The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part I

Updated: December 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.  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.

Saturday, Dec. 16

Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, North Carolina A&T (11-0) vs. Grambling State (11-1), 11 a.m. (ABC)

The Celebration Bowl, you ask?  The Celebration Bowl is a relatively new invention that features the SWAC and MEAC champions.  When researching this bowl, I learned that neither conference participates in the FCS playoffs for financial reasons.  Their teams often did not compete with other FCS mainstays and traveling for playoff games can cost a lot of money.  Instead, the Celebration Bowl lets the best of each conference compete in a centrally located neutral site game to cap off the season.  While it’s not one of the FBS bowl games, I decided to preview the game for two reasons: 1) it’s a national broadcast leading into the start of the FBS bowl season and 2) because I wanted to do some research on Grambling RB Martez Carter.  Carter is short at 5’9″ but he is solidly built at 205lbs; NFLDraftScout.com estimates his speed in the mid 4.40 range.  He has three straight 800+ rushing yard seasons, averages 5.7 yards per carry, has four career kick return touchdowns and is a factor in the passing game.  In 2016, Carter caught 28 balls for 376 yards; in 2017 he upped that to 30 for 402.  He has eight career receiving touchdowns.  Based on my limited study, I would throw out Shane Vereen as a reasonable size, speed and production comp.  Carter appears to be the type of player who will latch on to an NFL team for his special teams skills and could be an injury away from a role.  North Carolina A&T has a mountain of an offensive tackle named Brandon Parker.  He’s 6’8″ and 310lbs.  Based on size alone, I would guess he’s at least a third round NFL prospect.  I won’t pretend to have a good feel for this game but if nothing else it’ll be a good chance to watch two under the radar draft prospects and a great way to get your football Saturday started early.  Prediction: Grambling State

R + L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, Troy (10-2) vs. North Texas (9-4), 1 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Troy: 52nd scoring offense, 34th passing offense, 85th rushing offense; 11th scoring defense, 69th passing defense, 15th rushing defense
  • North Texas: 20th scoring offense, 21st passing offense, 53rd rushing offense; 106th scoring defense, 64th passing defense, 107th rushing defense

I’m cautiously optimistic that the first bowl of the season will be an entertaining one.  Troy is on a six game winning streak with the closest game being by 8 against bowl-bound Arkansas State.  North Texas is coming off a loss to Lane Kiffin’s red hot FAU team but prior to that they had won five straight, including two close wins to bowl-bound Louisiana Tech and Army.  North Texas’ 20th ranked scoring offense was previously led by RB Jeffery Wilson (1,215 yards, 16TDs) but he has missed the team’s last two games due to an ankle injury.  In his stead, undersized freshman Nick Smith will get the lion’s share of the carries.  In the last two without Wilson, Smith went for 178 yards against Rice but just 50 against FAU.  Since Troy has a strong rush defense, I’m hoping we get to see Wilson at full strength in the bowl.  North Texas QB Mason Fine is just 5’11” and 180lbs but has been prolific with 3,749 yards (9th in the FBS) and 28 TDs.  In the preseason, I called Troy RB Jordan Chunn “the player from the Sun Belt most likely to end up on your fantasy team next Spring.”  He underwhelmed this season with just 978 total yards and 10 TDs but he did miss two games due to a leg laceration.  A good showing from Chunn would help his draft stock but he should be off your board as a fantasy owner for now.  Put this one one while you eat lunch, flip over to Oregon vs Boise State when it starts and then come back at 4:00 to see if the ending is worth your time.  Prediction: Troy

AutoNation Cure Bowl, Western Kentucky (6-6) vs. Georgia State (6-5), 2:30 p.m. (CBSSN)

  • Western Kentucky: 83rd scoring offense, 9th passing offense, 130th rushing offense; 69th scoring defense, 36th passing defense, 77th rushing defense
  • Georgia State:  119th scoring offense, 31st passing offense, 117th rushing offense; 55th scoring defense, 92nd passing defense, 47th rushing defense

The Hilltoppers struggled through the back half of the season, losing four of their last five.  At 5-2, they may have thought they were on their way to repeating their recent history of double digit wins but alas they came crashing back to earth.  Georgia State similarly ended on a sour note with two bad losses to Appalachian State (by 21) and Idaho (who finished at 4-8 and is moving down to the FCS next year).  Chances are this is going to be a game to miss but the lone bright spot will be Western Kentucky QB Mike White.  White is a fringe QB prospect that I introduced to my readers in the offseason.  White is a former USF transfer who has prototypical size at 6’4″ and 225lbs.  He excelled last season with Taywan Taylor (who was drafted by the Titans) with a 37:7 TD:INT ratio.  In 2017, White regressed in ratio (24:7), completion percentage and yards per attempt.  His stats are still good enough to warrant a late look in the NFL Draft.  Amazingly, Georgia State managed to be bowl eligible despite finishing 119th in scoring offense.  Don’t expect this one to be pretty.  Prediction: Western Kentucky

Las Vegas Bowl, Boise State (10-3) vs. Oregon (7-5), 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

  • Boise State: 36th scoring offense, 44th passing offense, 91st rushing offense; 35th scoring defense, 44th passing defense, 20th rushing defense
  • Oregon:  18th scoring offense, 97th passing offense, 8th rushing offense; 76th scoring defense, 75th passing defense, 26th rushing defense

The Las Vegas Bowl is the crown jewel of the early bowl games.  Sure, Oregon had a disappointing year at 7-5 (and a losing 4-5 record in conference) and just lost head coach Willie Taggart to Florida State but they will still be fun to watch.  Oregon’s offense was less potent than in recent memory but still averaged 36.7 points per game.  Most of those points were scored by RB Royce Freeman who had 16 rushing TDs.  Freeman has 5,621 career rushing yards and 60 rushing TDs.  He’s good.  I wrote about Freeman in the preseason and in Week 3 – I still love him today.  He’s a battering ram at 230+ pounds.  My biggest complaint about Freeman this year would be that he did not progress as a pass catcher; he had just 14 receptions compared to 23 and 26 the previous two years.  In order to consider him a true three down back I would have loved to see him hit the 30 reception plateau.  He has been on fire as of late, finishing the season with six straight games with 122 or more yards.  Freeman will face a stiffer test though in Boise’s rush defense.  They held six opponents to less than 100 yards, including the nation’s 12th ranked rushing offense in San Diego State and Rashaad Penny.  Sophomore QB Justin Herbert will get a lot of attention over the next year or two from NFL scouts.  He is very tall at 6’6″ and efficient with the ball (64.7% completion percentage and just 7 INTs in his two season career).  WR Cedrick Wilson is my favorite player on Boise State.  He is a former JUCO transfer with 129 receptions, 2,419 yards and 17 TDs in his two years at Boise.  He’s 6’3″ and a good blocker which will help get him drafted.  Per Pro Football Focus, Wilson has a very high contested catch completion percentage.  I have Wilson as my WR15 for 2018 rookie drafts.  This game is a must-watch so be sure not to miss it.  I’m torn but will pick against Oregon after the news that Taggart is leaving.  Prediction: Boise State

Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Marshall (7-5) vs. Colorado State (7-5), 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Marshall: 81st scoring offense, 58th passing offense, 104th rushing offense; 17th scoring defense, 47th passing defense, 19th rushing defense
  • Colorado State: 29th scoring offense, 23rd passing offense, 29th rushing offense; 73rd scoring defense, 96th passing defense, 86th rushing defense

The Thundering Herd and the Rams combined for just two wins in November (one each) so neither is hot at the moment.  I’m still looking forward to this one though because it will be a chance to see Colorado State WR Michael Gallup against a decent defense.  Gallup improved on a successful 2016 season by finishing 2017 with a 94-1,350-7 line.  Those stats helped him finish first in the conference in receptions and receiving yards (he was 3rd and 4th respectively in the FBS overall).  Gallup does not have elite measureables (6’1″, 200lbs, 4.50 speed) but has elite production so he’ll be considered at the NFL level and in most fantasy leagues.  I watched some of Gallup early in the season against Oregon State and Alabama; both were pretty good games from him but I want to see more from Gallup and would like to re-watch the Alabama tape.  Gallup resides in a no-man’s land of draft prospects size-wise.  Of the twenty-six similar size/speed combine participants from 2010-2o17, the best comps would be Josh Doctson, Allen Hurns and Robert Woods.  If you drafted Gallup in the third round of your rookie draft you’d be happy with that return but chances are he’s going in the second round based on his production.  There’s another draft prospect in this game to keep an eye on: Marshall TE Ryan Yurachek.  Yurachek is undersized for a TE; he’s about the same weight and an inch shorter than last year’s vogue undersized TE Evan Engram.  And no, please do not take that as a comp to Evan Engram because Yurachek is far from the athlete Engram is.  In my early 2018 positional rankings, I included Yurachek because I honestly didn’t have another guy I wanted to include; he was my TE8.  He did have 47 receptions and 9 TDs which ranks him 6th and 3rd in the FBS at the position.  I would not be surprised to see a position change for Yurachek or to see him lineup off the line of scrimmage as is becoming more common for “move” tight ends.  Having an offensive draft prospect on both sides of the ball makes the New Mexico Bowl a “must-DVR” and a maybe-watch.  Prediction: Colorado State

Raycom Media Camelia Bowl, Arkansas State (7-4) vs. Middle Tennessee State (6-6), 8 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Arkansas State: 15th scoring offense, 6th passing offense, 79th rushing offense; 51st scoring defense, 91st passing defense, 35th rushing defense
  • Middle Tennessee State: 92nd scoring offense, 45th passing offense, 90th rushing offense; 45th scoring defense, 46th passing defense, 34th rushing defense

If it weren’t for the Cure Bowl, this would be the dud matchup of the day.  I am finding myself nonplussed, especially considering MTSU WR Richie James has an injured collarbone and is out for the year.  If nothing else, this matchup will be Exhibit A as to why the bowl season needs to contract rather than expand.  Arkansas State does have a late round draft prospect in TE Blake Mack and a very good quarterback in junior Justice Hansen.  Like Yurachek, Mack is an undersized TE who likely figures to be a possession WR or maybe an H-back in the pros.  Mack is 6’3″ and 231lbs with speed in the 4.70 range.  Mack’s line in 2017 finished at 46-609-7, landing him in the Top 10 of most stats among TEs.  I researched Mack in the preseason for my Sun Belt preview and at that time I said, “He was very versatile, lining up in the slot, on the outside and in the backfield.  He was not on the line often and I did not see a single highlight of him blocking (possibly more a feature of what constitutes a highlight, but my gut tells me he doesn’t block much).  He has the speed to beat safeties and linebackers in coverage, which he did on a number of plays.”  Hansen is a former Oklahoma and JUCO transfer so he’s had a circuitous route to success in the Sun Belt.  He is a dual-threat QB who has thrown for 3,635 yards and 34 TDs this season and added six more scores on the ground.  Hansen completes a high percentage of his passes (63.7) but has thrown too many INTs (15).  He has good size so who knows maybe a good game puts him on the late round radar for 2019.  Despite the injury, Richie James will still get drafted if he comes out.  He started his career with 212 receptions, nearly 3,000 yards and 20 TDs combined as a freshman and sophomore.  In eight career games against Power 5 opponents (against Alabama, Illinois, Missouri, Syracuse, Minnesota and three times against Vanderbilt), James totaled 65 receptions, 849 yards and 5 TDs.  That’s a better season, in eight games, than somebody like Clemson WR Deon Cain had this year and he’s in the mix as a Top 10 rookie WR for 2018 fantasy drafts.  Unfortunately we won’t see James in this one but you should definitely be paying attention to whether he declares or not for the NFL.  I’m leaning towards the Red Wolves in this one due to the strength of their passing game and their quarterback.  Prediction: Arkansas State

Tuesday, Dec. 19

Boca Raton Bowl, Florida Atlantic (10-3) vs. Akron (7-6), 7 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Florida Atlantic: 9th scoring offense, 81st passing offense, 6th rushing offense; 44th scoring defense, 93rd passing defense, 67th rushing defense
  • Akron: 103rd scoring offense, 74th passing offense, 118th rushing offense; 60th scoring defense, 82nd passing defense, 98th rushing defense

I’m not a gambling man, given my horrible record of weekly picks this season that is a good thing, but if I were I would bet big on this one.  This game is the lock of all locks this bowl season, in favor of the Owls and Lane Kiffin playing at home in Boca Raton.  One caveat: that’s if Kiffin is still on campus.  With the coaching carousel still spinning there is no guarantee Kiffin is still in Boca come December 19th.  I predict he’ll stay unless Florida State comes calling.  In the offseason, I called it a rebuilding year for Kiffin and he has done just that after a surprising 10-3 season.  Both Phil Steele and Lindy’s had FAU projected as the 5th place team in C-USA’s East division.  Not only did they win the division, and the conference, but they went undefeated (8-0) and finished three games ahead of second place FIU.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention FAU’s sophomore RB Devin Singletary.  Singletary’s rushing numbers this season are literally unbelievable: 275 carries, 1,794 yards and 29 TDs.  He ranks Top 5 in just about every relevant running back stat in the FBS.  The one that impressed me most is the number of carries; 275 carries is good for 5th overall and is twice as much as he handled last season.  He’s short at 5’9″ but stout enough at 200lbs (think Ameer Abdullah if he adds a few pounds).  Singletary was not on my draft prospect radar previously but luckily I have another season to delve deeper since he’s just a sophomore.  One of the reasons I am so sure that FAU will beat Akron is that Akron’s 7-6 record isn’t even as good as it looks.  They have two one-point wins, one three-point win and a win against a 2-9 FCS team.  I’ll say one good thing about Akron though, they have a hell of a tackling machine, and a great name, in Ulysees Gilbert III (yes, that is Ulysees not Ulysses).  Gilbert is a junior who has two back-to-back 120+ tackle and 4 sack seasons.  WalterFootball.com has him as the 13th ranked OLB for 2019 while NFLDraftScout.com has him as 10th in the class.  He might not factor in for you IDP players in 2018 but go ahead and impress your friends by dropping some Zips knowledge now.  Bet it all on Boca.  Prediction: Florida Atlantic

Wednesday, Dec. 20

Frisco Bowl, SMU (7-5) vs. Louisiana Tech (6-6), Frisco, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

  • SMU: 8th scoring offense, 16th passing offense, 45th rushing offense; 113th scoring defense, 121st passing defense, 113th rushing defense
  • Louisiana Tech: 63rd scoring offense, 64th passing offense, 55th rushing offense; 66th scoring defense, 59th passing defense, 81st rushing defense

By the time you read this preview, there is a very good chance that Chad Morris is no longer SMU’s head coach and is instead at either Arkansas or Tennessee.  Don’t these ADs know how difficult it is to write a good bowl preview when you don’t know who the head coach will be?  Woe is me, we’ll press on.  The biggest draft prospect of this early slate of games is undoubtedly SMU’s WR Courtland Sutton.  I am an active member in Reddit’s dynasty fantasy football subreddit called r/DynastyFF.  The sub runs bi-weekly rookie mock drafts and I have been compiling the results for you, dear reader.  As of the mock started on 11/29, Sutton was the 1.03 pick and was in a clear tier with Derrius Guice, Nick Chubb and James Washington just behind Saquon Barkley.  In that forum, Sutton is the WR1, has been picked as high as 1.02 and has never gone later than 1.05.  I have written extensively about Sutton this season so I won’t go into detail here but here’s a short summary: Sutton has elite size, good speed and fantastic body control but has feasted mostly on subpar defenses and saw a reduced role in 2017.  SMU has an awful defense and is coming off a poor end to the season (a close win against Tulane kept them from losing their last four games); Louisiana Tech on the other hand ended with two wins (albeit one against 0-12 UTEP).  Aside from Sutton, there is somebody else worth rooting for in this game: Lousiana Tech RB Boston Scott.  Scott is a 5’6″, former walk-on, fifth year senior who suffers from a rare muscular disorder.  He earned a scholarship last season and has gained over 1,000 total yards and 9 TDs this season as Tech’s primary ball carrier.  I expect this one to be high scoring and surprisingly fun to watch.  SMU’s defense and the flux in the program will be factors.  Prediction: Louisiana Tech

Thursday, Dec. 21

Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, Temple (6-6) vs. Florida International (8-4), 8 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Temple: 118th scoring offense, 107th passing offense, 116th rushing offense; 83rd scoring defense, 6th passing defense, 126th rushing defense
  • Florida International: 74th scoring offense, 56th passing offense, 65th rushing offense; 79th scoring defense, 95th passing defense, 79th rushing defense

Butch Davis, much like Lane Kiffin, sought the sunny shores of Florida to rehab his career.  Davis also succeeded, although to a lesser degree than Kiffin.  FIU finished 8-4 which is just the second time the team has won eight or more since they joined the FBS in 2004.  It’s also just the team’s third bowl, although it’s not the most ridiculously named bowl the Golden Panthers will have played in.  That ignominious award goes to the 2011 Beef O’Brady’s Bowl (named for a restaurant I predict I will never patronize).   Temple disappointed this year at 6-6 after back-to-back ten win seasons under former coach Matt Rhule.  Temple’s QB Logan Marchi battled injuries, inefficiency and turnovers which may account for the downfall.  As far as I can tell, neither Temple nor Florida International have any worthwhile offensive NFL draft prospects.  Temple’s strong pass defense is led by CB/S Sean Chandler and CB Mike Jones.  Jones is a graduate transfer from North Carolina Central University where he totaled 114 tackles and 11 INTs; this year at Temple he had 38 tackles, an INT and 7 passes defended.  Chandler had 74 tackles, 2 INTs and 3 passes defended this season.  Chandler is the more likely of the two to get drafted: in the preseason, Phil Steele had him as the sixth ranked FS.  FIU’s mediocre defense is led by LBs Anthony Wint and Treyvon Williams, both of whom have 180+ tackles each over the last two seasons combined.  Aside from the Cure Bowl, this one has the worst combination of offenses and might prove unwatchable.  Prediction: Temple


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.