I thought I’d do a quick college football preview for anyone who’s interested in learning a bit more about the guys who might be near the top of the Dynabowl draft in the coming year or two. So for a handful of players I’ll look at what they might do, and then to summarise at the bottom I’ll note some of the games I’ve highlighted, and some others I maybe haven’t mentioned but that will be well worth a watch.
Sam Darnold (QB, USC #4, PAC-12) is the presumptive number one overall pick in the 2018 draft. Evaluating QBs is about more than pure college performance, which is why Darnold is ahead of say Baker Mayfield, who for me is the best QB, possibly best player, in college football. USC certainly aren’t shy throwing the ball, like any PAC-12 team they love to air it out, but not on the scale that some of the big 12 this year will. Darnold is pretty bloody good too though. For me he throws a few too many interceptions, and that should be something anyone scouting him pays attention to this year. What he does do though is win. USC’s season was already in the tank last year (1-3 start, with a heavy losses to Stanford and Bama) before he took over the starting job, but after he did the upturn was immediate and significant, most notable was the dismantling of Washington (who went to the CFP) late in the regular season, and the for-the-ages Rose Bowl shootout victory over a very good Penn State team (well offence) that saw 1-3 turned into a respectable 10-3 season. Assuming Darnold does make the jump, he could well be a 180+ rated passer, with around 5 ints and 50 TDS on his way to over 4k yards. That might well nab him a Heismann of his own on his way to the #1 pick. Of course, he could also be the guy who struggles to follow up his first year, and stays steady or regresses a little as teams / defensive backs see a chance to make a name for themselves against such a stellar prospect, and the loss of JuJu Schuster Smith to the Steelers in the NFL Draft won’t help. Either way it’ll be fun, and there’s a good chance USC is in the conversation in the PAC-12 until late in the year. However, it’s equally possible that they’re basically out of the CFP picture by week three with huge games in week 2 and week 3 against Stanford and Texas respectively and nowhere near enough real, quality teams (unless ND come out firing and bump up their ranking) on their schedule to help mitigate those losses, even if it ends up being enough to win the PAC-12. Catch them early in those big games, the game with Stanford (W2) and the match up against Tom Herman’s Texas (W3) are definitely the big highlights, and that Stanford game could be a prelude to a much more significant rematch for the PAC-12 conference title and a playoff spot.
Baker Mayfield (QB, Oklahoma University #7, Big 12) is basically the player Darnold wants to be this year. Last year he posted a stellar 196 PER, breaking Russell Wilson’s (he turned out pretty OK) single-season mark at Wisconsin for the best ever season by a passer, completing 71% (top 30 all time) of his passes for 11.1 yards per attempt, itself the 2nd best mark in history (behind Michael Vick). That’s the sort of number you look at as good per completion. He also racked up 40 TDs and 8 ints (less than Darnold in more games). Basically, he was pretty fucking good. And he’s not the presumptive #1, which I can only assume is mostly because teams look down on spread offence QBs (there’s a good article on the Ringer about just this). Anyway, the Big 12 is a fun conference, maybe not as high quality as the big three (Big 10 East, SEC West and ACC Atlantic Division), but with Oklahoma, Texas, OSU, WVU and Kansas state all in the pre-season top 25 it’s definitely in the mix, and has been unfairly shut out of the CFP in two out of three seasons (particularly last year). It’s virtually impossible to pick between OSU and OU (#10) to win it this year, which means that Bedlam (Week 10 – their 9th game) will be huge and it’s really a can’t miss rivalry game any year, but especially this year. In a bid to make sure their teams got more of a shot at the CFP the Big 12 mandated their teams to really stack their schedules, which means in week two (on top of Stanford-USC), it’s well worth tuning in to watch Mayfield take on one of the best defences (Ohio #2) in the entire NCAA, on the road in front of 100k+ fans, which means it’ll be a real test of his mettle.
I could go on talking about QBs, there’s tons of exciting guys around. Whether it’s Josh Jackson (Virginia Tech #21, ACC Coastal) who could be one to watch for the future (redshirt freshman) taking over the QB spot for the Hokies, who just looks a really exciting athlete and a potential star. Deondre Francois (FSU #3, ACC Atlantic) who’s a fairly common pick to take a big leap forward this year in a loaded FSU team who many think will be back in the CFP again. And who could forget reigning Heismann champion Lamar Jackson (Louisville #16, ACC Atlantic) who should be even better in his second year as a starter, quite a claim for a guy who had over 5,000 total yards and 50 total touchdowns. And that’s just in the ACC. But QBs aren’t the guys who’re going to hit the top of the Dynabowl draft board. So how about some running backs?
Saquon Barkley (RB, Penn State #6, Big 10) inherits the title of best running back in college football, after carrying Penn State to a surprise title in the Big 10, ahead of Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan and Ohio State, who ended up going to the CFP ahead of them, somewhat controversially despite Penn beating them. I don’t have Barkley on a par with McCaffrey and Fournette who were the previous competitors for the title, but he’s still a high quality player, playing in a really tough division for runners. With the Big 10 still loaded with top ten teams – Ohio, Wisconsin (Big 10 West, rather than East), Penn – and Michigan sitting 11th, there’s plenty of big games for Barkley to flash his low centre of gravity and explosive speed in, and he combines being an effective runner with good pass catching skills. With Trace McSorley also returning at QB, Penn should be in good nick to take the Big 10 title to the wire, though they start 2nd favourites behind Ohio State, who are just loaded with so much future NFL talent. Penn have back-to-back match ups with Michigan and @Ohio State in weeks 8 and 9 coming off their bye, and these are the best games to catch for this team as the Big 10 teams don’t currently tend to load up their schedules with tough non-conference games the way the other conferences have been doing.
Derrius Guice (RB, LSU #13, SEC) has big shoes to fill with Leonard Fournette now a Jaguar and looks more than capable of doing so. At his best Fournette was a beast, but he never showed that side enough because of injuries and his foot issues, and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that we talk about Guice more glowingly than we do of Fournette. He’s that good. Guice clocked up over 750 yards in the last four games of last year, and with Les Miles finally moved on, it feels like LSU would be a trendy CFP pick in any other division than Alabama’s. As is ever the way the SEC has a string of teams in both the East and West divisions in the top 25, and they’re often televised games here in the 9pm Slot on BT ESPN so there’s a good chance LSU will feature more than once this season. The key matches to watch out for are the obvious ones – Auburn (week 7) and Alabama (week 10). LSU are one of the few teams in football who can match up to Alabama physically, and despite being low-scoring, last year’s game was fascinating. If Guice can produce against a much-weaked Bama front 7 (a remarkable 7 players from the Bama defence went in the NFL draft last year, but I doubt they’ll be anything less than great again), he could find himself catapulting to the top of many fantasy mock drafts.
Myles Gaskin (RB, Washington #8, PAC-12) has back-to-back 1300 yard seasons. He’s primarily a ground threat, with minimal additional yardage in the catching game, but he’s averaged a solid 5.7 and 5.8 yards in his two seasons for the Huskies with 24 total touchdowns without racking up significant mileage (no 300+ carry seasons). Chris Peterson’s team were perhaps a little over-rated last season, and a bit lucky to get the 4th CFP spot, but if they can win their half of the PAC-12 (the tougher half, with Washington State – who they play in rivalry week, week 13 – and Stanford – matched up in week 11), the championship game (assumed to be against USC) could well be a play-in game for them. They’re not the sexy pick that Stanford and USC are, but with Gaskin and Lavon Coleman in the backfield, Luke Falk returning at QB and a string of key contributors on defence (headlined by Vita Vea) all returning, they’re likely to be there or thereabouts, particularly as the loss of John Ross is perhaps not as significant as some may think with Pettis ready to step up and prove himself a number one receiver.
Justice Hill (RB, Oklahoma State #10, Big 12) is one of a string of stars in the OSU offence (Mason Rudolph at QB and James Washington at WR – more on him shortly), that make the Big 12 race so exciting. He was Big 12 freshman of the year last year, compiling over 1100 rushing yards as a rookie at 5.5 yards per carry but only a measly 6 TDs. He should improve in year two. The week 8 OSU match-up against Texas and the don’t-miss Week 10 Bedlam match up against the Sooners are the best games to see him, and Washington, in action.
There’s tons of others around, Bo Scarborough (Alabama #1, SEC) should see plenty of action for Alabama this year and is likely to go to the NFL and feature in the first round of the Dynabowl draft. The Big 10 is loaded with running backs, but Justin Jackson (Northwestern unranked, Big 10) actually lead the conference in yardage last year ahead of Saquon Barkley, and is back to carry the load again. Pitt’s back Qadree Ollison (Pitt unranked, ACC) (not to be confused with team-mate Quadree Henderson) lost the job to James Conner (now a Steeler) last year, but was a 1000y rusher in his rookie year, and while the ACC’s leading rushers have mostly moved on, Jacques Patrick (FSU #3, ACC) is a five star recruit who was an absolute monster in high school and steps into the Dalvin Cook shaped-hole in the FSU offence hoping to follow in Cook’s and Devontae Freeman’s footsteps as another NFL-bound FSU player.
Before I go into wide receivers, I’ll mention a couple of defensive players to keep an eye on. Derwin James (DB, FSU #3, ACC) is probably the best defensive back in college and may well have gone to the NFL draft if he’d not got injured and missed the whole season last year. He’s a stud, and the path from FSU to the NFL is a well-trodden one, particularly for defensive backs, who’ve gone high in the first round regularly. Vita Vea (DL, Washington #8, PAC-12) could easily have gone to the draft last year, but returns for Washington. And there’s those who suggest his name could be the first called amongst defensive players when he does go to the draft in 2018. Ohio is absolutely stacked on defense, but Tyquan Lewis (DL, Ohio State #2, Big 10) is probably the standout member, and he’ll be looking to build on last season’s 8.5 sacks, while Nick Bosa on the other side of the line from him will be hoping to follow in his brother Joey’s footsteps from Ohio State standout to the NFL. Lastly, it wouldn’t be defence without mentioning an Alabama player, so let’s go with Minkah Fitzpatrick (DB, Alabama #1, SEC), along with Derwin James one of the top two defensive backs in the college game. I haven’t really mentioned linebackers either here, and they’re pretty solid defensive players who can contribute early and often to your Dynabowl team, so pay attention to Arden Key (LB, LSU #13, SEC), who leads the SEC’s returning players from last year in sacks. Also worth keeping an eye on is the Big 10’s Tegray Scales (LB, Indiana unranked, Big 10) who had 23.5 tackles for a loss last year from linebacker.
James Washington (WR, Oklahoma State #10, Big 12) is the leading candidate to win the 2017 Biletnikoff Award for best college receiver. He’s going to be a star in the NFL. Averaging over 100 yards a game last year, with 10 TDs in the mix, he should only be better in his senior year (he opened up his account with 145y and 2 TDs in OSU’s early week one game). He’s a consistent deep threat, averaging virtually 20ypc over the last couple of seasons, but without compromising on his volume. I’ve already covered OSU’s best games, but I’ll mention Bedlam again, because why the fuck not, it’s one of the best events in the college football season.
Calvin Ridley (WR, Alabama #1, SEC) is the main receiving threat on the best team in college football. He’s not put up stellar numbers so far, but that’s more to do with the depth of talent Alabama can call on, and the fact that (despite winning the Freshman of the Year award in the SEC) Jalen Hurts is not that great a passer of the ball yet. Alabama know their stuff on receivers though, with Julio Jones and Amari Cooper both going on to be successes in the NFL, despite neither being exactly high volume guys at Bama. I’m not for a second putting Ridley in a bracket with those two, but he is a really good receiver and could be in line for a breakout third year, much like Cooper. Bama’s schedule is typically loaded, simply from being in the SEC, but there’s no doubt the highlight is the week one (yes, today – hopefully this went out in time) match up with FSU that sees the 1st and 3rd ranked teams from pre-season face off in a potential early playoff sneak peek. On top of that the matches with LSU (previously mentioned) and Auburn (Week 13, rivalry week) are always tough games. I never want to over-sell Alabama matches though, they’re a really good team, but at times it’s like watching New England v Cleveland, you can admire it, but it’s not exciting simply because it’s not competitive. That’s not their fault, but ultimately it doesn’t make any difference for the neutral. Hurts is fun though, and with Scarborough, Ridley and the raft of new talent they’ll doubtless roll out, they’ll be one of the best, if not the best team in college football, and you’ll see plenty of future NFL players on show.
Christian Kirk (WR, Texas A&M unranked, SEC) is a dynamic receiver / returner. He had over 1000 yards receiving as a rookie, and came up just short of repeating that in his second year. He could be set for a year three breakout, but I’m not inclined to think so on an Aggies team that looks like being their worst for a while and one which will probably see it’s coach canned before the end of the season. It doesn’t matter though, as Kirk is still an exciting talent, and should find his way to the NFL draft just for his speed and ability to make things happen. They’ll face Alabama, LSU and Auburn this year as they’re in the SEC West, where the big boys play. That’s your best chance of seeing them, though I’d add that some of the other SEC games involving particularly Arkansas and recently Ole Miss (though probably not in 2017) are often fun, even if they’re not currently in a position to compete with the heavyweights of the division.
Deon Cain (WR, Clemson #5, ACC) isn’t getting much love. It’s a bit unfair on the defending National Champions, but prevailing opinion is that Clemson won’t be as good with Mike Williams and Deshaun Watson off to the NFL. Here’s the thing though, the same was true previously – Clemson’s lost quite a lot of talent to the NFL (and quite high) with guys like Vic Beasley, Sammy Watkins and Shaq Lawson all being high picks who were supposed to make the defence / offence take a step back. Dabo Sweeney is arguably as good as any coach in the NCAA though (Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Dabo Sweeney and Jimbo Fisher – but it always feels to me like Dabo has to do more with less, and doesn’t have the advantages the others enjoy when it comes to recruiting players), and where they’ll probably take a step back on offence, the defence looks primed to take a step forward. One player who should help on offence is Cain who scored 9 TDs and put up over 750 yards on only 38 catches last year, as a deep threat with great downfield speed. With an increased workload, he could be poised to make a big leap this year, and things may not be as bad at QB as they seem. Kelly Bryant is the likely starter, having served as backup the last two years to Watson, but Hunter Johnson is a five-star recruit and true freshman, who’s waiting in the wings and seems to be moving into the number two slot on the depth chart already. We’ll likely see two, it not all three of Clemson’s QBs in the first week against Kent State, but in week two against Auburn we should see who gets the nod, at least for now. Playing in the ACC Atlantic division means Clemson will be one of the best week-to-week watches, with the big games against Louisville (Week 3) and FSU (Week 11) being the highlights, while the Week 2 game against #12 Auburn is also well worth a watch, along with the game against Virginia Tech #21 (Week 5).
Anyway, there’s some guys to keep an eye on and no doubt others will emerge over the season as they breakout, or their teams do. In terms of some early projections of games to watch out for, the following all are worth taking a look at…
Week One: Alabama #1 v FSU #3 is not just game of the week, but a contender for best match up of the year, right up front. Michigan # 11 v Florida #17 is a decent curtain raiser too, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Wolverines have rebuilt after losing a lot of players to the NFL last spring.
Week Two For me, it’s Oklahoma #7 @ Ohio State #2 that has the most appeal, just because I love watching Baker Mayfield, week two is absolutely packed though, and the Stanford #14 @ USC #4 and Auburn #12 @ Clemson #5 games are both really tasty looking top 25 match ups. I’ll also be following Georgia #15 @ Notre Dame to see if ND are actually any good (they went 4-8 last year, but a lot of those were against really good teams, and they rarely got blown out, so they’re reasonably good bounce back candidates) while Miami #18 @ Arkansas is a good early test for Miami, especially on defence, ahead of their huge week 3 game against FSU.
Week Three Well, I’ve already mention Miami #18 @ FSU #3, which could be a preview of a potential ACC championship game. Or a defining early season game for a pair of 1-1 teams. Texas #23 @ USC #4 is a really exciting early look at Tom Herman’s Texas. He’s unbeaten at both Ohio State as OC and at Houston as HC in games where his team were the underdogs, and his Houston team were one of the best stories of 2015 and talked about as a potential CFP team from outside the Power 5 early in 2016. This has the makings of a back and forth shootout, with Darnold on one side and Herman coaching on the other. You could make the case however that the best game of the weekend is Clemson #5 @ Louisville #16. This was a great game last year between two of the ACC’s heavyweights, and reigning Heismann winner against National Champion is never going to be a bad way to bill a game.
Week Four is a good time to catch your breath, there’s no all top 25 match ups. There’s intriguing games, but nothing must see. Away from the bright lights of the Power Five conferences, the Thursday night match up between Temple and South Florida looks good, and could be decisive in deciding which one of the group of six teams is heading for a New Year’s Day Bowl game. Aside from those… UCLA @ Stanford #14, Oklahoma #7 @ Baylor and TCU @ OSU #10 could be good games.
Week Five sees Clemson #5 @ Virginia Tech #21 a game which could be very important for Clemson if it already has a loss on it’s record by this point. No two loss team has been to the CFP yet. USC #4 @ Washington State #24 is also interesting as this is two very offensive teams who haven’t shown much interest in defence, and is another shootout for Darnold to navigate through on his path to being the #1 overall pick, while Georgia #15 @ Tennessee #25 is a big game in deciding who will win the SEC East and go to the conference championship to lose to Bama.
Week Six features Alabama #1 @ Texas A&M which hasn’t been an easy game in recent seasons for the Crimson Tide. It also features Michigan #11 @ Michigan State which is about as friendly as you’d imagine it to be, the Spartans are pretty shit though, so I wouldn’t expect too much from this game. Stanford #14 @ Utah is a tricky fixture, Utah are on the fringes of the top 25 and this is no gimme, on the road, for the Cardinal. LSU #13 @ Florida #17 is the early standout, but I’m not sure it’ll be quite so appetising by the time the game rolls around, as defeat to Michigan would likely see Florida out of the top 25 quite quickly.
Week Seven has a couple of big games, with Alabama #1 @ Arkansas an interesting-ish test for Alabama’s rebuilt defence against a team who’ve given them a couple of minor scares in recent seasons. That however is merely an appetiser for the two meaty main courses – the smashmouth Auburn #12 @ LSU #13 which will likely determine Alabama’s major competitor, and the Red River Showdown – Oklahoma #7 @ Texas #23 – A Big 12 shootout between Herman’s new Texas offence and Baker Mayfield.
Week Eight ramps things up with four top 25 (pre-season) match ups, plus a couple of other interesting games. Michigan #11 @ Penn State #6 is probably going to be the most important in terms of the final standings in the Big 10 East and the playoff picture, but (for me anyway) Louisville #16 @ FSU #3 is the tastiest. FSU got a total spanking last year with Lamar Jackson scoring approximately 50 of his 51 total touchdowns in this game, so this will be real grudge match. Oklahoma State #10 @ Texas #23 will be fun, unless you’re a fan of good defence, while this week also features Tennessee #25 @ Alabama #1. I’m also throwing some love to USC #4 @ Notre Dame as another good game for Darnold to show off his stuff.
Week Nine is highlighted by another Big 10 showdown, between last year’s best two teams Penn State #6 @ Ohio State #2. There’s also an SEC top 25 match up between Georgia #15 @ Florida #17, and a Big 12 showdown between OSU #10 @ WVU #22. But this week is all about the big Big 10 match up.
Week Ten is Bedlam. I might have mentioned it… Oklahoma #7 @ Oklahoma State (OSU) #10. It’s big and meaty, and speaking of big and meaty, it doesn’t get much bigger or meatier than the battle for the line of scrimmage in LSU #13 @ Alabama #1. There’s other games of note this weekend, but these two are a class apart.
Week Eleven and there’s no let up. Two huge games that will could well be conference deciders (assuming, not unfairly, that championship games will be mostly formalities), headlined by FSU #3 @ Clemson #5 but closely followed Washington #8 @ Stanford #14. I love both these games for pitching nominal favourites on the road against huge rivals. These games will dominate, much like the pair the week before, but don’t sleep on Georgia #15 @ Auburn #12 as it’s these sorts of games that can kill a season if you lose them, and it comes at a point when college teams do start to tire and lose awkward games.
Week Twelve is unsurprisingly a bit quieter, coming as it does off the back of two huge weeks, and before the big rivalry games in week 13. There’s still a couple of tasty matchups though, and none tastier than the Big 10’s East v West battle Michigan #11 @ Wisconsin #9. Kansas State #20 @ Oklahoma State #10 and LSU #13 @ Tennessee #25 could have conference championship and bowl ramifications, but probably not playoff ones.
Week Thirteen is the big one. Rivalry week. Every single game matters, even if you’re looking at a pair of 2-X teams, pride matters. The best three though, and the most important, are likely to be Alabama #1 @ Auburn #12, FSU #3 @ Florida #17 and the big one, that produced an instant classic in triple OT last year Ohio State #2 @ Michigan #11. Harbaugh hasn’t won one of these yet, and it’s basically impossible to come any closer than they did last year. I think Michigan fans are still arguing about the spot of the ball in the drive in overtime. This has all the makings of another great matchup between the two powerhouses in the Big 10 East.