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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part V

Updated: December 30th 2017

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

Friday, Dec. 29

Hyundai Sun Bowl, Arizona State (7-5) vs. #24 North Carolina State (8-4), 2 p.m. (CBS)

  • Arizona State: 40th scoring offense, 49th passing offense, 50th rushing offense; 88th scoring defense, 119th passing defense, 82nd rushing defense
  • NC State: 47th scoring offense, 29nd passing offense, 51st rushing offense; 50th scoring defense, 97th passing defense, 29th rushing defense

Both of these teams have endured some coaching carousel drama over the last month.  NC State’s Dave Doeren was an early target in Tennessee’s never-ending coach search but ultimately he spurned the Vols to stick with the Wolfpack.  Doeren has NC State playing in their fourth straight bowl and should the team stay competitive next year he’ll probably be in the running for an even bigger job at the end of 2018.  Arizona State made the odd, in my opinion, hire of Herm Edwards.  Herm is a master motivator for sure but Herm has not been involved with the college game since 1989.  Even more odd is that outgoing coach Todd Graham is sticking around to coach the bowl.

Arizona State’s offense is led by two NFL hopefuls in senior RB Kalen Ballage and sophomore WR N’Keal Harry.  Ballage is a big back at 6’3″ and 230lbs.  His size concerns me because few backs have been successful in the NFL at that height.  Since 2010, only four backs have measured 6’2″ and 225lbs or bigger at the combine: Derrick Henry, Matt Jones, Dominique Brown and James Wilder.  Henry has potential but he has not yet earned the starting role in Tennessee and teams may be hesitant to roll the dice on a big back like Ballage.  Ballage has not handled a full load in any of his four seasons but he is a productive pass catcher (44 receptions in 2016, 19 this year).  His high number of carries came this year with 153.  He has under 2,000 yards in his career.  I’m just not able to get that excited about him, honestly.  I have read comparisons to David Johnson but I think that is crazy: Johnson was more than twice as productive in most stat categories in college.  Ballage will get drafted in fantasy leagues but it won’t be by me.  The other big name for the Sun Devils is WR N’Keal Harry.  Harry is not draft eligible so it’s not worth a deep dive yet but you will hear his name constantly next season.  He has elite height (6’4″) and has been very productive as a young receiver on a mediocre team (career line of 131-1,659-12).  Add Harry to your 2019 short list now!

North Carolina State has three draft prospects that I will touch on.  First and foremost is DE Bradley Chubb.  I mentioned Chubb a few times in the middle of the season when NC State was looking like it could challenge Clemson for the conference title.  He has 25 sacks and 54.5 tackles for loss in his career.  Chubb is relentless and should be a Top 5 pick in the NFL Draft.  Sadly, he’s banged up and may miss the bowl game.  On offense, QB Ryan Finley and TE Jaylen Samuels are the two to watch.  Samuels is one of my favorite players of the season because he transcends position.  He is listed as a TE but he’s really too small to play the position in the NFL.  Instead he’ll probably factor in as a hybrid RB, FB, TE who lines up all over the field.  To give you an idea of Samuels’ versatility, look at his 2017 stats: 68 receptions, 547 receiving yards, 4 rushing TDs, 72 rushing attempts, 387 rushing yards and 11 rushing TDs.  Samuels was the only player in the FBS with more than 65 receptions and rushing attempts.  More so than any other prospect, Samuels’ 2018 fantasy value relies heavily on his landing spot.  If he gets drafted by a team with a creative offense he could turn into the ultimate third down and short yardage weapon.  Finley is a late round quarterback prospect that is hard for me to get excited about.  He should add a few pounds to his 6’4″ frame because he’s listed at just 210lbs and may be lighter.  He’s efficient and does not turn the ball over often.  Finley does have another year of eligibility so we could see him come back for another season to improve his draft stock.  WalterFootball.com has him as QB16 for 2018 while NFLDraftScout.com has him as QB14 in his 2019 class.  If he can show a more prolific side to his game in 2018, he could become a mid-rounder next year.

Even if it weren’t for the Sun Devils coaching distractions, I would have gone for NC State because Arizona State’s defense is so bad.  Prediction: North Carolina State

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, #8 USC (11-2) vs. #5 Ohio State (11-2), 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • USC: 24th scoring offense, 19th passing offense, 36th rushing offense; 61st scoring defense, 98th passing defense, 57th rushing defense
  • Ohio State: 5th scoring offense, 28th passing offense, 13th rushing offense; 22nd scoring defense, 18th passing defense, 7th rushing defense

I don’t care what the name of this bowl is, it’s the Rose Bowl to me.  I hate the fact that with the new CFP we lose the historical tradition of some of the biggest games.  The folks running the Cotton Bowl got themselves a doozy of a matchup with two Power 5 conference champions and a slew of NFL prospects.  Covering each and every one of the draft hopefuls in this game is impossible – I will touch on a few but by no means is this a comprehensive list.

Let’s start with Ohio State.  By now, we have all heard and participated in the debate about whether or not Ohio State should have been in the playoff.  I fear that topic will be prominent during the telecast and will overshadow some of the great players on the field for the Buckeyes.  QB JT Barrett improved on a number of stats this season but probably hurt his chances of playing quarterback in the NFL after poor performances in three big games (against Iowa, Michigan [before the injury], and Wisconsin).  I don’t have an opinion yet on whether Barrett should enter the draft process as a QB but my gut says he will.  The RB duo of freshman JK Dobbins and redshirt sophomore Mike Weber was very productive (nearly 2,000 combined rushing yards and 17 TDs).  Dobbins took advantage of an early, and lingering, injury to Weber to steal the lead role.  If Weber comes out for the 2018 draft, I think his stock is less now than it was four months ago.  He could return but it’s clear he won’t be the first choice back.  Maybe he transfers, sits out a year, and dominates at a lower level Power 5 school in 2019.  I listed Weber as my RB13 in November so if he does come out he’s a mid-rounder at best.  The strength of Ohio State’s team lies outside of the offensive skill positions.  Drafttek.com has six Buckeyes ranked in their Top 10 NFL draft prospects from the Big Ten: three defensive linemen (Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis, Dante Booker), one corner (Denzel Ward) and two offensive linemen (Jamarco Jones and Billy Price).  I’ll venture a guess that four of the six go in the first round (Ward, Hubbard, Price, Jones) with the other two following on Day Two.  The best prospect on the defense, sophomore DE Nick Bosa, is not yet draft eligible but he’d be a first rounder too if he were.

The biggest name on USC’s team is QB Sam Darnold but he has really hurt his draft stock this season.  Darnold was a walking turnover in 2017: 12 INTs and 10 fumbles (7 of which were lost).  Elite quarterback prospects just can’t turn the ball over that often; for comparison, Rosen (13) and Mayfield (5) combine for fewer turnovers than Darnold.  Darnold is only a redshirt sophomore so he is young and still has two more years of eligibility should he decide to return to college for further seasoning.  Ultimately, I think Darnold comes out and is a Top 3 pick because of the potential the he has shown.  Despite his turnovers, the yardage, scoring and efficiency are all above average.  He’s also an above average runner with enough speed to earn first downs when flushed from the pocket.  What Darnold has that doesn’t show up in the box score is his confidence and swagger.  If I had to pick one college QB to lead my team in a comeback, I would take Darnold because he wouldn’t shrink from the challenge.  One negative: Darnold’s throwing motion.  I noticed this in the offseason and plan on watching more film before the draft to see if it’s improved.  Darnold’s favorite receiver is WR Deontay Burnett.  Burnett is undersized (6’0″ and 170lbs) so he likely won’t garner early round attention but I’ve raved about him numerous times this season.  A close size comp for Burnett would be Travis Benjamin who was a 4th round pick back in 2012.  Burnett was good, but not great, this season going for 74-975-9.  I started the season low on RB Ronald Jones but I came around by mid-September.  He is just so quick and agile that it’s almost not fair to defenders.  I was previously concerned about his size but no longer.  Even though he missed a game due to injury, Jones totaled 1,486 yards and 18 rushing TDs; he added 13 receptions for 165 yards and another score.  After a down game against Notre Dame, Jones ended the season strong with over 800 yards and 10 TDs in the last five games.  He’s fun to watch and I am so happy he won’t be skipping the Cotton Bowl.  On defense, the Trojans have a number of prospects including Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin.  Gustin missed most of the season, and is doubtful for the bowl, but could get drafted based on a solid sophomore season if he comes out (68 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks).  Smith is a prototypical MLB who has 263 career tackles and has been a big part of the USC defense for three years; according to WalterFootball.com he is looking at a mid-round grade.

Ohio State’s defense will be the best unit on the field and is strong enough to limit Darnold and Jones.  I expect the Buckeyes to win in a game where they beat USC in time of possession.  Prediction: Ohio State

Saturday, Dec. 30

TaxSlayer Bowl, Louisville (8-4) vs. #23 Mississippi State (8-4), 12 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Louisville: 13th scoring offense, 15th passing offense, 14th rushing offense; 71st scoring defense, 77th passing defense, 52nd rushing defense
  • Mississippi State: 38th scoring offense, 109th passing offense, 15th rushing offense; 24th scoring defense, 13th passing defense, 24th rushing defense

As far as the NFL Draft prospects go this matchup is all about Louisville, let’s touch on Mississippi State first though.  QB Nick Fitzgerald could be an interesting study in 2019 but I don’t think he has enough of a resume to warrant coming out for 2018, especially after a season-ending ankle injury sustained on Thanksgiving.  NFLDraftScout.com has him as the QB6 in his 2019 draft class.  Fitzgerald will need to improve on his efficiency in 2018 because he doesn’t complete enough passes (55.6%) and throws too many INTs (15:11 ratio this season).  He’s a tremendous rushing threat with 33 career rushing TDs and nearly 2,500 yards but that won’t matter to scouts if he’s missing throws.  The backup QB is freshman Keytaon Thompson.  I don’t think I have seen any of Thompson play this season but I am intrigued by the combination of his size (6’4″ 222lbs) and rushing ability (he played in nine games this season totaling 299 yards and 3 TDs rushing).  Thompson played significant snaps in the Egg Bowl vs Ole Miss after Fitzgerald went down so at least he’s not coming in cold.  He rushed for 121 yards and a score but only completed 13 of his 27 passes for 195 yards.  I came across the name of DB JT Gray on NDT Scouting’s website while researching potential draft prospects from Mississippi State.  He has played at both linebacker and safety and his listed measureables are similar to those of Jabril Peppers who was a first rounder last year; maybe he could be a poor man’s Pepper in the late rounds.  Per Pro Football Focus, Gray did not allow a single TD in coverage this year and the passer rating against him was 70.4 which is above average.

Louisville has their own DB, Jaire Alexander, who excels in those same metrics.  Alexander has also shut out opposing receivers and, this is not a typo, has allowed a passer rating against of just 17.7.  For comparison, a QB who had one completion for negative nine yards would have a rating of 16.  Alexander allowed just five receptions on the season and ranks 5th in PFF’s “Cover Snaps per Reception” stat, meaning he is in coverage a lot and allows few receptions.  Alexander declared for the 2018 draft already and is skipping the bowl so you won’t get to see him play against Mississippi State but you’ll see him playing on Sundays soon.  You may be thinking to yourself, how has he not mentioned Lamar Jackson yet?  You’re right I may be burying the lede but Jackson has been talked about ad nauseam on every platform this season.  That includes me too: I tagged Jackson in eight of my weekly The Watch List pieces and focused on him in my preseason preview.  Talk of Jackson changing position is useless, in my opinion, because Jackson will go into the NFL as a quarterback.  If anything, the brief spark of Deshaun Watson this season shows NFL teams that a lightning quick deep-ball thrower with accuracy issues can still lead a team to victory.  Some team will take Jackson in the first round but I don’t think I’ll be taking him in any of my fantasy drafts.  Jackson’s top target is junior WR Jaylen Smith.  Smith is 6’4″ and 219lbs which is great size for a receiver but it’s his speed and deep-ball ability that makes him a threat to the defense.  To illustrate this, despite his size, only three of his 53 receptions came in the red zone; meanwhile he had seven receptions of 25+ yards.  He totaled 873 yards and 6 TDs (he missed three games due to a wrist injury).  I’m not as high on Smith as some, including our friends at Dynasty Command Center who have him as their WR5 for 2018 rookies.  Jackson and Smith versus the stout Bulldog defense will be fun to watch, regardless of what you think of their NFL chances.

Defense wins championships, sure, but offense wins college bowl games.  Take the Cardinals.  Prediction: Louisville

AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Iowa State (7-5) vs. #20 Memphis (10-2), 12:30 p.m. (ABC)

  • Iowa State: 53rd scoring offense, 32nd passing offense, 112th rushing offense; 28th scoring defense, 81st passing defense, 31st rushing defense
  • Memphis: 2nd scoring offense, 8th passing offense, 31st rushing offense; 104th scoring defense, 123rd passing defense, 100th rushing defense

Iowa State had a whirlwind of a season.  Get it?  The Cyclones had a whirlwind…. okay, okay I’ll stop.  Seriously though, Iowa State was a surprisingly fun team to watch this season.  They had a number of interesting story lines throughout the season including 1) an up-and-coming head coach in Matt Campbell, 2) jack-of-all-trades Joel Lanning playing at both LB and QB in a number of games, 3) the continued emergence of RB David Montgomery, 4) the revolving door at quarterback including underclassmen, walk-ons and transfers and 5) the upset of #3 Oklahoma and #4 TCU.  Montgomery is fantastic.  He has good speed, is amazing at breaking tackles and gaining yards after contact and is a reliable receiver.  He is just a sophomore so he’s not coming out in 2018 but there’s a chance he is my top RB next year.  Leading receiver Allen Lazard is a 6’5″ red zone monster (15 of his 25 career touchdowns came inside the twenty).  I think Lazard is underappreciated as far as draftniks go.  I had him as WR13 a few weeks ago but will likely move him up into the WR10 range.  The Iowa State defense has played well most of the season and is led by emotional leader Joel Lanning (the aforementioned former QB).  As much as I enjoy rooting for Lanning, I don’t think he’ll be considered by NFL teams.

Memphis has an incredibly efficient and high scoring offense that will be fun to watch against the solid Iowa State defense.  QB Riley Ferguson is a former Tennessee transfer who has played exceptionally well in his two seasons at Memphis.  Ferguson throws a lot of touchdowns, completes more than 63% of his passes, has never thrown more than 10 INTs in a season and has 10 career rushing touchdowns.  He’s also 6’4″; like Ryan Finley at NC State he is just 210lbs so needs to add some weight for the NFL.  I think Ferguson sneaks up NFL draft boards and gets taken on Day Two.  Ferguson’s top target was undoubtedly WR Anthony Miller.  I fell in love with Miller in the preseason when I jokingly compared him to Antonio Brown.  In hindsight that comp may have been more accurate than I could have guessed.  Miller caught 92 balls for 1,407 yards and 17 TDs.  Miller has unreal hands, great body control and is tough.  If you watched the AAC Championship game you might recall how exhausted and banged up he was yet he was on the field and still making plays when it mattered the most.  I want him on my NFL team and my fantasy team and I don’t care what pick it takes.  In September, I had him at 2.02 for 2018 rookie drafts but now I would even be willing to part with a late first for him.

By the rankings this may not be the best game of the day but I bet it’s the most entertaining.  The Tigers offense is just too good to stop.  Prediction: Memphis

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, #11 Washington Huskies (10-2) vs. #9 Penn State (10-2), 4 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Washington: 17th scoring offense, 73rd passing offense, 39th rushing offense; 6th scoring defense, 19th passing defense, 2nd rushing defense
  • Penn State: 7th scoring offense, 26th passing offense, 62nd rushing offense; 7th scoring defense, 43rd passing defense, 17th rushing defense

This PAC-12 vs Big Ten matchup definitely has less going for it than the Ohio State vs USC matchup but it’s still a game with some key NFL prospects to keep an eye on.  Thankfully, Penn State RB Saquon Barkley confirmed back in November that he planned to play in the team’s bowl game.

Penn State was looking like a favorite to make the playoff when they were ranked #2 in late October but back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Michigan State put an end to that.  Even the most casual of fan knows about Barkley and I have covered him exhaustively for RSO.  In fact, I tagged Barkley in thirteen different articles this season.  My deepest dive on Barkley came in the preseason in my Big Ten conference preview.  At some point you just run out of things to say but he was so dominant at points he just demanded to be discussed.  Barkley ran the ball less this year but he increased his yards per attempt (5.5 to 5.7) and became more involved as a receiver (47 receptions, 594 yards and 3 TDs).  He’ll likely be a Top 5 NFL Draft pick and will be the unanimous 1.01 pick in fantasy rookie drafts.  QB Trace McSorley is also draft eligible but he will probably return for another season.  He won’t be able to improve on his size (just 6’0″ and 202lbs) but he can continue to improve his efficiency and yards per attempt.  The pass catcher with the highest draft grade in my opinion will be TE Mike Gesicki.  Gesicki went for 51-501-9 this season and had one of my favorite highlights of the season when he hurdled McSorley after a touchdown.  Penn State keeps track of some combine-like measureables and supposedly Gesicki ran a 4.54 40 yard dash – that is crazy good for somebody his size.  I expect that number to increase at the combine, it must be the benefit of some “home cooking,” but still he’s looking at a favorable size/speed comp to the likes of Jimmy Graham and Travis Kelce.  The first round may be too early for Gesicki realistically but he’s a Day Two guy at worst.  The Nittany Lions’ top defensive prospect is senior safety Marcus Allen.  I researched him in the preseason and was nonplussed.  I felt he needed to show scouts that he was equally as good in coverage as he is in run support.  He still succeeded in run support (just two missed tackles against the run per Pro Football Focus) but he only had one interception (the first of his career) and had just two pass break-ups (just ten in his career).  He’ll probably start his career as a situational player and won’t be an IDP factor right away unless he can prove he should stay on the field for every snap.

Washington QB Jake Browning finished 6th in Heisman voting in 2016 after a huge 43 TD season.  Unfortunately for Huskies fans, that season was the outlier for Browning as he returned to his 2015 levels with just 18 TDs this year.  His completion percentage did increase significantly this year (62.1% to 68.8%) but all of his other rate stats decreased.  One of my favorite plays in football is the quick kick from a quarterback and Browning excels at that: he has 11 career punts, averaging about 35 yards per kick.  The two offensive standouts are WR Dante Pettis and RB Myles Gaskin.  I’ve never been a huge fan of either and I am willing to admit it is probably an east coast bias since I don’t see them play that often.  I previewed Pettis in the preseason and expressed concerns that his size would limit him in the NFL.  Pettis played in thirteen games each of his first three seasons so he’s avoid any long-term injuries but he is currently hurt (but probabl for the bowl game).  He is a good receiver (averaging 40 receptions, 500 yards and 6 TDs per year over his four year career) but a better punt returner (9 career punt return TDs, including 4 in 2017).  He’s currently my WR8 and should find himself drafted in the late second round.  RB Myles Gaskin is ranked a little lower in my positional rankings (RB13) but he’s somebody that I definitely need to revisit.  Gaskin’s numbers are great and if they were attached to a different name I would probably be higher on him.  He rushed for 1,282 yards this season and rushed for 19 TDs.  He also added 18 grabs for 228 yards and 3 receiving scores.  He has been consistent, and healthy, throughout his three year career.  He’s gone over 1,300 total yards each year and has 47 career TDs.  He’s slightly undersized (think Theo Riddick) but not so small that he can’t play a heavy role in an NFL offense.  On defense, LB Azeem Victor and DT Vita Vea are both likley Day Two prospects.  Victor’s college career has been marred by injuries and off-field issues (he was suspended to start 2017 for a failed drug test and was suspended late in the season after a DUI arrest).  In 2015, his only full season, Victor had 95 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception.  Vea is an agile, space-eating DT who could end up going in the late first if he dominates the combine.  Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports had Vea going 19th overall in his December 5th mock; Trapasso thinks that Vea may be the most physically strong prospect in the entire draft class.

Given the strength of the two defenses, I expect this one to be a low scoring affair.  I’ll take the team with the best player on the field.  Prediction: Penn State

Capital One Orange Bowl, #10 Miami (10-2) vs. #6 Wisconsin (12-1), 8 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Miami: 58th scoring offense, 50th passing offense, 73rd rushing offense; 21st scoring defense, 52nd passing defense, 44th rushing defense
  • Wisconsin: 31st scoring offense, 95th passing offense, 21st rushing offense; 4th scoring defense, 4th passing defense, 1st rushing defense

The Orange Bowl may feature two Top 10 teams but I’m just not finding the matchup all that intriguing.  I was down on Miami for most of the season before the team imploded against an unranked Pitt team and laid an egg against Clemson in the ACC Championship game.  At least Wisconsin was competitive in their conference championship and proved that they belonged in the playoff conversation despite a weak schedule.

Hurricanes QB Malik Rosier was overrated, in my opinion, during Miami’s unbeaten run to start the season.  He ranks 89th in adjusted completion percentage according to Pro Football Focus; that metric is meant to give a better picture of a quarterback’s accuracy by not counting spikes/throwaways against them and by giving them credit for drops.  Per their stats, the Miami receivers dropped 22 passes, which is about average, but even after factoring those back in he is still at the bottom of the list (there are only twelve worse qualifying QBs).  Rosier did rush for 427 yards and 5 TDs which helps make up for his negative plays but it’s not enough in big games.  Case in point: Rosier was pulled late in the Pitt game to give redshirt sophomore backup Evan Shirreffs a shot.  Shirreffs had five career passing attempts at that point so in that moment the coaches though he gave them a better shot than Rosier (predictably, Shirreffs did nothing and was replaced by Rosier).  Miami lost RB Mark Walton early in the season but sophomore Travis Homer has emerged in his stead.  Homer has over 1,100 total yards and scored 8 TDs.  He had a big game against #3 Notre Dame (18 rushes for 146 yards) but had just 55 combined rushing and receiving yards in the late losses to Pitt and Clemson.  If Miami is to stand a chance against Wisconsin’s great defense it will fall on Walton.  Senior DE Chad Thomas had 30 total pressures per PFF and finished the year with 3.5 sacks.  Safety Jaquon Johnson improved his stats in 2017 to end with 85 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries and 4 INTs.  Miami’s defense did get better in 2017 but gone are the days when the NFL Draft was littered with Hurricane defenders; Thomas and Johnson could be mid-round picks but I doubt anybody goes higher than that.

Speaking of defense, Wisconsin’s is a juggernaut.  They are 4th in scoring, 4th against the pass and 1st against the run.  They don’t have a weakness and it’s unfortunate we did not get to see them play a stronger schedule.  We may never know if this was a historic unit or just a product of a soft schedule.  Their leader, LB TJ Edwards, is good in both run support (27th ranked in run stop percentage per PFF) and in coverage (4 INTs).  According to DraftTek.com, he’s the 11th ranked prospect in the conference and according to WalterFootball.com he’s looking at a 3rd-5th round grade.  Edwards may not be a Watt brother but he’s keeping up the tradition of productive Wisconsin linebackers with initials instead of first names!  The Badgers offense is all about freshman RB Jonathan Taylor.  Taylor had 1,847 rushing yards and 13 TDs this season and he finished 6th in Heisman voting.  Those rushing yards ranked him first in the conference and third in the FBS.  Not bad for a three star recruit.  Taylor still has two more seasons before he’s draft eligible so we have to wait and see what he develops into but he’ll probably be on my Heisman watch list for next season.  Aside from offensive tackle Beau Benzschawel, the best offensive prospect is TE Troy Fumagalli.  Fumagalli has a long injury history that I discussed in my Big Ten preview, but I still like his chances in the NFL.  He’s more of a traditional TE than the “move TE” that is en vogue right now so that may lower how high he is drafted.  Regardless of where he is drafted, he will be on the field from day one because of his above average blocking ability.  Fumagalli led the team with 43 receptions, 516 yards and 4 TDs.  He has already declared for the NFL Draft but Fumagalli has confirmed that he will play in the bowl.    Fumagalli may not be a fantasy factor in his rookie season but he’ll still be worth a third round pick.

I don’t have a doubt in my mind that Wisconsin will win this one.  Prediction: Wisconsin

 


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

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

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

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