Mark Lindquist

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CFB Preview: Team Nos. 114-95

Friday, July 21, 2017


*Note: Fantasy targets provided by CFB guru Thor Nystrom, whose rankings can be found here (quarterbacks), here (running backs), here (wide receivers), here (tight ends) and here (kicker/defense). 

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(114). UTEP Miners

Thor Nystrom's fantasy targets:

David Lucero (No. 23 TE)


NFL Draft prospect to watch: LB Alvin Jones (UDFA grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: A gaping crater at running back.

1,773 yards. 7.7 YPC. 17 touchdowns. Those are the numbers that RB Aaron Jones took out the door on his way to the NFL. Finding a replacement for that kind of silly production isn’t realistic unless you’re, say, LSU, but even with that in mind, UTEP is in a dire place on the ground. No one back stepped up in the spring -- and sophomore RB Quadraiz Wadley suffered a shoulder injury, to boot, leaving a large portion of the mantle to fall on true frosh Josh Fields, a local three-star recruit.


While UTEP doesn’t have an immediate Aaron Jones clone at their disposal -- nor any sort of proven receiving depth outside of Eddie Sinegal (29 catches for 338 yards) -- they at least return a steady quarterback in Ryan Metz who started seven games in the second half of the 2016 season and did fine work along the way, passing for 1,375 yards (64.7% completions) with an on-the-money 14/4 TD/INT ratio. There isn’t much around Metz on the whole, though, so we'll see how much something he can make out of nothing.


Their defense offered a little bit of everything last season, surrendering almost 35 points a game while simultaneously holding down the run to a relatively fine 200 yards and about the same in terms of passing yardage. Upperclassman linebackers Alvin Jones (93 tackles in back-to-back seasons) and Dante Lovilette (88 tackles last season) lead the charge in an attack which will probably feature a number of younger Miners contributing, which of course comes with its own set of growing pains for both better and worse.

Bovada over/under win total: 2.5
Prediction: UNDER
Projected record: 2-10

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(113). FIU Golden Panthers

Thor Nystrom fantasy targets:

Thomas Owens (No. 97 WR)

Alex Gardner (No. 69 RB)

NFL Draft prospect to watch: WR Thomas Owens (UDFA, per Draft Analyst’s Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: Hey, look, Butch Davis is back!

The definition of a “first-world problem” is confusing Tennessee HC Butch Jones and now-FIU HC Butch Davis. I have that problem and would guess I’m not alone on that front. We’ll leave Thor to lash Jones in this preview series at a later date. For now, let’s focus on Davis, who has largely been out of the spotlight since his messy termination from UNC in the summer of 2011 before finally resurfacing at FIU in November of last season.


Plenty of pieces to like in what is a balanced offense, here, with RB Alex Gardner (930 yards, 5.2 YPC, six touchdowns), WR Thomas Owens (back-to-back 600-yard seasons to open his career) and QB Alex McGough making for a nice little trio. McGough will be trying for a rebound season after following up a 21/8 TD/INT ratio as a sophomore in 2015 with a less shiny 13/11 TD/INT ratio a year ago.


Emmanuel Lubin and Isaiah Brown make for an intriguing sophomore cornerback duo, with Lubin picking off one pass while Brown picked off three last season. The team is stocked with veteran defenders and might have reached its developmental upside for the time being -- they surrendered almost 35 points a game last season, so not great -- but once Davis is able to truly start swinging on the recruiting trail, we could see an influx of talent. Patience is a virtue, as Davis, himself, was probably muttering to himself while out in the coaching wilderness all these years. 

Bovada over/under win total: 4.5

Prediction: UNDER
Projected record: 4-8


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(112). Nevada Wolf Pack


Thor Nystrom's fantasy targets:

Wyatt Demps (No. 17 WR)

Andrew Celis (No. 95 WR)
Jaxson Kincaide (No. 109 RB)

David Cornwell (No. 39 QB)


NFL Draft prospect to watch: T Austin Corbett

How should I think of this team?: Conceptually, the complete opposite of how you thought of Nevada last season.

Probably would have spent a paragraph gushing about RB James Butler, but alas, it's not to be. Butler’s Fourth of July bolt for Iowa City was a legitimately surprising development in an era of information availability which almost naturally works to stop anything from being truly surprising. Tangents. Butler’s departure from the Wolf Pack places far more pressure on OC Matt Mumme’s Air Raid, which itself was going to be a tricky project even before Butler left -- Nevada is transitioning over from the Pistol. If nothing else, Butler would have provided a safety net for Mumme and friends during the passing game’s growth in puberty. And now, not that.

Forging the path into the unknown this coming season will be QB David Cornwell, himself something of a known-unknown. Cornwell transferred over from Alabama this winter. He was a four-star recruit out of high school, ranking as Rivals’ No. 104 overall prospect in the 2014 class, but did not attempt a pass with the Tide despite having a number of shots at the starting job. That is somewhat concerning, but not everybody can succeed in the cut-throat competitive environment down in Tuscaloosa and he should have every chance to shine now that he is out of that spotlight and into an extremely quarterback-friendly system. It just might take some elbow grease. While Wyatt Demps (53-686-9) figures to flourish in Mumme’s offensive blitz, ditto for WR Andrew Celis (23 catches, 318 yards), a complete shift in philosophy is very difficult to pull off on the first try -- especially when you lose your best skill-position player in early July.

Over on the other side of the ball, Nevada was out-and-out horrible against the run last season. Like worst-team-in-the-FBS bad, surrendering just over 298 yards rushing on average. That the Pack was actually decent against the pass (157.58 yards) had more to do with the fact that teams chose not to pass against them at all -- quarterbacks averaged under 20 attempts against them.


In terms of glimmers of hope, here, DE Malik Reed (59 tackles, 9.5 TFL, five sacks) is as dependable as they come, while talented safeties Asauni Rufus, Dameon Baber and Jaden Sawyer should be easy fits in DC Jeff Casteel’s fresh 3-3-5 defense. Even if Nevada manages to finish better than Worst Team Ever against the run in 2017, though, expectations need to be tempered on the whole given that both offense and defense are going through a transitional phase.

Bovada over/under win total: 3.5
Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 5-7

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(111). Ball State Cardinals


Thor Nystrom's fantasy targets:

Corey Lacanaria (No. 147 WR)

James Gilbert (No. 33 RB)

NFL Draft prospects to watch: QB Riley Neal (Rds. 5-6 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: A JEOPARDY! category that you know you will lose the minute you see it. Say, English Monarchs.

After putting up a promising 16/6 TD/INT ratio in 11 games during the 2015 season, QB Riley Neal crashed down to earth with the interceptions last year, turning in an almost-even 13/12 TD/INT ratio. That inefficiency in the passing game bore out in the team’s overall offensive output -- the Cardinals averaged just over 20 points a game last season while throwing for just over 141 on average. Factoring in losses in the receiving corps, an already conservative passing game doesn’t look to have much room for immediate growth, here.


They’re all set on the ground at least, with James Gilbert returning and looking to surpass the 1,332 yards (5.3 YPC) and 12 touchdowns he put up in a breakout 2016 sophomore campaign for HC Mike Neu. Multi-faceted back Darian Green should also be an interesting factor after he performed well as both a rusher (311 yards, 5.5 YPC) and receiver (24 catches for 124 yards) last season. All-in-all, though, it’s a tough ask for Gilbert to carry the offensive load considering there just might not be much help coming through the air. Again, they barely managed to scratch 20 points a game last season, and that was with Gilbert going off.


Defensive coordinator David Elson’s unit proved to be ultra-aggressive in 2016 and that mostly worked, as opposing teams were held under 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing on average while managing just a little over 28 points per game. This is all encouraging, except for the fact that the defense which pulled off those statistical feats is essentially gone, now. Among the strong contributors from last season no longer on roster, linebackers Sean Wiggins, Aaron Taylor, Zack Ryan, and Stu Stanley, defensive linemen Kevin Thurman, Joshua Posley and John Whitman III, and safeties Corey Hall and Martez Hester. Yikes. Defensive end Anthony Winbush is probably the name to hang the hat on, here. He returns for the 2017 campaign after recording 10.5 TFL and 8.5 sacks last season (plus two forced fumbles).


Bovada over/under win total: 4
Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 5-7


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(110). UNLV Rebels

Thor Nystrom fantasy targets:

Devonte Boyd (No. 67 WR)

Lexington Thomas (No. 117 RB)

Armani Rogers (No. 41 QB)

NFL Draft prospect to watch: WR Devonte Boyd

How should I think of this team?: A Christmas in which you receive a sweater, a pair of socks and a Corvette with the words “Armani Rogers” stenciled on the side.

Following a year in which the Rebels were wrecked by injury at quarterback, dual-threat Armani Rogers sure has the look of a potential freshman savior. Ranked as a four-star recruit for the 2017 cycle by ESPN, Rogers performed well in the spring and will try to make good on the early hype in August camp, when he will battle with Johnny Stanton and Kurt Palandech for starting honors. Whoever wins will have plenty of help offensively with No. 1 wideout Devonte Boyd, who opened his UNLV career with back-to-back 900-yard receiving, 50-catch seasons before simmering down to a 45-746-4 receiving line last season (that drop can probably be attributed at least in part to the ever-injured quarterback room in 2016).

Running backs Charles Williams (763 yards, 5.4 YPC, three touchdowns) and Lexington Thomas (642 yards, 5.2 YPC, eight touchdowns) make for a more-than-capable duo on the ground.

While the offense has plenty of potential for upside and excitement, the defense could end up crumpling -- there simply isn’t much experience on that front, particularly with the team now out three of their top tacklers for last season. Keep an eye on S Tim Hough for some potential disruptivity (not a word, says Google, yes a word says I). He did not intercept a pass in 2016, but picked off four in 2015. Defensive tackle Mike Hughes Jr. (37 tackles, 3.5 TFL) and CB Darius Mouton (51 tackles, 13 passes defended) should also be productive, but given that UNLV was already a train wreck defensively last season -- almost 37 points allowed per game -- it could be an uphill climb for DC Kent Baer’s unit.


Bovada over/under win total: 5.5
Prediction: UNDER

Projected Record: 3-9


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(109). Central Michigan Chippewas

Thor Nystrom's fantasy targets:

Tyler Conklin (No. 12 TE)

Corey Willis (No. 36 WR)

Devon Spalding (No. 90 RB)


NFL Draft prospect to watch: TE Tyler Conklin (Rd. 6 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: You shouldn’t just think of them as the Hail Mary-Lateral team, but you probably do.

Did you know that Central Michigan beat Oklahoma State on a Hail Mary-lateral that never should have happened last season? They did.  That out of the way, the Chippewas would go on to finish the 2016 season at 6-7, including losses in four of their last five regular season games. QB Cooper Rush won’t be helming the ship for any crazy plays during the coming season, with Michigan graduate transfer Shane Morris the probable starter unless he fizzles out in camp next month. Morris attempted all of five passes last season and proved incapable of beating out either Wilton Speight or Jake Rudoch over the past two years. He should get his first real starting shot with CMU.

The Chips boast a slick receiving corps headlined by Corey Willis, who came on for 72 catches, 1,092 receiving yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 15.2 yards-per-reception in 2016. Those 1,092 yards ranked as fourth-best in the MAC. Willis is joined by Mark Chapman (44-592-4) and Brandon Childress (23-327-1) in what should be a fun receiving corps, one which could really rev if Morris can find just a little bit of the spark which had him rated as a four-star recruit on Rivals, No. 81 overall in the 2013 cycle. A Rimington Watch List-er in C Austin Doan will be anchoring the line.

Another watch-lister, this one of the Wuerfel Trophy species, is DE Joel Ostman. He wrecked the MAC with 69 tackles (13.5 for loss), eight sacks and two forced fumbles last season and will have help from defensive friends in LB Malik Fountain (90 tackles, 9.0 for loss) and a trio of productive corners in Josh Cox (three interceptions), Amari Coleman (four interceptions) and Sean Bunting (two interceptions).

If things tilt right for CMU and Morris can get the ball to a more-than-capable receiving corps, seven wins or thereabouts is not off the table. There’s enough talent here that a bowl berth is in the realm of possibility.

 

Bovada over/under win total: 6.5

Prediction: UNDER
Projected Record: 5-7


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(108). Akron Zips

Thor Nystrom fantasy targets:

Tra’Von Chapman (No. 99 WR)

Austin Wolf (No. 115 WR)

Warren Ball (No. 106 RB)

NFL Draft prospect to watch: LB Ulysees Gilbert III

How should I think of this team?: Come to see if OSU transfer RB Warren Ball can stay healthy. Stay for the humble presidential efforts of LB Ulysees Gilbert III.

So here’s a story of epic woe for your consideration. Due to a confluence of injuries at quarterback, WR Tyrell Goodman started Akron’s season finale against Ohio. We have seen teams pull off this trick successfully, with Baylor most recently working that brand of magic two seasons ago in a bowl win over North Carolina. No such luck for Goodman and the Zips -- he completed 12-of-27 passes for 131 yards in his experimental time at quarterback. Thank goodness, then, that an actual quarterback will most likely be quarterbacking the Zips in 2017. That will be Thomas Woodson, a MAC name if ever there was one. Maybe. Woodson was out for all the spring while recovering from a shoulder injury and is going to have to hit the ground running to gain his expected starting spot over three-star JUCO transfer Nick Johns, formerly of Virginia, and redshirt freshman Kato Nelson in August. Assuming health, though, he threw for an 18/6 TD/INT ratio in eight games last season and should be able to regain his footing easily enough.   

While the Zips are somewhat unsettled at quarterback and have no real proven wide receiver for Woodson to target now that Jojo Natson and Jerome Lane are no more, they boast a potential lightning bolt in the backfield in Warren Ball, who transferred over from Ohio State and leapt out to 110 yards against VMI (110 yards is 110 yards) in the season-opener before suffering a season-ending injury. He’s an athletic dynamo when healthy, with NFL measureables including a 4.40s 40-yard dash and 10-foot-8 broad jump.

Ball could make the offense zip, if you will, and the same can be said for linebacker and actual human being Ulysees Gilbert III, who played up to that lofty name last season, recording 121 tackles (11.5 for loss) and four sacks while defending three passes and forcing three fumbles. There’s less reason for excitement in a secondary which is looking incredibly bare and a defensive line trying to replace both of its ends, but Gilbert is a fun show all on his own.

Akron won five games last season and could well have done better than that had their quarterbacks not melted away like the sands of time. A healthy Ball is a huge X-factor. Look out for his name in August camp one way or another.

Bovada over/under win total: 5

Prediction: UNDER

Record: 4-8


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(107). East Carolina Pirates

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Thomas Sirk (No. 46 QB)
Derrell Scott (No. 121 RB)
Jimmy Williams (No. 19 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: WR Davon Grayson (Rd. 6 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: As a campy 1980s horror movie.

The Pirates may not be good this year—they assuredly won’t be—but they’re going to be fun. ECU’s offense, one of the nation’s most pass-happy, will replace Zay Jones with sheer numbers. Jimmy Williams could challenge for 100-plus catches, and he’ll be joined by Trevon Brown and Davon Grayson, who both missed last season with injury.

The offensive line is huge (the four returnees average 6’6/317). It will protect Duke grad transfer QB Thomas Sirk, a dual-threat with experience in the pocket. Four-star Tennessee transfer RB Derrell Scott should do fine in his role of making plays in space. If Sirk isn’t healthy and/or Scott underachieves, ECU has the returning depth to move on (Gardner Minshew at QB, Anthony Scott at RB).

Unfortunately, ECU’s defense is quite bad. It attempted to leverage havoc into big plays last year, and did so. Big plays for opposing offenses, that is, which completed 25 passes of over 30 yards last year versus ECU last year (No. 109 in the FBS).

The Pirates had two bright ideas over the winter to fix the unit: Add a bunch of JUCOs, and move to a 4-2-5 (get another defensive back on the field in the base defense, in other words). They’ll likely succeed in allowing fewer home runs, but a bad pass rush losing its best players to graduation and a weak front seven losing a defender in the box probably just means that they’ll just give up more singles and doubles instead.


Bovada over/under win total: 3.5
Prediction: UNDER
Projected record: 3-9

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(106). Connecticut Huskies

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Arkeel Newsome (No. 73 RB)


NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: CB Jamar Summers (Rd. 6 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: Ground Zero

An Iowa graduate who played under Hayden Frye, Bob Diaco’s vision of turning the Huskies into the Hawkeyes of the East produced only public access TV-boring teams and, ultimately, an 11-26 overall record. Tired of being rudderless, the administration replaced Diaco over the winter with former Huskies’ HC Randy Edsall.

Miscast as savior, the Edsall hiring was panned by the media. But odd as it is to type, the retread Edsall may be just the guy to modernize UConn’s program. He pulled former Auburn OC Rhett Lashlee out of Gus Malzahn’s shadow to install an up-tempo spread offense, and he tabbed rising star Villanova DC Billy Crocker to transition the Huskies into an aggressive 3-3-5 set.

Lashlee’s got his work cut out for him, as the Huskies have finished exactly No. 127 in Off. S&P+ in two of the past three seasons. The offense is going to be bad again, but at least it’s now moving in a progressive direction. The running backs should be good—diminutive Arkeel Newsome is a playmaker and South Carolina transfer David Williams is a former top recruit—but questions marks abound elsewhere.

Crocker takes over a defense that cratered last season but had mostly produced in the decade before that (seven top-50 Def. S&P+ finishes in the previous nine years). He doesn’t have a Tanoh Kpassagnon in Storrs, but Crocker inherits a surprising number of NFL-caliber defenders, including DT Folorunso Fatukasi (10 sacks and 11.5 TFL over the last two seasons), DE Luke Carrezola (22.5 TFL over the past two years), DE Cole Ormsby and LB Vontae Diggs (combined for 16.5 TFL last year), ILB Junior Joseph (projected by Pauline as a Rd. 6 value) and CB Jamar Summers (10 picks over the last two years).

That defense could lead UConn to an upset or two, but the offense has too far to go to project 2017 to be anything more than a lump-taking transition year.

Bovada over/under win total: 3.5
Prediction: UNDER
Projected record: 2-10


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(105). Georgia Southern Eagles

Thor Nystrom's fantasy targets:

Wesley Fields (No. 75 RB)

Shai Werts (No. 65 QB)

NFL Draft prospect to watch: RB L.A. Ramsby (Rd. 6-7 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: A triple-option team which might or might not know how to run the triple-option.

One of the more under-the-radar important offseason hires was that of Georgia Tech QB coach Bryan Cook to serve as Southern’s offensive coordinator. That is crucial for HC Tyson Summers, who oversaw an offense which almost inexplicably went dud as a running team in his first year despite the fact that that is literally the one thing that they should have been a slam dunk to excel in -- and while we're on the subject, we’ve diverted the Voyager spacecraft to attempt to locate RB Matt Breida (he’s with the 49ers, now, after posting a terrible-by-his-standards season a year ago).

Cook should help to get this all straightened out, though the losses of Breida and quarterbacks Fabian Upshaw and Kevin Ellison does him no favors. Wesley Fields (492 yards, three touchdowns) and L.A. Ramsby (343 yards, eight touchdowns) should both see increased opportunities with Breida gone -- it helps that they saw time last season when Breida disappeared into the void of space.  

Summers’ defense played fine -- albeit unspectacularly -- last season, allowing 26 points a game, 168 yards rushing, 229 yards passing. They weren’t quite as sharp as in 2015, though the same can be said of the team as a whole. While they return plenty in the secondary, the front seven is on incredibly thin ice in terms of experience outside of DE Logan Hunt (34 tackles, 3.5 TFL), DT Darrius Sapp (19 tackles, one sack) and LBs Chris Delarosa (33 tackles, 3.5 TFL) and Todd Bradley (11 tackles as a true freshman).

Bovada over/under win total: 5

Prediction: OVER

Projected record: 6-6


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(104). Eastern Michigan Eagles

Thor Nystrom's fantasy targets:
Sergio Bailey (No. 40 WR)

Shaq Vann (No. 50 RB)

Brogan Roback (No. 36 QB)


NFL Draft prospect to watch: RB Ian Eriksen

How should I think of this team?: 22 Jump Street.

As with the delightful Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum-led 21 Jump Street, nobody expected much of Eastern Michigan last season. They proved the doubters wrong with a surprise 7-5 regular season before the magic carpet ride ended in a Bahamas Bowl loss to Old Dominion. And now, the encore? 22 Jump Street was solid enough, I thought. EMU has a few of their chess pieces already set up for a successful sequel, most notably in QB Brogan Roback (2,694 passing yards, 18/7 TD/INT ratio) and Shaq Vann. That’s assuming Vann can stay healthy. After rolling out to a 586 yards rushing and five touchdowns (plus 37 catches for 269 yards and a score) as a redshirt freshman in 2015, Vann went down with a season-ending shoulder injury against Missouri in the second game of the past campaign.

This might actually have had a slight bit of upside for the Eagles, as it allowed for the emergence of Ian Eriksen, who busted out for 771 yards and nine touchdowns in place of Vann last season. Both backs should see a healthy amount of work for the coming season, though August camp will tell the tale of who officially “starts,” here. Perhaps the most pressing issue for HC Chris Creighton next month will be ironing out his offensive line, with starting tackles Cole Gardner and Andrew Wiley both moving on after working as all-conference performers.

The Eagles rocked defensively when it came to preventing the big play last season. Per SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, their 49 rushes allowed of more than 10 yards ranked as 13th best in the FBS in 2016. That’s encouraging. Less so, that the team proved quite susceptible to the pass (261.92 yards allowed on average). The return of S Anthony Brown could go a ways toward helping that. Brown missed the past season with injury, but in 2015, recorded 67 tackles (8.0 for loss), an interception and a forced fumble.

Sequels have a tendency to feel far inferior to the original, but in the case of Eastern Michigan, there’s enough intrigue -- particularly on offense -- that it could be a movie worth watching if things break right.


Bovada over/under win total: 4.5

Prediction: UNDER 

Projected record: 4-8


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(103). South Alabama Jaguars


Thor Nystrom's fantasy targets:

Maaseiah Francis (No. 10 TE)

Xavier Johnson (No. 120 RB)


NFL Draft prospect to watch: DE Caleb Butler

How should I think of this team?: A solid running game surrounded by a dubious passing game.

If you have one memory of South Alabama from last season, it is probably their season-opening 21-20 win over Mississippi State -- albeit a Mississippi State team which had yet to truly develop into what it would be by the end of the season. They also crushed San Diego State 42-24. Those marquee wins were balanced out on the other side by losses to Georgia Southern and Louisiana Lafayette, plus a barely-there 41-40 overtime win against Nicholls State (FCS). All of this equaled out to a 6-6 finish in the regular season. They have landed at six wins on the nose in three of the last four seasons.

More consistent quarterback play out of Dallas Davis would help, here. He proved incredibly mistake prone a year ago, tossing six interceptions to five touchdowns over his last four games. A shoulder injury did not help matters. On that front, he underwent surgery in January. The procedure sidelined him for spring practice, but if nothing else, he should be fresh at the start of August camp. Cole Garvin is lurking beneath him on the depth chart should he falter. Who he might throw to, however, is a mystery. Their leading returning receiver -- Jordan McCray -- has all of seven catches for his career.

On more solid ground, running back Xavier Johnson, who posted 831 yards at 5.5 YPC while scoring 10 touchdowns. He is their most reliable offensive option as things stand right now.

If South Alabama’s offense seems to be on uneven footing, their defense remains competitive. They surrendered a respectable 27 points per game while limiting the opposing passing game to just 174.62 yards through the air on average -- a mark which ranked better than those of Clemson and Washington.


Bovada over/under win total: 4

Prediction: OVER

Projected record: 5-7


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(102). Marshall Thundering Herd

Thor Nystrom's fantasy targets:

Ryan Yurachek (No. 8 TE)

Tyre Brady (No. 92 WR)

Keion Davis (No. 116 RB)

NFL Draft prospect to watch: QB Chase Litton (Rds. 2-3 grade, per Charlie Campbell)

How should I think of this team?: An offensive cake which is layered with frosting and crushed gravel.

Losing big-play WR Michael Clark (17.1 YPC last season) hurts, but the Thundering Herd passing game should remain potent enough during the coming season. They return QB Chase Litton, who threw for 2,612 yards with a 24/9 TD/INT ratio last season and has a 47/17 TD/INT ratio for his career. With Clark out the picture, TE Ryan Yurachek (28-298-5) figures to act as the most dependable option in the receiving corps, while Miami transfer WR Tyre Brady and four-star frosh wideout Darian Owens both should have opportunities to make immediate impacts with their new team. So Marshall should be able to throw the ball.

Running the ball? Maybe not so much. The Thundering Herd finished with the seventh-worst rushing attack in the FBS on average last season. Neither of the team’s top two backs last season (Keion Davis and Anthony Anderson) managed more than 500 yards rushing. Beyond the mere yardage total -- or lack thereof -- neither player averaged more than 4.5 YPC. Unfortunately, there is no real evidence that this dry, unexplosive unit has much upside for 2017. Davis and Anderson should once again serve as the team’s starter-backup combo (respectively) and barring some sort of magical breakthrough, the run game figures to be among the nation’s least productive once more next season.

If the offense can find its groove -- and even with the paint-drying running game, I would like to officially label the passing attack “frisky” -- the team returns enough on defense (notably in the front seven) that they should be able to improve on their 3-9 record from a year ago. A bowl game is not out of reach here if the team can avoid some of their injury pitfalls from 2016.


Bovada over/under win total: 5

Prediction: PUSH

Projected record: 5-7


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(101). Northern Illinois Huskies

Thor Nystrom's fantasy targets:

Jordan Huff (No. 70 RB)


NFL Draft prospect to watch: RB Jordan Huff (UDFA grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: The tendency for injury at quarterback is on par with the bad luck of that of the Stark family on Game of Thrones, except without a face-shifting assassin. Or a run defense.

Northern Illinois was the toast of the MAC not too long ago, but they finished 2016 at just 5-7, leaving HC Rod Carey in the unaccustomed spot of having to bounce back -- last season was his first full season as NIU’s head man in which his team finished with fewer than eight wins.

With oft-injured QB Anthony Maddie no longer in the picture after the NCAA denied him a sixth-year of eligibility this offseason, junior QB Ryan Graham probably has the inside track on starting in 2017 over sophomore Daniel Santacaterina. Redshirt freshman Marcus Childers is the darkhorse to watch. If Graham wins the job, swell? I think? He has proven quite injury-prone in his own right (this is a recurring theme if you attempt to throw the ball for the Huskies) and beyond that, failed to inspire in eight games last season, throwing eight touchdowns to six interceptions.

Really, though, you should just watch RB Jordan Huff, who rushed for 703 yards and five touchdowns at a 6.3 YPC clip (he actually averages 6.9 YPC for his three active seasons). Huff did this last season while backup Joel Bouganon. Bouganon has since moved on to the NFL, leaving Huff in prime position to explode statistically in a little over a month. Given a somewhat deflated quarterback competition and a thin-to-nonexistent receiving corps, Huff is going to be handed the ball until his legs fall off.

The run defense looks decidedly less sturdy than the run offense, having allowed 200 yards on average last season. And that run defense looks even more limp when compared to what the Huskies did against the pass, particularly down the stretch. They’re loaded in the secondary with experienced thumpers and ball-hawks such as safeties Brandon Mayes (five career picks, two last season) and Mycial Allen (two picks in 2016)  or cornerbacks Shawun Lurry (three picks last season, down from the silly nine picks he made in 2015) and Mayomi Olootu (three interceptions). It’s a fun secondary, but expect opponents to lean into the run rather than test it.

But Jordan Huff, man, Jordan Huff.

Bovada over/under win total: 6

Prediction: PUSH

Projected record: 6-6


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(100). Idaho Vandals


Thor Nystrom's fantasy targets:

Jacob Sannon (No. 82 WR)

Isaiah Saunders (No. 66 RB)


NFL Draft prospect to watch: QB Matt Linehan

How should I think of this team?: A grizzled action hero taking his last FBS stand.

You might not remember the outcome of December’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, but I do. I think I just recently regained the feeling in my toes. On a frigid night in Boise, Idaho and Colorado State combined for 111 points in the third-highest scoring bowl of all time. The Vandals came out on top by a 61-50 margin, capping off a commendable 9-4 season.

And now, once more with feeling. 2017 will be Idaho’s last in the FBS before the football program drops down to FCS play. Quarterback Matt Linehan, who could be hearing his name called at the NFL Draft next spring, called university president Chuck Staben “tone-deaf” for the move down to the lower level. But it's going to happen nonetheless.  

Setting aside the FCSing of the boys from Moscow -- as if that can be done -- the football team is attempting to put together back-to-back eight-win seasons for the first time in school history. The offense has the pieces, at least. Along with Linehan (3,184 yards passing, 19/10 TD/INT ratio), the team returns dynamic running back duo Aaron Duckworth (672 yards rushing) and Isaiah Saunders (731 yards rushing). Matters are less settled when it comes to potential Linehan targets, with tight ends Deon Watson and Trent Cowan moving on. Ditto for WR Jordan Frysinger. The Vandals at least return a solid amount of upperclassmen experience in the receiving corps, though, with Rueben Mwehla, Jacob Sannon and Alfonso Onunwor all in line to see starting work as Idaho reshuffles its deck at the position.

Defensively, the Vandals offered up a few surprises last year, most notably in allowing a mere four rushes of 30 or more yards. On a more macro scale, they were decidedly tougher against the run (145.23 yards) than the pass (283.08). That disparity is somewhat disturbing when viewed in the light of the coming season. Four of their five leading defensive linemen from 2016 are no longer with the team, and while an injury-riddled secondary should benefit from full seasons out of safety Jordan Grabski and Dorian Clark, there’s a real danger that with a less stout run defense and an already shaky unit against the pass this could be a wobbly unit on the whole.


Bovada over/under win total: 4.5

Prediction: OVER

Projected record: 6-6


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(99). Tulane Green Wave

Thor Nystrom's fantasy targets:
Dontrell Hilliard (No. 61 RB)

NFL Draft prospect to watch: DE Ade Aruna (Rd. 5 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: The one-armed man

Tulane played strong defense (No. 47 S&P+) in HC Willie Fritz’ first season. They should do so again, despite losing DT Tanzel Smart and LB Nico Marley (combined 32.5 TFL), because most of the rest of the outfit returns. The issue remains the offense, which is weird to say about a Fritz team.

It wasn’t surprising that the Green Wave ranked No. 121 in offensive S&P+ last season, seeing as though it was transitioning from a pass-first offense to Fritz’s unique brand of spread triple-option football. It will be surprising if that unit doesn’t take a big step forward this season, but doing so will require unknown former Kansas State and JUCO QB Jonathan Banks to master the offense on short notice.

I like Banks’ skill set—he’s a good athlete (a must for a Fritz QB) with a strong arm (which will discourage safeties from sneaking up if he proves he can connect on the long ball consistently)—but can’t speak to anything more than that until Tulane takes the field. Banks will work with RB Dontrell Hilliard, who flashed at times last year, and a decent offensive line. The emergence of a receiver or two would help.

If Banks spurs a big offensive turnaround, Tulane will move into the middle of the AAC pack and challenge for a bowl bid. It’s more likely that the Green Wave fall just short of the postseason to set up the inevitable 2018 breakthrough campaign.  
 

Bovada over/under win total: 5
Prediction: UNDER
Projected record: 4-8

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(98). Florida Atlantic Owls

Thor Nystrom's fantasy targets:

Kalib Woods (No. 45 WR)

Devin Singletary (No. 20 RB)

De’Andre Johnson or Jake Driskel (No. 33 QB)

NFL Draft prospect to watch: WR Kalib Woods (UDFA grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: The football equivalent of an internet meme come to life.

Does the word “sand” come from the fact that it is between the sea and the land? This is just one question which Lane Kiffin has forwarded to the world during the offseason, at least when he isn’t extending offers to middle school players. If nothing else, Kiffin -- one of college footballs true oddballs -- brings a level of weirdness to his new head-coaching gig. Cue the Owl Raid.

Just who will be hoot-hoot-hooting at signal-caller for OC Kendall Briles remains a mystery, though. JUCO transfer De’Andre Johnson (who was kicked out of FSU for allegedly hitting a woman) was the sexy name to win the job, but that did not materialize in the spring and Johnson will now have to fight it out with Jake Driskel (2,415 yards passing, 9/11 TD/INT ratio in 2016) in August camp. That competition will sort itself out naturally. Less certain, the status of leading wideout Kalib Woods (68-934-1 last season), who was suspended from the team earlier this summer after being arrested and charged with two felony battery charges. He has pled not guilty to those charges, but remains out on indefinite suspension. There’s no replacing Woods if he is forced to miss time and the receiving corps behind him has little receiving production to its credit.

If quarterback remains unsettled and wide receiver suddenly shaky, there are no such concerns at running back. Devin Singletary is a bonafide rock star and one of the best in the conference. He rushed for 1,021 yards and 12 touchdowns last season while averaging 6.7 YPC. Just how Briles will utilize him in the Owl Raid remains to be seen, but he is going to receive plenty of  work -- especially if the passing game does not immediately come together.

But about that defense. FAU offered up one of the worst overall units in the FBS last season, allowing almost 40 points a game, 245 rushing yards a game and 268 yards passing. Indeed, they weren’t particularly good at anything on that side of the ball -- and that was with current New Orleans Saints DE Trey Hendrickson on the roster. Linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair does return, at least, after recording 112 tackles (11.0 for loss) and an interception in 12 games. After putting in two consecutive 3-9 seasons, Kiffin at least brings a level of excitement to the Owls. Uncertainty on offense outside of Singletary and far too leaky a defense makes an immediate turnaround difficult, but not impossible. 

Bovada over/under win total: 4.5

Prediction: OVER

Projected Record: 6-6


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(97). Cincinnati

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Mike Boone (No. 52 RB)
Devin Gray (No. 124 WR)

NFL Draft prospect to watch: WR Devin Gray (Rd. 6 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: Out with the old (outsider Tommy Tuberville), in with the new (Ohio insider Luke Fickell).

Tommy Tuberville’s last Bearcat team couldn’t run, stop the pass, or identify a starting quarterback. It finished 4-8, sending Tuberville into football retirement. Fickell has a chance to get Cincy back into the postseason in his maiden voyage, but doing so while require fixing the three debilitating problems of 2016.

Fickell has said he’ll transition the Bearcats into an up-tempo, spread offense. I’m confident that the running game will improve, because I’m a big believer in RB Mike Boone, who was an explosive playmaker earlier in his career before injuries ravaged his 2016 season. The Bearcats will have to do without Ohio State transfer QB Torrance Gibson, who announced in July that he’d spend 2017 at a JUCO instead. That leaves the summer quarterback derby to returnees Hayden Moore and Ross Trail. Neither was particularly captivating last fall.

The pass defense should be at least a little better because most of the secondary returns. All of the linebackers are gone, though, which could weaken the run defense and threaten to undermine the transition to a new staff. The silver lining is that most of the solid defensive line returns.

There’s enough talent on hand to get to a bowl, but only if Fickell and crew don’t get sunk by the holes in the hull that developed during the waning days of Tubberville’s reign as captain.

Bovada over/under win total: 5.5
Prediction:  UNDER
Projected record: 5-7


****


(96). New Mexico Lobos

Thor Nystrom's fantasy targets:

Tyrone Owens (No. 46 RB)

Richard McQuarley (No. 112 RB)

NFL Draft prospect to watch: RB Tyrone Owens

How should I think of this team?: A perpetual-motion machine of a running game.

The Lobos lost RB Teriyon Gipson (1,269 yards, 13 touchdowns) and should still be just fine in their option-y ways. That’s because of the presence of Tyrone Owens, who himself slashed his way to 1,097 yards and seven touchdowns while working to an 8.0 YPC clip last season. Owens will be the man, here, with Richard McQuarley set to also see extensive totes of the rock after blasting his way through the Mountain West for 18 touchdowns last season. And quarterback Lamar Jordan will be back to orchestrate the whole shebang. New Mexico led the FBS with 350 yards rushing a game last season and even if they can’t quite hit that mark again, they’re going to be really, really good on the ground again in 2017.

Probably very bad on defense, too. New Mexico proved middling, at best, against both the run and the pass last season and outside of a few diamonds in the sagebrush such as DL Garrett Hughes (29 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks) and LB Kimmie Carson (58 tackles, 7.5 for loss), defensive upside is hard to see coming, at least not in the next year. Still, New Mexico’s proficiency in the option should allow them wiggle room for a potential winning season, or at least some potential fun, high-scoring losses.

Bovada over/under win total: 5.5

Prediction: UNDER

Projected record: 4-8


****


(95). Utah State Aggies

Thor Nystrom's fantasy targets:
Tonny Lindsey (No. 126 RB)

Kent Myers (No. 51 QB)


NFL Draft prospect to watch: S Dallin Leavitt

How should I think of this team?: Awkwardly flirtatious.

I’ll admit, I was in on the Aggies last summer. Kent Myers had all the look of a quarterback ready to vault into cult mythology after posting 1,593 yards passing with a 16/3 TD/INT ratio while seeing the field in nine games at the twilight of the Chuckie Keeton Era in 2015. But sometimes cult mythologies include their dark twists (what is a myth without at least a little bit of darkness?) and such was the case with Myers in his first attempt at the star turn last season. It ended with a 3-9 record for Utah State as a team and a noticeable drop-off in YPA (8.0 in 2015 to 6.6 in 2016), touchdowns (16 to 10) and completion percentage (60.8 to 58.6), plus a noticeable uptick in interceptions (three to eight).

Perhaps the man to finally tap into Myers’ flashes of brilliance will be David Yost. Utah State hired the former Missouri offensive coordinator to the same position in December. For the past three seasons, he had been working with a pair of uptempo attacks out west in Oregon (passing game coordinator, 2016) and Washington State (inside receivers coach, 2013-2015). During spring practice, Yost singled out the work of receivers Ron’quavion Tarver and Rayshad Lewis as well as running back LaJuan Hunt. Hunt figures to see carries alongside Tonny Lindsey Jr., who rushed for 763 yards (5.2 YPC) and six touchdowns in 2016.

While Utah State’s offense falls squarely into the “Intriguing But Show Me” folder on the CFB desktop, the pass defense should be filed under “Underrated Awesome Things.” Allowing just 176.50 yards through the air last season, the Aggies offered up a more stingy defense against aerial assault on average than Playoff outfits Clemson and Washington. Their rush defense proved slightly more vulnerable, as they allowed just over 202 yards on the ground per game. That isn’t great, but the defense as a whole should again be rock solid in 2017. If the Aggies are to make a bowl, though, they will need a far more consistent season from Myers and the offense under Yost. And if they stall out again, HC Matt Wells might be facing a warm seat this winter. I don't think that will be an issue.

Bovada over/under win total: 4.5

Prediction: OVER

Projected record: 6-6




Mark Lindquist holds a master's degree from the University of Iowa and writes baseball and college football for Rotoworld.com. He's currently working on a memoir about life, death, rock 'n' roll and his year teaching at a Chinese university. You can reach him on Twitter @markrlindquist.
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