The Watch List: 2018 Bowl Game Previews, Part IV

Updated: December 28th 2018

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

Peach Bowl, Florida (9-3) vs Michigan (10-2), Sat 12/29 at 12:00pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Players to Watch: Chase Winovich, EDGE, Michigan
    • I was originally going to profile Winovich in this space but changed my mind after Todd McShay’s most recent big board ranked fellow LB Devin Bush 10th overall. Then I figured why not mention both? Then on the morning I was writing this, Bush declared for the draft and announced that he’d skip the bowl due to a hip injury. Woe, the travails of bowl season for somebody writing advance previews. Winovich is a can’t miss player on the field, 1) because of his golden locks and 2) because of his persistence attacking the ball. He’s a smart player who will quickly curry favor in the locker room and on the practice field.  I expect him to land on Day Two come April.
  • My Pick: Florida, +7.5
    • As repeat readers know, I am a Michigan fan so this is a tough one to pick. My heart says to go for the Wolverines and a blowout victory but my brain says it’ll be close (if not a loss). Michigan has lost their last three games against the spread which does not bode well. Both teams feature strong defenses (advantage: Michigan) so it should be relatively low scoring. I’d be surprised to see either team win by more than a field goal.

Belk Bowl, South Carolina (7-5) vs Virginia (7-5), Sat 12/29 at 12:00pm on ABC:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Bryan Edwards, WR, South Carolina
    • The Gamecocks have two receiver prospects in Edwards and Deebo Samuel. Samuel has already announced that he will not play in the bowl so Edwards should receive the spotlight treatment. Since the USC offense is less than explosive, Edwards’ numbers are good but not great. His 2018 line finished at 52-809-7. He’s listed at 6030/220 and plays strong. In the preseason, I noted that I was impressed with his ball tracking, body control and ability to complete circus catches. I previously had Edwards as my 1.03 for 2019 rookie drafts so keep a close eye on his postseason performance.
  • My Pick: Virginia, +5
    • I was honestly surprised to see that Virginia ended up bowl eligible and with a winning record to boot. Like Minnesota which I mentioned in a previous installment, Virginia is one of the rare Power 5 teams I have not seen a lick of this season. Virginia has a better record ATS (8-4) and the better defense (a top 25 group in most categories) so I’ll take them and the points. You should follow along on Twitter because the people behind the Belk Bowl’s Twitter account are fantastic at their jobs.

Arizona Bowl, Nevada (7-5) vs Arkansas State (8-4), Sat 12/29 at 1:15pm on CBSSN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Justice Hansen, QB, Arkansas State
    • Hansen will be looking to cap off a very productive career at Arkansas State in this one. He was twice named the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year and should crest 10,000 career passing yards in the bowl (he’s sitting at 9,858). Hansen has good size at 6040/224 and is a threat as a runner as well. He moves well in the pocket but has much room to grow as a passer. His touch and accuracy are below average for pro prospects but he does show a quick release and an ability to run a zone-read offense. I see him being a priority UDFA and finding a home as a project backup to a run-first quarterback.
  • My Pick: Arkansas State, -2
    • Saturday 12/29 is a day with some big games. This is not one of them. Both teams have top 20 passing offenses, however Nevada’s pass defense is much weaker. Trust in the Red Wolves and Justice Hansen.

Military Bowl, Virginia Tech (6-6) vs Cincinnati (10-2), Mon 12/31 at 12:00pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Players to Watch: Ricky Walker, DT, Virginia Tech & Marquise Copeland, DT, Cincinnati
    • The best draft eligible guys in this one are both interior defensive linemen. Both players are listed at 6020 but Walker has the weight advantage (300 vs 287). They were both three year starters who finished with similar 2018 lines. Walker had 49 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks, while Copeland had 43 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. I’m not familiar with either player’s film so I referred to two of my favorite sites’ positional rankings: The Draft Network and DraftTek. DrafTek has both guys as Top 100 players with a slight edge to Copeland. The Draft Network, on the other hand, has Walker ranked significantly higher on their big board (91 vs 460). It’ll be interesting to see them on alternating possessions and compare and contrast their abilities.
  • My Pick: Cincinnati, -5.5
    • The Bearcats finished the season with an impressive 10-2 record (7-5 ATS). Their explosive offense was led by sophomore RB Michael Warren II. Warren recorded nearly 1,400 yards from scrimmage and 18 total TDs. He’s currently injured but expected to play. I’ll assume he does play and helps Cinci cement the victory. According to the OddsShark “edge finder,” Cincinnati leads Virginia Tech in eleven of twelve categories. Perhaps not surprisingly then, OddsShark predicts Cincinnati will win this one 45-19.

Sun Bowl, Stanford (8-4) vs Pitt (7-6), Mon 12/31 at 2:30pm on CBS:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: JJ Arcega-Whiteside, WR, Stanford
    • JJAW was not on my radar when I started making my 2019 position rankings in June of 2018. He exploded at the beginning of the year though and made people like myself notice. By September I had moved him up to the 2.08 slot and today I would probably put him in the late first round. Arcega-Whiteside is a prototypical “box-out” receiver who uses his play strength, length and leaping ability to win in contested situations. He has good hands and superior ball tracking ability. He does not rely on speed or RAC but he doesn’t need to. I’d say there’s at least a 50/50 chance that he stays for another year so let’s monitor his status.
  • My Pick: Stanford, -6
    • Stanford’s offense will be missing former Heisman runner-up RB Bryce Love because he decided to skip the bowl as he prepares for the NFL. Twelve months ago, missing Love would have left a gulf in the middle of the Stanford offense. He’s continued to play banged up and did not perform at a high level this season (just 739-6 in 2018 vs 2,118-19 in 2017). QB KJ Costello finished the season strong with a 10:2 TD:INT ratio over the last three games.  Costello himself could factor into the NFL Draft conversation if he decides to forego his senior season. Even without Love, Stanford has enough to hold off Pitt to improve to 4-0-1 ATS since the start of November.

 

Lines and betting stats courtesy of OddsShark.com, as of 12/18.

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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2018 Sun Belt and Independents Preview

Updated: May 24th 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:  Brandon Wimbush, QB, Notre Dame.  Few players in this group have the skill or pedigree to be a true Heisman candidate.  If I had to pick a player, I would go with Wimbush because he has upside, despite his flaws, and plays for a name brand like Notre Dame.
  • Darkhorse Heisman Candidate:  Justice Hansen.  In the very unlikely event that the Red Wolves upset Alabama on September 8th, Hansen would leap onto the national radar.
  • Offensive Player of the Year:  Jalin Moore, RB, Appalachian State.  Moore is one of the Sun Belt’s best players and I’m glad he returned to school so he can improve his NFL Draft stock.  He gained 1,037 yards in 2017, the second time in his career he passed the thousand mark.
  • Defensive Player of the Year:  Corbin Kaufusi, DE, BYU.  Talk about an interesting prospect.  Kaufusi is listed at 6090 and 280lbs and is a former BYU basketball player.  His brother was a third round draft pick by the Ravens; another brother and cousin currently play for BYU; his dad is a position coach for BYU; his mom is the mayor of Provo.  Not only does he have an interesting story and a great pedigree but he can back it up with some stats: he recorded 67 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 6 sacks last season.  There’s very little about him online, I just happened to stumble upon him.  I think he seemingly will come out of nowhere this season and become a buzz-worthy draft prospect.
  • Newcomer of the Year: Traveon Samuel, WR, Troy.  Samuel is an undersized graduate transfer WR coming from Louisville.  Samuel has 57 career receptions, 746 yards and 2 TDs.  He also contributes in the running game (17-162-1 for his career) and as a kick returner.  He never really broke through but should find more playing time at Troy.
  • Underclassman to Watch: Matt Bushman, TE, BYU. Bushman is listed at 6050/230 which gives him a leaner build than typical tight end prospects but he has time to fill out that frame. He grabbed 49 passes for 520 yards and 3 TDs as a true freshman in 2017. I haven’t done the research but it feels very rare to see a freshman TE put up numbers like that.
  • Best QB-WR Tandem:  Andrew Ford and Andy Isabella, UMass.  Isabella is UMass’ leading receiver over the last two seasons with 1,821 yards and 17 TDs.  Most of those passes came from rising senior QB Andrew Ford.  Ford lost his other favorite target, TE Adam Breneman, so he’ll need to lean on Isabella even more this season.  Ford could turn into a late round flyer quarterback if he improves his rate stats and efficiency again in 2018.
  • Best RB Corps:  Appalachian State.  App State led the Sun Belt in rushing yards per game (223.6) last season and I would expect the ground dominance to continue.  The team did lose rushing QB Taylor Lamb, but they still have the aforementioned Jalin Moore as the starting tailback.  He’s joined by redshirt sophomore Marcus Williams who filled in at times for Moore last year.  He totaled an even 500 rushing yards, including two big games against UMass (125) and Georgia Southern (130).  Sophomore Daetrich Harrington tore his ACL in February so it’s unlikely that he’ll contribute in 2018.
  • Coach on the Hottest Seat:  Brian Kelly.  This is an easy one because it seems that there are rumors of Kelly’s impending firing every offseason.  The Irish went 10-3 in 2017 but the wounds of a 4-8 season in 2016 are still fresh.  Kelly is 69-34 in South Bend with a 4-3 bowl record; while that may cut it at most programs, it doesn’t when you have a national television contract.  I think Kelly needs a double-digit win season plus a bowl victory to keep his job.

Teams to Watch

 Liberty (6-5 in 2017 at FCS level)

If Liberty sounds familiar it’s probably because they upset Baylor last September in a back-and-forth contest that ended 48-45.  Quarterback Stephen Calvert (29 TDs and 6 INTs in 2017) returns.  Against Baylor he went 44-60 for 447 yards and 3 TDs.  He added four other 300+ yard games last season so we know he has the potential to sling it.  WR Antonio Gandy-Golden also feasted on the Bears, hauling in 13 passes for 192 yards and two scores.  Liberty will struggle as they adapt to the FBS but it’s fun any time we have a new team to watch and digest.

 Louisiana Monroe (4-8 in 2017)

When I look for an under the radar team to watch, I typically check to see who is returning a majority of their starters.  Louisiana Monroe fits the bill there.  According to Street & Smith’s projected depth chart, the Warhawks will return all eleven starters.  Last year’s leading rusher, Derrick Gore, is a former transfer from Alabama.  He only averaged 3.6 yards per carry in 2017 but he did add 13 receptions so that’s a positive.  Senior WR Marcus Green is the one to watch and is a potential game breaker.  He had a 54-812-5 line as a receiver but also added 175 yards rushing and four kick return touchdowns.  He has breakaway speed and can break tackles if somebody does manage to get a hand on him.  I’m not sure he’s NFL Draft worthy but he might end up on my watch list if he shows out again in 2018.  I expect Louisiana Monroe to improve on the 4-8 record of the last two seasons and to steal a few Sun Belt wins.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • Brandon Wimbush, QB, Notre Dame:  I am not a Wimbush fan but he’s currently the starting quarterback of one of history’s most successful teams.  So, he has to be mentioned.  Wimbush lost snaps to Ian Book at times in 2017 and I’ll bet the same happens in 2018.  He completed less than 50% of his passes last season (49.5%).  He excels as a rusher though: 804 yards and 14 TDs.  He looks smaller than his listed 6010/228 which worries me in terms of his durability.  Wimbush has such a wide range of outcomes in 2018 that it’s hard to project.
  • Penny Hart, WR, Georgia State:  Hart is an undersized receiver at 5080/180 but he’s been productive on a bad Georgia State team.  He’s particularly dangerous out of the backfield where he’s a complete mismatch for linebackers.  As a freshman in 2015 he had a 72-1,109-8 line.  He missed most of 2016 due to injury but returned to form with 74-1,121-8 last season.  I watched his film against Oregon from 2015 and was impressed by his route running and some of his moves after the catch.  He has a nice hesitation move, varies his speed to mess with pursuers angles and appears to have great change of direction ability.  I doubt he would come out for 2019 but he is draft eligible and deserves a little attention.
  • Andy Isabella, WR, UMass:  Isabella is a former running back, who still wears #23, that plays a versatile role for the Minutemen.  He plays out of the slot, takes hand offs and can use his RAC ability as a kick returner too.  He has back-to-back 60+ reception seasons and a third could put him on the NFL radar.
  • Alize Mack, TE, Notre Dame:  Mack is all potential right now.  He measures 6040 and 250, right in the middle of my tight end watch list.  He has just 19 career receptions in six games.  He’s missed time due to injury, suspension and eligibility so who knows if NFL teams even want to take a chance despite his athleticism.
  • Jerry Tillery, DT, Notre Dame:  Tillery is a mountain of a man, listed at 6060/306, who broke out as a junior in 2017.  He totaled 56 tackles, 9 of them for loss, and 4.5 sacks.  Tillery decided to return for his senior season instead of testing the pro waters.  There’s limited film out there but the little I did watch (Texas 2016 and NC State 2017) did not impress me.  I watched a handful of plays from each game and did not see Tillery make much of an impact.  He was often pushed off the line, did not control his gaps nor did he get pressure.  My sample size is very small so I’ll need to do more research.

Justice Hansen, QB, Arkansas State

Hansen finished 2017 second in the Sun Belt in most passing stats except for one: he lead the conference with 37 passing TDs.  Second place had just 27.  He has good height at 6040 but could use some extra weight because he’s listed at just 207lbs.  Along with those 37 scores, Hansen accumulated 3,967 yards passing and 415 yards rushing.  He did throw 16 INTs though which is not good.  His completion percentage (62.6%) and yards per attempt (8.1) are average when compared to those on my 2019 watch list.  Arkansas State runs a pass-heavy spread offense that is high volume.  You can interpret that as a positive or a negative depending on your opinion of Hansen.  I see a quarterback who runs the zone read well and shows good vision and patience when he runs with the ball.  He has above average speed for the position but needs to work on ball security if he’s to feature as a runner in the NFL.  He has a quick release, key for all the screens he throws, but lacks touch on his passes.  The lack of touch is especially evident on throws near the endzone, like fades.  His movement translates to the pocket too where he can slide to avoid the rush and scramble.  Hansen exhibits below average accuracy on the run and in the intermediate to deep range.  Right now I would project Hansen as a late round guy and somebody unlikely to be fantasy relevant in 2019.  (Film watched: MTSU 2017, LA-Lafayette 2017)

Jalin Moore, RB, Appalachian State

Moore is one of my favorite prospects for 2019 already.  I was touting him for 2018 before he decided to go back to school, something that was ultimately a prudent decision.  He’s a little light at 185lbs but has good height at 6000.  Moore rushed for 1,037 yards in 2017 despite missing some time to injury.  In 2016 he topped 1,400 yards.  He’s not a receiving threat but he excels at pass blocking.  According to Pro Football Focus’ advanced stats, Moore was the best back in the FBS in terms of pass blocking efficiency.  Per their stats, he pass blocked on 38% of his snaps and did not allow a single sack, hit, hurry or pressure.  Most rookie RBs struggle in pass protection which limits their snaps early in their career but that won’t be a concern for Moore.  When I watch Moore I see a back who runs with power and does not fear contact.  He often lowers his head and falls forward for extra yards.  He is not fast, maybe 4.55 speed at best, but he does show some finesse at the line of scrimmage.  I made multiple notes of Moore getting skinny at the hole and finding a way through tight quarters.  He shows some vision and patience but is inconsistent with it, running right into a blocker or defender at times.  Pass protection was a mixed bag in my study; I noted three positive examples and two negatives.  The two worst were in the Miami game from 2016 so considering the PFF stats I’m guessing Moore improved mightily.  Aside from one very good stiff arm on a long touchdown run, I did not see Moore make any special moves like spins, hurdles or make-them-miss jump cuts.  He also did not catch any balls in the two games I watched so I can’t evaluate that part of his game.  Moore does not appear to have the speed or arsenal to be an every down back in the NFL but I believe he’ll find a role at the next level.  (Film watched: Toledo 2017, Miami FL 2016)

Chase Claypool, WR, Notre Dame

Claypool is an interesting prospect because he has elite size but a very small sample size of production.  It’s hard to make much of him at this early stage and another season with the inaccurate Brandon Wimbush under center may not help settle matters either.  Claypool checks in at 6040 and 228lbs, one of the biggest receivers on my 2019 watch list.  He had just 29 grabs in 2017 though, for a disappointing total of 402 yards and 2 TDs.  I was hoping to give Claypool a proper film study but the only thing I could find online was a 2017 highlight reel.  That short reel was still instructive though.  My first takeaway was that, unsurprisingly, Claypool can dominate in the air.  There were multiple examples of him hanging in the air and coming down with a contested catch.  That will be important for Notre Dame to help hide Wimbush’s inaccuracy.  My second takeaway was that Claypool often lets the ball get into his body and does not have good hand placement when attempting a catch.  Due to the limited film available to watch, I was not able to evaluate Claypool’s route running.  In order to be a true NFL Draft prospect, Claypool will have to improve his technique in 2018.  (Film watched: 2017 Highlight reel)


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 second 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.  Then 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
  • Film: 2019 NFL Draft Database by @CalhounLambeau, 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
  • 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

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 I

Updated: December 7th 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.

Saturday, Dec. 16

Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, North Carolina A&T (11-0) vs. Grambling State (11-1), 11 a.m. (ABC)

The Celebration Bowl, you ask?  The Celebration Bowl is a relatively new invention that features the SWAC and MEAC champions.  When researching this bowl, I learned that neither conference participates in the FCS playoffs for financial reasons.  Their teams often did not compete with other FCS mainstays and traveling for playoff games can cost a lot of money.  Instead, the Celebration Bowl lets the best of each conference compete in a centrally located neutral site game to cap off the season.  While it’s not one of the FBS bowl games, I decided to preview the game for two reasons: 1) it’s a national broadcast leading into the start of the FBS bowl season and 2) because I wanted to do some research on Grambling RB Martez Carter.  Carter is short at 5’9″ but he is solidly built at 205lbs; NFLDraftScout.com estimates his speed in the mid 4.40 range.  He has three straight 800+ rushing yard seasons, averages 5.7 yards per carry, has four career kick return touchdowns and is a factor in the passing game.  In 2016, Carter caught 28 balls for 376 yards; in 2017 he upped that to 30 for 402.  He has eight career receiving touchdowns.  Based on my limited study, I would throw out Shane Vereen as a reasonable size, speed and production comp.  Carter appears to be the type of player who will latch on to an NFL team for his special teams skills and could be an injury away from a role.  North Carolina A&T has a mountain of an offensive tackle named Brandon Parker.  He’s 6’8″ and 310lbs.  Based on size alone, I would guess he’s at least a third round NFL prospect.  I won’t pretend to have a good feel for this game but if nothing else it’ll be a good chance to watch two under the radar draft prospects and a great way to get your football Saturday started early.  Prediction: Grambling State

R + L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, Troy (10-2) vs. North Texas (9-4), 1 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Troy: 52nd scoring offense, 34th passing offense, 85th rushing offense; 11th scoring defense, 69th passing defense, 15th rushing defense
  • North Texas: 20th scoring offense, 21st passing offense, 53rd rushing offense; 106th scoring defense, 64th passing defense, 107th rushing defense

I’m cautiously optimistic that the first bowl of the season will be an entertaining one.  Troy is on a six game winning streak with the closest game being by 8 against bowl-bound Arkansas State.  North Texas is coming off a loss to Lane Kiffin’s red hot FAU team but prior to that they had won five straight, including two close wins to bowl-bound Louisiana Tech and Army.  North Texas’ 20th ranked scoring offense was previously led by RB Jeffery Wilson (1,215 yards, 16TDs) but he has missed the team’s last two games due to an ankle injury.  In his stead, undersized freshman Nick Smith will get the lion’s share of the carries.  In the last two without Wilson, Smith went for 178 yards against Rice but just 50 against FAU.  Since Troy has a strong rush defense, I’m hoping we get to see Wilson at full strength in the bowl.  North Texas QB Mason Fine is just 5’11” and 180lbs but has been prolific with 3,749 yards (9th in the FBS) and 28 TDs.  In the preseason, I called Troy RB Jordan Chunn “the player from the Sun Belt most likely to end up on your fantasy team next Spring.”  He underwhelmed this season with just 978 total yards and 10 TDs but he did miss two games due to a leg laceration.  A good showing from Chunn would help his draft stock but he should be off your board as a fantasy owner for now.  Put this one one while you eat lunch, flip over to Oregon vs Boise State when it starts and then come back at 4:00 to see if the ending is worth your time.  Prediction: Troy

AutoNation Cure Bowl, Western Kentucky (6-6) vs. Georgia State (6-5), 2:30 p.m. (CBSSN)

  • Western Kentucky: 83rd scoring offense, 9th passing offense, 130th rushing offense; 69th scoring defense, 36th passing defense, 77th rushing defense
  • Georgia State:  119th scoring offense, 31st passing offense, 117th rushing offense; 55th scoring defense, 92nd passing defense, 47th rushing defense

The Hilltoppers struggled through the back half of the season, losing four of their last five.  At 5-2, they may have thought they were on their way to repeating their recent history of double digit wins but alas they came crashing back to earth.  Georgia State similarly ended on a sour note with two bad losses to Appalachian State (by 21) and Idaho (who finished at 4-8 and is moving down to the FCS next year).  Chances are this is going to be a game to miss but the lone bright spot will be Western Kentucky QB Mike White.  White is a fringe QB prospect that I introduced to my readers in the offseason.  White is a former USF transfer who has prototypical size at 6’4″ and 225lbs.  He excelled last season with Taywan Taylor (who was drafted by the Titans) with a 37:7 TD:INT ratio.  In 2017, White regressed in ratio (24:7), completion percentage and yards per attempt.  His stats are still good enough to warrant a late look in the NFL Draft.  Amazingly, Georgia State managed to be bowl eligible despite finishing 119th in scoring offense.  Don’t expect this one to be pretty.  Prediction: Western Kentucky

Las Vegas Bowl, Boise State (10-3) vs. Oregon (7-5), 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

  • Boise State: 36th scoring offense, 44th passing offense, 91st rushing offense; 35th scoring defense, 44th passing defense, 20th rushing defense
  • Oregon:  18th scoring offense, 97th passing offense, 8th rushing offense; 76th scoring defense, 75th passing defense, 26th rushing defense

The Las Vegas Bowl is the crown jewel of the early bowl games.  Sure, Oregon had a disappointing year at 7-5 (and a losing 4-5 record in conference) and just lost head coach Willie Taggart to Florida State but they will still be fun to watch.  Oregon’s offense was less potent than in recent memory but still averaged 36.7 points per game.  Most of those points were scored by RB Royce Freeman who had 16 rushing TDs.  Freeman has 5,621 career rushing yards and 60 rushing TDs.  He’s good.  I wrote about Freeman in the preseason and in Week 3 – I still love him today.  He’s a battering ram at 230+ pounds.  My biggest complaint about Freeman this year would be that he did not progress as a pass catcher; he had just 14 receptions compared to 23 and 26 the previous two years.  In order to consider him a true three down back I would have loved to see him hit the 30 reception plateau.  He has been on fire as of late, finishing the season with six straight games with 122 or more yards.  Freeman will face a stiffer test though in Boise’s rush defense.  They held six opponents to less than 100 yards, including the nation’s 12th ranked rushing offense in San Diego State and Rashaad Penny.  Sophomore QB Justin Herbert will get a lot of attention over the next year or two from NFL scouts.  He is very tall at 6’6″ and efficient with the ball (64.7% completion percentage and just 7 INTs in his two season career).  WR Cedrick Wilson is my favorite player on Boise State.  He is a former JUCO transfer with 129 receptions, 2,419 yards and 17 TDs in his two years at Boise.  He’s 6’3″ and a good blocker which will help get him drafted.  Per Pro Football Focus, Wilson has a very high contested catch completion percentage.  I have Wilson as my WR15 for 2018 rookie drafts.  This game is a must-watch so be sure not to miss it.  I’m torn but will pick against Oregon after the news that Taggart is leaving.  Prediction: Boise State

Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Marshall (7-5) vs. Colorado State (7-5), 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Marshall: 81st scoring offense, 58th passing offense, 104th rushing offense; 17th scoring defense, 47th passing defense, 19th rushing defense
  • Colorado State: 29th scoring offense, 23rd passing offense, 29th rushing offense; 73rd scoring defense, 96th passing defense, 86th rushing defense

The Thundering Herd and the Rams combined for just two wins in November (one each) so neither is hot at the moment.  I’m still looking forward to this one though because it will be a chance to see Colorado State WR Michael Gallup against a decent defense.  Gallup improved on a successful 2016 season by finishing 2017 with a 94-1,350-7 line.  Those stats helped him finish first in the conference in receptions and receiving yards (he was 3rd and 4th respectively in the FBS overall).  Gallup does not have elite measureables (6’1″, 200lbs, 4.50 speed) but has elite production so he’ll be considered at the NFL level and in most fantasy leagues.  I watched some of Gallup early in the season against Oregon State and Alabama; both were pretty good games from him but I want to see more from Gallup and would like to re-watch the Alabama tape.  Gallup resides in a no-man’s land of draft prospects size-wise.  Of the twenty-six similar size/speed combine participants from 2010-2o17, the best comps would be Josh Doctson, Allen Hurns and Robert Woods.  If you drafted Gallup in the third round of your rookie draft you’d be happy with that return but chances are he’s going in the second round based on his production.  There’s another draft prospect in this game to keep an eye on: Marshall TE Ryan Yurachek.  Yurachek is undersized for a TE; he’s about the same weight and an inch shorter than last year’s vogue undersized TE Evan Engram.  And no, please do not take that as a comp to Evan Engram because Yurachek is far from the athlete Engram is.  In my early 2018 positional rankings, I included Yurachek because I honestly didn’t have another guy I wanted to include; he was my TE8.  He did have 47 receptions and 9 TDs which ranks him 6th and 3rd in the FBS at the position.  I would not be surprised to see a position change for Yurachek or to see him lineup off the line of scrimmage as is becoming more common for “move” tight ends.  Having an offensive draft prospect on both sides of the ball makes the New Mexico Bowl a “must-DVR” and a maybe-watch.  Prediction: Colorado State

Raycom Media Camelia Bowl, Arkansas State (7-4) vs. Middle Tennessee State (6-6), 8 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Arkansas State: 15th scoring offense, 6th passing offense, 79th rushing offense; 51st scoring defense, 91st passing defense, 35th rushing defense
  • Middle Tennessee State: 92nd scoring offense, 45th passing offense, 90th rushing offense; 45th scoring defense, 46th passing defense, 34th rushing defense

If it weren’t for the Cure Bowl, this would be the dud matchup of the day.  I am finding myself nonplussed, especially considering MTSU WR Richie James has an injured collarbone and is out for the year.  If nothing else, this matchup will be Exhibit A as to why the bowl season needs to contract rather than expand.  Arkansas State does have a late round draft prospect in TE Blake Mack and a very good quarterback in junior Justice Hansen.  Like Yurachek, Mack is an undersized TE who likely figures to be a possession WR or maybe an H-back in the pros.  Mack is 6’3″ and 231lbs with speed in the 4.70 range.  Mack’s line in 2017 finished at 46-609-7, landing him in the Top 10 of most stats among TEs.  I researched Mack in the preseason for my Sun Belt preview and at that time I said, “He was very versatile, lining up in the slot, on the outside and in the backfield.  He was not on the line often and I did not see a single highlight of him blocking (possibly more a feature of what constitutes a highlight, but my gut tells me he doesn’t block much).  He has the speed to beat safeties and linebackers in coverage, which he did on a number of plays.”  Hansen is a former Oklahoma and JUCO transfer so he’s had a circuitous route to success in the Sun Belt.  He is a dual-threat QB who has thrown for 3,635 yards and 34 TDs this season and added six more scores on the ground.  Hansen completes a high percentage of his passes (63.7) but has thrown too many INTs (15).  He has good size so who knows maybe a good game puts him on the late round radar for 2019.  Despite the injury, Richie James will still get drafted if he comes out.  He started his career with 212 receptions, nearly 3,000 yards and 20 TDs combined as a freshman and sophomore.  In eight career games against Power 5 opponents (against Alabama, Illinois, Missouri, Syracuse, Minnesota and three times against Vanderbilt), James totaled 65 receptions, 849 yards and 5 TDs.  That’s a better season, in eight games, than somebody like Clemson WR Deon Cain had this year and he’s in the mix as a Top 10 rookie WR for 2018 fantasy drafts.  Unfortunately we won’t see James in this one but you should definitely be paying attention to whether he declares or not for the NFL.  I’m leaning towards the Red Wolves in this one due to the strength of their passing game and their quarterback.  Prediction: Arkansas State

Tuesday, Dec. 19

Boca Raton Bowl, Florida Atlantic (10-3) vs. Akron (7-6), 7 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Florida Atlantic: 9th scoring offense, 81st passing offense, 6th rushing offense; 44th scoring defense, 93rd passing defense, 67th rushing defense
  • Akron: 103rd scoring offense, 74th passing offense, 118th rushing offense; 60th scoring defense, 82nd passing defense, 98th rushing defense

I’m not a gambling man, given my horrible record of weekly picks this season that is a good thing, but if I were I would bet big on this one.  This game is the lock of all locks this bowl season, in favor of the Owls and Lane Kiffin playing at home in Boca Raton.  One caveat: that’s if Kiffin is still on campus.  With the coaching carousel still spinning there is no guarantee Kiffin is still in Boca come December 19th.  I predict he’ll stay unless Florida State comes calling.  In the offseason, I called it a rebuilding year for Kiffin and he has done just that after a surprising 10-3 season.  Both Phil Steele and Lindy’s had FAU projected as the 5th place team in C-USA’s East division.  Not only did they win the division, and the conference, but they went undefeated (8-0) and finished three games ahead of second place FIU.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention FAU’s sophomore RB Devin Singletary.  Singletary’s rushing numbers this season are literally unbelievable: 275 carries, 1,794 yards and 29 TDs.  He ranks Top 5 in just about every relevant running back stat in the FBS.  The one that impressed me most is the number of carries; 275 carries is good for 5th overall and is twice as much as he handled last season.  He’s short at 5’9″ but stout enough at 200lbs (think Ameer Abdullah if he adds a few pounds).  Singletary was not on my draft prospect radar previously but luckily I have another season to delve deeper since he’s just a sophomore.  One of the reasons I am so sure that FAU will beat Akron is that Akron’s 7-6 record isn’t even as good as it looks.  They have two one-point wins, one three-point win and a win against a 2-9 FCS team.  I’ll say one good thing about Akron though, they have a hell of a tackling machine, and a great name, in Ulysees Gilbert III (yes, that is Ulysees not Ulysses).  Gilbert is a junior who has two back-to-back 120+ tackle and 4 sack seasons.  WalterFootball.com has him as the 13th ranked OLB for 2019 while NFLDraftScout.com has him as 10th in the class.  He might not factor in for you IDP players in 2018 but go ahead and impress your friends by dropping some Zips knowledge now.  Bet it all on Boca.  Prediction: Florida Atlantic

Wednesday, Dec. 20

Frisco Bowl, SMU (7-5) vs. Louisiana Tech (6-6), Frisco, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

  • SMU: 8th scoring offense, 16th passing offense, 45th rushing offense; 113th scoring defense, 121st passing defense, 113th rushing defense
  • Louisiana Tech: 63rd scoring offense, 64th passing offense, 55th rushing offense; 66th scoring defense, 59th passing defense, 81st rushing defense

By the time you read this preview, there is a very good chance that Chad Morris is no longer SMU’s head coach and is instead at either Arkansas or Tennessee.  Don’t these ADs know how difficult it is to write a good bowl preview when you don’t know who the head coach will be?  Woe is me, we’ll press on.  The biggest draft prospect of this early slate of games is undoubtedly SMU’s WR Courtland Sutton.  I am an active member in Reddit’s dynasty fantasy football subreddit called r/DynastyFF.  The sub runs bi-weekly rookie mock drafts and I have been compiling the results for you, dear reader.  As of the mock started on 11/29, Sutton was the 1.03 pick and was in a clear tier with Derrius Guice, Nick Chubb and James Washington just behind Saquon Barkley.  In that forum, Sutton is the WR1, has been picked as high as 1.02 and has never gone later than 1.05.  I have written extensively about Sutton this season so I won’t go into detail here but here’s a short summary: Sutton has elite size, good speed and fantastic body control but has feasted mostly on subpar defenses and saw a reduced role in 2017.  SMU has an awful defense and is coming off a poor end to the season (a close win against Tulane kept them from losing their last four games); Louisiana Tech on the other hand ended with two wins (albeit one against 0-12 UTEP).  Aside from Sutton, there is somebody else worth rooting for in this game: Lousiana Tech RB Boston Scott.  Scott is a 5’6″, former walk-on, fifth year senior who suffers from a rare muscular disorder.  He earned a scholarship last season and has gained over 1,000 total yards and 9 TDs this season as Tech’s primary ball carrier.  I expect this one to be high scoring and surprisingly fun to watch.  SMU’s defense and the flux in the program will be factors.  Prediction: Louisiana Tech

Thursday, Dec. 21

Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, Temple (6-6) vs. Florida International (8-4), 8 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Temple: 118th scoring offense, 107th passing offense, 116th rushing offense; 83rd scoring defense, 6th passing defense, 126th rushing defense
  • Florida International: 74th scoring offense, 56th passing offense, 65th rushing offense; 79th scoring defense, 95th passing defense, 79th rushing defense

Butch Davis, much like Lane Kiffin, sought the sunny shores of Florida to rehab his career.  Davis also succeeded, although to a lesser degree than Kiffin.  FIU finished 8-4 which is just the second time the team has won eight or more since they joined the FBS in 2004.  It’s also just the team’s third bowl, although it’s not the most ridiculously named bowl the Golden Panthers will have played in.  That ignominious award goes to the 2011 Beef O’Brady’s Bowl (named for a restaurant I predict I will never patronize).   Temple disappointed this year at 6-6 after back-to-back ten win seasons under former coach Matt Rhule.  Temple’s QB Logan Marchi battled injuries, inefficiency and turnovers which may account for the downfall.  As far as I can tell, neither Temple nor Florida International have any worthwhile offensive NFL draft prospects.  Temple’s strong pass defense is led by CB/S Sean Chandler and CB Mike Jones.  Jones is a graduate transfer from North Carolina Central University where he totaled 114 tackles and 11 INTs; this year at Temple he had 38 tackles, an INT and 7 passes defended.  Chandler had 74 tackles, 2 INTs and 3 passes defended this season.  Chandler is the more likely of the two to get drafted: in the preseason, Phil Steele had him as the sixth ranked FS.  FIU’s mediocre defense is led by LBs Anthony Wint and Treyvon Williams, both of whom have 180+ tackles each over the last two seasons combined.  Aside from the Cure Bowl, this one has the worst combination of offenses and might prove unwatchable.  Prediction: Temple


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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper