group of 5 team will get a New Year’s Six bowl bid. Guessing whether that representative will be South Florida (#17), Central Florida (#18) or Memphis (#25) is a pointless endeavor at this point. USF and UCF are undefeated and will presumably stay that way until their late season matchup, but Memphis has the best out-of-conference win (UCLA).
  • Big 12 Standings are a Big Mess: The Big 12 has one team at 4-0 (TCU) and four tied at 3-1 (Iowa State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and West Virginia); all five are ranked in the Top 25. Four of those five play this weekend in a pair of games that could completely throw the conference standings into chaos. Personally, I’m rooting for an Iowa State win over TCU and a West Virginia win over Oklahoma State – that would all but guarantee that no Big 12 team gets into the playoff (all the better for my Big 10 fandom).

Players to Watch

  • Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU: Sutton has not attracted as much attention this season as he did last year, at least per my Twitter feed.  Perhaps part of that is the incredible surge from junior WR Trey Quinn over the last three games.  In those three games, Quinn has 49 receptions, 458 yards and 3 TDs.  Sutton is no slouch, he went 24-353-4 in the same span, but he’s definitely not getting the same social media buzz as Quinn this month.  Don’t get it twisted: Sutton is still a top WR prospect.  On the season, Sutton has 37 receptions, 570 yards and 9 TDs (last year was 76-1,246-10).  Sutton has elite size (6’4″ and 216lb) which puts him on par with dynasty favorites like Michael Thomas and Allen Robinson.  If Sutton times faster than 4.50, it would put him in range of AJ Green.  Sutton ran a 4.75 as a recruit per ESPN and NFLDraftScout.com has him in the 4.55 vicinity.  I watched Sutton’s 2017 film against Houston.  There were two great plays that Sutton made that I noted.  The first came late in the second quarter where he caught one over his left shoulder while running towards the left sideline, a very difficult play that his body control made possible.  The second play was in the third quarter when Sutton took a screen pass and used his speed and open-field running skills to turn it into a 30+ yard play.  He got a great block from a teammate but still his juke and hesitation move froze a defender and allowed him to turn it into a big play.  There were a number of other times when Sutton made the first defender miss in an effort to pick up an extra yard or two.  Unfortunately, Sutton did have multiple drops in the first half and he followed up that great over the shoulder grab with an offensive pass interference in the end zone.  The DraftBreakdown.com film I watched only showed two plays when Sutton was called on to block and neither was very convincing.  Per Pro Football Focus, Sutton has a drop rate of 8.8% which is middle of the pack for somebody of his draft potential (for comparison, his teammate Quinn is 1.8% while James Washington is 5.6%).  Sutton clearly has elite size and ability and will be somewhere in my WR2-5 range for the 2018 draft which means he should end up with a first round RSO grade.
  • Josh Adams, RB, Notre Dame: I did a quick preview of Adams in the offseason and was nonplussed, however, at the rate that he’s producing it was time for a second look.  Adams went for 191 yards and 3 scores against USC last week which was impressive to say the least (that Trojan defense is full of NFL talent).  More impressive is that Adams is averaging 9.2 yards per carry on 105 carries.  Averaging 9.2 yards per carry is impressive if the sample size is 20, let alone 105.  One knock on Adams is that he is not a big part of the passing game, just 8 receptions in 2017.  Adams measures in at 6’2″ and 225lb.  For a running back that is quite tall.  Adams would be one of the biggest RB prospects since 2010 (5th biggest per my review of combine stats).  In his weight range, 220-230, he would be just the second to measure 6’2″ or taller (Alfred Blue).  If you increase the upper bound of the weight, you add in guys like Derrick Henry and Matt Jones.  Unfortunately, none of those are great comps.  Henry has a lot of potential but he has not yet been able to unseat Demarco Murray, has been average in his limited role (7 TDs is nice but just 4.4 yards per carry) and the biggest concern of his would be his height making him a bigger target for injury-inducing hits.  There are a number of elite comps who are about an inch or so shorter, so it may seem trivial to care about one inch.  I would argue though that one inch is significant because NFL RBs only measure between 66-75″ which is a range of 9 inches.  So, that one inch is an 11% difference.  Use that 11% difference in terms of weight and we would have a very different outlook on a RB prospect if he weighed 200, 225 or 250lb.  Unfortunately, DraftBreakdown.com does not yet have any 2017 film for Adams so I was stuck watching highlights.  While I don’t love watching highlight reels, I do think Adams’ three rushing scores against USC are instructive.  One the first, Adams shows some patience behind the line of scrimmage as he cuts right then left through the hole and dives forward for the goal line.  One the second, he simply runs past everybody untouched showing his straight line speed; the nearest defender didn’t get within five yards even as Adams ran 86 yards at a sprint.  On the third, he shows some vision and play strength as he finds his way through a narrow hole on the right side of the line and avoids a tackle at the five yard line with a half-hop, half-cut move that gets him into the end zone with the defender on his back.  I need to see way more of Adams to make an educated guess about his draft stock but I am ready and willing to revise my original opinion.  For now, let’s call Adams a 4th-5th round NFL prospect and a 3rd round RSO target pending the team fit.

Games to Watch

  • #11 Oklahoma State at #22 West Virginia, 12:00pm Saturday on ABC: This matchup features the 1st and 5th ranked offenses by total yards and the 41st and 112nd ranked defenses. This is the new normal in the Big 12 so embrace it.  I took a closer look at WVU QB Will Grier last week and will need to focus on WR David Sills in a future piece; he has 46 receptions for 737 yards and a FBS-leading 15 TDs.
  • Rutgers at Michigan, 12:00pm Saturday on BTN: I will be at this game, making my periodic pilgrimage to the Big House, so of course I need to include it here. Michigan has lost two of three (the win was a close one against Indiana) while Rutgers has won two straight conference games (albeit versus Illinois and Purdue). The Michigan offense has struggled mightily and it might be time to see former 4 star recruit Brandon Peters; Peters was the #3 QB recruit per ESPN in 2016. Rutgers’ freshman RB Raheem Blackshear has touchdowns in back to back games and is a big play guy (7.3 yards per touch).
  • #2 Penn State at #6 Ohio State, 3:30pm Saturday on FOX: This game gets my vote for the Game of the Year; it will not disappoint. I’ve talked a lot about Penn State in recent weeks, specifically about Barkley and QB Trace McSorley, so I’m going to focus on the Buckeyes here. I fear that casual fans may be sleeping on OSU after their early loss to Oklahoma because they have been passed over for nationally televised games. Since then they have dominated, outscoring opponents 266-49 (including three conference foes and a bowl-bound Army). QB JT Barrett started slow and there were calls for his job but he has played better recently; he has thrown for 872 yards, 11 TDs and 0 INTs over the last three weeks. Add in 185 yards rushing and 3 TDs and you have 2015 level Barrett under center. True freshman RB JK Dobbins stole the focus from NFL hopeful Mike Weber and hasn’t looked back (775-5). Forget the rankings, don’t sleep on Ohio State.
  • #4 TCU at #25 Iowa State, 3:30pm Saturday on ABC/ESPN2: I have been a fan of Iowa State RB David Montgomery since early in the season when I first heard about his personal story and first took note of his tackle breaking ability. Pro Football Focus tracks a stat they call “missed tackles forced” that Montgomery leads by a sizable margin. Montgomery has put a number of highlight plays on film this year and it will be interesting to track him in 2018 when he is draft eligible. As noted above, a Cyclones win would throw the Big 12 standings into, well, a whirlwind.
  • #15 Washington State at Arizona, 9:30pm Saturday on PAC-12: It’s time for east coasters like myself to watch Arizona QB Khalil Tate. Tate has started the last three games and is playing very well, especially as a runner. As a passer he is an efficient, if underwhelming, 31-41 for 468 yards, 4 TDs and 1 INT in those three starts. As a runner he is simply unstoppable. He’s racked up 694 yards and 7 TDs in those contests including 327 yards against Colorado. Those three starts for Tate ended up in three big Ws over Colorado, UCLA and Cal. Arizona is now 3-1 in the conference and could challenge for a spot in the PAC-12 Championship if USC falters.

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.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Week 8

Updated: October 19th 2017

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

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Update:  Penn State and Saquon Barkley were off so no change to his Heisman hopes, he’s my top choice.  The other RB in the running is Stanford’s Bryce Love who just keeps on producing with another 148 yards and 2 TDs against Oregon.  The bad news is that Love injured his ankle; the good news is they are off again and he has until October 26 to heal.  Lamar Jackson is still tremendous (especially on the ground where he added 180 yards and 3 TDs) but the Cardinals are not a good team so he’s likely out of the Heisman running.  I’ll bet that Jackson will be on every ballot this year, a nod to his win last year, but he shouldn’t win if Louisville keeps playing so poorly.  Sam Darnold and Mason Rudolph are still the other two front runners.  Darnold was inefficient but didn’t throw any picks which is a nice change; Rudolph lit up a poor Baylor defense for 459 yards and 3 TDs on just 19 completions.
  • Topsy Turvy Top 25:  Four Top 10 teams lost this past weekend so there is some turnover this week.  Those losses went to #2 Clemson, #5 Washington, #8 Washington State and #10 Auburn.  Clemson fell to #7 while the others fell out of the Top 10.  Meanwhile, #8 Miami, #9 Oklahoma and #10 Oklahoma State all move into playoff consideration.  Miami is undefeated but I think an inferior team to both Oklahoma teams (not to mention they lost starting RB Mark Walton for the season).  The losses last week make it likely that we’ll see two SEC teams in the final four.  Even after one of Georgia or Alabama loses to the other in the SEC Championship, the loss will be to such a superior team to the likes of TCU that the committee will have to put them both in.
  • Bowl Projections:  I am working on a full bowl projection piece but here’s a bit of a preview of some of my favorite make-believe matchups.  Check back later this week for the full slate of my bowl projections and then check back after the regular season to read my previews for all of the real bowl matchups.
    • Sun Bowl, UCLA vs Florida State: Before they both head to the NFL it would be fun to see top QB prospect Josh Rosen face off against top S prospect Derwin James.
    • TaxSlayer Bowl, LSU vs Michigan: Could be the most entertaining 9-6 game ever televised.  The game would feature two standout DL prospects in LSU’s Arden Key and Michigan’s Rashan Gary.  Who knew keeping your eye off the ball could be fun.
    • Cotton Bowl, South Florida vs Oklahoma State:  If the over was 100, I would take the over.  My god would this one be incredible to watch although it would probably last about five hours.

Players to Watch

  • Will Grier, QB, West Virginia:  A number of my draft/scouting Twitter follows have been talking about Will Grier lately so I figured it was time to look more closely since I knew the name but not much about the prospect. Grier has an interesting back story. He started at Florida where he started six games as a freshman but was then suspended for a failed drug test for a performance enhancing drug. Grier claims he took an over-the-counter supplement that had a banned substance in it but denies doing anything wrong willfully. I’m not sure if I believe him but it doesn’t really matter. Grier transferred to West Virginia and was cleared to start the 2017 season by the NCAA after they determined that the season he sat out as a transfer could count towards his season-long PED suspension. So, where does Grier find himself now that he is in Morgantown? How about atop the NCAA passing ranks. Grier has 21 passing TDs which paces the country and is 9th in yards (2,092). Grier’s completion percentage (65.6% vs 65.7%) and TD:INT ratio (10:3 vs 21:5) have stayed consistent between his starts in 2015 and 2017 so the time off did not cause any lingering effect. What has changed is that his yards per attempt is up to 9.1 from 7.5. Extrapolated out for a full 2017 season, that higher YPA would be worth an extra 800 yards. After looking closely at Grier’s stats, I question his “clutch” ability. When it matters most, in the 4th quarter and on 3rd down, Grier’s completion percentage takes a huge dip to less than 55%. His efficiency is buoyed by what he does on 1st down (71.2%, 11 TDs) rather than what he does afterwards (61% and 10 TDs for 2nd-4th down). I have not watched much film of Grier except for some highlight reels and a DraftBreakdown.com film of Grier against Virginia Tech.  After watching Grier’s tape, I have some concern about his mechanics and need to see more.  Something is wonky about his short throws to the left that looks like he’s almost shot-putting the ball; throws to the center and right look more natural.  File this under possibly related, I only counted two deep throws to the left, both inaccurate and incomplete, whereas many more were thrown deep down the middle or to the right.  Maybe it was coverage or personnel or maybe he’s less confident throwing left.  That’s purely a guess based off 12 minutes of tape so take it with a huge grain of salt.  There were also a number of throws off balance or off his back foot, some of which actually were completed.  He’s fast enough to be a rushing threat and kept the ball on a number of zone read plays.  Per ESPN’s recruiting service he ran a 4.73 as a recruit so I would expect him to now be in the 4.65-4.70 range (Trubisky was 4.67). As far as his size, Grier is below average at 6’2″ and 204lb (Mitch Trubisky was the same height but 18lb heavier last year).  There’s definitely some things to like about Grier but I am not ready to add him to my top 2018 QB prospect list. He would benefit from another season at WVU where he can get more time in the weight room and prove that the PED suspension was a fluke. If Grier does come out, I would expect him to be a late Day 3 prospect and off the board in RSO leagues.
  • Ito Smith, RB, Southern Miss:  As a proud owner of both Kareem Hunt and Tarik Cohen in three of my six leagues, I wanted to try and identify next season’s small school back who surprises in September. I’m not predicting he will have the pro premiere that either Hunt or Cohen did, but Ito Smith would get my vote if I had to pick somebody right now. Smith is a senior and has played a big role since late in his freshman season. Smith has played in 44 games so far in his career which means he has a ton of experience, few injury concerns and is durable despite his size. In 2015, Smith ran 171 times for 1,128 rushing yards, 10 TDs, 49 receptions, 515 receiving yards and 3 TDs. In 2016 his rushing line was 265-1459-17 while he added 43-459-2 receiving. Smith’s 2017 numbers are on pace to match or surpass 2016 (118-733-7, 21-192-0). I know, that’s a lot of numbers to digest. Let’s just summarize the above section to say that Ito Smith has been supremely productive. The two biggest positives for me are 1) his receiving ability and 2) the 250+ attempts he had last season and is on pace for this season. Given Smith’s measurables and pass catching prowess he likely projects as a passing down back. What will increase his draft stock is his ability to play every down, illustrated by the number of touches he racks up on a bad Southern Miss team. Film of Smith from 2017 is not yet available on DraftBreakdown.com so I watched some 2016 tape instead. In my short study, I would say that he is patient, has enough speed to get to the edge (but not elite speed, maybe 4.50) and is an average to below average blocker. I couldn’t put my finger on who he reminded me of visually but he is thick and stout below the waist.  Like Grier, Smith looks to be a Day 3 or UDFA NFL prospect and could find a home on some deeper league RSO teams a la Tarik Cohen or Matt Breida depending on team depth chart.

Games to Watch

  •  #25 Memphis @ Houston, Thursday 8:00pm on ESPN:  Two NFL prospects will be on display in Memphis WR Anthony Miller and Houston DT Ed Oliver.  Oliver is just a sophomore and is enduring a bit of a sophomore slump this season (just 0.5 sacks but 36 tackles).  Meanwhile, Miller has been playing incredibly over the last two weeks (25 receptions, 314 yards and 6 TDs).
  • Maryland @ #5 Wisconsin, Saturday 12:00pm on FOX:  Penn State has a tough conference game this week while Wisconsin gets an easier opponent so it’s very important for the Badgers to hold serve here.  A loss, even a close one, to Maryland in a week where two of Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State will win could be devastating to their CFP hopes.  After Maryland, Wisconsin has Illinois and Indiana so they can cement their Top 5 spot over the rest of the month before the stretch run.
  • #10 Oklahoma State @ Texas, Saturday 12:00pm on ABC:  I have written a lot about these two teams so I won’t go into much detail other than to say you know who to keep your eyes on: Mason Rudolph and James Washington.  Texas may have found their QB in Sam Ehlinger.  He now has 658 total yards in the last two contests against Kansas State and Oklahoma, neither of which are push overs.  Ehlinger is a true freshman so he won’t be draft eligible for awhile, but a name to monitor.
  • #19 Michigan @ #2 Penn State, Saturday 7:30pm on ABC:  The UM offense has been terrible, even with John O’Korn pressed into service.  The Wolverines are 79th and 89th in points and yards respectively.  Penn State has no such issues on offense with superstar RB Saquon Barkley and the oft-forgotten senior QB Trace McSorley.  McSorley quietly is having a better, more efficient season than last.  He has a 67% completion percentage which is ten points higher than 2016 and his TD:INT ratio is very good 13:4.  He has also added four rushing scores.  This will be a close rivalry game but give the nod to the home team Nittany Lions.
  • #11 USC @ #13 Notre Dame, Saturday 7:30pm on NBC:  My, oh my, will it feel like a throwback night of football with two simultaneous games featuring four of the all-time winningest programs in Division 1 history.  USC and Notre Dame won’t have as much CFP implication since I think both teams are out of the picture, but it will be a great game and a scout’s dream.  The usual suspects who we have covered in this space will be present: Sam Darnold, Ronald Jones and Equanimeous St. Brown to name a few.  Keep an eye on some other draftable names too: Josh Adams and Deontay Burnett.  Adams has 776 yards and 5 TDs despite being pulled from some lopsided wins; he is averaging a crazy 9.0 yards per carry to truly illustrate his dominance.  Burnett is slight of frame but looms large for the Trojan offense.  Burnett is a first down machine: 29 of 49 receptions have gone for a first down, while all 7 of his third down receptions have converted.

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper