The Watch List: Conference Championship Week

Updated: November 30th 2017

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

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

Storylines to Watch

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

Players to Watch

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

Games to Watch

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

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

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

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

The Watch List: Week 5

Updated: September 27th 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 starting to regret my plan to include a Heisman update in every weekly Watch List article.  The weekly movement so far has been greater than I expected but I do anticipate that we will have some more clarity in two or three weeks after teams get deeper into their conference schedule.  After his dominating performance against Iowa’s 26th ranked rush defense, Saquon Barkley leap frogs Mason Rudolph to my top spot.  Barkley had 305 yards from scrimmage and a rushing touchdown and was key to the Nittany Lions’ comeback victory.  Barkley just might be better than advertised.  Four QBs, in no particular order at the moment, round out my top five: Rudolph, Darnold, Rosen and Jackson.  Combined, those four threw just 9 TDs this weekend and a whopping 7 INTs.  They did throw for a lot of yards (1,400) but it was just a good reminder that none of them is perfect.
  • Georgia’s QB Controversy:  Head coach Kirby Smart has found himself living the old adage that “if you have two quarterbacks, you have zero.”  True freshman Jake Fromm took over for sophomore Jacob Eason after Eason was hurt to start the season.  Fromm has lead the team capably since then and has improved on Eason’s numbers from last year.  Eason was just over 55% completion percentage in 2016 while Fromm is over 62% this season.  As far as TD:INT ratio goes, Eason was 16:8 while Fromm is 7:1.  Smart has to stick with the hot hand for now but would be smart to find Eason some time in lopsided games, you never know when Eason will have to return to the starting role.  One last note, can everybody please stop with the “Jake Fromm State Farm” joke on Twitter?  Thank you.
  • Injuries to RB Prospects:  I have not done 2018 positional rankings yet but both Derrius Guice and Ronald Jones would be in or near my Top 5 as of today.  The problem is that both are struggling with injuries which have left the door open for their understudy to steal some share of the carries.  Jones, unexpectedly at least to me, did not travel to Cal and missed the game.  That let true freshman Stephen Carr load up with 26 touches and he succeeded with 129 total yards and a touchdown.  Guice did play against Auburn, in fact he had a one yard touchdown run on the Tigers first play that was set up by an interception, but was limited to just 8 carries and 14 yards.  Similar to Carr, Darrel Williams had 142 total yards and a score.  Even if Guice and Jones retain the biggest piece of the pie, I think there is no question that their teams will not rush them back.

Players to Watch

  • Jaylen Samuels, TE, NC State:  I’ll start off by saying that I have no idea what Samuels’ pro prospects are but it doesn’t matter, he’s quickly become one of my favorite college players.  Samuels is listed as a TE but he really isn’t.  At 5’11” and 228lb, he would be the first TE at the combine since 2000 to be shorter than 6’1″ (Pro-football-reference.com only goes back to 2000, I would bet that record would go back further).  What Samuels lacks in stature, he makes up for with “want to.”  Whatever you need him to do on the field, he wants to.  I have never seen such interesting game logs than his.  He has 164 career carries, 117 receptions and 2 passing completions.  He has 18 rushing TDs, 20 receiving TDs and 1 passing TD.  Against Florida State this past weekend, he had 17 touches for 75 yards and 2 TDs.  In the NFL he’ll project more as an h-back (same size as Matt Asiata) but could be the ultimate 3rd down weapon if he lands on the right team.
  • David Montgomery, RB, Iowa State:  By all accounts David Montgomery is a good kid with a good story which makes his success so far for the Cyclones refreshing.  Montgomery finished his freshman season off strong with 341 yards over the last three games and has continued that success into 2017.  His trend line, yards wise, is heading in the right direction this year with 82, 113 and 127 yards against Northern Iowa, Iowa and Akron respectively.  He’s also getting involved in the passing game with five catches each of the last two.  Montgomery is just a sophomore but I’m rooting for him to keep up the success and look forward to doing more in depth research next season.
  • Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson:  Etienne is a true freshman who has found a role as the hammer to close out Clemson’s wins.  He had a late 4th quarter touchdown against both Louisville and Boston College.  His yardage totals are impressive 81-98-113 but are mostly composed of yards gained on his three 50+ yard runs.  There is something strange looking about Etienne’s gait, I think it’s because he is such a long strider, but he is undeniably fast and explosive.  If he sees any daylight, he is gone.  In high school, he ran a hand-timed 4.24 40-yard dash.  I question the accuracy but given three years of college experience, I have no doubt that Etienne can end up in that range at the 2020 NFL combine.  Playing devil’s advocate to my own thoughts, I should point out that I am evaluating Etienne on the smallest of sample sizes: has just 23 carries through three games and zero receptions.  I’m hoping that he proves durable enough to earn 10-12 touches per game the rest of the way.
  • Bradley Chubb, DE, NC State:  Chubb will be one of the top ranked DE prospects in 2018 and is likely a first round talent.  I’ll bet most casual fans have never heard of him but if you watched the game against Florida State you might have noticed him.  Chubb had 7 tackles and 2 sacks.  Chubb also had a forced fumble but was not credited with one, maybe because of the crazy melee that followed trying to recover the fumble.

Games to Watch

  • #5 USC @ #16 Washington State, 10:30pm Friday on ESPN:  Pac-12 after dark is usually a great way to end your Saturdays but this week we get a great Friday night matchup to start off the weekend.  As returning readers know, I am down on QB Sam Darnold but up on RBs Ronald Jones and Stephen Carr.  Neither defense is great so we’ll see a lot of points.  I am interested in seeing Washington State QB Luke Falk against a defense with some NFL prospects, especially CB Iman Marshall.
  • Northwestern @ #10 Wisconsin, 12:00pm Saturday on ABC:  Northwestern’s senior RB Justin Jackson is on my watch list but I haven’t done enough research yet to feature him.  He had a great game against Bowling Green last game (121 yards, 3 TDs) but struggled against Duke the week before (just 18 yards).  Seeing him face Wisconsin’s 9th ranked rush defense will be telling.  Wisconsin’s QB, Alex Hornibrook, has been steady and takes care of the ball (70% completion percentage and just 1 INT).  The surprise for the Badgers though has been true freshman RB Jonathan Taylor.  Taylor is just a 3 star recruit from NJ but is averaging an impressive 8.3 yards per carry.  He lit up FAU for 223 yards and 3 TDs and followed that up with 128-1 against BYU.  The matchup has 13-9 written all over it but I’ll still be tuning in.
  • #2 Clemson @ #12 Virginia Tech, 8:00pm Saturday on ABC:  Beating Clemson would be a career defining win for Hokie coach Justin Fuente.  Fuente’s stock is already rising after a 10-4 season last year and a strong start to 2017.  There aren’t too many jobs bigger than Virginia Tech but he’ll be a candidate for some of them if he keeps it up.  Tech WR Cam Phillips has 34 receptions (4th most in the NCAA) which is nearly half of QB Josh Jackson’s completions.  Keep your eye on Clemson’s star in the making, freshman RB Travis Etienne.
  • Northern Illinois @ #19 San Diego State, 10:30 Saturday on CBSSN: Northern Illinois has a good non-conference win already under their belt against Nebraska and they will be looking to add another scalp in #19 San Diego State.  I think the 19th ranking is a little disrespectful, they should be ahead of South Florida.  Rashaad Penny, after his fantastic start, will find himself in the 5-7 range of my 2018 RBs when I start working on positional rankings.  Penny is second in the NCAA in rushing yards (716) and second in yards from scrimmage (803).  SDSU’s defense is good enough to make me feel confident in picking the Aztecs to keep their run alive.

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.