The Watch List: 2018 Bowl Game Previews, Part VI

Updated: December 28th 2018

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

Cotton Bowl (Semi-Final), Clemson (13-0) vs Notre Dame (12-0), Sat 12/29 at 4:00pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Players to Watch: Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson
    • Ferrell has ensconced himself as the top prospect on Clemson’s talented defense. He’s a slam dunk first round pick because of his combination of size (6050/260) and speed. His career stats are excellent as well: 158 tackles, 48.0 tackles for loss and 26.0 sacks. Ferrell plays with a relentless but not reckless pace. He appears to have very good instincts and can quickly diagnose what’s going on in the offensive backfield. Ferrell plays as a down lineman so I’d expect 4-3 teams to target him but he’s probably good enough to adapt to any system.
  • My Pick: Clemson, -12.5
    • The line for this one keeps creeping larger and larger but it doesn’t matter to me. Clemson would be my pick if the line was twice as big. Notre Dame is a solid team who finally found their QB in Ian Book, however Clemson has them bested at each position. Much of the talk in this one will be about Clemson’s defense but RSO owners should also pay attention to the star underclassmen that the Tigers have on offense (QB Trevor Lawrence, RB Travis Etienne, WR Tee Higgins).

Orange Bowl (Semi-Final), Alabama (13-0) vs Oklahoma (12-1), Sat 12/29 at 8:00pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Quinnen Williams, DT, Alabama
    • There are so many draft eligible players in this one that it’s an impossible task to pick one. I settled on Williams because his name has been en vogue lately. Williams is a redshirt sophomore who played sparingly in 2017. In 2018 he totaled 66 tackles, 18.0 tackles for loss and 8.0 sacks. The reason that Williams’ name has become so hot is because he’s on a five game tear. In those five games he has at least one sack in each contest (6.5 total), 33 total tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss. His best game of the bunch was a dominating performance against #4 LSU (10-3.5-2.5) so I decided to watch the film. Williams measures in at 6040/289 but his quickness belies his size. He has fast hands and is typically on the blocker faster than they can react. He was often double- and triple-teamed but still made an impact. His push through the interior disrupts the pocket and leads to sacks or tackles for loss for his teammates. My initial impression before watching the LSU film was that #DraftTwitter was overreacting to a small sample size of recent games but that thought was wrong. Williams is the real deal and will be a Top 10 pick if he comes out.
  • My Pick: Alabama, -14
    • I won’t be playing this game ATS or on the moneyline. It’s just too fraught to pick in my opinion. Nick Saban has won his last three semi-final games by a combined score of 86-13, while the three subsequent championship games were all single digit margins. That tells me that if you give the Tide time to prepare, they will destroy you. Then what’s my hang up? The Sooners offense, led by QB Kyler Murray, is ranked 1st overall in the FBS. They can put up points but have not played a defense like Alabama’s yet. If I had to guess, I would say that Alabama’s defense outplays Oklahoma’s offense but I have enough doubt to sit this one out. I will be betting the over though. The teams have gone over a combined 19 times in 26 games.

Fiesta Bowl, LSU (9-3) vs UCF (12-0), Tue 1/1 at 1:00pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Devin White, LB, LSU
    • White has led the Tigers in tackles the last two seasons, totaling 248 between. He’s constantly around the ball and will be an IDP darling because he also collects sacks and turnovers. White is ranked as the #2 interior linebacker, and #24 overall, in the class by TheDraftNetwork.com and is even higher on some other industry lists. When I was searching for tape online, I came across a highlight clip titled “Fastest Linebacker in the Country.” After watching the clip, I have to admit that I was impressed with his straight line speed. Whether he’s using it to rush the quarterback right up the gut or going sideline-to-sideline pursuing a running back, White has an extra gear that most in his position don’t. It’ll be so much fun watching him matchup with a running quarterback like UCF’s Darriel Mack.
  • My Pick: UCF, +7.5
    • If you like fun, don’t bet on LSU. I took them in numerous games this season and was let down each time. They ended up 6-6 ATS and I might have had them in each of those six losses, oh well. UCF on the other hand is 9-3 ATS, including 5-1 in the last six. You can’t disregard the loss of QB McKenzie Milton but backup Darriel Mack showed he’s capable. Mack single-handedly engineered a comeback in the AAC Championship game by rushing for four 2nd half touchdowns. Take the points and enjoy yourself rooting for a UCF team that won’t be out of it even if they’re down.

Rose Bowl, Washington (10-3) vs Ohio State (12-1), Tue 1/1 at 5:00pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State
    • [Insert quippy boilerplate “2019 Quarterback Class” comment here]. After his first year as the starter, Haskins has catapulted near the top of 2019 quarterback rankings. He completes a conference-leading 70.2% of his passes and finished with a crazy 47:8 TD:INT ratio. There’s a chance that Haskins surpasses 5,000 passing yards – he needs 420, a mark he’s beat three times this year. There’s no question that Haskins has an accurate arm, anticipates his receivers well and throws with touch. The recent track record of run-first Buckeye QBs may hurt Haskins in the eyes of casual fans but don’t let it jade you, he’s a natural thrower who is a quarterback through and through. In the 2019 class he’s likely a first rounder due to the lack of solid quarterback prospects.
  • My Pick: Ohio State, -7
    • Neither team has been great for bettors recently so I’m not picking this one based on trends or stats. It’s just a gut feeling. Ohio State undoubtedly thinks they should be in the playoff. They will be playing angry and will run up the score to show the committee they made a mistake. The players are also playing their last game for Urban Meyer so there will be an added impetus to play well. I’m going Ohio State and might even play an alternate line and lay even more points.

Sugar Bowl, Texas (9-4) vs Georgia (11-2), Tue 1/1 at 8:45pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Riley Ridley, WR, Georgia
    • Riley is the younger brother of Falcons rookie WR Calvin Ridley. And, if you believe the hype on Twitter, Ridley the younger could be just as good. I’ve seen a number of Georgia games this season but did not have a feel for Ridley so I decided to go back and watch one of his films. The only one I could find from 2018 was against LSU when he had a 3-75-1 stat line. Unfortunately the lack of sample size is an issue for Ridley in general, not just in the LSU game I watched. He has just 64 career receptions, 38 of which came in 2018. During the LSU game, I saw a receiver with a good get-off and quick feet out of his breaks. He relies on his speed and quickness to get separation rather than physicality or strength. To get a better feel for his hands, I watched an extended highlight package from the season. He tracks the ball well and shows sticky hands even if he’s forced into an awkward hand placement. When he runs after the catch he likes to utilize a backwards cut that helps him find space and gain extra yardage. Unsurprisingly, I saw him whiff on a number of blocks. I have not seen enough of Ridley to properly rank him but I definitely see that he has the raw tools to be an NFL receiver.
  • My Pick: Georgia, -13
    • No offense to Texas but they don’t feel like they belong in a New Years Six bowl game. Luckily they have two NFL receivers in Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey so they’ll be worth watching. Georgia won their last two ATS while Texas has lost their last two, so the trends point toward the Bulldogs.

 

Lines and betting stats courtesy of OddsShark.com, as of 12/26.

Notes: In an effort to standardize the description of key positional traits, I frequently use the following adjectives: elite, good, above average, average, below average, poor.  My experimental grading system uses a Madden-like approach by weighting position relevant traits on a 100-point scale; bonus or negative points are awarded based on production, size, injury history and character.  Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height.  When watching film for a player, I typically pick two games.  When time permits, I may add a third game. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had 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.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  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, mcubed.net
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2019 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.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, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, 247Sports College Football, College Fantasy Football: On Campus, Underdog Pawdcast, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com, the media home for FWAA members
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: oddsshark.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  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: 2018 Conference Championship Previews

Updated: November 30th 2018

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my weekly picks and observations, 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. 

It’s been awhile, dear readers.  My apologies for the long lay-off between articles, you can blame my now-wife for that!  College football was a welcome, albeit infrequent, reprieve from our ever-encompassing wedding duties, but I was just not able to find the time to sit down and put flesh to keyboard.  What better time to get back into the swing than the week of conference championships!  For each matchup, I present a draft-eligible name you should know as well as my take and prediction.

MAC: Northern Illinois (7-5) vs Buffalo (10-2), 7:00pm Friday on ESPN2

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch:
    • Anthony Johnson, WR, Buffalo:  Johnson was one of my top prospects heading into the 2019 season.  He was shortly derailed by a hamstring injury but is back in the fold now.  Johnson’s numbers have been disappointing (45-820-9) compared to last season (76-1,356-14).  The explanation is likely the injury plus the fact that the Bulls are averaging nearly 60 yards per game more rushing this season.  Johnson has the ability to dominate lesser, in size and skill, defenders.  Whether his skills are dominant enough for the NFL remains to be seen but I think he has a shot at being a mid-rounder if he shows out in the last two games.
  • Prediction:  Buffalo -4.  Buffalo’s closest win this season was by seven over Temple and Eastern Michigan (two other bowl teams), so when they win they usually win big.  The Bulls have more potential NFL talent on both sides of the ball (don’t forget about QB Tyree Jackson and LB Khalil Hodge) so I don’t expect this to be particularly close.

PAC-12: #17 Utah (9-3) vs #11 Washington (9-3), 8:00pm Friday on FOX

  • Draft Eligible Players to Watch:
    • Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington: #DraftTwitter seems to hate Gaskin. I don’t think he’s the next coming of Saquon Barkley but the hate has probably gone too far. You can nitpick and say he’s not very big (5110/193) or could be more involved as a receiver (53 combined receptions over the last three seasons). However, it’s hard to argue with somebody who has 5,131 career rushing yards which is 18th best in the NCAA dating back to the 1950s. He’s the first back in PAC-12 history to rush for 1,000+ yards in four plus seasons. I’d like to see him more decisive hitting the hole but he does have good feet that are always moving. He has enough speed and power to be an every-down back in college but his NFL role will be more limited.
  • Prediction:  Utah +5.  This one feels like a trap game for casual bettors (myself included).  Washington is a big name in recent college football seasons and will get attention.  Utah is without its best pro prospect in RB Zack Moss but I’d still expect them to keep it close.  They’ve scored 35+ in seven of their last eight games so the offense can score.  Washington was favored in six of their last seven and lost to the spread in five of those contests.

Big 12: #5 Oklahoma (11-1) vs #14 Texas (9-3), 12:00pm Saturday on ABC

  • Draft Eligible Players to Watch:
    • Marquise Brown, WR, Oklahoma: Brown is a dynamo.  Despite his diminutive size (5110/168) he often lines up outside and instead uses motion and his route running ability to avoid contact and get open.  Once he has the ball in his hands it’s nearly impossible to catch him.  Brown was quiet through the middle part of the season but he exploded last week against West Virginia for 11-243-2.  The emergence of Tyreek Hill as a viable NFL receiver is going to help boost Brown’s stock.  He won’t be a first rounder but I feel pretty confident that a team will fall in love enough to reach for him on Day Two.
  • Prediction:  Texas +7.5.  The Sooners won their last four games by a total of just 24 points, while they were favored by a combined 73.5.  Their defense has appeared to be a liability this season and that is borne out in the stats: their defense is dead last in the conference in points and total yards.  I would take OU straight up but Texas with the points.

Sun Belt: Louisiana-Lafayette (7-5) at Appalachian State (9-2), 12:00pm on ESPN

  • Draft Eligible Players to Watch:
    • Clifton Duck, CB, Appalachian State: Duck had a strong freshmen and sophomore seasons with a combined 11 interceptions, 14 passes defended and 107 tackles. His numbers decreased this season (1-4-44), so this really feels like scraping the bottom of the barrel!  (Unfortunately, the best prospect on either team is hurt and out for the season, ‘Neer RB Jalin Moore.  Moore is good in pass protection and was on his way to a third consecutive 1,000 yard season before dislocating his ankle.  If he’s not fully recovered to take part in the draft process, a team is going to get a bargain.)
  • Prediction:  Appalachian State -18.  This one is a rematch from October which App State won 27-17.  The Mountaineers lost their succeeding game but rebounded with four wins to end the season, including three big wins (two pushes, one cover).  I admit that part of this pick may be name recognition more than anything else but if I had to pick against the spread I would take App State to cover.

C-USA: Middle Tennessee (8-4) at UAB (9-3), 1:30pm on CBSSN

  • Draft Eligible Players to Watch:
    • Brent Stockstill, QB, Middle Tennessee: It feels like Stockstill has been a Blue Raider for most of my adult life.  He grayshirted in 2013 then redshirted in 2014.  In 2015 he started 13 games but then missed chunks of 2016 and 2017 due to injury.  He’s stayed on the field thus far in 2018.  The positive vibes continue with his stat logs: he is completing 71.1% of his passes, has improved his rate stats and has a career low of interceptions (6).  Stockstill throws with good touch but his accuracy is inconsistent.  His age and injury history likely make him a priority UDFA but in such a weak quarterback class, who knows?
  • Prediction:  UAB +1.5.  I was very surprised to see the Blazers as a home underdog in this one.  They are 6-0 at home this season (5-1 ATS).  A big part of that line may be the uncertainty surrounding RB Spencer Brown’s availability (996-15).  I’ll take the gamble that he plays.  He’s just a sophomore and not yet draft eligible so there’s some incentive to shine in a big game, and throw down a few bucks on UAB with the points.

AAC: #8 UCF (11-0) vs Memphis (8-4), 3:30pm on ABC

  • Draft Eligible Players to Watch:
    • Darrell Henderson, RB, Memphis:  Henderson led a dominant Tigers rushing attack this season.  His regular season totals ended at: 1,699 yards, 19 TDs, 8.6 yards per carry, 17 receptions, 286 yards  and 3 TDs.  That’s impressive even before you consider that he’s splitting touches with Patrick Taylor (894-14) and Tony Pollard (398-5).  Henderson measures in at 5090/200 and yet runs with an upright, downhill style.  You can feel his momentum when he’s on the move.  He may be too small for an every down role in the NFL but he runs with a physicality that belies his height and that will endear him to his teammates.
  • Prediction:  Memphis +3.  It’s hard to write the narrative for this game right now.  Does UCF rebound and battle for their fallen quarterback?  Or do they collapse with a backup signal caller under center?  Considering their last matchup was a 31-30 victory for UCF, I’ll take Memphis and the points here because I think McKenzie Milton is worth way more than a few points.  (I do hope I am wrong on this one though because I am wishing for CFP mayhem.)

SEC: #1 Alabama (12-0) vs #4 Georgia (11-1), 4:00pm on CBS

  • Draft Eligible Players to Watch:
    • Irv Smith, TE, Alabama: This game is obviously chock full of pro talent so why am I highlighting a tight end? Because you’ve probably missed Irv Smith’s ascension amidst the Alabaman domination this season. I am here to tell you that he should be on your radar as a potential rookie draft target for 2019. Smith has a good 35-613-7 line thus far, despite inconsistent production (five games with 2 or less receptions). In three of those games he managed to score a touchdown so he can still be a difference maker without a high target share. He’s listed at 6040/241 and has the speed to be a matchup nightmare for linebackers. If he shows consistency in Alabama’s biggest games, we’ll see his draft stock skyrocket. While your friends are waxing poetic about Tua and Quinnen, you can drop some knowledge about Irv, who will factor into next year’s rookie draft.
  • Prediction:  Alabama -13. ‘Bama has covered big numbers in its last five SEC games. The only one in the last six games that they didn’t cover was -53.5 against doormat foe Citadel. I see no reason to believe that the Tide won’t roll again. They are just too talented all over the field, probably the most talented team I’ve ever seen.

Mountain West: #25 Fresno State (10-2) at #22 Boise State (10-2), 7:45pm on ESPN

  • Draft Eligible Players to Watch:
    • Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State:  Rypien is a name that you should monitor closely throughout the draft process.  The 2019 quarterback class is weak so it’s possible that somebody like Rypien emerges to become a first rounder just by virtue of scarcity.  He has average size at 6020/202.  He shows good pocket presence and above average short and medium accuracy.  He needs to show more consistency with his mechanics because he often lets himself throw off-platform, off-balance or with his feet unset.  In a previous film study, I noted that Rypien does not feel blindside pressure well which will be a problem in the NFL.  He’s probably a Day Two guy with the potential to land higher if teams are desperate.
  • Prediction:  Fresno State +2.5.  I’ve almost convinced myself that Fresno will win this one straight up because I’ve followed them closely this year after I stacked QB Marcus McMaryion and WR KeeSean Johnson in my college fantasy league.  So I’ll have to take the points.  The Bulldogs have lost their last three ATS but before that were on a seven game winning streak.  Bonus tidbit: the last four games for both teams went under (including their November 9 matchup).

Big Ten: #6 Ohio State (11-1) vs #21 Northwestern (8-4), 8:00pm on FOX

  • Draft Eligible Players to Watch:
    • Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State:  Haskins is a fast-rising redshirt sophomore who got his chance to lead Ohio State this season after JT Barrett’s graduation.  Haskins checks in at 6030/220 but I think that might be a slight exaggeration.  He’s not small but he does lack elite size.  He’s not a burner as a runner but he’s recently shown that he can be effective and clutch in short yardage situations.  It’s hard to find fault when looking at his statistics because he’s setting numerous Ohio State and Big Ten records.  He topped 4,000 yards (4,081) and has tossed 42 TDs to just 7 INTs.  His rating (171.7) and completion percentage (69.0%) are phenomenal.  Haskins has seen a meteoric rise to his draft stock, in fact, The Draft Network now projects him as QB2 in the 2019 eligible class.
  • Prediction:  Ohio State -14.  As a Michigan fan, it was particularly hard to watch the 62-39 drubbing last weekend.  I’m a firm believer in rooting for the team that beats you (if you’re going to lose, it might as well be to the eventual champion) so I’ll be all-in on the Buckeyes.  Northwestern has a top third defense in the conference but their weak spot is against the pass (ranked 11th) so they will not be able to slow Haskins enough to keep it close.

ACC: #2 Clemson (12-0) vs Pitt (7-5), 8:00pm on ABC

  • Draft Eligible Players to Watch:
    • The Entire Defensive Line, Clemson:  There are so many “brand name” players on the Clemson defense that it would be impossible to single one of them out.  The fact that their biggest offensive stars are underclassmen (QB Trevor Lawrence, RB Travis Etienne and WR Tee Higgins) also helps concentrate focus on the defense.  Clelin Ferrell has distanced himself as the best prospect on the line with 10.5 sacks this season.  Interior linemen Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins are a dynamic duo who both feature rare combinations of size and athleticism (notably they have a combined 3 rushing TDs this season).  Austin Bryant, playing fourth fiddle, would probably be the defensive leader for most teams (19 career sacks and 116 career tackles).
  • Prediction:  Clemson -26.5.  What a snoozer in the 8:00pm window, I bet ABC is not happy.  Clemson is only 6-6 ATS this season while Pitt is 8-4 but I won’t let that sway my thinking.  I’ll be okay with losing this one if Clemson doesn’t cover but my gut tells me they run up the score to prove that they belong in the conversation with Alabama.  Give the points and switch the channel.

Lines and betting stats courtesy of OddsShark.com, as of 11/27.

Notes: In an effort to standardize the description of key positional traits, I frequently use the following adjectives: elite, good, above average, average, below average, poor.  My experimental grading system uses a Madden-like approach by weighting position relevant traits on a 100-point scale; bonus or negative points are awarded based on production, size, injury history and character.  Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height.  When watching film for a player, I typically pick two games.  When time permits, I may add a third game. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had 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.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  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, mcubed.net
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2019 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.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, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, 247Sports College Football, College Fantasy Football: On Campus, Underdog Pawdcast, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com, the media home for FWAA members
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: oddsshark.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  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: 2018 ACC Preview

Updated: August 18th 2018

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 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. 

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Favorite:  Cam Akers, RB, Florida State.  According to Vegas, running backs Cam Akers and AJ Dillon have the best odds of winning the Heisman from the ACC.  Clemson QB Kelly Bryant is close behind but I’m not sure he holds onto his starting job so I wouldn’t be putting money on him now.  Akers has 2,000 yard potential while Dillon has 20 TD potential; ultimately I lean towards Akers as he will be playing on a better team than Dillon and should get more national exposure.
  • Darkhorse Heisman Candidate:  Daniel Jones, QB, Duke.  As I have previously discussed in this space, picking a conference’s best dual-threat quarterback is your best bet for predicting the Heisman winner.  I’m a fan of Jones, see below, and think he has 3,000/750 yard upside but he needs to score more.  Last year he had just 18 total TDs and would need to double that to get in the Heisman conversation.  I’m not saying it’s likely, or even probable, but it’s possible.
  • Offensive Player of the Year:  Taquon Marshall, QB, Georgia Tech.  Few players in the FBS will be as valuable to their unit as Marshall to the Georgia Tech offense.  He won’t get the national recognition of somebody like Cam Akers but he’ll put up big numbers and be a CFF darling.  If he stays healthy, Marshall will top 1,000 yards each passing and rushing and will total 30+ TDs.
  • Defensive Player of the Year:  Dexter Lawrence, DL, Clemson.  Take your pick from the Clemson defensive line.  I’ll go with Lawrence because of the impact he has on the opposing line on every play.  Lawrence had a huge freshman season with 62 tackles and 6.5 sacks but regressed in 2017 to 33-2.0.  At 6040/340, he’s a mountain of a man.  It’s rare to find an interior defensive lineman with the combination of size and athleticism that Lawrence shows.
  • Newcomer of the Year:  Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson.  According to 247Sports, Trevor Lawrence was the top rated recruit in the 2018 class and had a near-perfect grade of 0.9999, the highest I have seen on their site.  Lawrence is huge, listed at 6060, and put up equally big numbers in high school.  His recruiting profile on 247Sports touts a 160:21 ratio with over 13,000 passing yards.  I take high school stats with a grain of salt of course, but that’s just insane.  I am not a big Kelly Bryant fan so I think it’s only a matter of time before we see Lawrence take over at Clemson.
  • Underclassmen to Watch:  The ACC is chock-full of impact sophomores.  Rather than pick one, I decided I needed to mention a few:
    • Cam Akers, RB, Florida State:  Akers will be the best of a talented group of young backs in the ACC this season.
    • Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson:  Etienne is an explosive runner with a long stride.  He gained 766 yards and scored 13 TDs in a RBBC role last season and finished with a 7.2 yards per carry average.  It remains to be seen if he can be as effective with a larger workload.
    • AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College:  Dillon is a 6000/245 bruiser who has a nose for the end zone.  He scored 14 TDs last season and should see 20 this season.  He’s a workhorse back who earned 300 carries as a true freshman and had four games with over 30.
    • Greg Dortch, WR, Wake Forest:  Dortch is an undersized (5090/165) slot and screen receiver who dominated at times in 2017 before getting injured.  Against Louisville he had an incredible 10-167-4 line before falling to an abdominal injury.  He contributes as a rusher and returner as well.
  • Best QB-WR Tandem:  Ryan Finley and Kelvin Harmon, NC State.  Finley is quietly the conference’s best quarterback prospect; meanwhile Harmon should be a first round fantasy rookie pick in 2019.  I doubt many casual fans know their names though because they shared the spotlight last season with draftees DE Bradley Chubb, TE Jaylen Samuels and RB Nyheim Hines.  Finley and Harmon eclipsed 3,500 and 1,000 yards respectively so they are a productive duo.  I have more on these two Wolfpack stars below.
  • Best RB Corps:  Georgia Tech.  It should come as no surprise that a triple option team like Tech would land in my “Best RB Corps” spot.  The Yellow Jackets led the conference in rushing (307 yards per game) and return their six leading rushers from that squad.  The two that catalyze the option attack are QB TaQuon Marshall (1,146-17 rushing and 927-10 passing) and RB KirVonte Benson (1,073-6).
  • Coach on the Hottest Seat:  Larry Fedora, North Carolina.  Fedora has been in the news recently after his curious remarks at ACC Media Day.  Those comments were best summarized by Luke Decock in the Charlotte News-Observer: “This is all ludicrous, of course, the earnest hyperbole a little less dangerous than the willful denial.”  Even if Fedora didn’t put a target on his own back, he went 3-9 in 2017 and hasn’t won a bowl game since 2013.  The Tar Heels are also dealing with “another compliance black eye” after numerous players were suspended for selling team-issued apparel.  A winning coach could withstand most of this drama but not one who suffers another losing season.

Teams to Watch

 Miami (10-3 in 2017)

I was consistently down on Miami last season.  I did not believe they could run the table and kept picking against them during their winning streak.  The wheels finally came off in late November when Miami lost to Pitt, a game I still remember for how frustrating it was to watch, which started a season-ending three game losing skid.  Miami should be in the ACC Coastal running again but what makes them even more interesting to watch are the plethora of NFL prospects they will field.  On offense they will feature RB Travis Homer, WR Ahmmon Richards and TE Michael Irvin Jr (Editor’s note: Irvin Jr. is now injured).  The defense returns its top five tacklers, including first round hopeful safety Jaquan Johnson.  LB Shaq Quarterman and CB Michael Jackson should end with high draft grades as well.  The Hurricanes feature 14 returning starters, including QB Malik Rosier.  I was very critical of Rosier last season and hope that an additional season of experience helps him play more efficiently.  If he does, Miami will end up in another New Year’s Six bowl, as I am currently predicting, with a shot at the playoff.

 Florida State (7-6 in 2017)

I don’t think there is any disagreement among college football fans that the Seminoles will rebound from a demoralizing 7-6 season last year which required them to make up a meaningless game against UL-Monroe just to become bowl eligible.  The question is, just how high do they rebound with new head coach Willie Taggart?  I have gone out on a slimsy (yes, that’s a word) limb and predicted that they will be selected for the College Football Playoff.  Three of FSU’s toughest games (the nationally broadcast opener versus VaTech, Clemson and Florida) will be played in Tallahassee.  I’m also feeling optimistic because I think the offense will be miles ahead of 2017.  QB Deondre Francois returns from injury; if he’s shelved again, sophomore James Blackman now has valuable experience.  The offensive line, which tends to be a weak spot for Florida State, returns four starters.  The largest factor will be the running backs: wunderkind soph Cam Akers and senior Jacques Patrick.  Akers crested 1,000 yards (1,094) and earned 2nd-Team All-ACC honors as a true freshman.  Patrick is a 6030/231 bruiser who added 780 yards of his own.  Both backs had seven scores.  The receiving corps is filled with young and/or unproven targets but the team’s leading receiver, Nyqwan Murray returns.  The defense may struggle as they only return four starters and lost top prospect Derwin James.  One interesting stat gives me hope: per Phil Steele, the last time the Seminoles returned just four defensive starters, which was 2013, they allowed just 12.1 yards per game.  Oh, and by the way, that team went 14-0 and won the BCS National Championship.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • Daniel Jones, QB, Duke:  Jones is on my shortlist of candidates for the 2019 QB1 spot.  In my limited study, I noted that he has good anticipation and throws excellently while on the run.  He has above average athleticism for the position and runs with good vision.  There are some areas for improvement, namely his passing accuracy and pocket awareness.  Plus, he could add a few pounds to fill out his 6050 body due to his physical playing style.  His touchdown total decreased last season (16 to 14) while his interceptions increased (9 to 11), which is not a good sign.  He did add 518-7 on the ground which helped keep the Blue Devil offense moving.  I’ll check in on Jones periodically this season.  If he improves nearer a 2:1 ratio he’ll be in consideration for a first round NFL Draft pick.
  • Deondre Francois, QB, Florida State:  This time last year, I was one of many college football fans who was expecting Francois to take a big step forward in 2017.  Unfortunately, that growth was stunted in the Seminoles’ opener against Alabama after he sustained a season-ending knee injury.  True freshman James Blackman filled in and, luckily for Francois, did not do enough to guarantee himself the job for 2018.  I think Francois has the inside track to win the starting job but it’s not impossible to think that Blackman wins the gig in Fall camp.  Francois is tough as nails but is on the smaller side for a quarterback prospect (6010/205).  He has 3,500 yard upside so I am pulling for him and I hope he gets a chance to realize his potential.  I am predicting that FSU will make a run to the College Football Playoff and that hope rests squarely on Francois’ shoulders.
  • Eric Dungey, QB, Syracuse:  I loved watching Dungey last season and recall his standout games against Pitt and Clemson.  Sadly, Dungey has a long injury history which has limited him to just 26 career games over three seasons.  He’s not all that prolific or efficient (40:21 career ratio and 131.5 career passer rating) but there’s something about him that I enjoy watching.  He is a true dual-threat quarterback: in a shortened season he still managed 595 rushing yards and 9 TDs.  I’m not sure there exists a universe where Dungey is a relevant 2019 rookie but he’ll be fun to watch in 2018 as long as he stays healthy.
  • Travis Homer, RB, Miami:  Homer started the season as the backup to Mark Walton but took over after Walton went down with an injury.  He had a six game stretch in the middle of the season where he totaled 642 yards and 4 TDs; he also added 12-146-1 as a receiver in that span.  Homer did sputter a bit down the stretch but that middle-season burst is encouraging.  Per DLF, Homer is one of the youngest draft eligible players in the 2019 class which could increase his draft stock if he can enhance his numbers this season.
  • Jaylen Smith, WR, Louisville: Our friends at the Dynasty Command Center loved Smith for the 2018 draft before he decided to return to school.  In Volume One of their rookie prospectus they listed Smith as the WR5.  Despite coming back for his senior season, Smith is just 21 years old.  He has elite size at 6040/219 and pairs his big frame with 4.50 speed.  He is a constant deep threat.  Eight of his 60 receptions in 2017 went for 25 or more yards; in 2016, on just 27 receptions, that number was even higher at nine.  A wrist injury caused him to miss time in 2017 but he finished strong with 7-107-1 in the Cardinals’ bowl game.  My biggest concern is whether new starting quarterback Jawon “Puma” Pass can hit Smith downfield with the same frequency.
  • Tommy Sweeney, TE, Boston College:  Sweeney is the leading returning receiver on a potentially ascending BC team.  Last season, he paced the Eagles with 36 receptions, 512 yards and 4 TDs.  The passing offense should improve in 2018 with QB Anthony Brown back under center.  Brown started the year as a redshirt freshman but missed the end of the campaign with an injury; when he was healthy he struggled (11:9, 51.9%) but another year of experience will help.  I have not watched any film of Sweeney but based on his size (6050/255) I expect that he will be able to hold his own as a blocker.
  • Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson:  I don’t have the space, or honestly the expertise, to delve into the Clemson defensive line in this preview.  Suffice it to say that they will be a fearsome group.  Come next Spring, we could see all four of these guys getting first round NFL Draft buzz.  If you don’t believe me, just check out one of many mock drafters who are predicting just that.  Some others are saying that this unit is overrated – let’s ask ACC quarterbacks what they think.
  • Jaquan Johnson, S, Miami:  Johnson is the leading safety prospect according to a number of sources I trust (i.e. Phil Steele’s preview magazine and DraftScout.com).  He’s a former 4-star recruit who decided to stay home and eschew offers from heavyweights like USC, LSU and Clemson.  Johnson became a full-time starter in 2016 and did not disappoint.  He finished with 96 tackles, 4 INTs, 3 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries.  The Miami offense prides itself in forcing turnovers and Johnson was an important link in that chain (pun intended).

Ryan Finley, QB, North Carolina State

Finley is entering his third season as the starting signal caller for NC State.  He transferred from Boise State in 2015 as a graduate transfer.  Finley was granted a sixth year of eligibility because his two seasons at Boise were marred by injuries.  So, he arrived at Raleigh as the rare graduate transfer with three years of eligibility for his new team.  If you’re thinking that Finley must be an old prospect after such a winding road, you’d be right.  Finley is currently 23.6 years old and is the oldest prospect on DLF’s 2019 age table.  Age doesn’t necessarily make or break somebody’s draft stock, but it will be a hurdle Finley needs to overcome in scouts’ eyes.

On the field, Finley has played well but has been more of a distributor than a dynamic playmaker.  He has completed 63.0% of his passes for NC State with a 35:14 ratio over two seasons.  He doesn’t commit many turnovers but he also doesn’t sling the ball around either.  He threw for a career-high 3,514 yards in 2017 but his yards per attempt dropped to 7.4 (sixth best in the ACC).  Finley added a bit on the ground in 2017: 198 yards and 3 TDs.  He’s not the type of prospect whose stats and game logs will garner attention from casual fans.  Instead, Finley will need to impress during film study.

I came away from my viewing of Finley feeling conflicted.  His best trait for me was his awareness, specifically his penchant for fakes of all kinds.  There’s a nuance to his play action and pump fakes that I don’t often notice in other college passers.  He also has a good awareness of the field and situation.  When he scrambles he rarely takes a hit and instead is able to take a track that gets him out of bounds before contact.  This combination of field and situational awareness was perhaps best illustrated by a play against FSU.  The Wolfpack were up eleven late in the game but Finley was in shotgun in his own end zone.  There was a bad snap and as Finley scrambled for the ball, he swatted it out of the back of the end zone for an intentional safety rather than allowing a defender to fall on it for a game-changing touchdown.

Unfortunately the rest of my notes on Finley were less glowing.  He has good accuracy and anticipation on short throws but he’s lacking on intermediate and deep throws.  A number of his deep throws were well overthrown or out of bounds so his receiver had no chance.  Speaking of short throws, many of his attempts are quick screens or slants without multiple reads.  As an athlete he is not quick (maybe 4.75) but he does have functional rushing ability to gain a few yards.  His arm is more confident than strong.  He trusts himself to fit the ball into tight windows but sometimes he lacks the zip or accuracy to get it done.  Right now, I see Finley projecting as an NFL backup with some upside to start an occasional game.  (Film watched: Clemson 2017, Florida State 2017)

Kelvin Harmon, WR, North Carolina State

Harmon emerged as a sophomore in 2017, finishing with 69 receptions, 1,017 yards and 4 TDs.  His season started off with a bang when he had a combined 19-235-1 line to start the year against South Carolina and Marshall.  He also had big games against Notre Dame (7-97-1), Clemson (8-155-1) and Wake Forest (8-105).  He has boom or bust capability, shown by a few duds on the game logs: four games under 25 yards.  Harmon exhibits a good mix of speed, size and strength.  I estimate he has 4.50 speed and he’s listed at 6030/213.  While I think Harmon may measure shorter than 6030, there’s no questioning his ability to win the ball in the air.

Put simply, Harmon excels in contested catch situations.  He often high points the ball and is strong enough to survive the defender and the ground with possession.  He’s also adept at catching the ball over his shoulder while in stride.  He’s a powerful runner after the catch who can break tackles and carry defenders on his back for extra yardage.  In the game against Clemson, I noted two spectacular routes that he ran which gave him separation.  It’s a shame there aren’t more full games cuts of Harmon because I would love to see more of his route running because what I saw was great.  He releases well off the line due to his combination of speed and strength.  If I were to nitpick, I would say that Harmon needs to be eliminate some of his body catches.  Sometimes it’s like he jumps too high which causes him to bring in the ball at his midsection rather than away from the body with his hands.

Based on the above size/speed measureables Harmon would be comparable to guys like Courtland Sutton and Allen Robinson.  I think Harmon will project more like Stefon Diggs in the NFL because of his excellent route running ability.  Harmon will be a first rounder in rookie drafts next year but I suspect his stock will fluctuate as he’s not as “sexy” as some of the other big name receiver prospects.  (Film watched: Clemson 2017, Highlights 2017)

Ahmmon Richards, WR, Miami

Ahmmon Richards starred as a true freshman in 2016.  He earned freshman All-American honors after finishing the year with 49 receptions, 934 yards and 3 TDs.  His 19.1 yards per reception mark was fourth best in the ACC that season.  Expectations were high for Richards in 2017 as a sophomore but unfortunately injury sidelined him to start the season and again in October and then again in December.  Richards ended up playing just 7 games, totaling 24 catches for 439 yards and 3 TDs.  Encouragingly, he finished the regular season strong, combining for 7-98-2 against Virginia and Pitt.  Richards is a lean 6010/190.  At that size, I’d like to see him flash 4.45 speed which looks probable on film.  Per the Hurricanes, he’s ran a 4.31 and a 4.40 on previous attempts but you always need to question school-reported numbers.

Richards’ tape was frustrating to watch.  For starters, he was often the victim of poor quarterback play from Malik Rosier.  This was especially apparent against Florida State where Rosier chucked some ducks.  Pair that with questionable hands from Richards and you have multiple plays that should have gone for points instead of going incomplete.  Richards often body catches the ball; when it does hit his hands he too frequently let’s it zip right through so I question his hand placement and hand strength.  His play strength in contested situations is also lacking.  He’s not the type of receiver who will play above the rim and win jump balls with regularity.  Where Richards excelled is on shorter routes.  He has an elite ability to get off the line and away from press-man coverage on slants.  He quickly slaps the defender’s hands away and can chop through contact to get open.  After the catch, I noted a few plays where Richards showed his speed, cutting ability and some strength to gain extra yards.  He even had an impressive hurdle against Syracuse which showed his athletic ability.  Unfortunately, my sample size was just ten receptions so I want to see more opportunities for RAC this season.  Richards is a willing blocker whom I saw lay out two Seminole defenders (one was a penalty though).  He lined up tight in a few goal line situations and did not block well then but in the open field he’ll at least be average.  I want to see Richards stay healthy this season and improve the consistency of his hands.  If he can pair average hands with his speed and ability to get open at the line he could turn into a valuable NFL asset.  (Film watched: Syracuse 2017, Florida State 2017)


Notes: In an effort to standardize the description of key positional traits, I frequently use the following adjectives: elite, good, above average, average, below average, poor.  My experimental grading system uses a Madden-like approach by weighting position relevant traits on a 100-point scale; bonus or negative points are awarded based on production, size, injury history and character.  Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height.  When watching film for a player, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  For top prospects I may add a third game, while for long shots I might only devote the time for one. 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.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  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
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2019 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, ndtscouting.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, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, 247Sports College Football, College Fantasy Football: On Campus, Underdog Pawdcast, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com, the media home for FWAA members

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  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: 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.

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