The Watch List: 2018 PAC-12 Preview

Updated: August 8th 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:  Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona.  Back in my Mountain West preview, I shared the following statistics: “Seven of the last eight Heisman awards were won by quarterbacks.  Those seven averaged 921 rushing yards and 12 rushing TDs in their Heisman winning seasons.”  Tate figures to have those totals locked up by Week 8.
  • Darkhorse Heisman Candidate:  Bryce Love, RB, Stanford.  Love finished second in the Heisman voting in 2017 (losing to QB Baker Mayfield).  Despite nagging injuries forcing him to miss snaps, Love still put up astronomical totals: 2,118 yards, 8.1 yards per carry and 19 TDs.  According to Stanford’s media guide, Love is now at 196lbs, hopefully he can put on a few more which could help him better absorb the blows of the position.
  • Offensive Player of the Year:  Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona.  If Tate plays all twelve regular season games in 2018, nobody in the PAC-12 will match his production.  He’s an easy, but boring, pick for OPOY.  Bonus pick… Ross Bowers, QB, Cal.  Bowers is the conference’s leading returning passer in terms of yards per game and has two of the conference’s top four returning receivers alongside.  Cal won’t be great but Bowers, if he holds off South Carolina transfer Brandon McIlwain, should find success in his second year at the helm.
  • Defensive Player of the Year:  Porter Gustin, LB, USC.  I’m going a bit off the beaten path with this one.  Gustin is a capable edge rusher who missed most of 2017 with injury.  He has 23 tackles for loss and 14 sacks over his career which is solid but not eye-opening.  What is eye-opening is his athletic ability; Gustin has potential to be a fast riser up draft boards when fans see him again this season. profiled him in a “most freakish athletes” article last season (he returned to the list this offseason).  If the measureables quoted are close, we are looking at an athletic profile similar to 5th overall pick Bradley Chubb.  If Gustin plays at full health for 13 games he could hit double digit sacks and will be a threat on every snap.  He may not be the most valuable player on a dominant Trojan defense but he’ll be the most visible.
  • Newcomers of the Year:  Chip Kelly, UCLA and Herm Edwards, Arizona State.  The PAC-12 brought in two brand-name coaches in Kelly and Edwards.  Fans of both the NFL and the NCAA will recognize their names so they will inevitably draw eyeballs to their teams’ games.  I have much more faith in Kelly who has a 46-7 career record as a college head coach.  Herm, on the other hand, last coached in the NCAA before all of his players were born (1987-89 as a defensive backs coach at San Jose State).  I’d bet that both teams end with losing records; they’ll be interesting storylines but for the wrong reasons.
  • Underclassman to Watch:  Stephen Carr, RB, USC.  As a true freshman, Carr played second-fiddle to Ronald Jones last season but stood out to me on a number of occasions.  The game I remember watching him play most was against Stanford.  In that game he totaled 137 yards on 12 touches.  I went back and watched the highlights and there were three crucial plays, two runs and one catch.  He has a big frame at 6000/210 and I think his speed is deceiving because of his upright running style and long gait.  Carr has to prove that he can stay healthy because he just had back surgery and also missed time in 2017 with a foot.
  • Best QB-WR Tandem: Manny Wilkins and N’Keal Harry, Arizona State.  Wilkins is embarking on his third season as the Sun Devil starter and looks to continue his upward statistical trend.  He threw for 3,270 yards last season which is the highest total for a returning passer in the league.  Harry has been starting with Wilkins all along and has a career 140-1,801-13 line to show for it.  Harry is one of the highest ranked 2019 receiver prospects so I expect that he’ll continue to make Wilkins look good.
  • Best RB Corps:  Stanford.  Stanford and UCLA are the only two PAC-12 teams whose top two returning rushers are running backs. UCLA’s backs, Bolu Olorunfunmi and Soso Jamabo, could be valuable in Kelly’s offense but I need to see it before I put them above Bryce Love and Cameron Scarlett.  It’s probably not fair to call Scarlett the Robin to Love’s Batman but they do make a good one-two punch.  Scarlett ended up getting 91 carries last season, gaining 389 yards and scoring a whopping 8 TDs.  I wonder if head coach David Shaw will manage Love’s snaps to keep him healthier down the homestretch.  If he does, Scarlett will be a valuable piece in the Cardinal offense.
  • Coach on the Hottest Seat:  Herm Edwards, Arizona State.  Is it too early to put Herm on the hot seat before his first game with the Sun Devils?  Arizona State immediately received some blow back after the appointment and then we heard that some of former coach Todd Graham’s staff was staying on at the suggestion of the school’s administration.  I presume the thinking was that Edwards is long removed from coaching, especially at the collegiate level, so he might struggle to put together a contemporary staff.  If that was a concern of the ASU brass, maybe they should not have hired Edwards in the first place.

Teams to Watch

 Oregon (7-6 in 2017)

Oregon has two things going for it in 2018: a top NFL prospect under center and a soft schedule.  Sure, promoted offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal loses RB Royce Freeman to the Broncos but the Ducks have not had trouble in recent memory replacing running backs.  QB Justin Herbert is a big prospect, pun intended.  I will feature him elsewhere in this preview but it goes without saying that he’ll be the key to Oregon’s ascent in 2018.  The non-conference schedule is Downy soft: home games against Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose State.  The Ducks don’t even need to leave Eugene to face Washington or Stanford, their two biggest rivals for the division crown.  In their cross-over schedule, Oregon avoided USC this season.  It’s all lining up for Cristobal to get to double digit wins and a potential PAC-12 title game.

 UCLA (6-7 in 2017)

Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly takes over in Los Angeles this season and he’ll have his work cut out for him.  ESPN’s Football Power Index and Phil Steele both agree that UCLA faces the toughest schedule in the nation this season.  They have conference cross-over games against the top of the PAC-12 North: Washington, Utah and Oregon.  Their non-conference schedule is tough too, hosting Cincinnati and Fresno State with a visit to Oklahoma in between.  You’d be less concerned about the schedule if Kelly had an experienced quarterback to run his specialized offense.  Unfortunately, Josh Rosen has departed (and wouldn’t have been a great fit anyway) and left behind some uncertainty.  There are three options on the table for Kelly and I have no idea which one he’ll go with.  Wilton Speight transferred in from Michigan where he continually underwhelmed Wolverine fans like myself.  Incumbent Devon Modster had a 152.6 rating in limited action last year when Rosen was hurt.  True freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson was a 4-star recruit and the 2nd ranked dual-threat QB in the class according to 247Sports.  If I had to guess now, I would predict that Kelly rides with Thompson-Robinson for most of the season after letting either Modster or Speight take the lumps against the Sooners.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona:  If you’re playing college fantasy football, look no further than Khalil Tate as your QB1 and 1.01.  Tate took over as the starter in October last year and didn’t look back.  He completes passes at a higher rate than you would anticipate given his penchant for running the ball (62.0%).  Tate is not a high volume passer (just three games with 20+ attempts and just two games with 200+ yards), instead he derives his value on the ground.  He rushed for 1,411 yards and 12 TDs last season.  I anticipate he’ll get more touches in 2018 and should hit the 1,500 yard and 15 TD marks.  Size-wise he’s similar to Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson from the 2017 class.  It will be interesting to see Tate’s progression this season and next (I think he’ll need to return for his senior season to prove he can cut it as an NFL-level passer).
  • Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington:  Gaskin was an NFL Draft prospect last Winter before deciding to return to the Huskies for his senior year.  In my first 2018 mock, I slotted Gaskin into the 3.02 spot and as RB9.  I anticipate the 2018 running back class will be a bit lighter than 2017’s so Gaskin has a shot at moving higher in my rankings.  When I wrote about Gaskin during bowl season, I acknowledged that my ranking of him was probably a product of an east coast bias because I just don’t get to see him play that often.  It’s hard to argue with Gaskin’s production: three straight 1,300+ yard seasons and 45 career rushing TDs.  He definitely deserves more of my attention this season.
  • Zack Moss, RB, Utah:  I have seen Moss described as a “raging bull” and as “the juggernaut” on Twitter.  Both are apt.  Moss is a compact yet powerful runner at 5010/210.  He seeks contact and can bowl over defensive backs.  He rushed for 1,173 and 10 TDs last season and added an impressive 29-243 line as a receiver.
  • Michael Pittman, WR, USC:  Pittman was overshadowed last season WRs Deontay Burnett, Tyler Vaughns and Stephen Mitchell. As the fourth option he still managed 23-404-2.  Vaughns also returns, so why am I highlighting Pittman?  His size.  He’s listed at 6040/215 which is tailor made for the NFL.  Vaughns is more slight at 6020/185.  Pittman was a 4-star recruit himself so he’s no slouch.  With over 120 receptions graduated, I expect Pittman to take a big step forward.  Something that might go under the radar is his special teams ability which will help him secure an NFL roster spot.  He has 13 career tackles and has both blocked and returned punts (including one great trick return for a score).
  • PAC-12 Tight Ends:  A PAC-12 tight end will be drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft in 2019.  Book it.  Just don’t ask me which one.  Stanford’s Kaden Smith, UCLA’s Caleb Wilson and Oregon’s Jacob Breeland all have a shot to land near the top of 2019 tight end rankings  (and I’m sure there’s somebody I’m missing too).  He’s only a sophomore, and coming off injury, but Washington’s Hunter Bryant is one to keep an eye on too for 2020.
  • Trey Adams, OT, Washington:  Adams missed much of last season due to an ACL injury but when he was fully healthy in 2016 he was an All-PAC-12 performer and earned 2nd-Team All-American honors from the FWAA.  Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller predicted Adams will be a top ten pick in the 2019 draft; the scout he interviewed compared Adams to Taylor Lewan.  Phil Steele’s preview magazine lists him as the 4th best draft eligible tackle in the nation.  In order to be drafted that high, Adams will need to prove to scouts that he is fully recovered from his ACL injury.
  • Cameron Smith, LB, USC:  Smith has been a starter and a leader on this unit since he was a true freshman.  The Trojan defense will be one of the best in the FBS so I anticipate Smith getting a lot of attention.  He’s a high volume tackler, 112 in 2017, who can also cover.  He has 10 career pass break-ups and 4 INTs.  I expect him to have another successful season that will be capped off with being selected on Day Two of the NFL Draft.
  • Marvell Tell, S, USC:  It was tough deciding whether I should feature Tell or CB Iman Marshall from the USC secondary.  I went with Tell since his profile seems to be on the rise.  Tell totaled 85 tackles last season along with 3 INTs.  He is the top ranked safety prospect by a number of sources, including and Phil Steele.  Jesse Bates, a second round choice by the Bengals in 2017, would be a good size, speed and production comparison.  There are no games available to watch of Tell so instead I watched some of Marshall’s film to get an idea of Tell’s playing style.  He’s lanky and while he has a respectable amount of tackles, he does not seem to be as aggressive as I would like.  It was a very small sample of plays I watched so I’m not making a judgment call, just making a mental note until I see him live this year.

Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon

I currently have Justin Herbert as my highest rated quarterback for the 2019 NFL Draft (full disclosure: I have only thoroughly studied about a dozen guys so far and few from the Power 5).  Herbert has played eight games in both of his first two seasons at Oregon.  In 2016, he took over midseason and ended with 1,936 yards, 19 TDs, 4 INTs and a 63.5% completion percentage.  In 2017, Herbert threw less passes but increased his completion percentage to 67.6%; he missed the middle of the season with a broken collarbone.  Herbert’s injury concerns date back to high school when he broke his leg as a junior.  He does offer a bit on the ground with 344 career rushing yards and 7 TDs.  After looking at his stats and injury history it’s tough to justify the placement of Herbert as QB1 but my ranking is more on potential than anything else.

Herbert measures in with elite size at 6060/225 and is projected to run a 4.81 by  Of the 40 quarterbacks to measure 6050/220 or better and run under a 5.00 at the combine, an incredible 36 were drafted.  Seventeen of them were first rounders.  Based purely on his size and athleticism, Herbert is as safe a bet as any to be a first rounder.

Luckily, his measureables are borne out on film.  When I watch Herbert, I see a quarterback with above average speed and athleticism for his size and position.  He throws well on the run compared to others I have watched thus far this offseason.  It’s a great trait for somebody who runs the zone read and plays off play-action so often.  I noted average arm strength so I would like to see that improve this season.  His accuracy is best in the mid-range passing game but is serviceable short and deep as well.  Like many QBs at this stage of their career, Herbert needs to work on his footwork and mechanics.  He showed me positive field and situational awareness and he utilizes an effective pump fake.

Herbert certainly has a lot to prove in 2018 but if I’m predicting somebody to be the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, it’s Herbert.  The reality is that a quarterback will rise up draft boards, despite how strong this year’s defensive line class is.  Before we crown him though, let’s see if Herbert stays healthy and continues to improve in the aforementioned key areas.  (Film watched: Arizona State 2017, Boise State 2017)

Bryce Love, RB, Stanford

Of all the players I have previewed this offseason, Bryce Love likely has the most recognizable name to casual fans.  That acclaim is thanks to Love’s second place Heisman finish in 2017.  He totaled 2,118 yards rushing and 19 TDs last season on his way to All-American and PAC-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors.  Perhaps most impressive was Love’s yards per carry: 8.1 over 263 carries.  If you’re studying Love’s stats and game logs, you will notice that he is not a part of the passing game (just 6 receptions last year).  Love’s height is perfect for a running back (5100) but he needs to bulk up in order to be a top NFL prospect at the position.  Over the last two seasons, just nine backs were 5090-5100 and weighed between 190-205lbs.  Two of them were drafted (former teammate Christian McCaffrey and Miami’s Mark Walton) but they were both just over 200lbs; none of those under 200lbs in that cohort were drafted.  As I mentioned above, Love battled nagging injuries last season, perhaps a function of his frame, and missed snaps in multiple games.  Nobody can question Love’s toughness however, despite reportedly having a high ankle sprain, he managed to play through and only missed one game.

I saw Love play a number of times in 2017 but I was eager to dive in and watch some film to jog my memory of his strengths and weaknesses.  Love’s big play ability jumps off the screen immediately, accentuated by his 4.40 speed.  He is a nuanced runner who exhibits numerous skill moves to make defenders miss (i.e. spin move, hurdle and stiff arm).  Love also utilizes devastating cutting ability, oftentimes multiple times on the same play, to leave defenders grasping at air.  He has very good patience at the line of scrimmage as he squares his shoulder to the line and stutter steps as he identifies which hole to hit.  Love runs stronger than you would expect based on measureables.  He’s a tough runner who takes a lot of contact.  He can get stood up by bigger defenders but he’s sometimes able to spin out of the tackle rather than bowl over the defender.  As I alluded to above, Love is not a passing game feature.  In the two games I re-watched he had just one catch and it was on a shovel pass.  I tenuously have Love down as an average pass blocker.  Unfortunately his size means there were multiple plays where he was pushed back into the passer.  Just like when he runs the ball, he does not shy away from contact so it’s not a matter of want-to.

I’m probably lower on most when it comes to Love’s real-life and fantasy draft stocks.  He’ll probably start the season as a mid-1st rounder for most dynasty rankers but I will probably have him closer to the end of the first.  (Film watched: Washington 2017, TCU 2017)

N’Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State

Harry landed on my radar about a year ago, after his freshman season, when I was doing some devy research and came across his name.  I didn’t get a chance to watch him live at all in 2017 but I had filed away his name waiting for the right time to profile him.  He has prototypical #1 receiver size at 6040/216 and is projected to run in the 4.50 range (think: AJ Green).  He had a successful freshman season in 2016, ending with a 58-659-5 line.  In 2017, he improved to 82 receptions, 1,142 yards and 8 TDs.  As good as the numbers are and as big as the hype is, I was not as blown away by his tape as I had expected to be.

There’s no doubt that Harry exhibits a few elite skills.  First off, he has some of the best body control and sideline awareness of any receiver I have studied in the last two years.  He routinely makes toe-tapping sideline catches.  Harry also shows great concentration when making contested catches.  Even with a defender draped over his shoulders and a hand in his line of sight he is able to find the ball and hang on with his strong hands.  He is often physical at the top of his vertical route stem, utilizing his size to gain separation from smaller DBs.  Unfortunately, in the two games I watched, Harry did not run a variety of routes; I would say that half of his routes were screens and another chunk were simple curls or comebacks.  I do have some concern about his speed – I’m thinking he’s in the 4.55 range – because he looked slower than I anticipated.  Although, I must admit he showed good burst on a few individual plays.  He’s fine when he gets to top gear but I did not note too many occasions where his speed afforded him a good release off the line.  At this point in his career, Harry appears to be a below average blocker.  He shows okay form on a number of attempts but there are numerous whiffs and disinterest as well.  Despite the negatives that I noticed, Harry has the ability to make you forget all of that with one spectacular play.  When watching the UCLA game I was ready to bump him down my rankings until he took over a drive late in the game.  On the first play, he makes a great high-pointed hands catch and manages to keep his feet in bounds, all while maintaining control to the ground.  On the second play, he takes an outside release into double coverage and makes a great concentration catch.  Not too many players in the NFL could have made both catches, let alone in the FBS.

If we were drafting today, Harry would be in the running for the 1.01 for 2018 rookie drafts.  As usual a lot will come down to his NFL team’s scheme and depth chart but he has the physical tools to transcend situation.  (Film watched: UCLA 2017, Texas Tech 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:,,,,,
  • Recruiting:,,,
  • Film: 2019 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks:,,,,,
  • Draft history:
  • Combine info:,,
  • 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:, the media home for FWAA members

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part II

Updated: December 14th 2017

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

Friday, Dec. 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, Dec. 23

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, Dec. 24

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

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

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

Tuesday, Dec. 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Stats:,,,,,
  • Film:, (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks:,,,,
  • Draft history:
  • Combine info:,,
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty

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

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