The Watch List: SEC Preview

Updated: August 16th 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

  • Derrius Guice, RB, LSU:  My fellow RSO writer Bernard Faller recently called Evan Engram the “RSO cheat code.”  I’d like to add that nickname to Derrius Guice.  My god are his stats electric.  You may have heard of the guy that Guice was behind on the LSU depth chart: Leonard Fournette.  That didn’t stop him from putting up good numbers with Fournette; more importantly, Guice took full advantage of Fournette’s injury last season.  I apologize in advance if I lose you with all of these numbers but I promise they are worth your attention.  In the five games Guice played without Fournette last year he rushed for 903 yards (129 per game).  In the ten career games when Guice has 10+ carries, he has 1,472 yards and 17 TDs (some quick fantasy math gets you just under 25 fantasy points per game).  For his career, Guice averages 7.8 yards per carry.  He had two 250+ games last season, one of which was against Arkansas with Fournette.  The only downside of Guice’s stats are his lack of receptions, just 14 for 126 yards and a lone touchdown.  I purposefully watched Guice against Florida which was not one of his highlight reel games.  There were a number of positives but enough negatives to temper my excitement.  Knowing about his high yards per carry average, I expected to see Guice running outside the tackle box more often but he really is a between the tackles runner.  He has great lateral cutting ability, sticking his foot in and getting around a defender.  He converted an early goal line attempt but failed on one that was the last play of the game (he jumped too early and was stopped easily, it also looked like he may have fumbled but the clock had expired anyway).  He had two targets, the first was a 29 yard screen pass but the second went right through his hands at a pivotal moment late in the game.  He did make up for that 3rd down miss by making a key pass protection block on a 4th down completion.  Unfortunately that drive ended in that disappointing goal line effort. Earlier in the game he also had a fumble inside the red zone (a scoring opportunity the Tigers would really miss later).  I’m very interested to see how Guice does without Fournette (funny enough Leonard’s younger brother Lanard is on the team now) 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.
  • Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M:  While taking notes on Kirk, I went back and forth on my opinion a number of times.  Ultimately, I can see why so many experts have him as the top draft eligible wide receiver but I’m not quite sure I’m there yet.  First, let’s examine his measureables.  Kirk checks in at 5’11” and 200lbs.  Coming out of high school he ran a 4.49; one of my trusted sites, DraftScout.com, among others I checked, predict that Kirk will run a sub 4.40 at the NFL combine.  If that’s the case, Kirk has the most elite of comps: Odell Beckham Jr.  Let’s look at his stats next.  Kirk put up nearly identical lines in his freshman and sophomore seasons (80-1,009-7 and 83-928-9) which were enough to get him named as an All-American both seasons.  In 2015 he made the list as a fourth teamer for his punt return skills; as a sophomore he was a first teamer.  Kirk has seven 100+ receiving yard games in two seasons which is less than fellow prospect Courtland Sutton (and less, on average, than James Washington who has twelve over his three seasons).  Conversely, Kirk only has one career game with less than three receptions meanwhile Sutton and Washington have many more.  I thought it was interesting that 73 of Kirk’s 163 career receptions (45%) came on first down.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just shows how the Aggies use him as an extension of their run game.  I briefly mentioned his punt return prowess above and it’s worth going into more detail.  In both 2015 and 2016 he led the NCAA in punt return average (23.1 career average); in both seasons he beat the second on the list by more than 4.0 yards (or the difference between #2 and #9 last year).  To go along with all those yards he has five touchdowns (also the most over the last two years).  So, he’s a very good punt returner.  How good?  Remember that Odell Beckham Jr. guy I mentioned earlier, well he had three times as many punt returns in college than Kirk has so far and had just two touchdowns.  And he averaged just 9.0 yards per (Kirk is at 23.1!).  Aside from punt return highlights, the first film I watched of Kirk was against Alabama from 2016.  I was nonplussed.  Kirk was targeted at, or behind, the line of scrimmage six times, a feature of their offense all season I’m sure, which helps inflate his number of receptions.  He did have a nice over-the-shoulder touchdown catch but to my eye it was more about the thrower than the catcher.  I was much more impressed with Kirk when I watched his tape against Tennessee.  Kirk ran more varied routes and showed how adept he is at quickly changing directions by leaving defenders behind on multiple pivot routes.  The key play I noted, and significantly raised my opinion of Kirk, came during a tie game in the 4th quarter on first down.  Kirk was lined up slot right, he came off the line and angles his route so he squeezes between two defenders and a referee.  My guess is that the route was not designed that way but he read the defense and adjusted on the fly.  He makes the catch and rather than trying to take on defenders with his A+ open field ability, he works to get out of bounds.  He breaks a tackle, staggers backward toward the sideline and manages to keep his feet until he falls out of bounds.  There was so much to unpack on the play I probably watched it five or six times.  He added a clutch catch in the second overtime where the ball was behind him so he adjusted back to it, dove and got his hands under the ball an inch from the turf.  What he did next though was the impressive part, rather than just falling to the ground as 99% of receivers would do, he sort of jerked up and rolled so that the ball couldn’t touch the ground.  Not that it will actually impact his draft stock but I did notice a number of missed blocks.  Kirk has as high of a ceiling for any prospect I’ve researched and because of that I’m willing to overlook some of my concerns.  When it comes time for me to rank wide receivers, Kirk will likely come in at #2.
  • Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama:  I’m going to contradict myself…  In my Pac-12 preview I pointed out how few NFL WRs came out of college at less than 190lbs when highlighting Dante Pettis and how that hurt his draft stock.  I don’t feel that way about Ridley who is an identical size to Pettis at 6’1″ 188lbs.  I believe that Ridley is a more complete prospect which is why I’m less concerned with his weight.  Ridley had a strong freshman season where he hauled in 89 balls for 1,045 yards and 7 TDs.  In 2016 he still had 7 TDs but his receptions and yards dropped (72, 769).  I attribute the drop more to a change in scheme, to accommodate freshman phenom quarterback Jalen Hurts, than a change in Ridley.  The total number of attempts was pretty consistent between seasons but they went for less yards.  It also didn’t help Ridley’s production that he was playing alongside two pass catchers who were drafted this Spring in TE O.J. Howard and WR Ardarius Stewart.  This season, Ridley will be the unquestioned top receiver.  Despite my positive opinion of Ridley, I do have to admit that he has had some poor games under the biggest spotlights (i.e. a combined 11 receptions and just 50 yards in two CFP games against Clemson).  Ridley came into Alabama as a true blue chip recruit.  He was Phil Steele’s #2 receiver of the class and ESPN’s #1.  During the recruiting process he ran a 4.65 per ESPN.  During Spring practice in 2016 he ran a 4.35; then a 4.43 in 2017.  How fast is he really?  I don’t think we know but the answer is probably fast enough.  I watched film of Ridley against both Kentucky and Clemson.  He has good field awareness which was evidenced by a number of sideline grabs.  He’s a plus blocker (he was a key blocker on a Bo Scarborough touchdown against Clemson).  Even though a plurality of his targets came near the line of scrimmage in the two games, I do believe he’s at least a decent route runner.  In the second quarter against Kentucky, he ran a nice route to find the hole in the zone defense and caught an uncontested touchdown.  In the third quarter, he ran another nice route where he stopped just past the goal line, turned around and showed Hurts a good target.  Hurts fired in a bullet and Ridley showed good hand strength by holding onto the ball with the defender’s hand fighting for the break up.  Again, I full admit that I am being a bit hypocritcal with my Ridley love but I trust that he will put on a few pounds and will live up to his pedigree.  In my opinion, Ridley is an NFL-ready prospect who would contribute on any offense right now.  Until he proves me otherwise, he’s going to be my WR1.
  • Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: If Chubb came out after 2016 he likely would have been a first round dynasty selection but he returns for 2017 looking to improve his stock.  Chubb burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2014 with 1,547 yards and 14 TDs.  His 2015 campaign was off to a solid start (747 yards, 7 TDs) before it was cut short by a knee injury; luckily he avoided the worst and did not tear his ACL.  In 2016 Chubb was back to health to start the season but suffered an ankle injury in the first half of the season.  He technically did not miss a game but had just one carry against Tennessee.  He rebounded for 121 yards against South Carolina but struggled against Florida and Vanderbilt, related to the injury I’d bet.  Chubb ended 2016 with 1,130 yards and 8 TDs.  He’s a workhorse type back with twelve career games of 20 or more carries.  I watched Chubb’s film against South Carolina, that bounce back game after his injured ankle.  I thought it would be a good game to watch because how often will he be fully healthy in the NFL?  Never, he’ll always be battling something so seeing that he could manage it was instructive.  Not surprisingly, Chubb didn’t have elite speed but he made up for it with good vision.  Georgia features a pro-style offense which lets Chubb showcase his ability to run between the tackles which NFL scouts will love.  He was adequate in pass protection, although he wasn’t called on that frequently; if it weren’t for a play near the end of the second quarter where he let Eason get lit up, I would have gave him higher marks as a blocker.  It’s a shame that Chubb is draft eligible with the two most talent rich running back classes in recent memory.  He’ll still be a top five dynasty pick in most leagues, despite the injuries, and will be a nice consolation for owners who miss out on Barkley and Guice.
  • Honorable Mentions:
    • Bo Scarborough, RB, Alabama:  Scarborough has lots of hype but not lots of career carries.  In fact, he has just 143 career carries (for comparison, Chubb passed that mark in November of his freshman season) and zero games with 20 or more carries.  The best game of his career came against Washington last year in the College Football Playoff: he exploded for 180 yards and 2 TDs on 19 carries.  Scarborough is big, but maybe a little too tall, at 6’1″ and 230lb.  He likely has 4.55 speed.  That combination nets him great comps in Jeremy Hill, Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson.  He was a top recruit, 12th overall in his class and the 2nd at his position per ESPN.  The ability I question most is his availability.  Scarborough was suspended four games to start his college career for academic reasons.  Then he tore his ACL in 2015 and broke his leg in 2016.  If it weren’t for the injuries, Scarborough could be challenging for the 1.01 based on his pedigree, let alone his potential.
    • Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida:  Callaway will be a junior and was a strong contributor his first two seasons on campus.  As a true freshman he gained 678 yards receiving and 4 receiving TDs and added two more return TDs; he was named 3rd Team All-American for his return prowess.  As a sophomore, he was more involved in the passing game.  He led the team in receptions, yards and receiving TDs (54-721-3).  A good stat that I uncovered when studying his game logs: Callaway’s five career games of 100+ receiving yards all came against the SEC.  I’d like to see more volume and more scoring this year to truly consider him as a top pick at the position.  At 5’11” he’s a little short to be considered an elite NFL receiver, but if he can run sub-4.50 he’ll get consideration as a first round NFL pick.  It’s worth noting that he did receive a drug possession citation in early 2017 – just something to keep an eye on that will surely factor into his draft process.
    • Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina:  This 6’5″ behemoth is just a junior so who knows if he’ll come out but if he does he’ll get some attention after 2016’s historic draft class.  Hurst was 13th in receptions and 15th in yards amongst TEs during the regular season.  Now that all of those elite names (OJ Howard, David Njoku, Evan Engram, etc) are gone, Hurst will jump to the top of the pecking order.  His QB, Jake Bentley, was a true freshman in 2016, so you’d expect some improvement which will help Hurst’s numbers progress.
    • Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia:  Circle this name for 2019 because he’s not eligible in 2018.  Eason started from Day One last year as a true freshman and led the Bulldogs to a 8-5 record that included a bowl game win over TCU and a win over #8 Auburn.  Eason’s rate stats have room to grow which I fully expect them to (55.1% completion percentage, 6.6 yards per attempt).
    • Minkah Fitzpatrick & Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama:  These two junior safeties have their sights set on a third straight National Championship game and being first round NFL picks.  Harrison is a strong safety who supports the run.  Fitzpatrick transitioned from corner to free safety in 2016 so he’s versatile.  He has two banner games on his game logs: 2 INTs and 2 TDs against Texas A&M in 2015 and 3 INTs and a TD against Arkansas in 2016.  Fitzpatrick will get more draft buzz but his play will help Harrison get noticed too.

Storylines to Watch

  • Mr. Freeze:  We have all heard about Hugh Freeze and his questionable phone calls by now.  Let’s not rehash those, although I will say, what a hypocrite.  Ole Miss was already self-imposing a bowl ban for 2017 due to unrelated infractions.  AD Ross Bjork said that because of the bowl ban, the Rebels will have to forfeit the SEC postseason bonus which would total $7.8 million this season.  That’s a huge hit to a program will have to fight tooth and nail to keep recruits and stay relevant in their division.  Ole Miss had four straight winning seasons from 2012-2015.  All of the distractions have hurt the program and will have a lasting effect.  It’ll be a decade before we see Ole Miss competing for the SEC West title again.
  • Can the East Finally Win One:  The SEC West has been dominant in recent years and has won eight consecutive conference championships (five of which by Alabama).  Florida has the best chance to unseat the West this season.  They were the only team to beat Alabama in Phil Steele’s conference positional rankings (receivers and special teams).  The Gators have the easiest cross-over games this year of the contending East teams; they avoid Alabama and Auburn while Georgia and Tennessee each have one away.  If I was a betting man, my money would still be on the West but it’ll be fun to keep an eye on.
  • Vanderbilt Will Win Eight Games:  My bold prediction for the SEC this season is that Vanderbilt will win eight games in 2017.  That may not sound like much but they only have 13 wins over the last three years.  I don’t think they’ll quite return to the nine win seasons of 2012 and 2013 under James Franklin but fourth year coach Derek Mason will get them close.  Vanderbilt has a winnable non-conference schedule with FBS games against Middle Tennessee State, Kansas State and Western Kentucky.  The hardest game on their schedule, Alabama, will be a home game.  Per Phil Steele’s experience charts, they return 93.7% of their offensive yards from last season.  That includes their quarterback, the top two rushers, the top eight receivers, the kicker and the punter.  If anybody is poised for a surprise season, it’s the Commodores.

Games to Watch

  • September 2, Florida vs Michigan: This neutral site game, hosted at Jerry’s World, is a rematch of the 2015 Citrus Bowl which Michigan won 41-7.  Few players remain from those teams, although Antonio Callaway is one of them.  The Wolverines could be Florida’s highest rated opponent of the year, pending their season finale against Florida State.  So, it will be important for them to win this one if they have CFP aspirations.
  • October 28, Florida vs Georgia:  Another neutral site game for Florida, this one is in Jacksonville.  In fact, Florida only has three true road games this season which is another reason why I think they could challenge the West this season.  Florida has won the last three matchups by a combined 56 points.  The winner of this game will inevitably take the East so it’s a shame it’s not later in the season.
  • November 25, Vanderbilt at Tennessee:  If my bold prediction is to come true, Vanderbilt will need to steal some SEC wins.  What better one to steal than on the road against your biggest in-state rival in the last game of the season.  If Vanderbilt is already bowl eligible and having a plus season as I expect, taking out the Volunteers will be the cherry atop the sundae.
  • November 25, Alabama at Auburn:  The Iron Bowl.  I don’t love the name, but the game is always good.  Lindy’s points out that the winner of this game has gone on to play for the National Championship in eight straight seasons.  That’s crazy.  I’ve spilled enough digital ink on Alabama in this preview so let’s spend a few quick sentences on Auburn.  The Tigers feature a rush heavy offense with Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson (combined for over 2,000 yards and 18 TDs last season) leading the way.  The quarterback play will be stronger this year with Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham taking the reigns (1,265 yards passing, 12 TDs and just 2 INTs in limited time as a freshman in 2015).  I’ll still take Alabama but it’s the closest Auburn will be to catching them in the last four years.

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.