The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part III

Updated: December 21st 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.

Wednesday, Dec. 27

Independence Bowl, Florida State (6-6) vs. Southern Miss (8-4), 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Florida State: 78th scoring offense, 92nd passing offense, 84th rushing offense; 34th scoring defense, 35th passing defense, 33rd rushing defense
  • Southern Miss: 48th scoring offense, 47th passing offense, 40th rushing offense; 40th scoring defense, 24th passing defense, 28th rushing defense

“Buzz, your girlfriend, woof.”  That’s how I’m feeling about this one.  Florida State just barely managed bowl eligibility after a late season makeup game against UL-Monroe.  They lost pro prospect QB Deondre Francois in the season opener and struggled with freshman James Blackman under center since.  They also lost head coach Jimbo Fisher who, mistakenly in my opinion, abandoned Tallahassee for College Station.  FSU will be playing the Independence Bowl without another potential pro: safety Derwin James.  James has decided to skip the bowl in order to preserve his NFL Draft stock; expect James to be in consideration for a Top 10 pick in April although he was surpassed by Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick as the top defensive back prospect.  If you’re looking for a reason to tune in to watch the Seminoles, check out freshman RB Cam Akers, WR Auden Tate and CB Tavarus McFadden.  McFadden will likely come out but his stock has definitely been dented by the team’s subpar season.  McFadden himself disappointed too going from 8 INTs in 2016 to zero in 2017.  He’s not great in run support (just 27 tackles this season) so he needs to remind scouts that he has ball skills.  Akers has been streaky this season but I would attribute that more to poor quarterback play than anything else.  He finished the season with a strong game against UL-Monroe (117 yards, 2 TDs) to give him a solid 931-7 line for the year; interestingly, he has not had a reception in the last three games.  Tate has just 60 receptions, 873 yards and 13 TDs in his career (35-464-7 this season) but is still an NFL Draft prospect because of his size (6’5″ and 225lbs) and ability to make contested catches.

Southern Mississippi is led by JUCO transfer QB Kwadra Griggs.  He has 15 TDs to just 2 INTs plus 2 rushing TDs.  Griggs started the year sharing the starting role and suffered a hand injury but since a dismal game against Tennessee he has played well (722 yards, 7 TDs, 0 INT).  I’m a big fan of South Miss RB Ito Smith.  He’s undersized at 5’9″ 195lbs but he’s durable (50 career games).  He’s a true three down back because he is a good receiver (36 for 370 and 2 scores this season) and a good pass blocker (94.6% pass blocking efficiency per Pro Football Focus).  Back in Week 8, I predicted that Smith might be the 2018 version of Kareem Hunt and Tarik Cohen for fantasy owners: an underappreciated prospect whose pass catching skill ensures he gets on the field early in his career.

Despite my love of Smith, FSU just has the better athletes.  Prediction: Florida State

New Era Pinstripe Bowl, Iowa (7-5) vs. Boston College (7-5), 5:15 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Iowa: 68th scoring offense, 89th passing offense, 94th rushing offense; 20th scoring defense, 50th passing defense, 38th rushing defense
  • Boston College: 82nd scoring offense, 115th passing offense, 24th rushing offense; 36th scoring defense, 31st passing defense, 102nd rushing defense

No team influenced the College Football Playoff picture more than Iowa did with their blowout of #5 Ohio State.  If it weren’t for that loss, the Buckeyes could be playing for a national championship.  The Hawkeyes are led by three guys who will be playing on Sundays next year: CB Joshua Jackson, LB Josey Jewell and RB Akrum Wadley.  Jackson offers solid run support (47 tackles), has good instincts when the ball is in the air (7 INTs, 18 passes defended) and is incredibly clutch.  In the two biggest games Iowa played this season, against Ohio State and Wisconsin, Jackson combined for 6 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 pass defended, 5 INTs and 2 return touchdowns.  One of those interceptions against Ohio State was an OBJ-esque one-hander; another was a hard fought battle with the receiver where he had the strength to rip the ball from the receiver’s hands.  Those two games established him as a Top 10 CB heading into the 2018 draft.  Josey Jewell enjoyed an equally impressive season that buoyed his draft stock.  Jewell has 120+ tackles in three straight seasons and is the conference’s #2 career tackler since 2005 (when www.sports-reference.com/cfb started tracking the record).  Jewell also set career highs for tackles for loss, sacks and passes defended on his way to being named the 2017 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.  Jewell trusts his instincts and play recognition which allows him to be the first to the hole or the ball carrier on most plays.  RB Akrum Wadley leads the offense.  He went over 1,000 yards again this season (1,021) but his yards per carry did decrease from 6.4 to 4.4.  He’s also a factor in the passing game with 62 receptions, 644 yards and 6 TDs over the last two years.  In my 2018 fantasy draft positional rankings I had Wadley at RB9 and would expect him to stay in the RB8-12 range when I update in the offseason.

Boston College’s best weapon is freshman RB AJ Dillon, other than that the cupboard is pretty bare on offense.  Starting QB Anthony Brown is out for the rest of the season (and wasn’t particularly effective anyway).  Career backup QB Darius Wade had his best game of his career in the season finale against Syracuse: 16-20, 248 yards and 1 TD.  Because of Brown’s ineffectiveness, the Eagles don’t have a WR of note (the leading receiver was Kobay White with 32-396-4).  Dillon has gained 1,432 yards (#2 in the ACC) on 268 attempts (#1 in the ACC).  Oddly, he doesn’t have a single reception; he had the most carries of any FBS back without a single catch.  Dillon has a rare combination of size (6’0″ and 240lbs) and speed (4.55 range coming out of high school) that compares to Leonard Fournette’s combine measureables.  Dillon has a way to go before we’re considering him for the NFL Draft but I’m optimistic.  Unfortunately, DE Harold Landry likely will not play in this one.  Landry will be a first round pick in the Spring but his stock has decreased due injury and decreased production.

Despite them having the same record, I don’t have a doubt about this one: Iowa is the better team.  Prediction: Iowa

Foster Farms Bowl, Purdue (6-6) vs. Arizona (7-5), 8 p.m. (FOX)

  • Purdue: 97th scoring offense, 55th passing offense, 83rd rushing offense; 18th scoring defense, 85th passing defense, 30th rushing defense
  • Arizona: 6th scoring offense, 110th passing offense, 3rd rushing offense; 110th scoring defense, 122nd passing defense, 89th rushing defense

In late October, it would have been tough to predict these two teams matching up in the Foster Farms Bowl.  Arizona was 4-1 in the conference (6-2 overall) and looking like a serious contender for the division.  Purdue meanwhile was 3-5 and coming off their third straight loss.  The fortunes for both teams changed though from that point forward.  Arizona lost three of their last four while Purdue won three of four.  So, here we are.

Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm was one of the many coaches in the running for Tennessee’s opening.  Brohm stayed put and used the courting as a bargaining chip to get a better contract.  Brohm has used a two-quarterback rotation throughout the season featuring David Blough (1,103 yards, 65% completion percentage, 9 TDs, 4 INTs) and Elijah Sindelar (1,730 yards, 55.6% completion percentage, 14 TDs, 6 INTs).  Blough suffered a serious knee injury against Illinois on November 4 and will not factor in here.  In the three games without Blough, Sindelar has thrown the ball a ton: 126 attempts.  In those three games he has 7 TDs and just 1 INT.  Sindelar’s best game came against #25 Iowa when he went 22-37 for 229 yards and 3 TDs.  Hindsight is always 20/20 but maybe if Brohm stuck with Sindelar all season they could have been better than 6-6.  The Boilermakers have a quartet of backs with 250+ yards each, the leader of which is junior Markell Jones (480 yards, 1 TD, 11 receptions).  On defense, Purdue is led by LB Markus Bailey.  Bailey is a redshirt sophomore and likely doesn’t have enough hype to come out in 2018 but if he continues to improve we’ll see him drafted in 2019 or 2020.  This season Bailey has an impressive stat line of: 78 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 1 INT, 2 passes defended, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery.

Arizona has two players that I wanted to highlight: QB Khalil Tate and CB Lorenzo Burns.  Burns is a redshirt freshman so he’s not draft eligible but his stats caught my eye.  He has 75 total tackles which is a lot for a corner.  He also has 5 INTs which led the PAC-12.  Tate took over the starting role in October and led the team to four straight victories.  He’s not the best passer but he’s efficient enough to keep the offense on the field until he can make a big play with his legs.  Tate threw for more than 200 yards just once this season and averages about 150 yards per game.  Amazingly, he actually has more yards rushing (1,353) than passing (1,289) on the year.  He has 9 passing TDs and 12 rushing TDs.  Tate’s biggest game of the year came against Colorado when he racked up 327 yards rushing and 4 TDs.  Something that is worth noting: Tate only has 60 total rushing yards over the last two regular season games.  I did not watch him in either contest so I cannot say whether it was due to scheme or maybe he has a minor injury.

This game is a toss-up for me so I’ll take the team featuring the best player on the field and that will be Khalil Tate.  Prediction: Arizona

Texas Bowl, Texas (6-6) vs. Missouri (7-5), 9 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Texas: 61st scoring offense, 36th passing offense, 95th rushing offense; 31st scoring defense, 108th passing defense, 6th rushing defense
  • Missouri: 10th scoring offense, 14th passing offense, 35th rushing offense; 96th scoring defense, 110th passing defense, 61st rushing defense

The Texas Bowl features two former conference foes in Texas and Missouri.  The teams last faced off in Big 12 play in 2011 before Mizzou left for the SEC; Texas leads the all-time series at 15-4 (not that it matters, these players were all in middle school, but it’s just interesting to see teams matching up with so many prior meetings in a bowl game).  Despite the teams having a combined 13-11 record, I found quite a few interesting storylines to research.

Texas started the season with sophomore QB Shane Buechele as the starter but they have gone back and forth between him and freshman Sam Ehlinger due to injury.  Neither guy has been great: they combine for 3,153 yards, 16 TDs and 11 INTs.  Based on the raw passing stats, Beuchele is the better play in the bowl game but Ehlinger offers a dimension as a rusher (364 yards, 2 TDs).  Since the start of bowl practices, both quarterbacks have reportedly been getting first team work.  My money would be on Ehlinger since he was the primary passer in the team’s last two games (66 attempts to Buechele’s nine).  WR Colin Johnson will be the main target no matter who is under center.  Johnson is huge (6’6″ 220lb) but just a sophomore so thankfully he’ll have another season to improve before hearing the siren song of the NFL Draft.  Johnson has 79 receptions, 1,050 yards and 5 TDs so far in his career – not amazing but encouraging given the struggles of the Texas offense the last two seasons.  The Longhorn running game is a mess.  Ehlinger is actually the team’s leading rusher by both attempts and yards, although he’s not very efficient as he averages just 3.5 yards per attempt.  Chris Warren, a big and bruising back who was slowed by injuries early in his career but looked promising, changed positions mid-season and is now transferring.  Freshman RB Daniel Young finished the season as the lead back with 58 rushes for 238 yards and 2 TDs over the last four games.  Leading the defense is LB Malik Jefferson who is one of the nation’s leading prospects at ILB.  Jefferson has 110 tackles this season.  Jefferson flashed in my eyes when playing against Sam Darnold and USC early in the season (he had 11 tackles and 2 tackles for loss).  He had six double-digit tackle games on the season and added four sacks.  Jefferson measures in at 6’3″ and 240lbs with a projected speed of 4.72 per NFLDraftScout.com.  Similar size and speed comps include a number of key IDP players: Sean Lee, Kiko Alonso, Blake Martinez and Nick Vigil.  Phil Steele’s preview magazine listed him as the #1 ILB for 2018 while NFLDraftScout.com has him listed as their #2 ILB in Jefferson’s 2019 class.  Chances are that he comes out and that he is a Top 15 pick.

Missouri’s season has been one of streaks.  They started the season with a loss over FCS also-ran Missouri State then lost five straight then won six straight.  Stories of the team’s turnaround all point to head coach Barry Odom as the rock that keep the team on track despite the struggles.  I don’t know Odom from Adam but it seems that the players love and respect him so that’s what matters.  Throughout Missouri’s winning streak, I continually wanted to spotlight QB Drew Lock but I never got the chance.  Lock is a three year starter who has improved on his stats year over year.  In 2017 he finished the regular season with 3,695 yards, 43 TDs and 12 INTs.  His completion percentage could be better (just 58.2%) but there is enough potential there to consider him as a draft prospect.  Lock is listed at 6’4″ and 225lb and will run in the 4.80-4.90 range at the combine should he declare.  Unfortunately, there aren’t many good comps in that size range, the best likely being AJ McCarron.  McCarron did not produce like Lock has though.  Lock led the SEC this year in attempts, yards and passing touchdowns (he also led the FBS in passing touchdowns).  I’ll do more research and film study on Lock in the offseason if he declares, for now he’s definitely a player to watch.  Lock’s top target is WR J’Mon Moore.  In three years with Lock throwing him the ball, Moore has totaled 151 receptions, 2,389 yards and 21 TDs.  His production in 2016 and 2017 was nearly identical, essentially 60 receptions and 1,000 yards.  Moore won’t be a draftable WR fantasy rookie but could get late round NFL Draft consideration because of his height (6’3″).

I think Texas’ defense will outperform their 108th ranking and that they’ll slow Lock enough to keep the game close just not close enough.  Prediction: Missouri

Thursday, Dec. 28

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman, Virginia (6-6) vs. Navy (6-6), 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Virginia: 101st scoring offense, 42nd passing offense, 126th rushing offense; 67th scoring defense, 14th passing defense, 80th rushing defense
  • Navy: 49th scoring offense, 128th passing offense, 2nd rushing offense; 84th scoring defense, 86th passing defense, 58th rushing defense

Since I was using Sports-Reference.com’s “Rivalry Finder” tool to look up the Texas/Missouri matchup I figured I might as well check out Virginia/Navy as well since that felt like a natural rivalry given the geography and military connections (it’s no coincidence the Military Bowl picked either team when given the chance).  Turns out that the teams have met 33 times in their history but not since 1994.  For what it’s worth, Navy leads the “rivalry” 23-10.

Navy is coming off a tough loss to Army on December 15 so there could be a bit of a “hangover” in this one.  Even aside from the Army loss in the snow, the Midshipmen have been cold as of late, winning just one of the last seven.  As most casual college football fans know, Navy, like the other service academies, runs a rush heavy triple-option offense.  So, it’s no surprise to see Navy with two 1,000+ yard rushers (and another at 500+).  What might be surprising is just how often the quarterback keeps the ball, eschewing his two other options.  Junior QB Zach Abey leads the team with 1,325 yards rushing and 14 TDs (plus 805 yards and 7 TDs passing).  Abey missed time during the season with both a concussion and a shoulder injury.  In his stead, sophomore QB/WR Malcolm Perry emerged as the primary playmaker.  If you watched the Army vs Navy game, you’ll no doubt remember Perry.  Perry is not a threat to pass (just two attempts) but he is electric with the ball in his hands, so much so that when Abey was healthy Navy got Perry involved as a a receiver (13-303-2) and as a kick returner (24.5 yards per return).  Even if Abey is fully healthy, expect to see more of Perry.

Bronco Mendenhall’s Cavaliers improved significantly after a 2-10 campaign last season.  It’s the first time UVA has been bowl eligible since 2011 and just the second time in a decade.  Leading the offense is senior QB Kurt Benkert.  Honestly, I did not know Benkert’s name to start the season but he had enough success this year (3,062 yards and 25 TDs) that he’s been getting some buzz.  I have not watched Benkert’s film so the bowl will be a good introduction against Navy’s mediocre pass defense.  Benkert’s favorite target is the versatile Olamide Zaccheaus.  Zaccheaus has 80 receptions for 833 yards and 5 TDs while adding 182 rushing yards and a rushing score.  Earlier in his career he also returned kicks and even threw a touchdown pass in 2015.  He’s the type of player that offensive coordinators love scheming for.  On defense, UVA features two mid-round NFL Draft prospects in LB Micah Kiser (132 tackles, 5 sacks this season) and S Quin Blanding (120 tackles, 4 INTs this season).  Both players are mutli-year starters who have nearly 900 career tackles between them.  Kiser and Blanding will be key against the Navy rushing attack.  In their November 11 matchup, Virginia held the Georgia Tech triple-option offense to just 220 yards.  Just 220 yards you ask?  It may sound like a lot but it’s the fourth lowest total of the season for Tech, so Virginia’s defense played well considering.  In that game, Kiser had 18 tackles while Blanding had just three but added an interception.

This one may be a home game for Navy but I believe UVA has the better athletes all over the field.  Prediction: Virginia

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl, #16 Michigan State (9-3) vs. #18 Washington State (9-3), 9 p.m. (FS1)

  • Michigan State: 106th scoring offense, 77th passing offense, 67th rushing offense; 23rd scoring defense, 30th passing defense, 5th rushing defense
  • Washington State: 42nd scoring offense, 2nd passing offense, 129th rushing offense; 47th scoring defense, 9th passing defense, 41st rushing defense

It’s not quite the “Grandaddy of them all” as Keith Jackson would say, but this Big Ten vs PAC-12 matchup is a good one.  I’m a Michigan and Rutgers fan, a Big Ten apologist and huge Rose Bowl fan.  My favorite pieces of memorabilia are a program and press pass from the 1998 Rose Bowl when Michigan won a share of the national championship; I found the pieces in a used bookstore in Ann Arbor, bought them immediately and had them framed.  So, you can see I’m a sucker for a Big Ten vs PAC-12 matchup.  I’ll call this one Rose Bowl Lite.

Michigan State’s mediocre offense is led by QB Brian Lewerke and RB LJ Scott.  Lewerke is a redshirt sophomore who is starting for the first time this season.  He has 2,580 yards, 17 TDs and 6 INTs plus 489 yards rushing and 5 rushing TDs.  Lewerke finished mid-pack in the conference in most passing statistics so he’s solid but he’s not on the level of recent Spartan QBs like Conor Cook and Kirk Cousins.  Scott started the year with some hype but he mostly disappointed.  In my early 2018 rookie mock draft, I had Scott as my 2.05; I had him ahead of other backs like Sony Michel and Ronald Jones who are definitely ahead of him now.  A running back of his size should see more TDs because of his utility near the goal line.  In 2016 Scott had just 6 TDs and he duplicated that output in 2017.  That’s just not good enough.  Scott did injure an ankle during the season but he was actually dressed and active for the Michigan game that he supposedly missed due to the injury.  I didn’t believe this when I first read it while doing my research but Scott was arrested in October for his seventh charge for driving without a valid license.  That is staggering.  I don’t know Scott and don’t want to cast aspersions but how can you be so irresponsible?  Either get your driver’s license right or stop driving.  If Scott is convicted, which I doubt would happen but who knows, he could face jail time.  Oh, I forgot to mention that despite being the primary ball carrier in each of his three years, Scott has failed to break 1,000 yards in a season.  Between the poor production, a small injury concern and an alarming pattern of behavior, I am out on Scott if he does declare early.  I would rather miss on him than draft him in my league and deal with dead cap if I have to cut him.  On defense, Sparty’s heart and soul is sophomore LB Joe Bachie.  He has 94 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 3 INTs, 2 forced fumbles and 1 fumble recovery on the season.

Cougar QB Luke Falk was my QB4 in early November when I did my early positional rankings for 2018 rookies.  I will probably bump Falk down a bit (or more accurately, bump Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield up a bit) but that doesn’t mean I am down on him.  Depending on his landing spot after the NFL Draft, I would consider drafting Falk late in my superflex leagues as a stash.  Falk is a three year starter at Washington State and has incredible career stats: 1,403 completions, 14,481 passing yards, 119 passing TDs, 39 INTs and a 68.3% completion percentage.  Falk’s stats did decrease a bit this year so that concerns me slightly but not enough to push him off my board.  Falk’s best attributes are his experience, size and accuracy – those traits will definitely get him drafted to be a backup behind an aging vet.  Washington State doesn’t bother running the ball too much (second worst rushing offense in the FBS at 71.1 yards per game) but that does not mean that RBs Jamal Morrow and James Williams are worthless.  Both backs excel in the passing game with 898 combined receiving yards.  The team’s leading receiver is junior Tavares Martin (70-831-9) but Falk spreads the love around because five guys have 50+ receptions.  One other prospect to keep an eye on, not that you could miss him, is G Cody O’Connell.  O’Connell’s nickname is “The Continent” and he deserves the title because he is listed at 6’9″ and 354lbs.  It’s odd to see such a big guard and that could be telling that he’s not playing tackle.  Per WalterFootball.com, one of my favorite draft resources, team sources think O’Connell will go undrafted.  Reading that tempered my excitement but still how often do we get to see a 6’9″ player?

Maybe I’m blinded by my Big Ten fandom but I’m going with Sparty here.  Michigan State has the better defense and is more likely to stop Washington State’s offense than vice versa.  Prediction: Michigan 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.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Week 13

Updated: November 22nd 2017

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

Note: the rankings referenced below refer to the Week 13 AP poll.  CFP rankings were not yet available at the time of writing.

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Update:  Despite some new “character concerns” about Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, he’s still my Heisman favorite.  Mayfield threw for 257 yards and 3 TDs against Kansas – solid but not standout.  What did standout was Mayfield grabbing his crotch and cursing at Kansas players.  The school has already announced that he will not start against West Virginia but whether that means he misses one play, one drive or one quarter we don’t know.  Chances are that however long the discipline lasts it won’t impact his Heisman hopes.  I’ve slightly wavered recently about who the #2 on the ballot should be between Saquon Barkley or Bryce Love.  This week clinched it for me.  Love went for 101 yards and a score against Cal but left early in the 4th quarter, still hampered by an ankle injury which has impacted him in multiple games.  Meanwhile, Barkley racked up 224 total yards and scored three rushing touchdowns.  I don’t really see a clear-cut defensive player who might land on the ballot and earn a trip to New York for the ceremony.  Preseason chalk favorites like Florida State S Derwin James or Alabama CB Minkah Fitzpatrick might get the nod but I would bet against them and take the field.  Realistically, a dark horse defensive hopeful needs to come from a Power 5 school and have some big games in conference.  I would look at North Carolina State DE Bradley Chubb as the top option.  Chubb has 66 tackles, 22 tackles for loss and 10 sacks.  Most of his sacks (8.5) came in conference games (I’m including the game against Notre Dame since they are effectively ACC football members); he had three 2+ sack games against Florida State, Syracuse and Boston College.  A darker-horse option might be Iowa CB Joshua Jackson.  Jackson has 43 tackles, 7 INTs and 17 passes defended.  The biggest reason Jackson could get a visit to NYC?  His performance in two nationally televised games versus Top 10 teams (Ohio State and Wisconsin).  In those two games, Jackson totaled 5 INTs and returned two for TDs against Wisconsin.  As much as I’d love for my sleeper defensive Heisman pick, Ball State DE Anthony Winbush, to get a vote it’s much more likely to go to a player from a Power 5 team who showed out when voters were watching.
  • Playoff Picture:  As of this writing on Monday evening, I do not expect the CFP committee to make any changes to the Top 4.  I think Alabama, Clemson, Miami and Oklahoma will still be there but I would not be surprised if Clemson and Miami flip spots.  Proponents of an 8- or 16-team playoff format should really pay attention to the schedule this week and next.  9 of the Top 10 in the current AP poll will play another Top 10 team over the next two weeks.  That makes all of those games playoff play-in games essentially.  If Auburn loses to Alabama – they’re out.  If Wisconsin loses to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship – they’re out.  And so on.  I’m not even sure that undefeated Alabama or Miami can get by with a loss and still stay in the Top 4.  The biggest knock on both teams this season has been their strength of schedule and a loss, albeit against another Top 10 team, would bump them out.  My current prediction is: Alabama (over Auburn and Georgia), Clemson (over Miami), Wisconsin (over Ohio State) and Oklahoma (over TCU).  I think Wisconsin lands ahead of Oklahoma because Wisconsin’s win over Ohio State should rate better than Oklahoma’s against TCU.
  • Coaching Carousel:  There’s a phrase used in the NFL to describe the day after the season ends when most coaches are fired: Black Monday.  The FBS is coming up on it’s own “Black Sunday” in less than a week so I thought it was a good time to check in on the coaching carousel.  Rather than spotlighting players this week, we are going to briefly examine a number of coaches who are under the microscope.  You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to follow the rumors but two useful pages I came across are here and here.  Why should you care?  Aside from the ridiculousness of the will-he-won’t-he, the impending coaching changes will greatly impact the draft stock of certain players.  Some key draft prospects could decide to declare early or stay for an extra season depending on what happens with their head coach; some players, typically underclassmen, could decide to transfer and sit out a season; coaching changes could also be a factor with graduate transfers where the player doesn’t have to sit out and can pick their landing spot like an NFL free agent.

Coaches to Watch

  • Chip Kelly, ESPN “Analyst”:  Kelly is probably the sexiest name that’s been bandied about because of his immense success at Oregon (his failures in the NFL notwithstanding).  I have heard Kelly connected to both the Florida job and the UCLA job.  I’d guess that Kelly would lean towards UCLA given his PAC-12 experience but that’s just a gut call.  Kelly belongs in the college game so I’ll be happy to see him back.  Wouldn’t it be fun if he signs with UCLA and convinces Josh Rosen to come back for another season?  Hmm.  Is a return to Oregon completely out of the question?  Double hmm.
  • Jon Gruden, ESPN Analyst:  Gruden’s name has come up with Florida and also Tennessee.  One of the reasons I heard that he would consider Tennessee is that his wife was a cheerleader there.  The real connection is that Gruden was a graduate assistant at Tennessee in 1986.  Yeah, I’m still not buying it.  I will continue to believe that Gruden stays in the booth until proven otherwise.  He has passed up better jobs than either Florida or Tennessee in both college and the NFL.  Also, don’t forget that he’s never been a head coach at the college level so why start now?
  • Scott Frost, UCF Coach:  Frost is a Nebraska alum so the connect-the-dots analysis has him going there whenever the Huskers fire coach Mike Riley.  Nebraska does play in the weaker Big Ten West but I don’t see them unseating Wisconsin anytime soon even with Frost.  In my opinion, his best shot at playing in New Year’s Six bowls is by staying at UCF for another season or two.  By then he might get a shot at a true A+ job.  Frost to Oregon instead of Nebraska isn’t that far off either, he worked there under Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich from 2009-2015.
  • Willie Taggart, Oregon Coach:  Speaking of Oregon, the SB Nation article I linked to above has multiple mentions of Willie Taggart being considered for other positions.  Why?  Taggart is just 6-5 so far in his first season with Oregon.  I like his potential as he salvaged two programs in Western Kentucky and USF but it’s a bit premature to jump to another premier job for Taggart.  If he does move on (or maybe is fired, who knows) I’ll bet rumors about Oregon will swirl faster than Florida and Tennessee.  It’s fun to imagine Chip Kelly returning to Eugene or an offensive mind like Scott Frost bringing some excitement back to the Ducks.  If Oregon was guaranteed to get either Kelly or Frost, I think they would part ways with the underwhelming Taggart in a blink.
  • Jimbo Fisher, Florida State Coach:  The Seminoles are having a bad season for sure but is it bad enough for Jimbo to jump ship?  I don’t think so.  He’ll have Deondre Francois back next year and has a great young running back in Cam Akers.  He’ll lose some NFL talent like WR Auden Tate and S Derwin James but the cupboard is perpetually full in Tallahassee.  If Jimbo leaves for Texas A&M as was speculated last week, I think it would be a big mistake.  I also heard that Auburn could be a possibility for Jimbo if that job opened up.  I don’t see that one either.  Moving into a division with Nick Saban is a good way to get yourself fired in three years.

Games to Watch

  • #22 USF at #15 UCF, Friday 3:30pm on ABC:  The Friday after Thanksgiving usually gives us a few good college football games but this year is a pretty poor slate despite featuring #3 Miami and #12 TCU.  The game with the biggest possibility to create bowl chaos is UCF’s matchup against USF.  If UCF wins, they likely guarantee themselves a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl as I don’t think Memphis would overtake them even with the head-to-head championship win (don’t forget UCF already beat them 40-13 this season so the series would be tied at 1-1).  If USF wins, they put themselves back in the AAC conversation.
  • #9 Ohio State at #24 Michigan, Saturday 12:00pm on FOX:  Simply, “The Game.”  Michigan is adding injury to insult now that third string QB Brandon Peters is hurt along with recently banged up RBs Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac.  John O’Korn will likely be under center and I have zero confidence in him as a Michigan fan.  Ohio State’s QB JT Barrett has struggled in November and needs to finish his career with three strong games to get NFL draft consideration.  I was encouraged to see that RB Mike Weber was back in the fold the last two weeks (162-2 and 108-2).  I was high on him to start the season but have tempered expectations after freshman JK Dobbins took over the lead role.  It’s good to see Weber dominate again, even if in a blowout.  It goes without saying but this one means a lot this season as Ohio State must have it to stay in consideration for the playoff.
  • #1 Alabama at #6 Auburn, Saturday 3:30pm on CBS:  Stop me if you’ve heard this before… the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn will be the best matchup of the weekend.  I did not realize just how high powered the Auburn offense was until I started to research.  They have scored 40+ points in nine of twelve games and in four straight.  They are led by RB Kerryon Johnson (1,172 yards, 16 TDs) but keep an eye on sophomore Kam Martin.  Martin had 83 yards and a score last week against UL-Monroe and is getting more touches with Kamryn Pettway injured.  QB Jarrett Stidham continues to be efficient (68.7% completion percentage) and careful with the ball (just 4 INTs).  Alabama’s rush-heavy offense is still paced by the familiar names of Damien Harris, Bo Scarborough, Najee Harris and QB Jalen Hurts but there is one other player who will factor in: sophomore Josh Jacobs.  Jacobs has 50+ total yards in five of the last six games and is a factor in the passing game.  In those five games, Jacobs has two receptions in each game and is averaging 15.9 yards per catch with two touchdowns.  If you haven’t watched much of the Alabama’s defense this season, now is your chance against a good Auburn offense.  CB/S Minkah Fitzpatrick says he’s 100% healthy now and will be a Top 5 draft pick come April.  S Ronnie Harrison is also looking at a first round draft grade.  If you play in an IDP league, check these two out now so you can be ahead of your opponents.
  • #14 Washington State at #18 Washington, Saturday 8:00pm on FOX:  If the Cougars can win The Apple Cup they will earn the PAC-12 North’s championship berth against USC.  Washington is out of contention; if Washington wins, it means that Stanford gets the spot (regardless of the outcome of their game against Notre Dame).  I don’t have a dog in the fight so I’m just hoping for a good game and some good performances from the NFL prospects on the field (i.e. Washington State QB Luke Falk and Washington WR Dante Pettis).  The Stanford vs Notre Dame game may actually be a better game to watch but since Stanford cannot control their own destiny, this is the one to tune into at 8:00pm.

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: ACC Preview

Updated: August 6th 2017

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players, storylines and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  Check back throughout the Summer for previews on each conference and my preseason Heisman predictions.  During the regular season, The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

Players to Watch

  • Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville:  My grandmother once told me that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.”  So… onto Deon Cain.  Just kidding, I have plenty to say and plan on sharing with you, my fellow RSO owner.  Let’s start with Jackson’s statistics.  He had some gaudy numbers in 2016 like 3,543 passing yards, 1,571 rushing yards and 51 total TDs (hence the Heisman).  My concern lies in his completion percentage: 56.2 in 2016.  It was even lower in limited action in 2015 at just 54.7%.  To get a better feel for when Jackson was completing his passes, I used CFBStats.com’s situational stats.  In the red zone, his completion percentage falls even lower to 50.7% (albeit with 19 TDs).  When the score is tied or worse, it was 54%.  I was really hoping that when it counted most that Jackson’s accuracy would improve but it did not; in fact it is buoyed by less important game situations.  Using Sports-Reference.com’s play index, I was able to find a strange, but possibly telling stat for Jackson: he led the NCAA in games with 300+ passing yards but with a completion percentage below 60% (4 games).  When he completes a pass, it’s often for a chunk of yards but there are many negative plays in between.  It’s also important to notice that 15 of his 51 total TDs (or nearly 30%) came against Charlotte and Marshall who were the 102nd and 107th worst defenses last season.  Maybe it’s unfair to pick out his best games but I’d be less worried if they came against stronger teams.  My accuracy concerns were borne out in the film I watched of Jackson against Marshall.  Early in the first half I counted four consecutive plays where the ball was behind his receiver.  He does not appear to be great at leading a receiver.  There were two very poor decisions that Jackson made while scrambling – both balls should have been thrown away but were instead lofted up and one led to an interception.  His lack of pocket presence showed in the Clemson game too.  In fairness the Clemson defense victimized the Louisville offensive line (5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss) but Jackson did not adjust and was consistently rattled by the rush.  Want some good news?  Okay fine.  Jackson is an electric player when he has the ball in his hand and he’s rushing.  DraftScout.com has him in the 4.32-4.52 range and it would not surprise me to see him hit the top end of that (in March, Louisville announced he ran a 4.34 at Spring practice).  If he ran that at the combine, it would make him the second fastest QB since 2010 (RGIII).  Hopefully Jackson measures in true to the listed 6’3″ and 205lb but I’m not so sure.  Don’t let the accolades and awards fool you, Jackson does not warrant consideration as a top prospect in this year’s class.  If I had to guess now, I would probably have him as my 7th or 8th quarterback and likely undraftable in most RSO formats.
  • Deon Cain, WR, Clemson: In 2015, when Mike Williams was out with injury and Deon Cain was a freshman, Cain caught 34 balls for 582 yards and 5 TDs.  In 2016, in Williams’ shadow, Cain caught about the same number of balls (38) but improved to 724 yards and 9 TDs.  In both seasons he led the team in yards per reception (17.1 and 19.1).  Because of his second-fiddle status, I feared that most of Cain’s production would have been against FCS and weak non-conference foes.  Per CFBStats.com, Cain had 34 of his 38 receptions and 7 of his 9 TDs against Power Five teams in 2016.  The only caveat is that a plurality of his yards and 4 of his TDs came in garbage time when the Tigers were up by 15+ points.  Cain’s biggest game of 2016 came against Syracuse when he had 5-125-2.  I watched film of that game and came away impressed.  Cain blew past corners with straight line speed on multiple occasions, one of which went for a score.  I was most impressed by his concentration and focus at the catch.  At the end of the first half, he had a play where he went over the corner on a fade, managed to find the ball, and got his toe down in the end zone.  Unfortunately his heel came down out of bounds and it was called back.  He had a similar concentration grab later in the game near the sideline.  He let the ball come over his shoulder, stopped the ball with his right hand, secured it with both hands and then managed to get both feet in bounds.  It was an NFL worthy catch and he was pretty nonchalant about it after the fact.  I was even more encouraged about Cain when I checked his combine size comps: Amari Cooper, Sammy Watkins, Justin Blackmon, Davante Adams and DeAndre Hopkins.  That’s quite a group of talented players to be compared to (with varying levels of success in the NFL of course).  I’m bullish on Cain and am thinking he will be a 3rd-4th round NFL selection if he comes out this year and should be a target late in your RSO draft.
  • Mark Walton, RB, Miami:  Walton is a small back with quick feet and a penchant for bouncing off tackles.  In the clips package I watched, there were multiple plays against both FAU and Pitt where Walton showed supreme patience at the line.  He would shuffle his feet either left or right, keep his pads parallel to the line of scrimmage and wait for his hole.  Once he hits the hole he has the speed (DraftScout.com predicts him in the 4.49 range which is exactly what Dalvin Cook ran) and bounce-off ability to break big plays.  In 2016, as a sophomore, Walton rushed for 1,117 yards and 14 TDs.  He also added 27 receptions which will be a necessary skill in the NFL given his smaller size.  The good news for Walton is that Miami has 100 OL starts returning which is the 6th best in the NCAA per Phil Steele.  The bad news for Walton is that 2018 will be a crowded RB class (Barkley, Guice, Chubb, Scarborough to name the top four) so even if he improves this season he should stay put and wait for his senior season.
  • Honorable Mentions
    • Deondre Francois, QB, FSU:  I fell in love watching Francois during one of FSU’s nationally televised games last year (can’t remember which).  He was getting battered but took the hits and kept getting up.  He looks bigger than his 6’2″ and 205 lb frame to my eye.  He’s just a redshirt sophomore, with a lot to improve on, so I don’t think he comes out but he could be in the Heisman race.
    • Max Browne, QB, Pitt: Browne has one more shot to prove his potential.  Per Rivals.com he was a five star recruit and the #1 QB recruit in the 2013 class.  He landed at USC where he threw 112 career passes, most coming last year before he lost the job to Sam Darnold.  Browne has the pedigree and the size (6’5″) to force NFL scouts to take a look.
    • Derwin James, S, FSU:  Don’t know the name?  Don’t worry I didn’t either.  James missed most of 2016 with a knee injury but will still be a top IDP prospect if he comes out as a junior.  As a true freshman he had 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 4 passes defended, 2 fumbles forced and 2 fumble recoveries.  He has linebacker type size and would be one of the bigger safeties in recent classes (a close combine comp is former FSU LB Telvin Smith).
    • Christian Wilkins & Dexter Lawrence, DTs, Clemson: This dynamic duo of disruptive DTs combined to put up 110 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, 10 passes defended and 4 fumble recoveries last year.  Lawrence did so as a true freshman and won the ACC Rookie of the Year award (unfortunately that means he isn’t draft eligible until 2019).  Coach Dabo Swinney even likes to use Wilkins on trick plays – in 2016 he rushed for a first down on a fake punt and also caught a TD pass.
    • Harold Landry, DE, Boston College:  Landry is a rising senior who could have come out after a tremendous 2016 campaign.  He had 50 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, 4 passes defended and 7 forced fumbles.  As a sophomore, before fine-tuning his pass rushing ability, he had 60 tackles.  Landry is WalterFootball.com’s 6th ranked DE for 2018 and is projected to be a 1st or 2nd round pick right now.  He’s a bit undersized for a 4-3 end but could be a valuable IDP if he lands in a productive 3-4 scheme.

Storylines to Watch

  • Clemson Let Down:  There’s simply no way that Clemson can stay in the national title picture for a third year in a row.  The Tigers lost first round talents in QB Deshaun Watson and WR Mike Williams and also lost other offensive contributors (including one of my favorites, RB Wayne Gallman).  Per Phil Steele’s experience charts, Clemson is ranked 128th in returning offensive yards.  The only team worse that played in the FBS last year?  Conference foe North Carolina.  If Dabo can keep Clemson in the division race and finish the season at 9-3 or better it would do more for him in my eyes as a head coach than winning last year’s title.
  • Heisman Distractions Abound:  The ACC has two of the top five Heisman hopefuls, according to an ESPN study of the Vegas odds, in Lamar Jackson and Deondre Francois.  The shadow of expectations, will follow those two and their teammates throughout the season.  Jackson has to carry the burden of trying to repeat as the winner – a feat only accomplished by Archie Griffin.  Francois will likely be faced with paint-by-numbers comparisons to former FSU QB Jameis Winston who won the Heisman and national championship in 2013.  Also on the list of Heisman candidates are Mark Walton, Derwin James and Deon Cain (albeit all at 100:1 odds).
  • Wolfpack Lurking: Repeat readers know that I highly value Phil Steele’s annual experience charts.  I think they are a great tool to help identify teams who will outperform expectations.  What caught my eye was how high Steele had North Carolina State ranked – 8th in the NCAA – so I did a bit more research.  The Wolfpack ended 2016 on a high note winning 3 of 4, including a 41-17 domination of Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl.  They lost leading RB Matt Dayes but they return the top four receivers, QB Ryan Finley and eight defensive starters.  WR Nyheim Hines is switching to RB so technically they have a returner there as well.  Finley is a transfer from Boise State, where he also worked with current NC State OC Eliah Drinkwitz (great name, by the way).  He threw for just over 3,000 yards last year with 18 TDs and 8 INTs and should improve further in 2017.  Three of the toughest games for NC State come at home: Louisville, Clemson and the rivalry game against UNC.  I won’t go as far as to say that they will win the tougher Atlantic Division, but they will finish above two of FSU, Clemson and Louisville.

Games to Watch

  • September 2, Alabama vs Florida State:  What a doozy to end the first true Saturday of the college football season.  Both teams are preseason championship contenders and whoever wins this game will probably be the favorite.  There will be plenty of NFL talent on display, including Dondre Francois, Derwin James, Bo Scarborough, Calvin Ridley, and as usual most of the Crimson Tide defense.
  • September 16, Clemson at Louisville:  This is pretty early in the season to get such a meaningful in-conference game.  Beating Louisville would go a long way to proving whether Clemson will stay relevant or if they will collapse after hemorrhaging all of their top players to the NFL.  For Louiville’s Lamar Jackson and his Heisman hopes, the consecutive games against UNC and Clemson will be vitally important to overcome the let down of finishing September against Kent State and Murray State.
  • November 4, Virginia Tech at Miami:  If second year Hurricanes coach Mark Richt wants to aspire to more than the Russell Athletic Bowl he’ll have to hold off the Hokies who won the Coastal last year.  The Hurricanes are more experienced and have an easier schedule so they likely have the edge this season but this game will be a must-win.  It’ll be in Miami and it’s been designated as their homecoming game – maybe there’s a mind game at work.
  • November 25, North Carolina at North Carolina State and Florida State at Florida:  These in-state rivalry games will make for a fun post-Thanksgiving Saturday.  One of the two will end up as the 8pm showcase game on ABC because Ohio State/Michigan will be at noon and Alabama/Auburn will likely be the CBS 3:30pm game.  The North Carolina game will feature teams fighting for their respective division titles, or at least bowl eligibility.  The Florida game will feature teams looking to stay in the CFP bracket.  The “last” button on your remote will be your friend if they both end up in primetime.

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

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, ESPN’s First Draft podcast, draftek.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper