The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part V

Updated: December 30th 2017

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

Friday, Dec. 29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, Dec. 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: Conference Championship Week

Updated: November 30th 2017

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

Note: the rankings referenced below refer to the Week 14 AP poll.  CFP rankings were not yet available at the time of writing.

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Update:  Baker Mayfield finished off his regular season with a 281 yard, 3 TD outing.  The Heisman winner is Mayfield.  Moving on to more important topics.
  • Playoff Picture: Last week, I postulated that Alabama and Miami would be in danger of missing the playoff even if they lost and finished with one loss.  I was not expecting them to both lose!  Having them both lose keeps a potential playoff spot open for the other if championship results fall properly.  As of this writing on Sunday evening, I anticipate the Top 7 to be: Clemson, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Auburn, Georgia, Miami and Alabama.  The order of Georgia, Miami and Alabama is tough but I put Alabama last because while their loss was “better” than Miami’s, they do not have as good of a win on their resume as Miami over #3 Notre Dame.  Two of the four spots are easy: the winner of Auburn/Georgia is in, as is the winner of Clemson/Miami.  If Oklahoma and Wisconsin win, they are obviously in too and the playoff is set.  Things get very interesting though if one of them loses, specifically Oklahoma.  If Oklahoma loses, there is no obvious replacement like if Wisconsin loses (a win against #3 Wisconsin might be enough to jump Ohio State to the #4 spot and squeak in, see below for an alternate possibility).  I think that if Oklahoma and Clemson lose, we might see Clemson hang in with the #4 ranking (they would have five Top 25 wins, a 3-point loss when their quarterback was hurt and a loss to my projected #6 in Miami – that is still a better two loss resume than others).  For now, I’m predicting chalk but am hoping for some chaos.
  • Undefeated UCF:  Here’s a fun thought experiment for you… is there anyway we get an undefeated UCF into the Top 4?  Probably not but here’s what I think you would need:
    • Stanford win over USC in the PAC-12 Championship so that both finish behind UCF in the final rankings.
    • Oklahoma win over TCU in the Big 12 Championship.  TCU would move up in the rankings and stay ahead of UCF with a win over Oklahoma.  Better for UCF to cede one of the playoff spots to Oklahoma and jump ahead of TCU.
    • Georgia win over Auburn in the SEC Championship.  Auburn would be totally out of contention with 3 losses; if Georgia loses they probably stay ahead of UCF with a strong two loss resume.  I think we’d all take Auburn in a head-to-head matchup against UCF but it’ll be hard for the committee to put an undefeated UCF behind a three loss team.
    • Clemson wins big over Miami in the ACC Championship.  If Miami loses two straight, especially an embarrassing one to Clemson, they should fall out of the Top 10.
    • Ohio State wins close over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship.  If Wisconsin wins, they are in but the reverse is not guaranteed.  In three iterations of the CFP, we have not yet had a two loss team make the cut.  If Ohio State gets a close, unconvincing win against Wisconsin, is it possible that the committee leaves a two loss Ohio State out in favor of an undefeated UCF?  Maybe the injury to JT Barrett factors into the decision if it lingers and the committee says that a weakened Ohio State is not worthy of the playoff.
  • Florida State vs History:  Florida State will be playing this week but not in the ACC Championship as they would have hoped a few months ago.  Instead, the Seminoles will be battling 4-7 UL-Monroe (the game was cancelled earlier in the year due to Hurricane Irma).  Florida State has a lot of history riding on this inconsequential game because they have not finished with less than six wins in a season since 1976 which was Bobby Bowden’s first season at the helm.  What an incredible run of success for a team.  I don’t know for sure but I assume that has to be a record for most consecutive seasons with a .500 record or better.  It’s a little iffy to get that sixth win in a game like this but hey it counts in the record books and in a few years nobody will even remember the circumstance.

Players to Watch

  • Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn:  I haven’t been the highest on Stidham so far this season but boy did he standout against Alabama last week, especially with his legs.  One thing I have previously pointed out about Stidham is his efficiency.  Stidham’s completion percentage (68.5%) ranks 4th in the FBS; his passing efficiency rating (160.0) is 9th; his yards per attempt (9.1) is 8th.  If you only look at his games since Week 3 following the Clemson loss, Stidham’s completion percentage rises to 70.8%, including six games 74% or higher.  So, the rate stats are all fantastic but what about the counting stats?  They are less eye-popping because of Auburn’s tendency to lean on RB Kerryon Johnson.  Stidham has 2,682 yards and just 16 TDs but he has also only thrown 4 INTs.  Those only looking at the stats and not watching the film will underestimate Stidham’s athleticism and his rushing ability as I had.  The game logs say he only has 153 yards but don’t forget that factors in all of his sacks.  If I had to guess, I would say that that Stidham probably has gained about 300 yards rushing (figuring about 10-15 rushing yards per game lost to sacks).  Side note: if you don’t typically purchase Phil Steele’s annual preview magazine, this is one big reason why you should because they break down yards gained and lost to get a true sense for a quarterback’s rushing ability.  Going back to that Alabama game, Stidham went 21-28 for 237 yards in the passing game which is expected but what surprised me was the 51 rushing yards.  A few plays stood out, one passing and three rushing.  On one of the first plays of the game, Stidham double clutched to force the rushing lineman into the air for an attempted pass breakup so he had a throwing lane for the quick screen.  The color commentator compared it to a shot fake in basketball which was a perfect analogy.  To me, it showed Stidham’s composure under pressure when it would have been understandable for him to be skittish in the first drive of the biggest game of his career.  The next play I highlighted was a late third quarter scramble on third and long when Auburn was down 14-13.  Stidham took a three step drop out of shotgun so he was nine yards behind the line of scrimmage.  He goes through his progressions, evades a rusher, slips out of the pocket, beats CB Tony Brown to the first down and dives head first to ensure he gets enough yardage.  It was a turning point play in the game.  A few plays later he ran again for 13 yards right up the gut.  Those two runs kept the drive alive and led to a touchdown for Kerryon Johnson.  The last play where Stidham surprised me was in the 4th quarter with Auburn up 20-14.  Stidham fakes the handoff to Johnson on the zone read and keeps the ball himself.  He quickly directs his blockers and rolls left.  He accelerates as he turns up field and just beats all of the Alabama defenders to the goal line.  Ultimately five players were close enough to get a hand on him but he just wanted it more and made the play.  I knew Stidham was an efficient and effective passer and was really happy to see this side of his game.  Stidham is playing in his first season at Auburn after transferring from Baylor in 2015, so it’s probably more likely that he stays in college for another season rather than declaring for the draft.  As I was watching Stidham play against Alabama I saw Alex Smith.  They are very similar in size and speed and have a similar game.  If he stays in, he will be a preseason target of mine next season.

Games to Watch

  •  #14 Stanford vs #11 USC, Friday 8:00pm on ESPN:  The PAC-12 Championship isn’t worth all that much this season.  Neither team has a shot at the playoff and since the Rose Bowl is part of the playoff, a PAC-12 championship doesn’t even get you a bid into the “granddaddy of them all.”  If nothing else, this game will be a true showcase game for a few draft prospects, namely Stanford RB Bryce Love (who is within reach of a 2,000 yard season at 1,848) and USC QB Sam Darnold (whose wavering play has some thinking he’ll stay in college another season).  I’ll have my eye on USC WR Deontay Burnett too – he isn’t getting much draft love, mostly because of his size, but I really like him and am significantly higher than most.
  • #10 TCU vs #2 Oklahoma, Saturday 12:30pm on FOX:  Oklahoma has much more to play for than TCU so I’ll bet the Sooners come out firing and bury the Frogs.  Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield is incredibly efficient (71.4% completion percentage and just 5 INTs) and is my no-brainer Heisman winner.  The good news is that TCU has the conference’s best passing defense (227.5 yards per game); the bad news is that puts them at 73rd in the FBS overall.  When these two teams last faced off, TCU’s conference-best defense allowed 333 passing yards and 200 rushing yards, forced zero turnovers and lost by 18.  Unless they hold Oklahoma to under 300 total yards they don’t stand a chance at keeping Oklahoma from their playoff berth.
  • #6 Georgia vs #4 Auburn, Saturday 4:00pm on CBS:  For me, this will be the best game of the weekend if Auburn RB Kerryon Johnson is able to play.  Johnson played through an injured shoulder against Alabama but it sounds like there is a chance he misses the SEC Championship.  Jonhson had 33 touches (for 125 total yards and a score) in the Alabama game which is the third time in four weeks that he has had 30+ touches, 125+ total yards and a touchdown.  Like TCU/Oklahoma, this game is a rematch from earlier in the year.  Auburn shellacked Georgia in that one by a final score of 40-17 (and it wasn’t even that close because of a late garbage time Georgia TD).  Georgia has the SEC’s second best defense, led by LB prospects Roquan Smith (100 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Lorenzo Carter (42-4), so I’ll bet that they’ll keep it closer the second time around.  This one is for all the marbles: the winner is onto the playoff without question while the loser is out of contention.
  • #7 Miami vs #1 Clemson, Saturday 8:00pm on ABC:  I have been picking against Miami all season long and it finally paid off with their upset against 4-7 Pitt.  I just don’t trust QB Malik Rosier because he is so inaccurate (55.2% on the season and 44.1% against Pitt).  Sophomore RB Travis Homer has filled in reasonably well for the injured Mark Walton but you’ll be hard pressed to find a tailback that can compensate for a quarterback missing half his passes.  Miami’s defense is 14th in points but 42nd in yards allowed which is an odd dichotomy.  Clemson has been my #2 squad for awhile and is now my top team.  I haven’t been a huge Kelly Bryant fan but he is a solid game manager as a passer and a dynamic rushing threat (639 yards and 10 TDs).  True freshman RB Travis Etienne is a burner who carved out a role for himself after a hot start.  Etienne has had more carries than incumbent Tavien Feaster in four straight games.  His stats have been mediocre but I am interested in seeing WR Deon Cain against Miami’s defense; Cain is a prospect that I have been lower on than the consensus.  I have highlighted many of the Clemson defensive stars (i.e. Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins) but a name that you may not know is LB Dorian O’Daniel.  O’Daniel has 80 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 INTs (both of which returned for scores in key Top 15 wins over Louisville and Virginia Tech).  If I had to bet meaningful money on any of the championship games, this would be the one.
  • #3 Wisconsin vs #8 Ohio State, Saturday 8:00pm on FOX:  As a Michigan and a Rutgers fan, I don’t know who to root for in this one.  It’s a shame there are no ties in college football.  Since Ohio State isn’t a shoo-in for the playoff with a win, it’s probably best for the conference for Wisconsin to win it.  The bright spot on Wisconsin’s offense is freshman RB Jonathan Taylor.  Ohio State has the 13th ranked rush defense in the FBS (112.8 yards per game) and has held opponents to 100 rushing yards or less in seven games this season (including three straight after they were gashed for 243 yards against Iowa).  Taylor has 125+ rushing yards in seven of his last eight games and I expect him to continue that streak.  Wisconsin’s rush defense is actually better than Ohio State’s (1st in the FBS at 80.5 yards per game) so I doubt that either JK Dobbins or Mike Weber will be a major factor.  Much of this game will come down to whether JT Barrett can return from a knee injury sustained against Michigan.  Ironically, I think that the Buckeyes might be better off with Dwayne Haskins under center because he’s more of a pass-oriented quarterback.  Wisconsin’s pass defense is ranked 2nd so while it may be weaker it’s hardly a weakness.  Regardless of who is under center, I think Ohio State will struggle to move the ball like they did early against Michigan, and the Badgers will win a close one.

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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