The Watch List: 2018 Big Ten Preview

Updated: September 4th 2018

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players, storylines and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  Check back throughout the Summer for previews on each conference and my preseason predictions.  During the regular season, The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Favorite:  Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin. My top Heisman pick is usually the conference’s top dual-threat quarterback but without a dominant one in the Big Ten, I am going with the machine that is Taylor. As a true freshman, Taylor rushed for 1,977 yards and 13 TDs, numbers he’ll surely beat this year behind a dominant Badger line. Taylor finished 6th in Heisman voting last year so it’s a good bet that he moves closer to the prize this year.
  • Darkhorse Heisman Candidate:  Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State.  The more likely quarterback candidate is McSorley but you’ll get far better odds on Haskins.  Haskins won the job in the Spring and has a lot to prove while taking over for long-time leader JT Barrett. He’s not the rushing threat that Barrett was but he has a bigger arm. A season with 3,500 total yards and 30 total TDs may be asking a lot for a new starter but it’d be enough to put Haskins on a few Heisman ballots if the Buckeyes make the CFP.
  • Offensive Player of the Year:  Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin. It’s impossible for me to pick anybody else here. Taylor will lead the conference in scrimmage yards and scores so let’s not get cute.
  • Defensive Player of the Year:  Joe Bachie, LB, Michigan State. I went with the chalk pick for Offensive Player of the Year but I’m skipping the skilled pass rushers for this one. Instead, I am going with do-everything linebacker Joe Bachie from Michigan State. He won’t be a sexy name for draftniks but he was undeniably productive in his first full season as a Spartan. He totaled 100 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 3 INTs, 2 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles and 1 fumble recovery.
  • Newcomer of the Year:  Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan. It’s rare for somebody of Patterson’s caliber to transfer and to be immediately eligible so it was a big story all offseason long. Patterson is a former 5-star recruit who was the top ranked pro-style quarterback in his class according to He’s a few years older now, and coming off a knee injury, but Michigan fans are optimistic because that position has struggled under coach Jim Harbaugh.
  • Underclassman to Watch:  JK Dobbins, RB, Ohio State.  Dobbins pulled a Wally Pipp and stole the Buckeyes starting role from Mike Weber while Weber was slowed by injury.  Heading into the opener, the running back situation was unclear but Dobbins clarified things real quick with 29 carries and 181 yards.  He wouldn’t surpass 18 carries again but he still produced, finishing with 1,403 yards and 7 TDs.  He also added 22 receptions.  To my eye, Dobbins looks smaller than his listed 5010/214 frame but he proved he can be durable and run with power.  The 2020 running back class is looking historic with players like Dobbins, Cam Akers, Jonathan Taylor and AJ Dillon.
  • Best QB-WR Tandem:  Tracy McSorley and Juwan Johnson, Penn State. Considering what Penn State lost to the NFL this season, it’s amazing I even considered them for this spot. McSorley has lost 164 receptions, 2,052 yards and 21 TDs in the departing trio of WR Daesean Hamilton, TE Mike Gesicki and RB Saquon Barkley. McSorley is still going to sling it and I expect junior Juwan Johnson to be the beneficiary. Johnson was overshadowed last season but still grabbed 53 balls for 701 yards and a score. He’ll be the team’s leading receiver in 2018 and forms a strong battery with McSorley. (Honorable mention: Brian Lewerke and Felton Davis from Michigan State)
  • Best RB Corps:  Ohio State. The combination of JK Dobbins and Mike Weber paced the conference in rushing last year (with the help of QB JT Barrett). Ohio State ran the ball very well, averaging 243.4 yards per game, the league best. For comparison, Wisconsin averaged 223.2 and was the only other team above 200; Minnesota, who ranked third, was more than 60 yards worse than Ohio State. 2,500 combined scrimmage yards and 20 TDs for Dobbins and Weber is not as crazy as it sounds.
  • Coach on the Hottest Seat:  Jim Harbaugh, Michigan. It would be easy to go with Urban Meyer here but too much digital ink has already been spilled on that situation. Instead, I think the hottest seat belongs to Harbaugh. I don’t think there’s any way UM would fire him but instead I can foresee a situation where he “resigns” after a disappointing season. Harbaugh was supposed to be a savior, and while he has improved things post Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, Michigan still feels second-class to Ohio State. The only Ws that matter for coaches of the Wolverines are national championship wins and Ohio State wins; Harbaugh doesn’t have either. I doubt Michigan contends for the playoff so it’ll come down to The Game.

Teams to Watch

 Penn State (11-2 in 2017)

I know, I’m crazy. Penn State finished the regular season at 10-2 last year and won the Fiesta Bowl over Washington. You’ll struggle to find a college football fan who would take the over on those ten regular season wins but I would consider taking the bet. There’s no doubt the Nittany Lions have lost a lot (see above) but sometimes in college football it comes down to has the best quarterback. I don’t think McSorley is the best pro prospect of the conference but he’ll be the most productive and that’s what matters right now. When I picked the winner of every game this preseason (yes, every game) I unexpectedly landed on Penn State at 11-1. When I laid out the CFP with my predicted results, I landed on Penn State beating Oklahoma in the semi-final and losing to Alabama in the championship. This is me calling my shot, don’t @ me if I’m wrong!

 Iowa (8-5 in 2017)

Iowa is another Big Ten team I predict will improve even after a successful bowl-winning season last year. Iowa made it to eight wins by virtue of their Pinstripe Bowl victory and I think they should set their sights on a bigger bowl now. QB Nate Stanley returns and will improve. His top two targets last season, WR Nick Easley (51-530-4) and TE Noah Fant (30-494-11), are also back for this campaign. It’s a good thing the offense will be strong because, even though the Hawkeyes return eight on defense, they lose their best two in Josey Jewell and Josh Jackson. Iowa has three winnable home non-conference games (Northern Illinois, Iowa State, Northern Iowa) and avoids three of the East’s heavyweights in the cross-over games (they draw Penn State and Maryland, skipping Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State). I think the schedule sets up for a shot at a nine win season.

Players to Watch

Unfortunately, the end of this offseason got away from me a bit so I didn’t end up having the time to do a deep film study of three Big Ten players like I have for the other conferences. Rest assured readers, I have written up a super-sized version of my “honorable mentions” section for you so you can be prepared with the conference’s biggest names. For what it’s worth, the three players I was going to spotlight were McSorley, Davis and Fant. Much of the Big Ten’s top NFL Draft talent resides on the offensive and defensive lines so it will be interesting to see which skill position players flourish this year.  Here are my picks for the top players to watch in the Big Ten this season:

Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan: Head coach Jim Harbaugh has received a pass on some of his recent disappointing seasons because he rarely had great quarterback play. Enter Shea Patterson. Patterson transferred from the sinking ship that was Ole Miss and was granted immediate eligibility. I have not seen enough of Patterson to truly evaluate his NFL prospects but, judging by the rankings on Draft Network, he could be a top ten player at the position in this class. He’s listed at 6020/205 and suffered a torn PCL last year which makes me worry, as a Wolverines fan, that he may not make it through the full season. When Patterson was on the field last season, he was efficient (63.8% completion percentage and 151.5 rating). Michigan fans have high hopes for Patterson and I’m cautiously optimistic but I can’t help but think that backup Brandon Peters is the better option.

Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State: Haskins outlasted Joe Burrow, who transferred to LSU, to win the Buckeyes’ starting gig this season. Haskins may be a familiar name to fans because he subbed in for JT Barrett last season against Michigan. He played well (6-7 for 94 yards and 24 yards rushing) and led Ohio State to a W. Haskins also played in mop-up duty in a few other games and finished the season with a 70.2% completion percentage and a passer rating of 173.1. It’s a small sample size but as a freshman it was enough to feel comfortable with him as the starter heading into 2018.  With all of the negativity surrounding the program recently, it will be fun to root for the new guy in Haskins.

Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State: McSorley has a swagger and confidence that exudes from his pores the second he steps on the field. His four touchdown outing against USC in the 2016 Rose Bowl stands out in my memory because he made both plays and mistakes. Thankfully, McSorley’s accuracy improved in 2017 which was a good sign (57.9% to 66.5%). He’s small at 6000/200 but still runs the ball often.  In 2017 he rushed 144 times for 491 yards and 11 TDs. He’s probably too small and raw to draft high but it’s tough to argue with his intangibles and production. McSorley is somebody on my list to give a thorough viewing this offseason.

LJ Scott, RB, Michigan State: Scott is a player that I won’t own on any of my fantasy teams in 2019. However, he’s going to get drafted because of his 6010/229 size, so he warrants a mention in this preview. Scott earned the most carries and receptions of his career in 2017 but both his rushing and receiving yards decreased. His yards per touch shrunk significantly: from 5.88 to 4.72. A worrying sign was that Scott was a healthy scratch in a game after he returned from injury; he dressed but never saw the field. As I wrote about in December, he has been charged SEVEN times for driving with a suspended license. In a sport where there’s much worse going on, it’s hard to come down on a player for driving with a suspended license but c’mon you need to learn your lesson sooner or later.

Miles Sanders, RB, Penn State: Talk about playing “second fiddle.” Miles Sanders, a former 5-star recruit, backed up the phenom named Saquon Barkley for two years. Over those two seasons, Sanders totaled just 56 carries and 375 yards and 3 scores. In 2018 he finally gets his chance to prove that he can be the lead back. At 5110/209 he could put on a few pounds, which I’m sure he will. Since he played so sparingly there’s a dearth of film out there so I can’t reliably comment on his strengths or weaknesses. If I had to guess I’ll predict that Sanders returns for his senior season but we should pay attention now because I predict the Nittany Lions will have a great season.

Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State: As a redshirt freshman in 2016, Weber led the Buckeyes in rushing with 1,096 yards. Expectations were high heading into 2017 but Weber battled injury and lost the RB1 spot to true freshman JK Dobbins. Weber still managed 720 yards on 111 touches and had 10 rushing TDs. His best stretch of the year came against Michigan State and Illinois where he rushed for 270-4. What’s most reassuring about those two big games is that Dobbins played in both so that’s proof that they can co-exist in the offense. With JT Barrett gone and first-year starter Dwayne Haskins taking over, I expect Urban Meyer to lean on his running backs.

Felton Davis, WR, Michigan State: Davis checks in at 6040/195 and looks every bit of that length in highlights. He has the strength and body control you’d hope for from a big target around the sideline. His 55-776-9 led all Spartan receivers in each category. Hopefully QB Brian Lewerke continues to mature in his second season as the starter so both of their NFL Draft stocks improve.

Nick Westbrook, WR, Indiana:  Westbrook missed the 2017 season after tearing his ACL on the opening kickoff in last season’s opener against Ohio State.  In 2016 he grabbed 54 balls for 995 yards and 6 TDs as a sophomore.  The Hoosiers lost Simmie Cobbs so there’s a void to fill and Westbrook’s 6030/215 frame can fill it.

Noah Fant, TE, Iowa: Fant is on the short list for the top TE spot in 2018 after he had a 30-494-11 line in 2017. He was second on the squad in receptions and yards and first in scores and his connection with junior QB Nate Stanley will only improve now that they both have a full season behind them. His size is a bit of a concern because he’s listed at 6050/241; for comparison, Evan Engram was 6030/234 at his combine. Since he’s undersized it remains to be seen how Fant will hold up at the end of an NFL line of scrimmage. Even if he fails to prove his worth as a blocker, Fant should factor in as a second or third round rookie for fantasy purposes next year if he comes out.

Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State: Bosa is one of those college prospects that feels like he’s been on my NFL Draft radar forever. It’s been a long first two years for Bosa but he’s finally draft eligible and I’m not sure there’s another underclassmen who is as much of a lock to turn pro as he. Bosa, as you may have guessed, is the younger brother of San Diego Chargers edge rusher Joey Bosa. Bosa the younger plays a similar game to that of his brother and has a career total of 63 tackles, 23.0 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Since he’s played on such dominant defenses and receives so much attention those good-not-great stats belie his true impact. Look for Bosa to be in the conversation for the first overall pick next year.

Rashan Gary, DT, Michigan: Gary’s draft stock seems to be fluctuating in recent months but I bet come April he’s near the top of DT rankings again. Gary totaled 58 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 2017 as a sophomore. Reportedly, he ran a 4.57 40 yard dash last year which would be incredible if true; the fastest 40 yard dash at the 2018 combine by anybody 280+ was 4.75. Gary’s combination of size and speed that makes it tough to categorize him as either a DT or DE and I expect that’s why some have hesitated in their evaluation. At 280lbs he doesn’t have prototypical tackle size but his speed and pass rushing is that of an end. I expect him to start his NFL career switching between the two, playing outside on run downs and inside on pass downs.

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

  • Stats:,,,,,
  • Recruiting:,,,
  • Film: 2019 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks:,,,,,
  • Draft history:
  • Combine info:,,
  • 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:, the media home for FWAA members

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