The Watch List: 2018 Mountain West Preview

Updated: June 27th 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:  Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State.  Rypien is an enigma.  Heading into 2017 I said that Rypien’s potential draft stock would be “be buoyed by the name cachet of Boise State and some gaudy numbers.”  Things didn’t quite work out for Rypien in 2017 (in fact, he lost snaps to backup Montell Cozart) but I feel the same now as I did then.  Rypien will have a number of huge games passing for a team that is a national brand.  If he can do it over thirteen games, he’d be as likely as anybody in the Group of 5 to get a Heisman vote.
  • Darkhorse Heisman Candidate:  Armani Rogers, QB, UNLV.  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.  The only passer in the Mountain West capable of sustaining that rushing attack over a full season is Rogers.  The Rebels kickoff the season with a showcase game at USC which would be a great chance for Rogers to become part of the national conversation.
  • Offensive Player of the Year:  Marcus McMaryion, QB, Fresno State.  I was between Rogers and McMaryion for this pick.  I figured I would go with the more experienced McMaryion who I believe is playing on a team with 10-2 potential.  McMaryion threw for 2,726 yards and 14 TDs while adding 300 rushing yards and four more scores on the ground.  I expect his numbers to increase in 2018 since he’ll be the starter from Day One.
  • Defensive Player of the Year:  Andrew Wingard, S, Wyoming.  Wingard finished 5th in the conference in tackles last season (114) and tied for the most interceptions (5).  He also added 8 tackles for loss, a sack, two forced fumbles and a recovery.  Assuming he avoids injury, Wingard could hit 500 career tackles.  He’ll be on the shortlist of top safety prospects heading into the 2019 NFL Draft season.
  • Newcomer of the Year:  KJ Carta-Samuels, QB, Colorado State.  By the time you read this preview, Carta-Samuels will have arrived on campus as a graduate transfer but he will have missed Spring practices.  Despite that, he’s likely the favorite to take over for Nick Stevens.  Carta-Samuels attempted just 47 passes in his career as a Washington Husky.  He was a 4-star recruit coming out of high school who earned a high score from 247Sports.  Interestingly, he turned down an offer from Boise State to join Washington so the October 19th matchup between them and Colorado State could be interesting.   (Honorable Mention: Khalil Shakir, WR, Boise State.  This kid’s Hudl.com highlights really impressed me.  If he earns playing time he could rack up all-purpose yardage as a receiver, runner and returner.)
  • Underclassman to Watch:  Armani Rogers, QB, UNLV.  Rogers, a quarterback, is the conference’s third leading returning rusher from 2017 with 780 yards and 8 TDs.  Rogers averaged less than 19 passes per game and was not particularly efficient (122.9 rating) or accurate (52.4% completion percentage) when he did throw the ball.  Despite some of the passing struggles, I am excited to watch Rogers this season.  I sampled some highlights of his and he appears to have a number of good tools, including: height, long speed, toughness and a strong arm.
  • Best QB-WR Tandem:  Marcus McMaryion and KeeSean Johnson, Fresno State.  McMaryion was a rare graduate transfer with two years of eligibility when he joined the Bulldogs in 2017 from Oregon State.  By the end of September he had earned the starting role and WR KeeSean Johnson was the immediate benefactor.  In McMaryion’s first start, against Nevada, Johnson finished with a 7-104-3 line.
  • Best RB Corps: UNLV.  The Rebs have an impressive running game on tap for 2018.  Senior RB Lexington Thomas ran 211 times for 1,336 and 17 TDs, taking a huge step forward after sophomore Charles Williams went down.  Williams is returning from that ankle injury that cost him all but one game in 2017.  As a freshman in 2016 he totaled 141-763-3 and was the team’s leading rusher ahead of Thomas.  Williams is a little bit bigger but Thomas has more experience as a pass catcher.  It’ll probably be a 1A and 1B situation.  Also returning is senior RB Xzaviar Campbell (72-336-1) who gets my vote for best name in the conference.  Let’s not forget that QB Armani Rogers is a big part of the run game as well.
  • Coach on the Hottest Seat:  Tony Sanchez, UNLV.  It was surprisingly difficult to pick a coach to single out in this spot.  The others I considered are either too new or too established at their position to come down on them for a bad season (i.e. Brent Brennan from San Jose State or Bob Davie from New Mexico).  Sanchez has a career record of 12-24 at UNLV but has beaten the win projection each season according to CoachingTreeHotseat.com.  Still, I think it would be tough to hold onto the coach through another losing season if the Rebels don’t get to a bowl in season four when Sanchez is playing with his own recruits now.

Teams to Watch

 UNLV (5-7 in 2017)

After doing a bunch of research on the Rebels for this preview, I’m confident that they will be bowl eligible in 2018.  They have a fourth year coach in Tony Sanchez who was increased the team’s win total year-over-year (albeit by just one each season).  The team has a solid offense that will be led by dual-threat QB Armani Rogers and they are my pick for the conference’s best rushing corps.  If Lexington Thomas can keep up last year’s rushing pace while Charles Williams returns from injury, they will be poised to hold onto the ball and win time of possession.  Keeping the defense off the field will be key because it ranked 114th in the FBS in yards per game allowed (458.7).  UNLV has played in just two bowls over the last two plus decades so it’ll be a big deal if they can accomplish the feat in 2018.

 Fresno State (10-4 in 2017)

There’s not much room for the Bulldogs to improve in 2018 but they still earn a spot on my “Teams to Watch” list because of the duo of QB Marcus McMaryion and WR KeeSean Johnson.  I predict that they will lead the conference in passing in 2018 and that Johnson will become a vogue NFL Draft sleeper.  Fresno had the conference’s second best defense in terms of both points and yards allowed per game and they return the entire back seven which will help overcome inexperience up front.  They have two non-conference home games against Idaho and Toledo where Fresno State should be favored; the other two non-conference games are away at UCLA and Minnesota which are obviously more difficult but not unwinnable.  It’s not impossible for Fresno to win three of those four and end the regular season at 10-2 on the way to the MWC Championship game.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • Ty Gangi, QB, Nevada:  My favorite play from the Madden video game series, circa 2010, was the “Quick Kick” play that was in the Steelers playbook.  The quarterback would receive the shotgun snap and then punt it over the heads of the safeties.  It was such a fun play and was oddly successful.  Why do I bring that up when previewing Nevada’s quarterback?  When researching Gangi, I realized he punted the ball six times last year for a 29.0 yard average.  In all seriousness, Gangi improved his rate stats from 2016 to 2017 and has two of the conference’s leading receivers returning.  If Nevada is to rebound from a disappointing 3-9 campaign, it’ll come down to Gangi.
  • Juwan Washington, RB, San Diego State:  The Aztecs seem to be Running Back University lately with back-to-back NCAA leading rushers (Donnell Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny).  I don’t have the same expectation for the diminutive (5070) Juwan Washington but he’s certainly going to put up stats.  He finished with 759 yards and 7 TDs in 2017 and added 2 kick return scores.  Washington is fast.  There are limited college highlights of his available online so I watched some high school clips.  The frame rate can’t keep up with his legs.  In the few college highlights I was able to watch, I saw a number of successful goal line carries which surprised me.  I’ll be watching to see if Washington can play with enough physicality to overcome the inevitable questions his size will bring.
  • Olabisi Johnson, WR, Colorado State:  Johnson is a former high school track star with 71 career receptions, including a career high of 41 as a junior last season.  He averages 17.2 yards per reception, for a career total of 1,223 yards, and has 7 TDs.  The Rams are losing their top passer, rusher and receiver heading into 2018 so there is a lot of production to be had if Johnson can step up.  Colorado State’s last two dominant receivers (Michael Gallup and Rashard Higgins) were both good enough to earn mid-round NFL Draft picks so a payday could be in Johnson’s future as well.
  • Andrew Wingard, S, Wyoming:  The aforementioned Wingard is a box score dream.  In three years as a starter he has: 367 total tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 8 INTs, 7 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery and 5 forced fumbles.  At 6000/209, he may be a little undersized to earn a high draft grade for the NFL (nobody 6000 or less was drafted higher than the 4th round in 2018).  I watched Wingard’s 2017 film against Iowa.  He frequently lines up close to the line as a box safety and rarely drops deep into coverage.  I envision him earning a situational rover-safety role in the NFL where he would have the freedom to play close to the line of scrimmage.

Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State

I mentioned above that Rypien had a strange 2017 and that he’ll be looking to prove he is the BMOC in 2018.  Rypien lost snaps in each game to grad transfer QB Montell Cozart.  Cozart ended the year with 97 pass attempts and 86 rush attempts so it was a significant amount of time that Rypien ceded to his backup.  He has average size at 6020/210 but lacks speed despite running a zone read offense at Boise (I only saw him take one designated run in the two games I watched).  Rypien has above average short and medium accuracy; he’s also accurate while on the run, specifically rolling to his right.  When it comes to the deep ball, Rypien is no different than most college passers in that he struggles to hit his receivers with regularity.  He did make a number of 40-50 yard throws look effortless.  Those throws are made easier when Rypien relies on positive mechanics but he too often gets lazy.  I noted a number of throws where he was off-balance, throwing without his feet set, falling away, etc.  There were multiple “fade aways,” as I called them in my notes, that led to interceptions at the goal line because he lacked the requisite touch.  While Rypien may not have much speed, he does move well in the pocket; he often avoids the rush by shuffling to and fro while keeping his eyes downfield.  Keeping those eyes downfield may be an issue though because he takes frequent sacks.  What was most concerning in the pocket was his lack of ability to feel blindside pressure.  There was one play in each of the two games I watched where he simply turned his back to the rush from the RE and took a hit square in the spine.  If you do that against NFL pass rushers you are not going to be long for the starting role.  Rypien is going to come out as a four-year starter with a lot of experience so even if he has some flaws, he’ll get a late round NFL Draft look.  Right now I’m thinking he’s more of a backup with upside rather than a potential starter.  (Film watched: Oregon 2017, Virginia 2017)

Lexington Thomas, RB, UNLV

Thomas is an undersized back who made the most of the opportunity he earned when Charles Williams went down with an injury.  He’s listed at 5090 and just 170lbs but he does look and play bigger than that weight.  I’d expect him to come in at closer to 180-185 this season.  Thomas racked up 17 TDs and 1,336 yards last season and averaged over 6.0 yards per carry.  I watched his Ohio State and New Mexico films.  I figured those would give me a feel for Thomas at his best and his worst and I think that was about right.  He’s often the victim of poor offensive line play, getting contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage.  Luckily, Thomas displays good indirect contact balance so he is often able to bounce off and maintain his run.  He frequently tries to spin out of tackles, further showing his balance, and has a solid stiff arm.  You would not expect Thomas to be great in pass protection given his size but he is above average at worst.  He does not have the strength to hold off most defenders but he can still be effective, especially when cut blocking.  Thomas’ best trait may be his breakaway speed and acceleration.  He’s probably in the 4.45 range and he uses intelligent angles to make safeties miss in the open field and seem even faster.  Thomas has excellent ball security (zero fumbles on 335 carries over the last two years!).  Unfortunately I picked two games to watch in which he did not catch a pass and ran few routes so I cannot evaluate that part of his game.  Thomas will likely need to share the load with the returning Williams which may hurt his NFL Draft chances.  If he improves as a pass catcher (just 8 receptions in 2017) and continues to be a serviceable blocker he would be a viable late rounder or priority UDFA.  (Film watched: Ohio State 2017, New Mexico 2017)

KeeSean Johnson, WR, Fresno State

To answer your question… no, there is no relation between KeeSean Johnson and Keyshawn Johnson.  KeeSean is listed at 6020/202 and plays bigger than that height.  His highlights from 2016 and 2017 feature frequent contested catches in the air.  He shows strong hands in those situations so I wish he always used those hands to catch the ball.  Oftentimes, Johnson relies on body catches when he’s open or in the middle of the field.  I did notice inconsistent hand placement on a few of his jump ball catches.  Johnson has the ability it’s just a matter of getting the proper technique down so I’m not detracting anything from him at this point.  His speed should test in the 4.55 range which is fast enough but does not make him a burner.  His run after catch numbers are limited, again mostly because of bad habits rather than ability.  On multiple plays, Johnson was able to make a great diving play for the end zone but on others he lazily steps out of bounds to avoid contact.  My question of his mindset was reinforced when I saw him get a penalty for a throat-slashing gesture directed at a defending player.  I’m not saying he’s a bad guy, I just think he needs to be motivated to do what’s best for the team on every play.  There was no full game package of Johnson available online so I’ll need some further study to evaluate his route running, release and blocking.  Johnson will greatly benefit from another season with McMaryion.  His stat line from 2017 was 77-1,013-8; I don’t think 1,300 yards and 12 TDs is out of the question.  I have a feeling he will go from “off the radar” to “sleeper” in a few months time.  (Film watched: 2016 & 2017 highlight packages)


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
  • 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 II

Updated: December 14th 2017

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

Friday, Dec. 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, Dec. 23

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, Dec. 24

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

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

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

Tuesday, Dec. 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

  • Stats: 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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