The Watch List: 2018 Bowl Game Previews, Part VI

Updated: December 28th 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Notes: In an effort to standardize the description of key positional traits, I frequently use the following adjectives: elite, good, above average, average, below average, poor.  My experimental grading system uses a Madden-like approach by weighting position relevant traits on a 100-point scale; bonus or negative points are awarded based on production, size, injury history and character.  Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height.  When watching film for a player, I typically pick two games.  When time permits, I may add a third game. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had so they really need to jump off the screen. I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability. If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com, mcubed.net
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2019 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, 247Sports College Football, College Fantasy Football: On Campus, Underdog Pawdcast, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com, the media home for FWAA members
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: oddsshark.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2018 Week 3 Preview

Updated: September 15th 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

  • #5 Oklahoma at Iowa State, 12:00pm, ABC:  The 2017 version of this matchup was possibly my most memorable game of the season.  David Montgomery was a constant threat out of the backfield, LB Joel Lanning filled in at QB, Allen Lazard caught a contested game-winner, Baker Mayfield scored 3 total TDs and Trey Sermon had a breakout game on national television.  The fact that the Cyclones stole the W made it even more satisfying as a fan.  A number of the stars from that game have moved on but we’ll still see some solid play on the ground with Montgomery, Sermon and Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray.  Against Iowa last week, Montgomery played to his doubters, averaging just 2.6 yards per carry on 17 totes.  Through two games the Sooners are allowing more than 130 yards per game so I expect Montgomery to improve.  Sermon and Murray have combined for 174 yards and 3 scores thus far.  The onus will fall on them now that starting RB Rodney Anderson is out for the year.  (By the way, I was so disappointed to hear the Anderson news.  I was ready to peg him as my RB1 for the 2019 class.)
  • UC Davis at #9 Stanford, 2:00pm, PAC-12 Network: I talked about Stanford last week so I’m not going to rehash their players to watch.  This matchup is interesting because it will give us a spotlight game for UC Davis WR Keelan Doss.  Doss, who dominated the FCS last season, started the season strong with 11 receptions and 85 yards in a victory over San Jose State of the FBS.  I studied Doss in the preseason and noted that he uses his 6030/209 size to dominate smaller corners.  He is elite at the catch point with strong hands.  This matchup will mean a lot for his NFL Draft stock.  (Update:  Bryce Love has been ruled out for the game.)
  • #12 LSU at #7 Auburn, 3:30pm, CBS: I see this game finishing 15-9 and being a defensive classic.  Combined, the two defenses gave up 33 points to their opening weekend opponents, both of which were ranked in the top ten.  The game is also worth watching because it will feature two potential first rounders in LSU LB Devin White and Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham.  Stidham had a great game against Washington, completing 72.2% of his passes for 273 yards and a score.  White meanwhile is making his case to be the first inside linebacker off the board with 19 tackles through the first two games.  We’ll have to keep an eye on his interest to declare early, one article I found was not sure he’d make the leap early.  The winner of this one will be in the driver seat to compete against Alabama for the SEC West crown.
  • #17 Boise State at #24 Oklahoma State, 3:30pm, ESPN:  If you like points, tune into this matchup at 3:30pm instead.  Boise and OK State are 5th and 8th in points per game (117.5 combined).  In addition to being entertaining, the game will feature a few notable draft prospects.  On the Bronco side, we have QB Brett Rypien and RB Alexander Mattison.  RB Justice Hill is the player to watch for the Cowboys.  Hill hasn’t been involved in the passing game yet (just 2 receptions) and that was one of the things buoying his stock.  Now that he’ll be facing a worthy foe, I am hopeful that Hill will get more work.
  • #4 Ohio State at #15 TCU, 8:00pm, ABC:  I’m really not sure what to make of the Buckeyes yet this season.  That seems crazy to say when you consider they have outscored two Power 5 opponents 129-34 this year but neither Oregon State or Rutgers truly provided a test.  When you factor in all of the off-field drama it’s tough to forecast where this squad will end up in three months.  TCU started slow against SMU but ended up with a 42-12 victory.  The Horned Frogs’ defense is ranked sixth in yards allowed this year (they finished 19th last year so it’s not a fluke) and will be a tougher adversary for Ohio State.  Unsurprisingly, Ohio State’s backfield trio of QB Dwayne Haskins and RBs Mike Weber and JK Dobbins are succeeding so far.  Weber and Dobbins have combined for 364 yards, 4 TDs through two weeks.  TCU’s Shawn Robinson has also been productive, albeit more so on the ground than the air.  Robinson has 328 yards passing, 4 TDs and 1 INT plus 112 rushing yards and 3 rushing TDs.  I’ll be keeping an eye on Ohio State’s aggressive defensive line to see how well they can keep Robinson in the pocket.  We know DE Nick Bosa is a generational pass rusher and it looks like sophomore Chase Young isn’t too shabby himself (he had a great strip sack against Rutgers that was ultimately reversed on replay).  If the pass rush gets too far up field and Robinson escapes he’ll be the difference maker in a close one.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State:  Haskins earned the starting job this Spring and his play so far has proved that he was the best option for the Buckeyes for 2018.  He’s completing 79.2% of his passes and has tossed 9 TDs to just 1 INT.  In limited duty in 2017, Haskins was nearly as efficient with the ball so I don’t think his successes are a factor of the weak foes he’s faced.  Haskins is a redshirt sophomore so there’s no guarantee he declares after this season but if he continues to play well, I would expect him to give the NFL a go a la Cardale Jones.
  • Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin:  Unfortunately for fantasy players, but thankfully for college football fans, Taylor is not draft eligible after this season.  So, I won’t give him the full treatment this season but his stats warrant mention.  Taylor totaled 1,977-13 last season and is on pace to blow away those marks.  He started well against Western Kentucky with 145-2 and somehow improved against New Mexico with 253-3.  Taylor is an electrifying combination of size, speed and elusiveness.  He’ll be coming out in a crowded 2020 running back class so it remains to be seen how high he’ll climb but he has 1.01 potential.
  • Juwan Washington, RB, San Diego State:  Washington is the heir to the San Diego State rushing title throne.  Prior to him, Donnell Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny both led the FBS in rushing in their senior seasons.  Washington, just a junior, is already off to a great start with 314 yards and 4 TDs.  158 of those yards came against a solid Stanford defense.  Washington is diminutive (5070/190) but runs with enough power to be effective in short yardage situations.  He runs with a shiftiness and quickness that you’d expect of somebody his size.  Tarik Cohen would be an easy comparison based on size but it’s important to realize that Washington is nowhere near as accomplished as a receiver (just 9 career receptions).  Washington is an experienced returner who brought three kicks back in his career.  His return ability should earn him an NFL nod but some proof that he is worthy of passing down work would make him a fantasy consideration.

Preston Williams, WR, Colorado State

  • Listed at 6040/210  per sports-reference.com
  • Film watched: Hawaii 2018
  • 2017: Redshirt after transferring (16 receptions, 247 yards and 2 TDs in 7 games with Tennessee in 2015-2016)
  • 2018: 3 games, 27 receptions, 391 yards, 4 TDs

Williams is an interesting NFL Draft prospect who wasn’t really on my radar this offseason.  I had heard the name numerous times on SiriusXM’s ESPNU radio but I didn’t follow through with any research.  Now that Williams has excelled to start the season, it was time to dive in.

Before we look at Williams’ stats and film, let’s discuss his background.  Williams is a former 5-star recruit who chose Tennessee over numerous top schools (i.e. Alabama, Clemson, Auburn).  When he decided to transfer, it was rumored that he could join Miami, Cal or UCLA.  Ultimately he chose Colorado State because he had relationships with some of the Rams coaches.  Before he took his first snap for CSU, Williams was suspended indefinitely for an altercation with his girlfriend (he shoved her when she was trying to move out).  Williams pleaded guilty, is no longer facing legal ramifications and was reinstated to the team before their first game.

On the field it’s clear that Williams needs some seasoning but there were a few plays that showcased his ability and got me excited.  He appears slow out of his breaks and does not seem to have the violent, fast-twitch movement you would want from your receiver off the snap.  Williams lines up all over the field which is a good sign for his versatility to fit into an NFL scheme.  I don’t see enough from him as a route runner yet.  To my eye, it seems like he’s coasting, knowing that his physical gifts can bail him out of situations.  He does let the ball get into his body but when he attacks it with his hands, he can make good fingertip catches.  On the two below plays, Williams tracks the ball, makes an adjustment and catches it with his fingertips.

As you can see in the first clip above, Williams does have some ability after the catch.  He’s not very fast, probably in the 4.55-4.60 range, but he has a long stride and runs with strength and determination.  He showed this perfectly later in the Hawaii game:

It’s a shame he wasn’t able to hit paydirt on that one but the play is still very instructive.  He uses a combination of acceleration, field awareness and power moves to stay in bounds and shed tacklers for extra yardage.  Honestly, it was the play that made me decide to feature him here.

Williams lit up Hawaii to start the season for 9-188-2.  What’s more impressive is that he followed up that effort with solid games against Power 5 opponents.  In those games against Colorado and Arkansas, Williams totaled 18-203-2.  Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that a Colorado State receiver is racking up the yards because the Rams have produced two mid-round NFL prospects over the last few years in Rashard Higgins (5th round) and Michael Gallup (3rd round).  Williams will be hoping to continue the trend.  Williams only has 43 career receptions so this may be a bit premature but I think he has the pedigree and athletic ability to earn himself a mid- to late-round draft grade if he keeps up his statistical pace and comes out in 2019.

 


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 SEC Preview

Updated: August 28th 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:  Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama.  Get used to hearing Tua’s name because you are going to hear it a lot.  He became a household name when he replaced Jalen Hurts at halftime in the national championship and led Alabama to victory against Georgia.  Tagovailoa won’t be the running threat that Hurts was but he’ll add enough to keep defenses honest.  Picking a quarterback from a championship favorite with instant name recognition is a safe Heisman bet to make, even if he’s just a sophomore.
  • Darkhorse Heisman Candidate:  Jordan Ta’amu, QB, Ole Miss.  The Rebels will struggle as they are still dealing with the fallout from the recent recruiting scandal but I have a feeling that JUCO transfer quarterback Jordan Ta’amu will impress this year.  College football fantasy players are bullish on his potential which makes me think he could sneak into the Heisman conversation with big passing and rushing numbers.  Ta’amu has the luxury of throwing to the best receiving corps in the country which will make him look good on a regular basis; the team is also returning four starting offensive linemen which should keep him upright.
  • Offensive Player of the Year:  Drew Lock, QB, Missouri.  Lock led the NCAA in TDs last season (44) and threw for nearly 4,000 yards.  He loses his offensive coordinator this year but the Tigers will still put up points.  Lock will top the charts of most conference passing stats.
  • Defensive Player of the Year:  Devin White, LB, LSU.  White was a stat-stuffing force last season.  He led the conference in tackles per game (10.2; 133 overall).  He also added 14.0 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.  Since Alabama has much turnover on their defense, White should be able to steal the spotlight on defense in the SEC.
  • Newcomer of the Year:  Demetris Robertson, WR, Georgia.  Robertson is transferring in from Cal and was granted immediate eligibility so he will see the field in 2018.  As a true freshman in 2016, Robertson snagged 50 balls for 767 yards and 7 TDs.  Robertson was the top ranked receiver in his recruiting class per 247Sports so he comes with high expectations.  Georgia has lacked a true difference maker at the position in recent years so it will be fun to see how much QB Jake Fromm is able to grow with Robertson as a target.
  • Underclassman to Watch:  D’Andre Swift, RB, Georgia.  Swift takes over the reigns with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel on to the NFL.  Swift got involved as a true freshman, rushing for 618-3 and adding 17 receptions.  He’ll earn 1,200+ total yards and double digit scores this season.
  • Best QB-WR Tandem:  Jordan Ta’amu and AJ Brown, Ole Miss.  As I’ve mentioned, Ole Miss has a stellar group of receivers which is led by Brown.  He may the best of the bunch in the conference, although South Carolina’s Bryan Edwards may disagree (more on both below).  Ta’amu was efficient in limited duty in 2017 and will give the offense a boost as the full-time signal caller in 2018.
  • Best RB Corps:  Alabama.  The Crimson Tide have two #1 running back recruits on their roster according to Phil Steele: senior Damien Harris and sophomore Najee Harris (no relation).  The Harris brothers combined for nearly 1,400 yards and 14 TDs.  Josh Jacobs is the best receiver of the bunch (14 receptions last year) and would probably start for most other teams.  Alabama had the conference’s second-best rushing attack in 2017.  Even though they lost Bo Scarborough, the Tide will continue to dominate on the ground.  Keep on eye on Georgia’s backfield as well, they are just as deep but younger (Editor’s note: UGA freshman RB Zamir White tore his ACL and is out for the year).
  • Coach on the Hottest Seat:  Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee.  Judging by the vim and vigor that Vols fans ran off Greg Schiano before he was even offered the job, I fear for Pruitt’s safety if Tennessee fails to be bowl eligible again in 2018.  In reality there’s no way he would lose the job after one season, barring some off-field scandal, but I figure he’s probably the odds-on favorite to be the next to lose a job in the SEC.  Other new guys like Dan Mullen, Jimbo Fisher, Matt Luke and Chad Morris each have a longer rope (for different reasons, of course).  Hopefully the Pruitt family decided to rent rather than buy.

Teams to Watch

 South Carolina (9-4 in 2017)

The Gamecocks finished the regular season at 8-4 in 2017 and tacked on an Outback Bowl win over Michigan to get to nine victories.  I am predicting South Carolina to finish the season with the same record as last year so why are they on my Teams to Watch list?  Because there’s a non-zero chance they come out atop the SEC East and steal a conference championship appearance.  At this point it’s safe to pick Georgia to win the division but these two skirmish in Week 2.  It’s rare to have such a heavyweight divisional game that early and it could be South Carolina’s shot to shock the college football world.  As Tom Luginbill recently pointed out on XM radio, South Carolina lucks out in their cross-over games.  They avoid Alabama, Auburn and LSU and instead get Missouri, Texas A&M and Ole Miss.  The offense returns all of its productive skill position players except for TE Hayden Hurst.  Thanks to NFL prospect receivers Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards, QB Jake Bentley should be able to keep the offense moving.  The defense will be missing a number of key pieces from the 2017 unit (which held opponents to just 20.7 ppg), but they have gone into the last two seasons with just six returners and should fare fine.  I don’t think I’m willing to bet the over with any significant amount but I would not be surprised to see USC contending late in the season.

 Florida (4-7 in 2017)

I am certainly no Gator fan but they are an easy pick as a team to improve.  New head coach Dan Mullen comes to Gainesville with the luxury of 19 projected returning starters.  RB Jordan Scarlett returns after his season-long suspension for participating in a credit card fraud scheme.  Scarlett rushed for 1,070 yards in 2016 so he’s a valuable piece to get back and add to last year’s leading rushers Lamical Perine and Malik Davis.  The quarterback position is a big question mark.  I would not be surprised to see Mullen reboot and start freshman Emory Jones under center at some point this season.  Like South Carolina, Florida’s schedule sets up nicely for 7-8 win potential.  They only play four true road games and get their hardest cross-division opponent, LSU, at home.  I won’t be rooting for Florida to become bowl eligible but it’s going to happen.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn: My opinion of Stidham fluctuated throughout the 2017 season. I questioned him early but was impressed with him late. In the Georgia and Alabama games, Stidham made a positive impression on me as a smart runner with the ball. This may be damning with faint praise but I likened him to Alex Smith at one point last season (you may remember, Smith was the first overall pick in 2005 so that comp is actually saying a lot). In 2017, Stidham gained 3,158 yards through the air; he added 153 on the ground.  That rushing total belies his true impact though.  Per Phil Steele’s stats, Stidham gained 383 yards on the ground but lost 230 of them to sacks.  Stidham scored 22 combined TDs which I’d like to see increase to 30 this time around. He’s in the conversation for the first quarterback off the board at the 2019 NFL Draft so I’ll be monitoring him all season long.
  • Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State: A number of college football minds that I listen to and read love Fitzgerald.  Admittedly, I have not watched much of him so this is a speculative addition to my preview based on what I’ve heard elsewhere. Fitzgerald is a dual-threat quarterback who rushed for 984 yards and 14 TDs.  He threw for 1,782 yards and 15 TDs with 11 INTs.  Fitzgerald missed the end of the 2017 season with a dislocated ankle but he’ll be fine for 2018.  Hopefully the injury does not hamper his rushing ability in any way.  Fitzgerald has an NFL-ready body at 6050/230 so if we see passing game improvement he could land on the draft radar.
  • Benny Snell, RB, Kentucky: Throughout his first two seasons on campus, Snell has been supremely productive. Over those 26 games, he has 2,424 yards and 32 TDs.  He added ten receptions in 2017; that’s a nice addition to his resume but in 2017 he should strive for twenty. I have limited exposure to Snell but from what I have seen he appears to have patience and vision at the line and enough size and speed for the next level. I have a feeling that Snell will be a sneaky fantasy rookie come 2018 if he lands in a good spot.
  • Trayveon Williams, RB, Texas A&M:  Williams is an interesting running back prospect to me because his height and running style don’t seem to match.  I’m not quite sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.  I watched some 2016 highlight videos and his 2017 game against Auburn.  He’s an upright runner who appears to always be running downhill.  He’s listed at 5090/200 but he looks smaller on film.  I didn’t see a ton of wiggle and tackle breaking ability but he has the speed to hit a hole and gain the necessary yardage.  What was most interesting was seeing that he’s such a good receiver that the Aggies trust him to line up split out.  Let’s see how he rates as a pass blocker but after a quick glance I think Williams will project as a valuable passing down back in the NFL.
  • Damien Harris, RB, Alabama: Harris was in the running for a first round fantasy draft grade last season but decided to return to Alabama for his senior season. I’m not quite sure that was the right decision because the Tide backfield is crowded. Harris is a durable 5110/221 runner with speed and elusiveness to break off big runs. He has averaged over 7.0 yards per carry the last two seasons which is impressive for anybody, but especially for a back who is 220+. I’ve seen Harris labeled as “under the radar” but I find that narrative hard to believe. He’s a former top recruit who has two back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons at Alabama. That’s about as “on the radar” as you can get.
  • DK Metcalf, WR, Ole Miss: Metcalf has elite size (6040/225) and measureables. He made Sports Illustrated’s 2017 “Freaks List” because of his past exploits as a high school track star. Metcalf reportedly ran a 4.46 last offseason which would instantly make him a first round NFL Draft prospect. Before we jump to conclusions though, let’s see how Metcalf does in 2018, sharing the wealth again with a stacked receiving corps. In 2017, he ended with a respectable 39-646-7 line; it really is a shame that Metcalf is competing for targets instead of being a no-brainer WR1 for his squad.
  • Deebo Samuel, WR, South Carolina: It’s so disappointing as a college football fan that somebody as talented as Deebo Samuel has struggled with injuries. Samuel has played in just 18 career games in three years at South Carolina. His career totals of 86-1,194-5 receiving and 17-128-7 rushing and 3 return TDs are encouraging. I’ll be rooting for Samuel to get through a full season so we can fully evaluate his NFL Draft stock come the Spring.
  • Albert Okwuegbunam, TE, Missouri: The man of many nicknames. My favorite so far might be “A-Ok” but it’s going to be a long draft season of pronunciation jokes directed at Mr. Okwuegbunam. He’s going to be a redshirt sophomore this season so there is no guarantee he comes out, especially considering how long it usually takes tight ends to develop. If Okwuegbunam does come out, he’ll be highly sought for his potential. As a redshirt freshman, Okwuegbunam had 29 receptions, 415 yards and 11 TDs. His touchdowns will regress in 2018 but I expect his other totals to improve. He has size similar to that of Dallas Goedert from the 2018 class.  To reach that level though he will need to prove he’s a good blocker and all-around athlete.
  • Isaac Nauta, TE, Georgia: Nauta’s fantasy potential took a hit last season because of a significant decrease in production. He put up a great 29-361-3 line in 2016 which earned him Freshman All-American honors by a number of publications. In 2017, however, Nauta caught just nine balls despite playing in all fifteen games. Improving as a blocker in the dominant Bulldog rushing offense is important in NFL terms, but it won’t help Nauta’s fantasy draft stock. Hopefully we see more balance from Nauta this year as Georgia moves to a more balanced attack.
  • Josh Allen, LB, Kentucky: The “other” Josh Allen might just end up being the better professional prospect. This Josh Allen is a pass rushing outside ‘backer at Kentucky. He has led the Wildcats in sacks each of the last two seasons (7, 7) and topped 60 tackles in both campaigns. His size, speed and statistical profiles remind me of Lorenzo Carter who I was very high on last season. I’m looking forward to watching some tape of Allen’s this year to see if that comp holds true.
  • Devin White, LB, LSU:  The aforementioned White is a productive MLB who I frequently see popping up as a first rounder for next year’s NFL Draft.  White appears to have more than enough speed to get to the edge and has the ability to fight off blocks and chase down runners.  He is an impact player who gets into the backfield and is constantly disruptive.
  • Greedy Williams, CB, LSU: Is there a better nickname for a cornerback? Williams lived up to the moniker in 2017 by snatching 6 INTs. He added 38 tackles and 10 pass breakups as well. Williams is long at 6030 and will be coveted for his size and ball skills.

Drew Lock, QB, Missouri

Lock, who has started since early in his freshman season, is another name to remember come April.  He’s currently in the running for the QB1 spot and if history is any indication he could creep into first round consideration.  Lock nearly eclipsed 4,000 passing yards last season (3,964) and threw an FBS best 44 TDs.  He threw 13 INTs which was worst in the conference but you can excuse that when he puts up the points he does.  In fact, Missouri led the SEC in scoring with 37.5 points per game.  Lock loses offensive coordinator, and quarterback whisperer, Josh Heupel, who took the UCF job.  For Lock’s future, it’s less about whether the offense keeps moving and more about working on his consistency.

While watching Lock, I felt that both the speed and touch on his balls was average to above average but inconsistent.  To borrow a cliche, he has the “arm talent” but he doesn’t display it on every rep.  I have to admit that he can throw a beauty of a ball, dude can spin it.  Lock needs to improve his accuracy and I’d also like to see him anticipate his receiver’s movements a bit more.  He has enough speed and athleticism to escape the pocket but I did not see him complete a single pass after being flushed against South Carolina.  Lock is listed at 6040 but I bet he’ll measure in smaller than that; at times he seemed to disappear behind the offensive line.

Lock isn’t my QB1 at the moment but he’s flirting with the top five in my rankings.  I was encouraged enough by what I saw to know that I need to keep a close eye on him this season.  He’s going to be a prospect whose value relies heavily on which games you choose to watch.  (Film watched: South Carolina 2017, Highlights 2017)

AJ Brown, WR, Ole Miss

As I have mentioned elsewhere in this preview, Brown is one cog in a mighty Ole Miss receiving machine.  He led the team in receptions, yards and TDs in 2017 (75-1,252-11).  One knock against Brown would be that his stats are inflated by three huge games against subpar opponents.  Against South Alabama, he went for 8-233-2; the following week against Tenn-Martin he totaled 8-156-2.  Later in the season, versus Louisiana-Lafayette, he hauled in 14 balls for 185 yards and two scores.

Brown is a 6010/225 slot receiver who makes his hay after the catch.  He is a bear to bring down and creates extra yardage while defenders try to drag him down.  He has enough speed to break free when he is able to shrug off a would-be tackler.  In addition to power moves, he has some finesse moves as well; against South Carolina he executed a fantastic juke that literally may have broken the defender’s ankle.  I was not able to devote the time to fully study Brown’s route running so I will need to check back on that.  In the Kentucky game he ran a lot of short and intermediate routes.  I’d love to see him used outside and on more varied routes in 2018.  I did not observe Brown in any high point contested catch situations but I don’t doubt his ability to win in those situations with his strength.

Because he feasted on lesser defenses, it will be vitally important to track how Brown does in 2018 versus top competition.  If he shows that he can play against the big boys too, he’ll be near the top of my 2019 receiver rankings.  Ironically, he might be fighting off teammate DK Metcalf for the top spot on my list.  (Film watched: Kentucky 2017, Highlights 2017)

Bryan Edwards, WR, South Carolina

Surprise, another wide receiver who is vying for the pinnacle of the position.  Have I mentioned that 2019 will be a good year for rookie wide receivers?  Through two years as a starter, Edwards has 108 receptions, 1,383 yards and 9 TDs.  His stats are not eye-popping but against tough SEC opposition it’s understandable.  Similarly to Brown, Edwards best games came outside of the Southeastern Conference.  His two best totals, 122 and 90 yards, came against Louisiana Tech and Wofford, respectively.  Edwards is listed at 6030/215 which puts him in a sweet spot of talented NFL wide receivers.  I’d like to see his speed and acceleration improve but even if he runs in the 4.55-4.60 range, at that height, he could draw comps to Michael Thomas or Allen Robinson.  Edwards certainly has some ways to go though before we truly bestow that comparison upon him though.

Unfortunately, there is not much tape yet available for Edwards.  I was stuck with just a single game to choose from.  In that game, against NC State, I noted that Edwards is violent out of his route breaks, whipping his head towards the quarterback and looking for the ball.  He also showed that he’s not afraid to go over the middle to make a catch.  It’s important to keep an even keel when scouting highlight videos, after all they are by definition the player’s best moments, but I came away very impressed with Edwards.  In those highlights he showed an ability to win both at the catch point and after the catch.  There were a number of circus grabs that showcased his tracking, concentration and body control.  In a few close-up replays I even got a glimpse of his footwork at the line of scrimmage which looked positive.

At no point while watching highlights did I feel “this is the best we’ll ever see from Edwards.”  Instead, I thought to myself, “there’s so much potential for Edwards to show us more.”  I’m glad South Carolina has such a big game early in the season (Week 2 vs Georgia) because it will give me a chance to study him even further.  (Film watched: NC State 2017, Highlights 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