The Watch List: 2018 Bowl Game Previews, Part III

Updated: December 22nd 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. 

First Responder Bowl, Boston College (7-5) vs Boise State (10-3), Wed 12/26 at 1:30pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State
    • Stop me if you’ve heard this before… the 2019 quarterback class is one of the weakest in the last decade. Because of that position scarcity, mediocre quarterbacks will find their draft stock waxing. Rypien is better than mediocre so it’s inevitable that he’s overdrafted. When I watched him in the preseason, I came away with a positive impression but was not blown away. He’s been a four-year starter for a successful Boise State team (although he lost some starter’s snaps in 2017). He is average in size (6020/202) but has a strong enough arm. In my notes I questioned his touch near the end zone and his ability to feel the blindside rush. Compared to 2017, Rypien improved his rate stats and ended with a very good 3,705-30-7 line. His 2018 performance was enough to earn him MWC Offensive Player of the Year honors. If I had to guess right now, I would say that Rypien gets drafted on Day Two which makes him a possible target for you in your 2019 rookie drafts.
  • My Pick: Boise State, -3
    • Is it possible that Boston College would have a better shot in this one if star RB AJ Dillon sat out due to his lingering injuries? That might sound crazy but it might be true because the strength of Boise’s defense is against the run (ranked 22nd). Boston College QB Anthony Brown has shown some flashes in the games I’ve watched but Rypien is the far better signal caller. Expect the defense to keep it low scoring (the last five Boise State games have gone under) and for Rypien to manage the game and milk the Broncos time of possession advantage.

Quick Lane Bowl, Minnesota (6-6) vs Georgia Tech (7-5), Wed 12/26 at 5:15pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Tyler Johnson, WR, Minnesota
    • I’ve had Tyler Johnson on my watch list for awhile now but I unfortunately haven’t had a chance to dive in. Despite being a Big Ten apologist, I think I went the entire regular season without watching a snap of the Gophers. Johnson ranked second in the conference with 1,112 yards and added 10 TDs. His 74 receptions was more than double his output in 2017 which is a sign of positive progression. I watched two of Johnson’s game from 2017 and was disappointed.  He predominantly lines up outside but I don’t think he’ll have the size or strength to do so in the NFL.  His hands were inconsistent (too many drops, too often let the ball get into his body) and he did not succeed enough in contested situations. I haven’t seen anything definitive about whether Johnson will declare early (he probably will) but I think he’d be better served from another season at Minnesota.
  • My Pick: Georgia Tech, -5.5
    • This is one of the bigger numbers we’ve seen so far. I’ll lean towards Georgia Tech solely because of the novelty of their offense. Minnesota has more time to prepare than for a regular season game but even if they slow the Yellow Jackets’ rushing attack they will still control the game and put up points. Tech leads the FBS in rushing yards per game (335.0) by a whopping margin (38.7 yards per game more than 2nd ranked Army). Minnesota’s rush defense is a middling 76th best. Even though they lost RB KirVonte Benson early in the year, Georgia Tech still managed to finish with seven rushers over 200 yards each. Tech will roll.

Cheez-It Bowl, TCU (6-6) vs Cal (7-5), Wed 12/26 at 9:00pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Ben Banogu, DE, TCU
    • Banogu is a former transfer from Louisiana-Monroe who joined TCU in 2017 and factored in immediately. His 2017 and 2018 lines are remarkably similar: 55-16.5-8.5 and 52-17.0-7.5. Banogu is well built as listed 6040/249 but I fear those numbers may be inflated.  When I watched his tape against Oklahoma from this season he looked slight.  Granted, my exposure was limited to that one game against a team with a good offensive line, but in that film he lacked the play strength and power moves to make an impact at the next level.  When he does impact the play it’s because of his raw speed rather than technique or strength. I also noticed two missed tackles and a play where he lost contain which led to a touchdown. My initial gut reaction is that Banogu is somebody who will be overdrafted based on production and measureables but struggle to find a role as anything but a situational speed rusher.
  • My Pick: Cal, +2
    • Blah. I’m not sure about other college football fans but I am just finding it impossible to get excited about this one. Vegas felt the same because the game opened even. Since then it’s moved towards TCU being the favorite even though they are 4-8 ATS. Cal isn’t much better (6-5-1) but OddsShark.com has them winning by nearly seven. This looks to be a game where casual fans are taking TCU for the recent name recognition and you can get a bargain with Cal at +2.

Independence Bowl, Temple (8-4) vs Duke (7-5), Thur 12/27 at 1:30pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Daniel Jones, QB, Duke
    • Jones is one of the more polarizing quarterback prospects in the weak 2019 class. I started the season with Jones as my QB2 (behind Herbert) but would probably bump him down a bit if I were ranking today (at least behind Haskins too). Jones has a lot to improve upon, namely his touch and accuracy, but he has physical tools that others don’t. He has good size at 6050/220, is a productive runner (16 career rushing TDs) and throws well on the run. Unfortunately, Jones has been battling injuries and his status for this one is up in the air. He showed immense toughness by coming back from an in-season broken clavicle so I would not count him out. If he does not play, keep an eye on the status of Temple RB Ryquell Armstead. He’s also banged up and may not play. If he does, you could get a glimpse of an interesting prospect. If the name sounds familiar it’s because he rushed for four scores against Boston College and another six against Houston.
  • My Pick: Duke, +3.5
    • With both teams missing key offensive pieces, I’ll take the points. Duke is better than Temple when it comes to turnovers and penalties which could be the edge in a game I expect to be pretty boring and low scoring. Duke is 5-0 ATS this season when receiving points so this one feels like a safe, but small, bet.

Pinstripe Bowl, Wisconsin (7-5) vs Miami (7-5), Thur 12/27 at 5:15pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Jaquan Johnson, S, Miami
    • Picking a draft eligible player was tough for this one because both teams have so many guys who will get drafted who casual fans just won’t pay attention to.  Wisconsin could have four offensive linemen drafted in the first 100 picks and the same could be said for Miami’s defense.  I settled on Johnson because he’s somebody I have mentioned in the past and have some familiarity with.  Johnson’s stats decreased this season due to missing time with a hamstring injury but he was still productive and led the team in tackles (79).  He also has 7 career INTs and a combined 9 forced and recovered fumbles.  He’s listed at 5110/190 which is a bit small for a physical box safety.  In the last three draft classes, only one safety (Justin Evans, 198) was drafted in the first three rounds at less than 200lbs.  I watched Johnson’s tape against Boston College and he definitely profiles more as a strong safety than a free safety.  He frequently lines up near the line of scrimmage or over a slot receiver and rarely in deep coverage.  He’s good in run support with no qualms about flowing to the ball carrier despite his smaller frame.  Johnson has first round potential so keep an eye on him in this one against the run-first Badgers.
  • My Pick: Wisconsin, +3.5
    • These two teams matched up less than a year ago in the Orange Bowl.  That one went Wisconsin’s way with a final of 34-24.  I see a similar outcome for the 2018 rendition.  The key will be Wisconsin’s rushing attack with RB Jonathan Taylor and that brick-wall offensive line.  Miami’s 24th ranked rushing defense allows just 127.3 yards so something’s gotta give and I expect it’ll be them.  I’ve been hard on Miami since their undefeated run to start 2017 so I admit this pick may be jaded.  I would take the Badgers on the moneyline so the 3.5 is just gravy.

Texas Bowl, Baylor (6-6) vs Vanderbilt (6-6), Thur 12/27 at 9:00pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Denzel Mims, WR, Baylor
    • Mims will be an interesting prospect for 2019 because he has an excellent combination of size and speed.  The question will be whether his strength and technique can improve enough in the offseason to make him the complete package at receiver.  Mims is listed at 6030/208 and is a former track star in high school.  I found a high school track stat site that list listed Mims’ personal best in the 100-meter dash as 10.88 seconds.  That would equate to 4.01 seconds for a 40-yard dash.  Certainly the races aren’t the same and you can’t just apply that simple math but my point is that this dude is quick.  I’d love to see even bigger production from Mims (110 receptions, 1,786 yards and 16 TDs over the last two seasons) but the numbers are good enough.  I watched his 2017 tape against Oklahoma and I came away impressed.  He showed an ability to hands-catch the ball away from his body, excellent body control and leaping ability.  Mims alone might turn this game into a must-watch for me.
  • My Pick: Baylor, +4.5
    • The safest bet in this one might actually be the under because both teams have gone under in their last three.  When I’m stuck between two medicore teams, I’ll usually lean towards the better offense.  Baylor leads Vandy in most offensive categories, most importantly: points and time of possession.  Thursday would be a good time to plan some time with the family because you can record the game and fast forward to Baylor’s offensive possessions for some Mims exposure.

Music City Bowl, Auburn (7-5) vs Purdue (6-6), Fri 12/28 at 1:30pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn
    • Stidham certainly won’t be the best pro prospect on the field in this one but his is an interesting story.  I’ve previously compared Stidham to Alex Smith because he had the feel of a future game manager with enough athleticism to make plays with his legs in clutch situations.  Unfortunately, Stidham struggled in 2018.  His completion percentage, yards per attempt, rating and ratio all decreased significantly from 2017.  Similarly, he was less effective as a runner (and was sacked more frequently).  Stidham has already accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl so he’ll have two more shots to show scouts that his issues were more a product of the Auburn offense than he himself.
  • My Pick: Purdue, +3.5
    • Similary to the Texas Bowl, I’ll take Purdue and the points because they have the better O.  Specifically, the Boilermakers will feature the game’s biggest playmaker in WR Rondale Moore.  Moore earned consensus All-American honors earlier this month, the first freshman to do so since Adrian Peterson in 2004.  Moore ended with 121 touches for 1,367 yards and 13 TDs: just awesome.  It’s probably not best to bet a game based on one player’s potential performance but ultimately betting is entertainment for me and there’s nobody more entertaining in college football right now than Rondale Moore.

Camping World Bowl, Syracuse (9-3) vs West Virginia (9-3), Fri 12/28 at 5:15pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: David Sills, WR, West Virginia
    • Since his quarterback (Will Grier) is sitting out the game, I expect Sills to be a focal point of the broadcast. He has a very interesting backstory, he was recruited by Lane Kiffin as a middle school quarterback, and has been uber productive. Sills proved to be a red zone monster in 2017 by leading the FBS in receiving touchdowns with 18 (12 of which came in the red zone). He nearly duplicated the feat in 2018 by catching 15 more (9). Sills is listed at 6040 but he feels bigger than that because he is long and lean. I’d like to see him add a few pounds to his 210lb frame in order to withstand the abuse that a boundary receiver endures in the NFL. Sills may not get the hype of some of the top receivers in this outstanding class but he will certainly be productive in the pros.
  • My Pick: Syracuse, +1.5
    • The Orange have been a good story this season and I’m thinking there’s a good chance it continues in the Camping World Bowl. Syracuse QB Eric Dungey is one of my favorite players so it’s a shame he is so often injured. It appears that he’s healthy enough now so ‘Cuse should have the edge under center with draft hopeful Will Grier preserving himself. Dungey himself could get late round or priority UDFA consideration despite the injuries. Syracuse has the nation’s 12th ranked offense (40.8 points per game) and should overpower the Mountaineers.

Alamo Bowl, Iowa State (8-4) vs Washington State (10-2), Fri 12/28 at 9:00pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: David Montgomery, RB, Iowa State
    • I’ve developed a soft spot for David Montgomery. He might have the best highlight reels of anybody in the draft class and seems like a good kid from what I’ve seen in profiles. Back in 2017, I figured it would be between he and WR N’Keal Harry for the 2019 1.01 spot. Unfortunately, it’s becoming more difficult to explain away Montgomery’s limitations by pointing to his flashy plays. Montgomery lacks top-end or long speed (I expect him to run in the 4.50-4.60 range). He also gets stuffed in the backfield or for no gain too often which makes me question his vision at the line of scrimmage. This observation is borne out in the stats too: his career average of 4.7 yards per carry is low for somebody considered the best of the bunch. Montgomery does have fantastic contact balance and can break tackles. He caught 18 balls in 2018 but showed in 2017 that he can be a bigger part of the passing game (36 receptions). One interesting thing I noticed while watching him is a spin move that he utilizes sometimes when catching the ball out of the backfield. It forces the first defender to miss and can lead to big plays.
  • My Pick: Washington State, -3.5
    • I’ve been rooting for both of these underdog teams all season so I’m looking forward to see them face off in this bowl. The outcome will be decided by the Washington State passing offense vs the Iowa State passing defense. Wazzou paced the FBS in passing offense (379.8 yards per game), led by QB Gardner Minshew who quietly finished 5th in Heisman voting, Meanwhile the Cyclones rank 63rd in passing defense (228.8). It’ll be close late but I think Washington State is good enough to continue to win ATS (10-2 this season).

 

Lines and betting stats courtesy of OddsShark.com, as of 12/11.

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 Week 2 Preview

Updated: September 6th 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. 

Games to Watch

  • Arizona at Houston, 12:00pm on ABC/ESPN2:  DT Ed Oliver started the season strong with 13 tackles against Rice in Week 1.  Unless he completely implodes this season he’ll remain atop most positional rankings for the 2019 NFL Draft.  It will be interesting to see him chasing Arizona QB Khalil Tate.  Tate rushed for a short yardage score against BYU in the opener but otherwise had just 7 attempts for 12 yards.
  • UCLA at #6 Oklahoma, 1:00pm on FOX:  New UCLA coach Chip Kelly got off to a rough start with a loss last week against Cincinnati and it doesn’t look like he’ll be able to rebound in Norman.  OU got off to a solid start on offense with QB Kyler Murray tossing 2 TDs and 209 yards on just 11 attempts.  Similarly, RB Rodney Anderson dominated, rushing for 100 yards and 2 TDs on just five carries.  It’s premature to say definitively, but Anderson is growing on me and will contend for my RB1 spot come the Spring.
  • #3 Georgia at #24 South Carolina, 3:30pm on CBS:  This game is one of the reasons I picked South Carolina as a team to watch in the SEC.  It’s rare to play your biggest divisional game so early in the season before teams are in their groove.  The fact that the Gamecocks get the game at home is even more encouraging.  Both teams dominated FCS foes last week so we didn’t really learn anything.  I’m still picking Georgia to get the road victory but this game is a must-watch for the chance that it totally upends the CFP.
  • Iowa State at Iowa, 5:00pm on FOX:  Iowa State’s opener was cancelled so this will be our first chance to see RB David Montgomery, one of my favorites from last season.  The fact that this one also includes Iowa draft hopefuls QB Nate Stanley and TE Noah Fant make it a good midday watch if the 3:30pm games are blowouts.
  • Kentucky at #25 Florida, 7:30pm on SEC Network:  Kentucky hasn’t beaten Florida since 1986 but this may be the year.  I am not a Florida fan and I will likely find myself picking against them all year.  This one is easy for me to pick against the Gators though because I’m becoming a Benny Snell fan.  He started the season well with 125 yards and 2 TDs on 20 carries against Central Michigan to start the season.  He’s likely to be a 2019 fantasy asset so you might as well start paying attention now.
  • #17 USC at #12 Stanford, 8:30pm on FOX:  I literally put my money where my mouth is when it comes to USC this season.  Now that sports betting is legal in New Jersey, I placed a few season long futures and one of which was the over on 8.5 wins for the Trojans.  USC let UNLV hang around last week but they ended up winning convincingly in the 4th quarter.  USC’s true freshmen stole the show in that contest.  QB JT Daniels threw for 282 yards and a TD while WR Amon-Ra St. Brown caught 7 balls for 98 yards and a score.  Their 4th quarter touchdown connection was a beauty and is hopefully a sign of things to come.  When Stanford has the ball, the two who should have your attention are RB Bryce Love and WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside.  Love disappointed with just 29 yards on 18 carries so he’ll need a big bounce back game to stay in Heisman consideration; I’ll cover Arcega-Whiteside more below.  USC may be too inexperienced for this early-season conference matchup but it’ll be a fun one to watch regardless.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • Daniel Jones, QB, Duke:  Jones started well against Army last week.  He completed 13 of 17 passes for 197 yards and a TD while adding 43 yards and a touch on the ground.  I still believe Jones has the raw tools to be the top quarterback in this class but he has to prove that he can play with the same efficiency for an entire season.
  • Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama:  Tua isn’t draft eligible so don’t get too excited yet but my god did he look explosive against Louisville.  I don’t know if he has the mechanics of the position down yet but there’s an ease and fluidity to his movement that you don’t see in other players.  It’s like he’s playing at a higher frame rate than the other 21 guys on the field.
  • Patrick Laird, RB, Cal:  Laird had an impressive 33 touches against UNC in the opener, gaining 109 total yards and 2 TDs.  Laird posseses good size (6000/205) and pass catching ability (45 receptions last season; switched from receiver).  Laird is a former walk-on who impressed me in interviews at PAC-12 Media Day while talking about his children’s summer reading campaign.  He may not be a top prospect but I’ll bet his combination of size, hands and character lands him on an NFL roster.
  • TJ Vasher, WR, Texas Tech:  Vasher made the highlight catch of the weekend with a ridiculous Odell-esque one-hander.  He is a lean redshirt sophomore who is listed at 6060/190.  He should blow away last year’s 29-545-6 line by midseason on the high powered Texas Tech offense.

JJ Arcega-Whiteside, WR, Stanford

  • Listed at 6030/225 per sports-reference.com
  • Film watched: USC 2017, SDSU 2018
  • 2017: 11 games, 48 receptions, 781 yards, 16.3 yards per reception, 9 TDs
  • 2018: 1 game, 6 receptions, 226 yards, 37.7 yards per reception, 3 TDs

If JJ Arcega-Whiteside is going to be a big name this year (pun intended), we need to agree on a nickname for him.  I submit: J-JAW.  Sure it’s an obvious one and misplaces the hyphen but it sounds pretty awesome.  Do you know what else is pretty awesome?  Arcega-Whiteside’s performance in Week 1 against San Diego State.  I wasn’t home during the game so I didn’t get to see it live but every time I fired up Twitter it seemed like he had just made another highlight catch.  I was able to watch some extended highlights after the game and was definitely impressed.  So much so that I decided he would be the first player I would spotlight this season.  Arcega-Whiteside’s biggest strength is his ability to play above the rim and dominate in the air.  He is strong and can easily box out the defender.  Here’s a good example of his ability to use his body to keep the defender out of the passing lane:

His ball tracking appears to be good to elite.  His hands are good and he often hand-catches the ball rather than letting it get into his body.  In the limited sample I watched he also showed good sideline awareness to make plays near the boundary.  Below is an example of him using all three skills on a single play.  The defender’s hand flashes in front of his eyes just as he’s about to catch the ball but he manages to still make the grab while spotting the landing.

Arcega-Whiteside isn’t a burner but does have enough speed to create separation on downfield routes.  Because of his jump-ball play style, he does not often find himself in RAC situations (save for a long score against SDSU when the defender fell down).  DraftScout.com predicts his speed to be 4.59 but I think he looked a shade quicker.  I need to see more to give him an accurate comparison but as far as size and speed go, you can equate him to somebody like Allen Robinson.  I saw comps on Twitter to Mike Evans which I can see when it comes to him winning in the air but Evans is at another level physically.  My viewing did not expose me to much of Arcega-Whiteside as a blocker or as a route runner.  I’ll need more time, and more film, to give him a proper grade in these areas.

J-JAW’s fantastic first game put him squarely on my radar for the 2019 NFL Draft.  We should monitor him closely over the next few games, especially this week against a superior USC defense.  If he continues to produce he’ll deserve a deep dive in the offseason.

 


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, 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: 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 II

Updated: December 14th 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.

Friday, Dec. 22

Bahamas Bowl, UAB (8-4) vs. Ohio (8-4), 12:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • UAB: 67th scoring offense, 106th passing offense, 37th rushing offense; 46th scoring defense, 22nd passing defense, 72nd rushing defense
  • Ohio: 14th scoring offense, 94th passing offense, 17th rushing offense; 59th scoring defense, 109th passing defense, 10th rushing defense

The offensive/defensive rankings in this one make for an interesting matchup.  Neither team throws the ball well but both run the ball with aplomb (UAB averages 190 yards per game while Ohio averages 245).  When UAB is running the ball it’ll be strength against strength with the Ohio rush defense.  Ohio’s offense is led by the two-pronged ground attack of JUCO transfer QB Nathan Rourke and RB AJ Ouellette.  Rourke has an incredible amount of rushing touchdowns: 21.  That is 2nd overall in the FBS – not among QBs, among all players.  It’s four more than Lamar Jackson has.  Ouellette is injured and his status for the bowl is unknown.  He finished 5th in the MAC in rushing but durability is a concern as I pointed out back in Week 10 before his most recent injury.  Backup RB Dorian Brown is also questionable so the bulk of the carries may have to go to undersized freshman Julian Ross (who went 19-81 against Buffalo in the team’s last game).  UAB also has their own mobile QB, AJ Erdely, who transferred from Middle Tennessee State.  Eredely’s rushing stats pale in comparison to Rourke, but he completes more passes (61.8% vs 54.2%) and has a better TD:INT ratio.  UAB’s lead back is freshman Spencer Brown (1,292 yards, 10 TDs).  It’s worth noting that this is UAB’s first season back in the FBS after ending their football program in 2014.  Bill Clark is a name that nobody knows but that should be getting national recognition.  He has done a fantastic job getting UAB to just its second ever bowl while also setting the school record for wins in a season since joining the FBS in 1996.  I’m really torn on this one.  As much as I’d love to root for a UAB bowl victory, which would have been improbable in September, the Bahamas Bowl will come down to the health of Ohio’s running backs and whether their rush defense can slow down Brown.  I’ll guess that one of the injured Ohio backs can play and that UAB won’t be able to slow down the tandem with Nathan Rourke.  Prediction: Ohio

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Central Michigan (8-4) vs. Wyoming (7-5), 4 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Central Michigan: 54th scoring offense, 48th passing offense, 93rd rushing offense; 68th scoring defense, 23rd passing defense, 91st rushing defense
  • Wyoming: 108th scoring offense, 101st passing offense, 120th rushing offense; 13th scoring defense, 5th passing defense, 74th rushing defense

This is an odd game to break down.  When I first saw that Wyoming ended bowl eligible and was picked for a game, I figured I would have to go deep on QB Josh Allen but I find myself more excited by the Chippewas.  Allen, as you probably know, is a first round NFL Draft prospect who struggled mightily this season before hurting his shoulder.  That 101st ranking for the Cowboys’ passing offense is not a typo – they were that bad.  Honestly, the shoulder injury might have done more to help his draft stock rather than hurt it.  Before going down, Allen was averaging just 165.8 yards per game with a disappointing 56.2% completion percentage.  His passer rating was 124.0 (ranked 97th in the FBS).  Allen’s yards per pass also decreased about 25% from last season.  So, if the stats are so bad, why is Allen still considered a first round draft prospect?  Because he can do things like this.  That play is loaded with positives if you watch closely.  First off, Allen is under center (which he does a minority of the time but it’s more than most other QB prospects).  Second, he really sells the play fake, using his prototypical size to hide the ball from the defense.  Third, he delivers a nicely timed ball to his back who is running a wheel route from the backfield.  Despite all the negatives, it’s this potential that has scouts excited.  I’m hopeful that Allen plays so we can see him once more heading into the NFL Draft.  Heading into the season, I predicted good things for Central Michigan and thought they would be a “spoiler” in the conference.  Turns out, I had that right.  CMU won close games against Western Michigan and Northern Illinois, both of which were predicted to finish ahead of them in the division by Phil Steele; they even got a win over Ohio, the predicted best in the East division.  CMU has two players I like: former Michigan QB Shane Morris and big play WR Corey Willis.  Morris turns the ball over too much (13 INTs) and does not complete enough of his passes to be a real worry but he’s experienced and a former Michigan man so I like him.  If you throw out a bad game against Boston College his stats would look better (yeah, yeah, I know I’m cherry picking).  In the preseason, I compared Willis to John Brown from the Arizona Cardinals and thought his draft stock could mirror that of 2016 stat-stuffer Taywan Taylor.  Unfortunately, injuries slowed Willis and limited him to just eight games.  Still, those games were encouraging.  He totaled 42-625-9 on the season and had four big games since returning from injury.  Willis has at least one touchdown in five straight games, scoring eight of his nine touchdowns in that span.  It doesn’t get much more under the radar than Willis: NFLDraftScout.com has him as the 46th ranked receiver in his class while Phil Steele had him as the 72nd ranked draft eligible receiver.  I might be the only draft analyst advocating for Willis but I really am a believer and will enjoy watching him in the bowl game and at the combine.  Prediction: Central Michigan

Saturday, Dec. 23

Birmingham Bowl, Texas Tech (6-6) vs. South Florida (9-2), 12 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Texas Tech: 26th scoring offense, 11th passing offense, 96th rushing offense; 98th scoring defense, 124th passing defense, 53rd rushing defense
  • South Florida: 16th scoring offense, 54th passing offense, 9th rushing offense; 37th scoring defense, 58th passing defense, 23rd rushing defense

Here’s a prop bet for you: take the over on the total number of yards earned by Texas Tech and South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl.  I’ll guess that combined the teams gain somewhere between 950-1,000 yards combined.  This one may not feature the best football but it will be fun to watch.  It’ll be long too with all the scoring so I recommend DVRing it and watching it on fast forward later in the day.  Not surprisingly this is the first matchup between the two teams in their history and it was made possible by the fact that the SEC didn’t have enough teams to fulfill all of its bowl tie-ins.  That isn’t to say the SEC was weak, it’s just that Georgia, Alabama and Auburn will all be playing in a New Year’s Six bowl which means less teams for the lower bowls.  Texas Tech’s offense is led by junior QB Nic Shimonek and WR Keke Coutee.  Shimonek is very efficient as a passer and ranks near the top of many passing categories such as completions, completion percentage and passer rating.  His TD:INT ratio is 30:8 which is good too.  Even though he has thrown the ball well this season, he was briefly benched for a game by coach Kliff Klingsbury.  Shimonek came off the bench versus Texas in that game and led the team to a win; he’s already been confirmed as the bowl game starter.  His top target, Coutee, has an 82-1,242-9 line on the season.  South Florida is powered by the legs and the arm of QB Quinton Flowers.  Flowers has 31 total passing and rushing touchdowns this season and 107 during his career.  It’s a shame he’s so undersized (6’0″ and 210lbs) or he’d be a fun draft prospect to evaluate; chances are he’ll still give the NFL a shot but likely after a position change.  Flowers is a winner: he has led the Bulls to a 29-9 record over the last three seasons.  He should notch another one here to cap off a prolific career.  Prediction: South Florida

 

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, Army (8-3) vs San Diego State (10-2), 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Army: 43rd scoring offense, 130th passing offense, 1st rushing offense; 30th scoring defense, 40th passing defense, 54th rushing defense
  • San Diego State: 50th scoring offense, 118th passing offense, 12th rushing offense; 15th scoring defense, 26th passing defense, 8th rushing defense

Oh San Diego State, one of my favorite teams of the year.  Their 12th ranked rushing offense is paced by RB Rashaad Penny who has undoubtedly made himself a millionaire this season with his meteoric rise.  In the preseason, I mentioned Penny as a special teams difference maker.  In Week 3, I discussed how Penny helped the Aztecs overcome their first Power 5 opponent in Arizona State.  By Week 5, the Aztecs made it into my “Games to Watch” segment with Penny as the headliner.  Come Week 6, I spotlighted Penny as my top player to watch that week and had already run out of superlatives for his success.  A week later, Penny was in my “Heisman Watch” segment.  Sure, Penny’s meteor has fallen back to earth but he’s still a great player who deserves your attention.  Penny has 2,169 total yards (most in the FBS) and 24 total TDs on the season.  Those scores break down to 19 rushing, 2 receiving, 2 kick return and 1 punt return.  He truly is a jack-of-all-trades and may be a top ten RB in the 2018 rookie class.  Army is led by senior QB Ahmad Bradshaw.  Bradshaw is a “quarterback” only in the sense that he takes the ball from under center each play.  He passes so infrequently that Sports-Reference.com shows his rushing stats ahead of his passing stats (he went 1-1 for 20 yards against Navy).  He is a very effective rusher who averages 7.5 yards per attempt, for a total of 1,566 yards and 12 TDs this season.  Not surprisingly, Army has a stable of backs with 500+ yards including Darnell Woolfolk, Kell Walker and Andy Davidson.  If you didn’t watch Army’s last game against Navy in the snow, you missed one heck of a game that Army pulled out late.  The game against Navy is, without a doubt, the biggest game of their season but I’m sure they will get up again next week for SDSU.  Ultimately, I think the strong Aztec defense plus Penny will be too much to overcome for Army.  In case this one is close, I will note that San Diego State has a good kicker in John Baron; he only went 12-15 this season because the offense converted drives into touchdowns but he can be counted on in the clutch.  Prediction: San Diego State

Dollar General Bowl, Toledo (11-2) vs. Appalachian State (8-4), 7 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Toledo: 11th scoring offense, 20th passing offense, 26th rushing offense; 56th scoring defense, 49th passing defense, 68th rushing defense
  • Appalachian State: 33rd scoring offense, 72nd passing offense, 28th rushing offense; 33rd scoring defense, 45th passing defense, 43rd rushing defense

Saturday Dec. 23 is looking to be a great day of good games, finishing off with yet another high scoring affair in the Dollar General Bowl.  Toledo ended the season on a three game winning streak including the MAC Championship against Akron.  Toledo is led by the strength of their offense.  Senior RB Terry Swanson is the standout back of the bunch (1,319 yards, 14 TDs).  Swanson went for 466 yards and 3 TDs over the last three games of the season including 180-2 in the MAC Championship.  Freshman RB Shakif Seymour has earned a larger role of late, especially after a five touchdown game against Bowling Green.  The top target for QB Logan Woodside, more on him in a moment, is WR Diontae Johnson.  Johnson is a big play guy who averages 17.5 yards per reception and also has two return touchdowns this season.  The aforementioned Woodside is Toledo’s best draft prospect but he’s maybe a 7th rounder at best heading into the combine.  I watched Woodside earlier in the year against Eastern Michigan and he mostly disappointed in that one.  He had fantastic numbers last season (4,129 yards, 45 TDs, 69.1% completion percentage) but just about all of his stats except INTs has regressed in 2017.  It’s looking more and more like Woodside will be an UDFA but who knows maybe that works out the best for him so he can choose his landing spot.  I included Appalachian State RB Jalin Moore in my Early 2018 Positional Rankings for one reason: his pass blocking will get him drafted.  Per Pro Football Focus, Moore has the highest pass blocking efficiency by a running back in the FBS.  It was a good thing to see Moore get 12 receptions this year (just five in his first two seasons) because if he’s going to be on the field in pass blocking situations in the NFL he better work on his receiving skills.  Moore battled a foot injury this season and missed some time but when he was healthy he was very productive.  He had two games over 200 yards (239 and 241) and two games over 100 yards where he also scored 2 TDs.  The Mountaineers QB Taylor Lamb is a four year starter who will be playing in his last game for the team.  He’s a dual threat (539 yards and 5 TDs rushing) and careful with the ball (just 6 INTs this year).  I went into researching this game thinking I would take Toledo and Woodside but I’m now leaning towards App State.  They have the better defense and I have a gut feeling Lamb will show-out.  Prediction: Appalachian State

Sunday, Dec. 24

Hawaii Bowl, Fresno State (9-4) vs. Houston (7-4), 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Fresno State: 79th scoring offense, 66th passing offense, 77th rushing offense; 9th scoring defense, 37th passing defense, 14th rushing defense
  • Houston: 67th scoring offense, 38th passing offense, 54th rushing offense; 39th scoring defense, 118th passing defense, 46th rushing defense

Fresno State is probably the bowl team that I have the least feel for – I can’t recall watching a single minute of their games this season before the MWC Championship.  Fresno won four straight to earn that MWC Championship game berth, including a win over 23rd ranked Boise State.  Lead WR KeeSean Johnson could be a longshot 2019 NFL Draft prospect if he improves his stats again in 2018.  His receptions, yards, yards per reception and touchdowns have all increased year over year.  In 2017 he finished with 66 receptions, 918 yards and 8 TDs.  Fresno’s rush attack is led by a trio of underclassman including freshman Jordan Mims (142 attempts, 604 yards, 6 TDs), sophomore Josh Hokit (117-519-7) and freshman Ronnie Rivers (95-473-5).  Mims is the go-to guy, he had 10+ carries in eight straight games before the MWC Championship game, but it’s definitely a “hot hand” situation.  The Cougars offense is not in good shape, despite their middling rankings, and clearly misses former head coach Tom Herman.  They are currently on their third starting quarterback, having settled on dual threat freshman D’Erig King in late October.  Since taking over, King has 6 passing TDs and 7 rushing TDs.  Houston has one player that you must watch: DT Ed Oliver.  Oliver is just a sophomore so he’s not draft eligible but I’ll bet he’s in the conversation for a Top 10 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.  He’s 6’3″ and 290lbs but athletic.  His stats won’t be amazing because he is often double teamed but he still managed 69 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 3 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 2017.  Total gut call but I have more faith in Fresno State’s offense after doing my research so I’ll take them and the bonus that is their strong defense.  Prediction: Fresno State

Tuesday, Dec. 26

Heart of Dallas Bowl, West Virginia (7-5) vs. Utah (6-6), 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • West Virginia: 19th scoring offense, 12th passing offense, 72nd rushing offense; 92nd scoring defense, 101st passing defense, 105th rushing defense
  • Utah: 59th scoring offense, 43rd passing offense, 70th rushing offense; 42nd scoring defense, 54th passing defense, 36th rushing defense

West Virginia enters the Heart of Dallas Bowl with their 12th ranked pass offense in flux.  QB Will Grier is questionable after a finger injury ended his season early.  In the game and a half the Mountaineers played without Grier, backup Chris Chugunov went 24-46 for 326 yards and 1 TD.  The team did lose both of those games though, one against Texas and one against Oklahoma.  I covered Grier back in Week 8 but since he’s injured I won’t go into more detail here other than to say that I am lower on him than others.  The must-watch offensive prospect, in my opinion, on West Virginia is QB turned WR David Sills.  Sills has good height at 6’3″ and uses that size to be a dominant red zone target.  Sills totaled 18 TDs on the season (enough to lead the FBS); 12 of those TDs came in the red zone.  NFLDraftScout.com predicts Sills to have 4.58 speed which not elite but is good enough and subsequently has him as the 6th ranked WR in his 2019 draft class (note: that does not include other 2018 guys who come out early). WalterFootball.com has him as the 14th if he were to come out this season.  I have Sills as my 10th WR for 2018 so I really like his potential.   I’ll predict that coach Dana Holgorsen calls up a key trick play where Sills gets to throw the ball and remind everybody that he used to play QB.  Utah is also dealing with an injured quarterback as Tyler Huntley is questionable for the bowl.  Troy Williams, a former Washington transfer who started in 2016, has not played particularly well in relief duty this year (2 TDs, 4 INTs, 54.5% completion percentage).  Senior WR Darren Carrington was unable to cement his status as an NFL Draft prospect but he’ll still get a late round look (66-918-6 this season).  The Utes best shot at a win is to ride RB Zack Moss.  Moss has 1,023 yards rushing, 9 rushing TDs, 28 receptions and 234 yards receiving this season.  When Utah has the ball, pay attention to West Virginia S Kyzir White, brother of Bears WR Kevin White.  White is a top safety prospect who has 81 tackles and 3 INTs this season.  As long as Chugunov can get the ball to Sills and target-hog Gary Jennings (94 receptions) the Mountaineers will be fine against a mediocre Utah team.  Prediction: West Virginia

Quick Lane Bowl, Northern Illinois (8-4) vs. Duke (6-6), 5:15 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Northern Illinois: 51st scoring offense, 87th passing offense, 38th rushing offense; 26th scoring defense, 57th passing defense, 11th rushing defense
  • Duke: 86th scoring offense, 80th passing offense, 59th rushing offense; 25th scoring defense, 12th passing defense, 62nd rushing defense

Duke was recently in the college football headlines because head coach David Cutcliffe was offered, and declined, the Tennessee job.  Considering what a sideshow that search became, I think we would all agree that was a good decision by Cutcliffe.  Cutcliffe has brought relevance to a struggling Duke program (they went to four straight bowls from 2012-2015) but finished just 4-8 last season.  I’m not a Duke fan and don’t follow the team closely but from afar I have to say that I like Cutcliffe and appreciate that he shunned a bigger job to continue building at Duke.  Maybe one reason Cutcliffe decided to return was the opportunity to continue working with redshirt sophomore QB Daniel Jones.  Jones has prototypical height at 6’5″ but needs to add weight to his 215lb frame.  Of the 18 quarterbacks who were drafted since 2010 and measured at 6’5″ or taller at the combine, none weighed less than 223lbs.  Per my two favorite draft sources, WalterFootball.com has him as the 15th ranked quarterback if he came out in 2018 while NFLDraftScout pegs him as the 6th best if he waits until 2020.  Jones will be best served by another season or two in college because he wouldn’t get drafted today based on his production.  His completion percentage is too low (55.7%) and his TD:INT is poor (12:11).  Part of that could be excused by a lackluster supporting cast but a top quarterback prospect needs to transcend his team.  Keep an eye on Jones to see if he improves next season.  The NIU quarterback situation is the polar opposite of the stability that Duke enjoys.  Like the Houston Cougars, the Huskies are on their third starting quarterback this year, moving on from the first two due to injury and ineffectiveness.  They are currently starting dual threat freshman Marcus Childers.  Childers took over in October and has been productive: 20 combined passing and rushing TDs.  Protecting the blindside of Childers is a mountain of a man named Max Scharping.  Scharping, a junior, is 6’6″ and 312lbs.  Per Pro Football Focus he is third in the nation in pass blocking efficiency by offensive tackles.  According to their stat guide, Scharping has only allowed one hit and just four hurries.  If Scharping comes out, I’ll bet he’s a Day Two prospect.  Neither team really won my heart here but I’ll go with NIU and their stronger scoring offense.  Prediction: Northern Illinois

Cactus Bowl, Kansas State (7-5) vs. UCLA (6-6), 9 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Kansas State: 37th scoring offense, 99th passing offense, 42nd rushing offense; 58th scoring defense, 129th passing defense, 18th rushing defense
  • UCLA: 30th scoring offense, 5th passing offense, 114th rushing offense; 118th scoring defense, 39th passing defense, 129th rushing defense

Apologies to Kansas State and legendary head coach Bill Snyder but this preview is all about UCLA’s Josh Rosen because he will be the biggest topic of conversation in this one.  The Rosen discussion, is dominated by one thought: will Rosen even play?  One of the oft-mentioned negatives of Rosen is that he might lack the passion for the game that some players exude.  I’ve heard some pundits say something to the effect of Josh not “needing” the game.  I obviously don’t know Rosen personally and haven’t studied him enough to have my own opinion but it does worry me that if that is true maybe he won’t bother suiting up for this meaningless game.  We saw a number of top prospects take that approach last year (Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffery) and can you really blame them?  The first overall pick and millions of dollars are on the line for Rosen.  I would not at all be surprised to read reports of Rosen’s shoulder injury “lingering” long enough to keep him out of the Cactus Bowl.  Regardless of whether he plays or how well he plays, Rosen is my pick for the first  pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.  I have gone deep on Rosen earlier in the season so I won’t rehash everything here but long story short is that he is the most pro-ready quarterback in the class.  He plays in a pro-style offense, has good size and arm strength and has been very productive in college.  He’s not without his negatives (i.e. the aforementioned mentality questions, low completion percentage, some poor decisions) but he has a high floor.  His ceiling may not be as high as somebody like Sam Darnold, who is younger but needs more seasoning for the NFL level, but Rosen is worthy enough of the top pick and can start from Day One.  I lied about ignoring Kansas State because there are three things I want to touch on.  First, starting QB Jesse Ertz is out and has been replaced by freshman Skylar Thompson, a QB with the same size and skill set as Ertz.  Second, Junior CB D.J. Reed is a difference maker on defense (43 tackles, 4 INTs, 9 passes defended) and on special teams (2 TDs, led Big 12 in punt and kickoff yards per return) when he is healthy.  Unfortunately, Reed is hurt and it’s unsure if he’ll be able to play.  If he does, I’ll be interested to see him vs Rosen.  Third, Kansas State has an interesting OL prospect in junior Dalton Risner.  Risner was the team’s starting C as a redshirt freshman and has since switched over to RT.  He is ranked second in the pass block efficiency stat by PFF at the tackle position.  If Risner enters the NFL Draft as a C prospect he could be a Day Two pick due to his versatility.  It’s hard to throw out praise for a team’s starting quarterback like I did and then pick against them but that’s exactly what I’m going to do.  If Rosen can’t or won’t go, they could have to go to third stringer Matt Lynch because backup Devon Modster is questionable with his own injury.  No thanks, let’s go Wildcats.   Prediction: Kansas State


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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