The Watch List 2021: Early QB Tiers

Updated: November 18th 2020

Throughout the rest of the season I will be compiling early positional tiers for the 2021 NFL Draft. In past years I’ve done early rankings but in hindsight those feel counterproductive to my ultimate goal of creating RSO’s rookie rankings that are used in the draft room. Frankly, it’s hard to change a ranking because it feels “locked in” once I put it out into the world. When I would create my early rankings I would always start by grouping the players into themed tiers first, so that’s what I will be sharing in this series. Each tier includes players whose potential and plot line feel similar to me; the sequence of tiers is indicative of a general order of expected draft value. I’ll repeat though: these are not rankings. Within each tier players are sorted alphabetically.

Future Pro Bowlers

  • Justin Fields, Ohio State

  • Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

Almost everybody in the football world — NFL front offices, amateur draftniks like myself, fantasy football players — has had their eye on the 2021 NFL Draft for years. The crown jewel of the draft class, and the reason everybody has been talking about this draft for three years, is undoubtedly Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence. Between he and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, this quarterback class is top heavy with a sizable tier break between the top two and the field. Lawrence might have been the first overall pick out of high school, let alone after his successful freshman and sophomore seasons. So far in 2020, Lawrence has continued to play at a high level and has been even more efficient than the last two campaigns; his completion percentage, yards per attempt, TD:INT ratio and passer rating have all improved. Lawrence is a once-every-ten-year prospect who mixes supreme size, plus athleticism, and a quiet confidence. He has missed two games to date after testing positive for covid, but we have no reason to believe he won’t fully recover and star once again in the College Football Playoff.

It’s hard to believe, but Justin Fields is off to an even hotter start in 2020 than Lawrence. Through three games, Fields has accounted for more touchdowns (13) than he’s thrown incompletions (11). His college career started out a bit rocky at Georgia before transferring to Ohio State, but it’s clear the move worked out perfectly for Fields. Off the field — pun intended — Justin Fields is a leader who helped ensure the Big Ten played in 2020.

I fully expect Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields to be the top two picks in the 2021 NFL Draft and look forward to cheering them on for years to come.

Surefire First Rounders

  • Trey Lance, North Dakota State

  • Zach Wilson, BYU

Prior to the start of the season, Trey Lance was the consensus QB3 in this draft class. Unfortunately for Lance fans like myself, we only got to see him play once this season due to the patchwork nature of the FCS football season. That has opened the door for BYU’s Zach Wilson to be the next off the board.

If you looked up the term “passing efficiency” in the dictionary you’ll see an entry that says: See Lance, Trey. In seventeen games as a starter, Lance has thrown 30 passing TDs to just a single INT. For good measure he’s also added 16 rushing TDs. Two important notes, 1) Lance is playing against a lower level of opponent in the FCS, and 2) he has a small sample size of starts. But, his skill is apparent when you watch the tape. When I recently wrote about Lance I ended by saying, “Lance oozes natural talent, confidence and charisma that has me as excited as I was when studying Patrick Mahomes back in 2017.” Trey Lance still has a lot to prove during the draft process but he’ll be a first rounder and I predict he will climb back up overall rankings once teams start seeing him in person.

Zach Wilson came on strong midseason in 2018 and earned attention from #DraftTwitter. His 2019 season was a bit of a disappointment though, including missing some time to injury. 2020 has been a revelation for Wilson and the undefeated Cougars. When I previewed Wilson heading into Week 1, I quipped that “he has a bit of a ‘je ne sais quoi’ about him.” Wilson keeps plays alive, is a threat to pickup chunk yardage with his legs, and has a knack for making big plays. Like Lance, Wilson hasn’t faced the toughest competition this year but he’s been impressive nonetheless. I think there’s too much mustang in Wilson for him to be a day one NFL starter but his intangibles and raw ability will make him a late first at worst.

Preseason Shortlist Picks

  • Tanner Morgan, Minnesota

  • Jamie Newman, Georgia/Wake Forest

  • Brock Purdy, Iowa State

  • Kyle Trask, Florida

This next grouping comprises four players who I had high hopes for heading into the 2020 season and whose current draft value is all over the place now. Jamie Newman, a dual threat with great size who in 2019 led Wake Forest to one of its best seasons in recent history, opted out. He’ll need to wow NFL teams at the combine and throughout the predraft process. Perhaps Tanner Morgan should have opted out as well because it’s been a rough start to the season for him and the Gophers. After a strong sophomore season, Morgan was a popular pick for an under the radar pocket passer prospect but I suspect his stock is sliding now. I haven’t had a chance to watch much Brock Purdy this season, but from what I have seen it does not appear that he took the step forward that I hoped for. Purdy and the Cyclones are atop the Big 12 right now so he’ll have two more statement games remaining: one against Texas on Black Friday and again in the Big 12 Championship game.

Of the four prospects in this tier, Kyle Trask has clearly done the most to improve his 2021 draft stock. The Gators are currently the favorites to represent the SEC East in the conference championship. The reason they are in the driver’s seat for the division is that the unflappable Trask led Florida to a resounding 44-28 win over Georgia; Trask threw for a career-best 474 yards and tossed 4 TDs. He leads the NCAA in touchdown passes (28) and has not had fewer than four in a game this season. Against Arkansas last weekend, Trask threw for 6 TDs for the second time this season. His unmatched production this season surely has him in the hunt for the Heisman. I was critical of him in the spring, but after what I’ve seen this season Trask feels like a high floor prospect who has a shot at being a first rounder.

Regular Season Risers

  • Mac Jones, Alabama

  • Kellen Mond, Texas A&M

  • Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati

The three passers in this cohort are my picks to be the biggest risers when we compare their preseason and postseason draft values. Because of that, I thought it felt appropriate to place their tier here, just after the players we were talking about most in the preseason.

Mac Jones has lit the SEC on fire in his short stint so far as the starter. He’s leading the conference in a number of metrics including yards per attempt and passer rating. Sure, he has better targets than some NFL teams but he delivers them an accurate deep ball. Jones puts good touch on his ball and loves to pump fake (which is a skill I love seeing in college quarterbacks). Jones might also be the rare player who comes in bigger than his listed 6020/214 measurables. He is only a junior, and since this year won’t count against his eligibility, Jones could stay on at Tuscaloosa for another two seasons even with his trend line pointing due north.

Conversely to Jones, Aggies’ QB Kellen Mond is a veteran fourth year starter with 28 career wins. Mond has led A&M to a surprising 5-1 start and a #5 ranking. Unfortunately, the Aggies lost to Alabama earlier in the year so they would need a two-loss implosion from the Tide to win the division. Wins against LSU and Auburn would surely signal who is next-best in the division though. Kellen Mond’s arm, toughness and athleticism always jump off the screen when I watch him so I’m not sure why he isn’t rated higher by draft fans, maybe it’s something I’m not seeing with his mechanics. If there’s a “why the hell was this guy drafted that late” player on this list five years from now, it’ll be Mond.

I just recently wrote about Desmond Ridder and how he looks like “the whole package” to me. Since I published that, all Ridder did was account for four scores in a blowout 55-17 win over East Carolina. Don’t sleep on Desmond Ridder.

Winners with Question Marks

  • Ian Book, Notre Dame

  • Shane Buechele, SMU

  • Sam Ehlinger, Texas

  • D’Eriq King, Miami

This quartet is my biggest question mark when it comes to draft value. Somebody with the athletic gifts that D’Eriq King possesses could have a meteoric rise to the first round if he finishes strong and impresses at the combine (although I think it’s safe to say at this point that we’re not looking at another Kyler Murray-esque leap to first overall). His combination of deep ball arm, speed and elusiveness is rare but I’m sure teams will question his size and durability.

Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger, former teammates at Texas, are both flat out winners. Buechele found his forever home at SMU where he currently owns a 17-5 record as the starter. He currently leads the FBS in a number of passing stat categories. Buechele is a leader and has helped rehab the image of a school that’s long been associated with past transgressions. Ehlinger’s record of 28-15 isn’t as impressive but he’s led the Longhorns to so many victories by sheer force of will. I’ve never watched Ehlinger and thought “wow, he’s a great passer” but I have thought “wow, I’d love to have that guy on my team.”

Admittedly, I have been a debbie downer when it comes to Ian Book through the years. I haven’t quite come around on him as a pro prospect — I always feel like I’m waiting for a mistake — but I cannot argue with his performance in this upside down season. College football is better when Notre Dame is in the playoff hunt and we have Book to thank for that (along with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah of course).

I’ve casually watched these four play in — and win — a lot of college football games. I will need to give them their due film study in the offseason to see if they have the skills to push into Day Two territory.

Transfers Forging a New Path

  • KJ Costello, Mississippi State

  • Feleipe Franks, Arkansas

  • Brandon Peters, Illinois

These three players are each starting for a different Power 5 squad than they started their career with. I’m always interested in closely watching big-name transfer quarterbacks to see how the change of scenery impacts their chance at stardom.

In the case of Brandon Peters, he’s probably wishing he had stayed at Michigan. The Wolverines are off to an awful start and a good portion of the blame rests on new signal caller Joe Milton who is not yet ready for prime time. That could have been Peters’ job if he had stayed. I’ve been a fan of Peters since I saw him live in his first game action in Ann Arbor and still think he has an outside shot at making an NFL roster. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much of Peters yet this season because of a positive covid test.

Both KJ Costello and Feleipe Franks have caught my attention at different points this year. In his first game for Mississippi State, Costello completed 36 of 60 passes for 623 yards and 5 TDs. Things have gone down hill for Costello since then though: he has just one more touchdown pass to eight interceptions and missed the last game with a head injury. Costello has a prior history of concussions so that is a bit concerning. Feleipe Franks started the season with a middling outing against Georgia in the season opener but has been on a tear since (with the team going 3-3 in those six). In those six contests against some of the SEC’s best, Franks has 15 touchdowns and just one pick; he’s also adding important yards on the ground too.

All three of these guys were highly rated 4-star recruits with NFL size and above average physical traits. Some NFL team is bound to give them a shot as a late rounder as a project quarterback.

Riddle Wrapped Enigmas

  • Adrian Martinez, Nebraska

  • McKenzie Milton, UCF

  • Kenny Pickett, Pitt

If we were choosing up teams for a Thanksgiving day pickup game, the three guys on this list would be in the running for an early pick. Martinez has a ton of natural talent but has never put it together in Scott Frost’s offense. In fact, as I was working on this article, Martinez was sidelined in favor of Luke McCaffrey. If the Martinez era is officially over in Lincoln, I hope we see Martinez transfer somewhere else for one last hurrah. Speaking of Scott Frost, McKenzie Milton was his prolific quarterback during that magical undefeated 2017 season at UCF. Milton suffered a catastrophic leg injury in 2018 and is hoping to return to the field before he ends his college career. Between the injury and his small frame, it’s unlikely Milton gets any NFL Draft love but I’ll be rooting for him to complete his comeback. Kenny Pickett has a cult-like following and I’m one of those fans. He hasn’t truly shown us NFL-worthy traits but he’s a fun guy to watch and has been solid for Pitt. Pickett has a swagger and confidence that comes through whenever I see him play.

These three players may never see a regular season snap in the NFL but I’ll bet we see some preseason highlights from them whenever they attempt to make the jump to the pros.

Small School Sleepers

  • Zerrick Cooper, Jacksonville State

  • Aqeel Glass, Alabama A&M

  • Levi Lewis, Lousiana-Lafayette

  • Zac Thomas, Appalachian State

The four guys in this final tier should be priority free agents if not a seventh round flyer. If given the chance they just might be able to make an NFL roster. Although it would take some crazy dominoes to fall for them to be fantasy relevant any time soon, I think you should still file their names away.

Heading into 2019, I identified Zerrick Cooper as my pick to win the Walter Payton Award, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman. Cooper wasn’t named an award finalist but he did throw for over 3,400 yards and scored 34 total touchdowns. Against Florida State earlier this season, Jacksonville State held a lead at halftime and scared Seminoles fans half to death; Cooper completed 22 of 30 passes for 232 yards in the game, adding a score on the ground. Cooper has good size at 6030/225 and is a transfer from Clemson.

Unfortunately we did not get to see Aqeel Glass at all this season since the SWAC moved their season to the spring. I highlighted Glass a few months ago and chose him as my top small school quarterback sleeper (Cooper would be a close second). He’s tall (6050) with good pocket mobility. He was near the top of the FCS in key passing stats in 2019 and I’d expect the same in 2020 if he takes the field.

Levi Lewis and Zach Thomas are bound to be compared to each other. They are two of the Sun Belt’s best-ever quarterbacks. They will both end their careers with over 6,000 passing yards and 60 total touchdowns. Lewis and Thomas are both undersized dual threat quarterbacks who are comfortable outside of the pocket and can keep plays alive. Lewis is a lefty which is interesting because there are so few of them at the NFL level. Of the two, I would guess that Thomas has the better pro portfolio. A December 4th matchup will be fun to watch and could have Sun Belt Championship implications.

 

Notes: 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. 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 my articles I use a number of valuable resources. I would recommend bookmarking the below sites:

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, pro-football-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, mcubed.net, expandtheboxscore.com, washingtonpost.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2021 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com, nfl.com, nflmockdraftdatabase.com
  • NFL rosters, depth charts and contract info: ourlads.com, spotrac.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com, mockdraftable.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft, Cover 3 College Football
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: vegasinsider.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 certified park and 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 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: Bowl Game Previews, Part IV

Updated: December 26th 2017

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

Thursday, Dec. 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, Dec. 29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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