The Watch List: 2018 Bowl Game Previews, Part I

Updated: December 9th 2018

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

Celebration Bowl, North Carolina A&T (9-2) vs Alcorn State (9-3), Sat 12/15 at 12:00pm on ABC

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Lamar Raynard, QB, North Carolina A&T
    • I recalled watching Raynard last year in the Celebration Bowl and wanted to learn some more so I watched his 2018 film against Jacksonville State.  I came away more encouraged than I expected.  He has a good arm that allows him to chuck an effortless looking deep ball, however, his accuracy appears below average.  His footwork in the pocket is crisp.  I think he may be a little eager to leave the pocket but he has enough speed to pick up extra yardage.  Raynard had a great 2017 season (2,932-27-7) but regressed a bit in 2018 (1,630-18-5).  His career completion percentage is a shade under 60% which backs up my accuracy concerns.  Raynard is lanky at 6040/195 so a few extra pounds would do him well.  A&T primarily plays a zone-read offense but I did see him take some snaps from under center which is a bonus.  Given his height and arm strength I think somebody will give Raynard a shot, probably as a priority UDFA, to back up their running QB.
  • My Pick:  North Carolina A&T, -7.5
    • I won’t pretend to have a feel for this game because I don’t.  Chances are, your book won’t list this game anyway (I had to find a line on a European site) but if you do decide to play it, go for the Aggies.  A&T beat FBS team East Carolina earlier, has a recognizable name at quarterback and is on a four game winning streak.

Cure Bowl, Louisiana Lafayette (7-6) vs Tulane (6-6), Sat 12/15 at 1:30pm on CBSSN

  • Draft (In)Eligible Player to Watch: Trey Ragas, RB, Lousiana Lafayette
    • I struggled with selecting a worthy draft eligible player for this game.  I cheated and selected sophomore back Trey Ragas instead.  I figured it would make more sense to watch film of somebody who might actually factor into the game than somebody we’ll never hear from again.  I watched an extended highlight package of the Cajuns blowout loss to Alabama so I could glimpse Ragas against a top foe.  Ragas is a stout back at 5110/227 and as such prefers running straight ahead between the tackles.  He doesn’t stray from contact and in fact shows good contact balance and an ability to keep his feet moving leading to long runs.  I also thought he looked to be an eager, albeit over matched, blocker against an elite rush.  He didn’t record any receptions in the Alabama game but he does have 22 receptions and 188 receiving yards on the year.  That pairs with his 1,040 rushing yards and 8 rushing TDs to make for a great season.  Ragas won’t factor into the 2019 draft class but we could be talking about him again a year from now.
  • My Pick: Louisiana Lafayette, +3.5
    • This one is a toss-up between mediocre teams so I’ll take the points.  Louisiana-Lafayette is 9-4 ATS this season whereas Tulane is 5-7, which is just confirmation of the way I was leaning anyway.  The Cajuns have a strong rushing offense (fellow sophomore Elijah Mitchell added 866-12) and Tulane’s rush defense allowed 153.9 yards per game during the regular season.

New Mexico Bowl, Utah State (10-2) vs North Texas (9-3), Sat 12/15 at 2:00pm on ESPN

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: EJ Ejiya, LB, North Texas
    • While I was looking through statistics for these two teams, Ejiya stood out to me because he had both a high number of tackles (113) and a high number of sacks (9); he also had a conference-leading 23.5 tackles for loss.  It’s uncommon for somebody to have tallies that high in all three categories, especially for an inside linebacker.  I figured, “surely this guy must be a one year wonder.”  But he had an almost as impressive 108-12.0-7.0 line in 2017 as a junior.  I sampled Ejiya’s tape against Florida Atlantic and Rice from 2018.  What I saw tempered my expectations.  Ejiya looks small on the field (listed at 6030/230 which is a bit light anyway) and was often caught in the trash in the middle of the play.  I rarely saw him make quick, instinctual reads of the play.  Despite whatever he may lack, Ejiya does keep coming and is determined to make the play.  I saw him ultimately make the tackle on numerous snaps where it looked like he was going to be blocked or out of the play.  Ejiya has the capability to take over a game (four games with 11+ tackles, four games with 3.0+ tackles for loss, three games with 2.0 sacks) so it’ll be interesting to see him lined up across from Utah State’s standout sophomore QB Jordan Love (3,193-28-4, plus 60-6 rushing).
  • My Pick: Utah State, -10
    • Utah State has lost against the spread in their last two contests but prior to that they were 9-1 on the season.  Their offense ranks 3rd overall in the FBS in points scored (47.2) while North Texas averages 36.4.  Both teams feature strong quarterback play (Mason Fine, who helms the Mean Green, is efficient and prolific but too small for NFL consideration I believe) so I expect this one to be full of offense and Utah State’s is better.

Las Vegas Bowl, Arizona State (7-5) vs Fresno State (11-2), Sat 12/15 at 3:30pm on ABC

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: N’Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State
    • The Las Vegas Bowl is becoming known as the “One of These Teams has a Premier Prospect but Who Knows if They’ll Play Bowl.” Last year it was Oregon RB Royce Freeman (who ultimately declined to play). This year it could be N’Keal Harry. Harry has publicly said he didn’t yet make a decision about playing. If he does play, you’ll get a glimpse of the possible WR1 in the 2019 class. Harry has 6040 height but the speed and RAC ability of smaller receivers. He succeeds in contested situations because of his strength and vertical. If he plays, his 2018 stat line of 73-1,088-9 will improve and be right on par with his production from 2017 (82-1,142-8). If Harry does not play, keep an eye on Fresno WR KeeSean Johnson (no relation to Keyshawn). Johnson has improved year over year and looks like a mid-rounder for 2019.
  • My Pick: Fresno State, -3.  
    • I took Fresno and the points against Boise and they ended up winning straight up (really wish I took that moneyline!). They will easily handle Arizona State, especially if the Sun Devils are missing Harry. As I mentioned last week, seven of Fresno State’s last eight have gone under.

Camellia Bowl, Eastern Michigan (7-5) vs Georgia Southern (9-3), Sat 12/15 at 5:30pm on ESPN

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Tyler Wiegers, QB, Eastern Michigan
    • This one is a bit of a stretch but there aren’t too many draft prospects in this game. I briefly considered Southern RB Wesley Fields (959-9) and Eastern’s edge rusher Maxx Crosby (62-7.5) but settled on Wiegers. Whenever you’re looking for a draft prospect, you can do worse than a 6040/227 quarterback. Wiegers started his career in Iowa but grad transferred to Ypsilanti for the 2018 season. He has a small sample size, just 270 career attempts, but as I’ll say dozens of times this offseason, it’s a weak quarterback class. Admittedly, I haven’t watched Wiegers tape, save for a few minutes of live game time here and there. His stat logs show an efficient, yet unexciting passer: 64.8% completion percentage, 7.1 yards per attempt, 11 TDs and just 3 INTs. In EMU’s last three wins, Wiegers has thrown for just 418-1-2 so let’s not get too excited.
  • My Pick: Georgia Southern, +3.5
    • Georgia Southern runs a triple option offense so I’ll give them the nod for novelty. The narrative will be that Eastern Michigan has time to prepare but by virtue of playing on the first day of bowl games, it’s not that much longer than usual. Southern has five guys with 300+ yards and as a team average 261.5 rushing yards per game (9th best in the FBS). Despite having such a robust rushing attack, they somehow manage to place dead last in the FBS in offensive plays per game – that was very surprising. They’ll roll against the Eagles’ 93rd ranked rushing defense and win this one straight up to hit double digit wins for the first time in program history.

New Orleans Bowl, Middle Tennessee (8-5) vs Appalachian State (10-2), Sat 12/15 at 9:00pm on ESPN

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Ty Lee, WR, Middle Tennessee
    • I profiled Blue Raider QB Brent Stockstill last week so I figured this week I should focus on one of his targets. Lee is diminutive at 5090/178, but unlike his quarterback he’s been able to stay healthy throughout his career. Lee’s three seasons have been pretty similar and average out to a 69-820-7 line. In 2017 he also had 39 “rushing attempts” for 109-1 (presumably, most of these were screens that went backwards, save for some wildcat snaps). I watched segments of Lee’s 2017 Florida Atlantic tape and loved how varied his usage was. I saw him line up in the slot on both sides, flanking the quarterback and in the wildcat. I didn’t see too much speed so I checked for an estimate on DraftScout.com and they have him in the 4.49 range – hopefully he tests a bit quicker than that. He’s primarily a screen and swing receiver but his versatility could earn him a limited role at the next level.
  • My Pick: Middle Tennessee, +7
    • I’m going with an intangible, emotional argument on this one. MTSU quarterback Brent Stockstill will be playing in his last game for the school and for his dad, Rick who is the head coach. Stockstill has spent six years with the program after gray-shirting in 2013. As I mentioned last week, he’s an old and oft-injured prospect but he’s got a good story. There’s nothing to back this up but I think his teammates will play for him and get the W. (Plus, App State is 0-1-2 in their last three contests ATS).

Boca Raton Bowl, Northern Illinois (8-5) vs UAB (10-3), Tue 12/18 at 7:00pm on ESPN

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Sutton Smith, LB, Northern Illinois
    • I skipped over Sutton Smith last week to feature Buffalo WR Anthony Johnson. I think Mr. Smith took that to heart because he came out with a dominating 10 tackle and 2.0 sack performance in the MAC Championship Game. I was only half watching the game but it felt like I heard his name called on nearly every play. Smith’s stats are outstanding and he’s been rewarded for them (2017 MAC Defensive Player of the Year, 2017 Consensus All-American). Over the last two seasons, he’s combined for: 109 tackles, 51.0 tackles for loss and 27 sacks. If he were bigger, we’d be talking about him as a potential first rounder. He’s listed at 6010/237 and that feels favorable. Smith will be drafted and be given a chance as a situational pass rusher but I think he’ll be one of those college stars that doesn’t translate in the pros.
  • My Pick: UAB, -1.5
    • I figured that UAB RB Spencer Brown would be the key to the C-USA Championship Game, if he played, and he was. Brown returned with a vengeance, racking up 31 carries for 156 yards and a score. He was, no doubt, the key to the rematch against Middle Tennessee. Northern Illinois has the nation’s 14th best rush defense so it’ll be a good strength vs strength battle. I’m looking forward to studying Brown for the 2020 draft so I’ll pick with my heart and lean Blazers.

Frisco Bowl, San Diego State (7-5) vs Ohio (8-4), Wed 12/19 at 8:00pm on ESPN

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: AJ Ouellette, RB, Ohio
    • Oullette is your basic vanilla mid-major runner. That sounds like an insult but I promise it isn’t. He has back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons and catches just enough passes to be relevant (19 receptions in 2018). From my limited exposure over the years, I don’t think he does anything particularly great but he’s good enough all-around. He’s a straight-ahead runner without much long speed. He does have enough wiggle to make a cut through a hole or make a defender miss and is a fall-forward kind of runner. As I write this, UDFA Gus Edwards is having a moment for the Ravens, and I feel like that’s the type of career Ouellette can have in the NFL. He’ll be a late rounder or a priority free agent and just about everybody will forget about him until he makes an unexpected impact. It probably won’t matter for fantasy purposes but as an actual fan of his NFL team you’ll be glad you had him.
  • My Pick: Ohio, -3
    • In addition to Ouellette, the Bobcats feature dual-threat quarterback Nathan Rourke. Rourke finished the season with a four score rushing performance against Akron (he ended with 816 rushing yards and 13 TDs). He’s also an efficient passer when called upon. The Aztecs have been a mess for bettors this year (3-9 ATS) and RB Juwan Washington doesn’t seem to be fully recovered from his midseason injury so I wouldn’t think twice about giving the points here.

Lines and betting stats courtesy of OddsShark.com, as of 12/2.

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part IV

Updated: December 26th 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.

Thursday, Dec. 28

Camping World Bowl, #22 Virginia Tech (9-3) vs. #19 Oklahoma State (9-3), 5:15 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Virginia Tech: 65th scoring offense, 61st passing offense, 63rd rushing offense; 5th scoring defense, 21st passing defense, 16th rushing defense
  • Oklahoma State: 3rd scoring offense, 1st passing offense, 43rd rushing offense; 86th scoring defense, 120th passing defense, 27th rushing defense

Six weeks ago it seemed that both of these teams could be destined for their conference championship games but late season losses to #5 Oklahoma and #10 Miami dashed those hopes.  It’ll be an interesting strength vs strength matchup when Oklahoma State has the ball.

When Oklahoma State does have the ball, they often score.  They average 46.3 points per game.  Their lowest output of the season came against Texas with just 13 points but other than that they have scored 31+ in every game.  Responsible for those points are QB Mason Rudolph, RB Justice Hill,  WR James Washington and WR Marcell Ateman.  Rudolph is one of my top 2018 rookie QBs for fantasy purposes (he’s big, good accuracy, typically limits mistakes and is a better runner than the stats show because of negative yardage from sacks).  I profiled Rudolph twice this season, once in the preseason and once in Week 4 if you’d like to read more.  I also discussed Washington in depth in Week 6 but to recap, he is a burner who was a high school track star.  He caught 69 balls this year for 1,423 yards and 12 TDs.  That works out to a 20.6 yards per reception average which was 10th in the FBS this season.  Washington will be a Top 3 WR in most fantasy leagues this Spring.  The other two offensive stars, Hill and Ateman, don’t get enough publicity.  Hill is a second year starter as a sophomore and already has nearly 2,500 career yards; he improved as a pass catcher this year which allows him to stay on the field for more snaps.  Ateman may just end up being the best pro player out of the group.  He’s big at 6’4″ and 220lbs and uses that frame to high point the ball and fight for contested catches.  Highlight reels can be misleading, but check out the string of catches he makes in this recent Youtube video from 1:22 to 1:45.  Ateman won’t get drafted as high as Washington but he’ll be productive in the NFL if he keeps playing like that.

Unfortunately for Hokie fans, they will be without senior WR Cam Phillips in this one as he heals from a hernia.  Phillips led the FBS in receptions early in the season and ended with a 71-964-7 line.  He has had 40+ receptions in each of his four seasons which is great sustained productdion.  He hasn’t been super productive as far as touchdowns go though (just 17) but he did have mediocre quarterback play for his first two seasons.  That quarterback play has been decent this season with freshman Josh Jackson.  Jackson has 2,743 yards, 19 TDs and 8 INTs, completes 60.3% of his passes and added 4 rushing TDs.  There’s a drop off from Phillips to the team’s next receiver, freshman Sean Savoy (39-454-4), so I expect the offense to struggle.  On defense, LB Tremaine Edmunds does not struggle.  Edmunds is a two year starter who totaled 101 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks this season.  He also added 3 forced fumbles.  Edmunds has been getting a lot of hype on Twitter lately so I think he’ll start moving up draft boards as people digest more film.  Edmunds is WalterFootball.com’s 4th ranked OLB prospect so a first round pick is not out of the question but second round is more likely.

The Hokies defense is good but they won’t be able to stop Oklahoma State’s offense.  Sure, they might slow them down and keep the Cowboys under 35 points but there’s no way Virginia Tech can match that with Phillips out.  I originally was going VaTech but I’ve flipped.  Prediction: Oklahoma State

Valero Alamo Bowl, #12 Stanford (9-4) vs. #15 TCU (10-3), 9 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Stanford: 39th scoring offense, 98th passing offense, 32nd rushing offense; 29th scoring defense, 72nd passing defense, 73rd rushing defense
  • TCU: 34th scoring offense, 59th passing offense, 52nd rushing offense; 12th scoring defense, 74th passing defense, 4th rushing defense

Between the Camping World Bowl at 5:15pm and the Alamo Bowl at 9:00pm, we are looking at a great doubleheader Thursday night with just enough time to sneak in a quick, late dinner with your significant other.  Stanford may be ranked higher, likely because of Bryce Love love, but I think TCU is the stronger team.  Both teams are coming off of conference championship losses so it’ll be interesting to see how they rebound.

Stanford started the season with Keller Chryst starting at quarterback with occasional appearances by freshman backup KJ Costello.  Costello took over full-time in the November 4th game against Washington State and struggled (9-20, 105 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT).  He has played better since but his stats are those of a game-manager rather than a game-winner.  The game-winner for the Cardinal is Heisman runner-up Bryce Love.  Love finished the season with 1,793 yards and 17 TDs.  He battled through injuries but still managed to miss just one game.  He’s a bit undersized but is still a workhorse with seven games of 20+ carries.  He had eleven games of 100+ yards (the lone game he didn’t hit the century mark was against Washington State when he came in very questionable), including 263 and 301 yard games.  I covered Love many times throughout the season as he moved up the Heisman ballot – my deepest dive was in Week 7.  Love is currently my RB5 for 2018 rookies because I am a little concerned about his size and durability; I expect him to be a late 1st or early 2nd round rookie fantasy draft pick in 2018.  On defense, Stanford is led by safety Justin Reid who had 92 tackles and 5 INTs in 2017.  He was voted to the second team All-America team and was a first team PAC-12 selection.  Reid will be a second round pick and will factor into IDP leagues as a rookie.

Per my research, TCU does not have any clear cut draft prospects, except maybe for senior LB Travin Howard.  Instead, I’ll touch on a few offensive players who will make a difference in this game.  First up is QB Kenny Hill.  Hill is a former Texas A&M transfer who has started both years at TCU.  He significantly improved his rate stats in 2017 (including completion percentage, passer rating, TD:INT ratio and yards per attempt) but was less of a factor as a runner this year.  He still had 4 rushing TDs but that was significantly less than his 10 from 2016.  RB Darius Anderson (768-8) is injured and may not play.  In his place senior Kyle Hicks will get more carries. Hicks was a 1,000 yard rusher last season but saw a reduced role behind Anderson this season.  My prediction for the player who most benefits from Anderson’s injury will be KR/WR KaVontae Turpin.  Turpin is tiny (5’9″ and 153lbs) but a potential game breaker.  In his career he has 17 career TDs: 1 passing, 2 rushing, 10 receiving, 3 returning punts and 1 returning kicks.  He had seven touches (6 receptions, 1 punt return) and 91 all-purpose yards (39 receiving, 52 returning punts) against Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship; that was the most touches he had had in six games.  I would expect a similar number of touches in the bowl game and bet he’ll score in some unexpected or spectacular way.

It’s hard picking against somebody of Bryce Love’s caliber but I’m taking the Horned Frogs.  I think that TCU’s strong rush defense will keep Love under 150 yards which will be enough to win a close one.  Prediction: TCU

Friday, Dec. 29

Belk Bowl, Wake Forest (7-5) vs. Texas A&M (7-5), 1 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Wake Forest: 32nd scoring offense, 35th passing offense, 47th rushing offense; 62nd scoring defense, 104th passing defense, 93rd rushing defense
  • Texas A&M: 44th scoring offense, 65th passing offense, 74th rushing offense; 81st scoring defense, 67th passing defense, 65th rushing defense

The biggest storyline surrounding either of these teams is surely FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher leaving Tallahassee for College Station.  Jimbo won’t be coaching in the bowl game, that duty will fall to special teams coach Jeff Banks, but I’m sure his presence will be felt.

Wake Forest started the season strong with four straight wins, three over eventual bowl teams, but went on to lose five of their last eight.  Their crowning victory in the second half of the season came against #19 North Carolina State who could have tied Clemson for the division lead if it weren’t for the Wake Forest loss.  Wake Forest’s senior QB John Wolford had the best season of his career in 2017.  He threw for 2,792 yards, 25 TDs and just 6 INTs.  What is most encouraging when looking at his stats is the huge increase in efficiency this year.  Wolford is undersized at 6’1″ and 200lbs (it’s always a red flag when somebody weighs in exactly at 200lbs, surely he’s less than that).  I don’t think his that quick but he is productive as a runner with 615 yards and 10 TDs.  Wake’s most explosive player, WR Greg Dortch is injured and out for the bowl which is a shame.  Dortch set a school record with 4 TDs against Louisville.  I watched his highlights from that game and he’s like a punt returner whenever he gets the ball in the open field: fast, quick cuts, sets up blockers.  I’m looking forward to watching more of him next year.

Hot take alert: Texas A&M isn’t even as good as their 7-5 record indicates.  They did not beat a ranked opponent all season (in three tries) and their three wins over Power 5 teams were all just by one score.  The Aggie offense is paced by WR Christian Kirk.  Kirk first caught my eye in the preseason while writing my SEC preview.  Kirk is very fast, sub 4.40 speed, and is great when he has the ball in his hands.  Since many of his receptions are at or behind the line of scrimmage, I question his route running and ability to get open at the NFL level; but, as long as the team can scheme for him with screens and drag routes across the field he’ll succeed because of his running after the catch.  Kirk’s value as an NFL player is insulated by his return prowess.  He has 7 career return TDs and if he qualified with two more returns he would have led the FBS in punt return average (21.9 vs the leader who has 19.5) again in 2017, something he did in both 2015 and 2016.  Kirk will be an early second round rookie pick in 2018 so keep an eye on him.

One last note on the Aggies, take a look at their offensive and defensive rankings – they are no better than 44th in any category.  Of the twenty teams covered in this preview, all but three have a unit ranked 43rd or better: Kentucky, Utah State and Texas A&M.  Jimbo will surely shake things up next season but that won’t help in the Belk Bowl.  Prediction: Wake Forest

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Kentucky (7-5) vs. #21 Northwestern (9-3), 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Kentucky: 87th scoring offense, 100th passing offense, 58th rushing offense; 80th scoring defense, 113th passing defense, 60th rushing defense
  • Northwestern: 55th scoring offense, 51st passing offense, 71st rushing offense; 19th scoring defense, 100th passing defense, 9th rushing defense

If you told me you were watching a Kentucky vs Northwestern matchup in December, I would probably guess you were watching basketball not football because historically these are two weaker Power 5 programs.  Kentucky is playing in their second consecutive bowl while Northwestern’s streak is at three so both have found recent success under their current coaches.  As far as this season goes, Northwestern is on an impressive seven game winning streak which includes a win over #16 Michigan State.  Conversely, Kentucky lost their last two (both by nearly 30 points) and three of the last four.

Kentucky has two players that interest me after doing some research.  The first is sophomore RB Benjamin (Benny) Snell.  Snell set a number of Kentucky freshman records last year and was named a freshman All-American by the Football Writer’s Association of America.  In that freshman season he rushed for 1,039 yards and 13 TDs.  In 2017, Snell added 70 carries and managed to top 1,300 yards and scored 18 TDs.  He also became a slightly larger factor in the passing game (10 receptions vs 2).  Snell’s per-carry average fell in 2017 but it’s good to see that he has held up (he’s 5’11” and 223lbs which is a good size for a running back) without any serious injury.  On defense, SS Mike Edwards could be a mid-round draft pick if he declares early.  Phil Steele had him ranked as the #9 draft eligible SS in the preseason and NFLDraftScout.com has him ranked in the same spot in his 2019 draft class.  Since 2010, there were 17 safeties drafted between the 4th and 6th round that compare similarly to his size; there were also four safeties drafted higher but that’d be a reach for Edwards based on my limited research.  I watched some 2016 highlights of Edwards and noted his ball tracking and good form on a number of his tackles. Edwards has 228 career tackles and 8 INTs so he has been productive, just not at an elite level.

Wildcats QB Clayton Thorson will be best served by staying on campus for his senior season but I have seen some 2018 draft hype for him on Twitter.  The positives: he’s tall at 6’4″, is a good runner, has a lot of experience as a third year starter and improved his completion percentage year-over-year.  I watched tape of Thorson from last year’s Pinstripe Bowl and I had mixed feelings.  I believe Thorson has the requisite “arm talent” for the NFL but he gets sacked too often and seems to make a lot of one-read throws.  Regarding the sacks, in 2017 Thorson was sacked the 13th most in the FBS and in 2016 he was sacked the 3rd most.  He hasn’t missed a game for Northwestern but all of those hits must add up eventually.  Northwestern’s best prospect is RB Justin Jackson.  Jackson is a true three-down back who averages 3.12 receptions per game over the last two seasons.  Jackson has also rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons, the biggest total coming in 2016 with 1,524 yards.  Jackson lost carries this year to freshman backup Jeremy Larkin but he still managed 1,154 yards.  Jackson is quick and probably best suited for a zone-blocking scheme where he’s not plowing into the line head first.  He’ll probably start his career as a third down, situational back but I don’t think it’ll be long before he earns more touches.  The third round is probably the best case scenario and he’s a steal if he makes it midway through the fourth.

Despite the strength of the two lead running backs, this one will probably come down to the passing game due to how poor the passing defenses are.  Thorson is superior so I’ll go with Northwestern.  Prediction: Northwestern

Arizona Bowl, New Mexico State (6-6) vs. Utah State (6-6), 5:30 p.m. (CBSSN)

  • New Mexico State: 56th scoring offense, 4th passing offense, 124th rushing offense; 87th scoring defense, 78th passing defense, 64th rushing defense
  • Utah State: 45th scoring offense, 71st passing offense, 56th rushing offense; 70th scoring defense, 16th passing defense, 117th rushing defense

I’ll be honest, it’s hard to say much of anything positive regarding a bowl matchup featuring two 6-6 mid-majors after we’ve had a number of Top 25 matchups.  I’m tempted to do as my mother taught me, “if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all,” but I know you are here for some hard-hitting analysis.

Surprisingly, this isn’t the first time this season that I have written about New Mexico State.  In Week 11, I shined a spotlight on Aggies RB Larry Rose III.  I observed that Rose has good lateral and straight line speed and his explosiveness.  Unfortunately, he’s playing on a weak team (just 14 career wins as a four year starter) so his opportunities to shine have been few; he’s also dealt with a number of injuries, including a sports hernia and a knee.  Rose’s best attribute is his pass catching ability: he has 49 receptions for 474 yards and 2 TDs this year.  He probably doesn’t get drafted but it’s a name to monitor in training camp in case he catches on somewhere.  Speaking of four year starters with an injury history, QB Tyler Rogers threw for 3,825 yards, 26 TDs and 16 INTs this season.  He improved his rate stats in 2017 but was featured less frequently as a ball carrier.  His top target is 6’6″ JUCO transfer Jaleel Scott.  Scott is a red zone threat with 5 of his 8 TDs coming from inside the twenty.

After researching Utah State, I’m honestly surprised that head coach Matt Wells still has a job.  He took over for Gary Anderson after a big 11-2 season and subsequently won 19 games over his next two years at the helm.  In the three years since, he has just 15 combined wins.  Maybe he has some dirt on the athletic director?  Throughout the season, Wells has rotated quarterback snaps between Kent Myers and Jordan Love.  Combined they have about 2,500 passing yards, 16 TDs and 13 INTs.  The defense is led by junior LB Suliasi Tamaivena.  Tamaivena had 109 tackles and 3 sacks in his first season at Utah State.  He had a rough road to Logan and FBS football, which included a junior college stop and academic issues that kept him from joining Washington State.  He’s probably too old to be considered as a draft prospect but he’s a good story of perseverance nonetheless.

I don’t know enough about either team to make a truly informed decision about this one but since I like Larry Rose, I’ll go with his squad.  Prediction: New Mexico State


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

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

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

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