The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part VI

Updated: December 30th 2017

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

Monday, Jan. 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Week 6

Updated: October 7th 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:  With my non-existent vote, I am still taking Saquon Barkley.  He had just 107 total yards against Indiana but also added a passing touchdown and returned the opening kickoff for a score to set the tone.  QBs Mason Rudolph and Lamar Jackson held serve with 3 passing TD each and fill out my top three.  The two Pac-12 QBs, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen, have fallen in my Heisman ranks but are still my top NFL prospects at the position.  I think we need to start considering Oklahoma State WR James Washington in the conversation because his numbers are fantastic, more on him below.
  • Sam is Sliding:  I have not been impressed by Darnold through the first five weeks of the season and have removed him from realistic Heisman consideration.  He will still be a top two NFL draft pick, barring catastrophic injury, but the bloom may be off the rose so to speak.  I have not been shy about my concerns of Darnold’s throwing motion.  One of my Twitter follows, who I can’t recall and I didn’t favorite it, had a good point: Darnold’s elongated throwing motion may be telegraphing his passes and leading to the turnovers.  What he means is that defenders have an extra fraction of a second to react to Darnold’s eyes because it takes longer for the ball to come up and be released.  So far he has 7 INTs which is third most in the FBS.  Whether that’s causation or just correlation I don’t know but it worries me.  In my Pac-12 preview, I comped Darnold physically to Christian Hackenberg, maybe I was right in more ways than one.
  • Nick Saban for President:  It’s Nick Saban’s world and we’re all just living in it.  Alabama is off to a 5-0 start and has outscored opponents 231-43.  The opponents don’t make up the country’s toughest starting schedule, but there are no true cream puffs in the bunch: Florida State with a healthy Deondre Francois, Fresno State, Colorado State, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss.  An amazing, if unsurprising, stat I found while researching Alabama for this piece: they are the only FBS team without a turnover.  Not a single giveaway in five games.  Another great stat is that the team has four 199+ yard rushers in QB Jalen Hurts and RBs Damien Harris, Bo Scarborough and Najee Harris.  The running backs are splitting carries relatively evenly and have combined for 11 TDs thus far.  It’s going to to take something special to beat the Tide this season.

Players to Watch

  • Rashaad Penny, RB, San Diego State:  I have used a number of superlatives to describe Penny on my Twitter.  There is no denying his skill and ability at the college level, what I want to find out is if he can cut it in the pros.  In 2016, Penny had just over 1,000 yards and 14 total TDs playing second fiddle to Donnell Pumphrey.  In 2017, he already has 823 yards and 9 TDs.  It will be telling to see if he can hold up over the course of a full 250+ touch season.  As far as physical comps go, I think fair ones for Penny would be Christine Michael or Devontae Booker.  Neither has realized much NFL success yet but I feel those two are also solid comps as far as draft stock: late 2nd to early 4th round.  Because of my man crush on Penny, I have already watched him more than most prospects this season.  I watched both the Stanford and Northern Illinois games in full and bits of the Arizona State and Air Force games.  My general perceptions are that Penny runs with power between the tackles, is quick but not fast, is average in pass protection, above average as a receiver and is a dynamic kick returner.  I was not taking copious notes while watching these games, that type of study will come in the offseason, but I cannot recall seeing a single negative run by Penny.  I’m sure there are a few of them there but they are few.  Right now I would rank Penny somewhere in the 5-7 range at running back for 2018.  He is definitively behind Barkley, Guice, Chubb and Ronald Jones for me.  He would be in the conversation with Bo Scarborough, Mike Weber, Sony Michel and Bryce Love.  For Penny to have moved up that high on my list that quickly was surprising but it’s impossible to deny what he’s doing for this undefeated Aztec team.
  • James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State:  Washington’s stats have been buoyed by Mason Rudolph’s success and the team’s system but still, Washington is impressing me.  He has 28 receptions, 647 yards and 5 TDs with a 23.1 average per reception.  If you look at Washington’s game logs, it isn’t dominated by one outlier as is the case for some other prospects this early in the season.  To date he has 145, 98, 124, 153 and 127 yards in each game; not bad when 98 yards is your lowest output.  He’s 6’1″ and 205lbs and is a burner.  A good recent NFL combine physical comp would be Torrey Smith.  Smith is known for his speed and breakaway ability but less so for his hands which is not a concern for Washington in my research.  I can’t find any primary source giving a 40 yard dash time for Washington but we can estimate.  NFLDraftScout.com has Washington projected 4.35-4.55.  I found an article discussing his high school track success which stated that he ran a 21.4 in the 200 yard dash.  I know the math doesn’t actually work this way but that would be a 4.28 pace over 40 yards.  Let’s round up and use the lower bound of the NFLDraftScout.com prediction and say he runs a 4.35, where does that put him?  It would be the second fastest time run by a WR in his size range (6’0″-6’2″ and between 200-210lb) since 2010 (seventh best if you go back to 2000).  Washington was a track star in multiple events so his athleticism is not at all in question.  During the offseason I will need to go back and watch some more film of Washington regarding his hand placement, tracking and route running but based on my research and what I’ve seen in limited exposure to Oklahoma State this season I am impressed.  Early gut call, Washington will end up as my WR2 heading into the draft process.

Games to Watch

  •  #17 Louisville @ #24 North Carolina State, Thursday 8:00pm on ESPN:  One of just two Top 25 matchups this week, this game will pose another good foil to the subpar NFL game on Thursday.  If any defense will stop Lamar Jackson, maybe it’s the Wolfpack.  NC State is 7th in rushing yards allowed per game and is led by DE Bradley Chubb and LB Jerod Fernandez (44 tackles, 14 last week vs Syracuse).  In the game last week against Syracuse, the Wolfpack defense held QB Eric Dungey to just 44 yards although they did allow him to score twice.  I’m in no way saying that Dungey and Jackson are on the same level but if they could limit a normal rushing quarterback, maybe they could at least slow down Jackson.
  • Wake Forest @ #2 Clemson, Saturday 12:00pm on ESPN2:  Wake Forest is 12th in the nation in points allowed (with games against BC, Utah State, App State and Florida State) and will look to be opportunistic against Clemson QB Kelly Bryant.  Bryant has been efficient this season (66.2% completion percentage) but has just 3 TDs to 3 INTs.  Where Bryant stands out is on the run where he has 7 TDs already.  As of this writing, I haven’t checked the lines but if it’s anything more than 17, I’m taking Wake to keep it close.
  • Eastern Michigan @ Toledo, Saturday 12:00pm on CBSSN:  No, this isn’t a misprint.  I will actually be checking into this one to see Toledo QB Logan Woodside.  Woodside has an outside chance at climbing up NFL draft rankings and could be a late round draft pick next Spring.  So far he has 1,346 yards with 11 TDs and just 1 INT, including 342-3-0 against a Miami team that is now ranked 13th in the AP Poll.
  • #23 West Virginia @ #8 TCU, Saturday 3:30pm on FS1:  This is the other Top 25 matchup this week.  Sadly, for us college football fans, I don’t predict that this one will be very close.  WVU is 108th in the FBS by total yards per game and is even worse (114th) against the run.  TCU’s sophomore running back Darius Anderson stood out last game against Oklahoma State (160 yards, 3 TDs) and will trounce the Mountaineers.  TCU is a complete team with a solid offense and a defense that ranks in the Top 30 in points, total yards and rush yards per game.
  • Michigan State @ #7 Michigan, Saturday 7:30pm on ABC:  As a Michigan fan, I am worried about this one.  Sparty is currently 3-1 but I don’t believe they can compete in the division title race so this game will be their “bowl game” and mean more than a typical regular season game.  MSU won a close one last week, 17-10, over an underrated Iowa team.  On the Wolverines’ side, they will be without starting quarterback Wilton Speight.  I’m not convinced that is a bad thing though.  Former Houston transfer John O’Korn filled in ably in relief last week throwing for 270 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT against Purdue.  This one will be a low scoring, physical affair and the Spartans will stay in striking distance.  Keep an eye out for one of Dantonio’s signature trick plays if it’s close and his team needs the momentum and a “shot” play.

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: Big Ten Preview

Updated: August 30th 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

  • Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State:  By now you’ve heard all about Barkley but I hope I can add to the narrative with a deeper dive into stats, measureables and film observations.  Let’s start with his stats.  In 2015, as a true freshman, Barkley rushed 182 times for 1,076 yards and 7 TDs; he added 20 receptions for 161 yards and a score.  In 2016, Barkley improved those numbers to 272 carries, 1,496 yards, a whopping 18 TDs, 28 receptions, 402 receiving yards and 4 receiving TDs.  Over his two seasons, Barkley has ten 100+ rushing yard games and five of at least 194 yards.  Before you dismiss these big games as box score stuffing outings versus FCS cupcakes, you should note that eight of the 100+ games came against Power 5 teams.  All five of the 194+ games came against Power 5 teams (Rutgers, Ohio State, Maryland, Purdue and USC).  That’s impressive, and in fact, Barkley has not played a single FCS team (I wish all FBS teams would take this approach).  So not only is Barkley productive but he’s productive against “real” teams.  For his career, Barkley has a 5.7 yards per rush average – good but not great.  After looking at his situational stats on CFBStats.com, I believe Barkley is about as clutch as a running back can be.  Most offenses turn to their passing game when losing, but in 2016 the Nittany Lions turned to Barkley who had 11 of his 18 TDs when losing (plus 2 of his 4 receiving TDs).  He’s also 16/32 on 3rd & Short in his career.  Compare that to recent 1.01 picks, Fournette was 16/31 and Elliott was a crazy 31/53 (bold prediction: Barkley will catch him).  Attentive readers may have noticed that Barkley had just 182 carries in 2015 (90 less than in 2016).  It wasn’t due to him sharing the load, it was because of injury.  Barkley injured his right ankle against San Diego State and missed the next two games.  He then injured the same ankle again in the 2016 regular season finale against Michigan State but he did not end up missing the Big Ten Championship (rushed for 19-83 against Wisconsin).  As far as measureables go, Barkley has a pretty good comp: Ezekiel Elliott.  Elliott is an inch taller but Barkley is a few pounds heavier.  Oh, I forgot to mention that Barkley is a tenth of a second faster though, at least.  During Spring practices in 2015, Barkley ran a 4.38 and in 2016 he ran a 4.33.  Since 2010, the only running back to run faster than 4.40 at 5’11” or taller and at over 220lbs was Knile Davis.  Barkley is a rare combination of size and speed that we have not seen recently.  Of course that does not mean he will automatically be a success (sorry Knile) but when you watch film of Barkley it is obvious that he will succeed at the next level.  I watched his film from Rutgers and Wisconsin.  No surprise here, Barkley looks like an NFL back.  He runs with balance, shows a quick jump cut, has above average vision, is not afraid of contact and is competent at the goal line.  As far as pass protection, it was a mixed bag but I would say he’s average at worst.  He had a number of positive blocks but allowed a crunching hit from TJ Watt that ended in a lost fumble.  Barkley would get his revenge against Watt though later in the game.  With Penn State losing in the 4th quarter, Barkley ran a wheel route from the 18 yard line, beat Watt by two steps and caught the ball beautifully over his shoulder while getting two or three feet in.  I had seen enough highlights of Barkley catching passes at or near the line of scrimmage so it was nice to see that he could be a threat further down field.  That touchdown catch ended up being the winning score, but it wasn’t the last time Barkley impressed me in the game.  With 52 seconds left, the Badgers were out of timeouts and the game was all but over.  Barkley took the 3rd down hand off, ran right for a few yards and slid like a quarterback to stay in bounds and keep the clock running.  It was a heady play that you don’t see that often in college.  I purposefully watched Barkley’s game against Wisconsin since it was after his second ankle injury – I wanted to see him managing an injury.  He was definitely a step slower than the film against Rutgers but he was still fast enough and explosive enough to make defenders miss.  Speaking of his speed, I noted that he seems to get faster the longer he is running so it will be interesting to see his 40 yard dash splits.  I’ll bet he starts slow but finishes the last quarter faster than anybody else.  Come April, Barkley will likely be a Top 10 pick in the NFL draft.  As for RSO drafts, I think he’ll be the consensus 1.01 much like Elliott was two years earlier.
  • Troy Fumagalli, TE, Wisconsin:  The nine-fingered Fumagalli has a long injury history but I’m still bullish on his prospects.  The missing finger was amputated after he was born due to a disorder and is not an “injury” but I think it’s an interesting story given that he has had two other hand injuries during his Wisconsin career.  It seems that Fumagalli can do more with seven or eight fingers than the rest of us with ten.  In addition to a broken thumb in 2015, Fumagalli suffered an ankle injury which combined to limit his production to 28 receptions, 313 yards and just a single touchdown.    In 2016, he nearly missed the first game of the season after a severe cut on his hand that required surgery; he also suffered a leg injury against Georgia Southern that forced him to exit early but he did not miss further time.  He ended 2016 with a line of 47-580-2.  I watched Fumagalli against Michigan because I thought their defense, chock-full of NFL talent, would be a good barometer for his blocking ability.  In the two seasons worth of film I have watched now, I can’t recall a better blocking TE.  At worst, I would grade him as an A, if not an A+.  He won’t be confused with a track star (DraftScout.com has him estimated at 4.84) but he’s not a “move tight end” so that shouldn’t hurt his draft stock.  He’s an old school tight end for sure.  If Fumagalli can stay healthy in 2017, a big if given the last two seasons, he should be one of the top two or three TEs drafted in the NFL but will be less desirable to fantasy owners.
  • Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State:  Weber will be a redshirt sophomore with more injuries than seasons played.  He tore his meniscus in 2015 and is battling a hamstring injury now.  I watched film of Weber against Rutgers and was impressed.  He looks like an NFL running back and could be the next great Buckeye back after Zeke Elliott and Carlos Hyde.  In that game against Rutgers, two runs stood out.  The first was a 50 yard gain where he burst through a wide open hole at the line, half-hurdled a defender and angled towards the sideline to try and get the most yards before the safety got to him; near the end of the run he had the presence of mind to change his ball carrying hand.  The second example showed his pure speed: two quick cuts and gone.  Weber carried 182 times in 2016 and gained 1,096 yards with 9 TDs.  He also contributed with 23 receptions (just 91 yards though).  I question it’s accuracy, but apparently Weber ran a 4.35 40 yard dash.  With that speed and his size, we’re looking at a very nice comparison to Lamar Miller.  There’s no certainty that Weber will come out after his sophomore season but if he does, based on what I see now, he should find himself with a 3rd-4th round NFL draft grade; if he comes out and officially runs a 4.35, we could be looking at somebody who would rise to the 2nd round.
  • Honorable Mentions:
    • Akrum Wadley, RB, Iowa:  Before starting my Big Ten preview research, I had not heard of Wadley to be honest.  I first came across his name while reviewing WalterFootball.com’s prospect rankings and decided to delve a little deeper.  Wadley is 5’11” and 190lbs which is worrisome.  If you look at combine history, since 2010, just a single running back has been 5’11” or taller and weighed less than 195lbs (Taiwan Jones).  Wadley’s stats from 2016 are impressive though: 1,081 yards, 6.4 yards per carry, 36 receptions, 315 receiving yards and 13 total TDs.  Wadley had considered going pro after 2016 but wisely chose to come back to the Hawkeyes.  I’ll keep an eye on him in 2017 to see if he repeats his two-way success.
    • JT Barrett, QB, Ohio State:  Interestingly, Barrett comps very closely, size-wise, to the three quarterbacks taken in the first twelve picks of the 2017 NFL draft.  He’s 6’2″ and 220lb, the same height and just a few pounds lighter than Trubisky, Mahomes and Watson.  Barrett should time faster than those three though.  Out of high school he was clocked at 4.79; a Sports Illustrated article about his backstory stated that he ran a 4.50; DraftScout.com has him estimated at 4.52.  If Barrett breaks the 4.50 barrier, he’ll be in the Tyrod Taylor realm (4.47).  Barrett has had a peculiar career arc to say the least.  He was the starter in 2014 as a true freshman before getting hurt and letting Cardale Jones steal the spotlight on the Buckeyes road to the National Championship.  Jones beat him out to start 2015, but Barrett eventually took the job back.  With Jones gone to the NFL, Barrett was free to start again in 2016, as he will in 2017.  While Barrett has had his share of adversity off the field battling for the job, once on the field he’s led a dominant team.  In his 36 career games, Barrett threw just 20% of his attempts while losing; just 9% of his passing TDs came while losing.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing but I think it will be cannon fodder for NFL scouts looking to knock him back.  He is the product of a great team and a productive system, with a major injury in his past, but he does have some potential if he continues to progress as a passer.  Barrett’s career completion percentage is 63%, he has 100 total career TDs and he has an impressive 3:1 TD:INT ratio.  Enjoy Barrett while you can this season because you likely won’t see too much more of him in the NFL.
    • Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State:  Gesicki is a big target, QB Trace McSorley’s biggest, at 6’6″ and 255lbs.  He is the Nittany Lions’ top returning receiver by receptions, yards and touchdowns and set team records in 2016 for TEs in both yards and receptions.  I watched film of Gesicki against Indiana and liked what I saw in the limited exposure.  He is versatile and lines up all over the field: on the line, split out, in the backfield.  He was a plus blocker.  He’s also pretty quick.  On a 3rd & 20 deep in their own territory, Gesicki caught a 45 yarder where he outran the defender and the ball, he adjusted back to the ball well and caught it with his hands.  I don’t think Gesicki will be a sexy name for fantasy owners but his well rounded game should help him see the NFL field early.
    • Simmie Cobbs, WR, Indiana:  The Big Ten is surprisingly light on top end wide receiver talent.  I chose Cobbs to highlight because of his elite size: 6’4″ and 220lbs.  There are plenty of negatives surrounding Cobbs though.  After a great sophomore season (60 receptions, 1,035 yards, 4 TDs), Cobbs was suspended for the first game of 2016.  Then, in game two, Cobbs suffered a season-ending ankle injury.   In July 2017, Cobbs was arrested after failing to follow police orders at a concert; he declined to take a breathalyzer.  Because of the off-field and injury concerns I decided not to delve too deeply into Cobbs but we should all keep an eye on him since others have been drafted highly with worse rap sheets.
    • Sam Hubbard & Tyquan Lewis, DEs, Ohio State:  This one-two punch will be demoralizing opposing offensive lines all season long.  Hubbard has 74 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in his career; Lewis has 92, 27.5 and 16.5.  Neither guy was a highly sought after recruit, both were just three star recruits, so they have worked for their success  Phil Steele has Lewis projected as his #1 draft eligible DE while Hubbard is #3.  If both come out, we could see both taken in the first round of the NFL draft and both taken in IDP drafts.
    • Marcus Allen, S, Penn State:  I wanted to like Allen more than I did when I watched film of his from a monster game against Minnesota from 2016 (22 total tackles).  Allen looks smaller than his 6’2″ 205lb frame and I did not note any highlight plays.  He’s often around the ball but that might be more a factor of where he lines up, close to the line of scrimmage, than his ball skills or instincts.  Right now, Allen is purely a run supporting free safety; he has zero interceptions in his 36 career games.  Allen had an impressive 110 tackles last year but needs to improve in coverage to get a true NFL look.  If he adds 10-15 pounds he could instead project as a linebacker-safety tweener similar to Jaylon Smith or Telvin Smith.  Best case, he improves or bulks up and finds a clear role on an NFL defense.  Worst case, he’ll be like TJ Green who was drafted by the Colts in the 2nd round out of Clemson in 2016 with a similar size and stat profile.  Not sure who TJ Green is?  Exactly.
    • Billy Price, G/C, Ohio State:  Price won’t be the highest player selected on this list in the 2018 draft but I’d bet that he is the first to contribute in a meaningful way in the NFL.  Price has good size for a guard or center at 6’4″ and 312lbs and could probably fill in at RT in a pinch.  He has 41 career starts combined at LG and RG.  In 2016 he was a Second Team All-American, improving on his Second Team Big Ten campaign of 2015.  For 2017 he’ll move inside to C, taking over the spot vacated by All-American Pat Elflein who was drafted by the Vikings.

Storylines to Watch

  • Versatile Big Ten OL Will Dominate Day Two of the NFL Draft:  It was interesting to find so many versatile Big Ten lineman at or near the top of the various rankings resources I consult.  At this point, I don’t think any of these guys will come out with first round grades but some could creep up as often happens with offensive lineman, quarterbacks and pass rushers as we get closer to April.  The aforementioned Billy Price should pace this group.  He’ll be joined by Michigan’s C Mason Cole.  Cole played at LT in 2014 and 2015 but moved to C for 2016 (a move you don’t often see).  Michigan State’s C/G Brian Allen is undersized at 6’2″ and 304lbs so he’ll project as a center at the next level.  Allen’s brother Jack is already plying his trade as a backup center with the Saints.  Wisconsin has a pair of junior guards in Beau Benzschawel and Michael Dieter who have starts at LG, C, RG and RT between them.  One, if not both, of them will emerge and hopefully follow in the footsteps of departed All-American Ryan Ramczyk, who snuck into the first round at pick 32.
  • Rowing the Boat in the Land of 10,000 Lakes:  PJ Fleck has moved on from Western Michigan to Minnesota where he will continue to “Row the Boat.”  Interestingly, he had to agree to donate $10,000 a year to WMU to continue to use the catchphrase which the school smartly licensed during his tenure.  Fleck has a ho-hum 30-22 career record but was a stellar 13-1 last season.  The Broncos perfect season ended in a close 24-16 Cotton Bowl loss to Wisconsin.  The good news for the Gophers is that Fleck’s squad beat two other Big Ten teams last year (Northwestern, Illinois) so he should be comfortable with the level of competition; both wins were on the road.  The non-conference schedule is easy (Buffalo, Oregon State, Middle Tennessee) so Fleck’s measuring stick will be conference wins.  Minnesota has not had six conference wins since 1973, so if he can get the Gophers to that mark (five in 2016) they’ll erect a monument in time for the 2018 season.
  • Indiana Will Win 8 Games:  This might not be the boldest of my predictions this preseason but it would be surprising for a lot of fans to look and see Indiana competing in the Big Ten East.  The Hoosiers, like the Gophers mentioned above, have not had too much success over the recent decades.  The last time Indiana won eight games was 1993 and it’s only happened three times since 1980.  Former defensive coordinator Tom Allen takes over as head coach.  Indiana had its best defense in years in 2016 (for example, they were 45th in the FBS by yards per game in 2016 versus 121st in 2015) so that continuity will be good for the team.  Speaking of continuity, BTN put out a stat that caught my eye: Indiana returns 93% of their defensive production from last year.  They don’t specify what exactly “production” means but I presume it’s at least counting tackles if not sacks and interceptions.  That huge percentage puts them first in the FBS; second best in the conference is Northwestern at 77%.  The biggest name on the defense is senior linebacker Tegray Scales, who had 126 tackles and 7 sacks last season.  The non-conference schedule is soft (Virginia, FIU, Georgia Southern) and two of their three conference crossover games are winnable (Illinois and Purdue; the third is Wisconsin).  I think the ingredients are there for the Hoosiers to win eight close, low scoring, games.

Games to Watch

  • August 31, Ohio State at Indiana:  I love seeing a conference game this early in the season.  If Indiana is to hit the heights I have predicted above, they will need to grab one big upset win against the likes of Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan or Wisconsin.  The Buckeyes are the best team of that bunch but if there’s ever a time for Indiana to steal a win against Ohio State it would be now.  I’m not predicting an upset here but I expect a closer game than the Vegas line will be and would not be surprised if Ohio State gets caught looking ahead to Oklahoma.
  • September 30, Iowa at Michigan State:  MSU is in full-on reboot mode.  They were a disappointing 3-9 last year and lost a lot of players.  Per Phil Steele’s experience research, Sparty is 117th in the FBS in terms of returning lettermen.  Maybe a fresh start is a good thing, but more likely it spells another long season for Mark D’Antonio.  This contest against Iowa will be a good early season test.  It’s the first conference game for Michigan State and they will be hosting an Iowa team coming off a tough game against Penn State.
  • September 30, Northwestern at Wisconsin:  Northwestern has the best chance of the rest of the West to topple the Badgers.  They are an experienced team that returns a solid nucleus on offense, including a 1,500+ yard rusher in Justin Jackson and a 3,000+ yard passer in Clayton Thorson.  I give Northwestern a shot over Nebraska based strictly on the experience – the Cornhuskers lose their top passer, rusher and receiver on offense as well as their top three tacklers.  Every conference game is technically a “must-win” if you want to win the division but the Wildcats don’t have a prayer if they don’t win this one on the road.
  • November 25, Ohio State at Michigan:  The Game has not been much of a rivalry lately despite its historic connotations.  Ohio State has won 14 of the last 16 games between the two giants since 2000.  Last year’s game was a classic which went to overtime; the Buckeyes were aided by a questionable 4th & 1 call that could have sealed the win for Michigan.  Admittedly I am a Michigan fan and will be rooting for the Wolverines in this one but I don’t think they stand a chance.  There’s a reason I haven’t mentioned Michigan much in this preview: they were decimated by the NFL draft.  Quarterback Wilton Speight returns but he’ll be surrounded by underclassmen on both sides of the ball.  By my count they lost at least ten key contributors from the last two 10-3 seasons.  If Michigan can pull off the upset it will be one that both fan bases will remember for years to come.  Ultimately, I don’t think it will happen and this game will simply be another stepping stone for Ohio State on their way to the CFP.

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.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper