Thor Nystrom

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CFB Preview: Team Nos. 94-75

Tuesday, July 25, 2017






 

 

*Note: Thor Nystrom's fantasy rankings mentioned below can be found here (quarterbacks), here (running backs), here (wide receivers), here (tight ends) and here (kicker/defense). 

 

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(94). Hawaii Warriors

Thor Nystrom's fantasy targets:
Dru Brown (No. 61 QB)
Diocemy Saint Juste (No. 102 RB)
John Ursua (No. 89 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: LB Jahvani Tavai

How should I think of this team?: A meal of a Big Mac (offense) and a day-old carton of fries (defense).

Last season’s offense didn’t quite light the field on fire like those of the June Jones teams of old, but it far exceeded the preseason expectations. Some of that -- okay, most of that -- had do with QB Dru Brown, who took over for Ikaika Woolsey four ineffective games into the season and proceeded to excel, throwing for 2,488 yards with a 19/7 TD/INT ratio while rushing for 306 yards and four scores. He won’t have WR Marcus Kemp to throw to this season, but even without a true downfield weapon, possession talent such as redshirt sophomore John Ursua remains on the roster. Should Ammon Barker (15 catches last season, 14.1 yards-per-reception) keep his per-catch rates with more usage, that would help to unlock a little more variety in the passing game beyond Brown’s dual-threat magic.

Speaking of magic, redshirt senior RB Diocemy Saint Juste might as well have been David Blaine at times last season, putting in a 205-yard demolition of Nevada and a 170-yard crushing of Middle Tennessee in their bowl win. On other occasions, he was just the guy who couldn’t guess the card right -- Saint Juste was held under 40 yards rushing in five games -- but he and Brown are a dynamic tandem.

There’s less to write home about on defense, where the all-universe work of junior LB Jahlani Tavai (128 tackles, 19.5 TFL) and S Trayvon Henderson (90 tackles, 10.5 TFL, three interceptions, seven passes defended) largely fell in vain last season. Lynchpins can only do so much when they aren’t given anything to hold together, particularly true in the secondary, where the Warriors are looking to replace four of their six leading tacklers in a unit that finally began to gel in the back half of the campaign. A brutal schedule does them no favors, either, including away contests against Wyoming and UCLA in September (back-to-back at that) and potential home bludgeonings at the hands of Colorado State, San Diego State and BYU.

Bovada over/under win total: 4.5

Prediction: UNDER

Projected record: 4-8


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(93). Air Force Falcons

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Arion Worthman (No. 60 QB)
Tim McVey (No. 67 RB)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: RB Tim McVey

How should I think of this team?: A boxer who no longer has the quick-twitch muscle reactions to avoid haymakers.

Air Force has been the epitome of consistency over the last three seasons. 9-3 in 2014. 9-3 in 2015. 9-3 in 2016. The advanced statistics tell a similar tale. Per Bill Connelly’s S&P+ metric, the Falcons have fallen between 50th and 62nd overall each of the last three campaigns. There’s reason to believe they are in for a tumble during the coming season, though, mainly due to staggering losses in the front seven -- the Falcons must replace of 10 of their top 12 defensive linemen and linebackers from last season -- which could potentially topple a defense whose clear strength was against the run (a stellar 114.15 rushing yards allowed per game in 2016).

There are a few returning players of interest that could help halt the fall, including senior LBs Grant Ross (68 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks) and Jack Flur (28 tackles, 3.0 for loss, two sacks), but it would take a lot of things to break right for there not to be some regression -- perhaps significant regression.

Against the pass, the Falcons were decidedly less stellar, surrendering 251.85 aerial yards on average. There’s turnover here, too, most prominently at safety (Weston Steelhammer, Brodie Hicks), but also at corner, where a green group of Dallen Sutton, Robert Bullard, and Kyle Floyd will need to step up.

Fewer concerns exist offensively for HC Troy Calhoun. Junior QB Arion Worthman was dynamite on the ground (674 yards rushing, six touchdowns) when given the chance to play, and his work as a keep-you-honest passer (14 YPA, 4/2 TD/INT ratio, 59% completions) gives the offense hope of keeping safeties out of the box this fall. Last season, he set the Air Force single-season record for passer efficiency at 200.16.

Worthman will be joined on the marquee by RB Tim McVey (708 yards rushing, 10 touchdowns), who ranked third in the country last season with his 8.5 YPC average. The loss of star wideout Jalen Robinette is problematic, but unlike Army, who has no clear replacement for deep terror Edgar Poe, Air Force should be able to cobble together something vaguely resembling a Robinette stand-in with Ronald Cleveland and Tyler Williams.

The Falcons scored in excess of 35 points a game last season and the offense should hold up its end of the bargain again this year with a full campaign out of Worthman. But there’s just too much turnover on defense to expect another year near the top of the Mountain West, even for a team like Air Force which has consistently been able to make up for such turnover in the past.

Bovada over/under win total: 5

Prediction: UNDER
Projected record: 4-8


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(92). UCF Knights


Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Jawon Hamilton (No. 54 RB)
Tre'Quan Smith (No. 35 WR)
Jordan Akins (No. 15 RE)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: Shaquem Griffin (Rd. 7 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: Feeling Frost-y

UCF is in a strange spot. If they win big, HC Scott Frost is likely to leave for the Power 5 (the Nebraska rumors are only going to get louder if the Cornhuskers struggle this fall). And if UCF fails to make a bowl, they’ll squander some of the momentum Frost built in guiding his first Knights squad to the postseason.

The guess here is that the latter is the more likely outcome, mostly because of the sluggish offense. UCF finished No. 117 in Off. S&P+ last season. To be fair, it was a nine-spot improvement over the year before. Between QB McKenzie Milton, RB Jawon Hamilton, WRs Tre’Quan Smith and Dredrick Snelson, TE Jordan Akins and an OL that returns seven with starting experience, that unit should be much improved. 

Still, this is the same cast of characters that bungled UCF’s up-tempo spread attack last year; its upside remains theoretical. The offensive line simply must get better—and remain healthy. If that unit struggles again, the skill talent will once again be neutralized. A leap from Milton would be nice, too.

The defense faces far fewer questions. All three starting defensive linemen in the aggressive 3-4 return, as does AAC defensive player of the year Shaquem Griffin (20 TFL, 11.5 sacks, and eight passes defensed last season). The area of concern is the secondary, which lost all four starters and will be without No. 1 CB sophomore Nevelle Clarke for the first half of the season due to a drug suspension. The AAC features several quality passing outfits, and those teams will shred this secondary unless contributors emerge pronto.


Bovada over/under win total: 7.5
Prediction: UNDER
Projected record: 5-7


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(91). UTSA Roadrunners

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Jalen Rhodes (No. 32 RB)
Kerry Thomas (No. 140 WR)
Josh Stewart (No. 150 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: DE Marcus Davenport

How should I think of this team?: A book which loses you after about 15 pages.

Searching for a replacement-level team this season? Tune in to watch UTSA. Former walk-on quarterback who might have maximized his potential? Check, in Dalton Sturm (2,170 passing yards, 56.5% completions, 20/6 TD/INT ratio last season). Receiving corps with a few upside deep threats who have yet to put everything together? Check, in Kerry Thomas and Josh Stewart. Disturbing offensive line play? Check yet again, with the Roadrunners allowing 43 sacks last season, a mark which ranked 121st in the country.

Uninspiring running back play, at least, is not part of HC Frank Wilson’s middle-of-the-road checklist. Productive RB Jarveon Williams is no longer around, but Jalen Rhodes might actually be even better. In backup duty last season, the junior picked his way to 827 yards (5.3 YPC) and nine touchdowns on 155 carries. Expect closer to 200 during the coming campaign for the team’s highest-upside offensive piece.

Their defense mirrors their offense in several ways, notably in the fact that it is rock-solid against the run (162.46 yards rushing per game). While not quite a trainwreck against the pass, they had their issues holding off the big pop play, allowing 26 tosses of at least 30 yards, a mark which ranked 118th-worst in the FBS -- problematic all the more for the coming season given that they are replacing both starting safeties.

It’s not exactly the most exciting of teams, but they’ve moved from out-and-out bad to just run-of-the-mill, a move all the same. They also boast a gem in NFL-caliber DE Marcus Davenport (67 tackles, 10.0 for loss, 6.5 sacks).

Bovada over/under win total: 6.5

Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 7-5

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(90). Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Janarion Grant (No. 62 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: CB Isaiah Wharton (Rd. 5 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: Kick the can.

The Scarlet Knights went 4-8 in Kyle Flood’s last season, and 2-10 in Chris Ash’s first. Odds are that they’ll finish with between two and four wins for a third consecutive year in 2017—mostly because they scheduled two (presumed) wins in the non-conference slate in Eastern Michigan and Morgan State.

Rutgers’ offense will greatly benefit from the return of all-purpose WR Janarion Grant, whose season-ending ankle injury in Week 4 last year torpedoed the only good thing the attack had going for it. Following Grant’s injury, the team couldn’t pass, which made it mighty easy for opposing defenses to gang up on the poor running backs.

In addition to Grant’s return, hope for the offense rests in a series of transfers, QB Kyle Bolin (via Louisville), RB Gus Edwards (Miami), WR Damon Mitchell (Arkansas) and TE Jerome Washington (Miami). Between Mitchell, Grant and Jawuan Harris, the receiving corps is solid. But the offensive line is poor, and it’d take Scarlet-colored glasses to project strong quarterback play.

The defense was dreadful against the run (No. 126) last year, leading to 37.5 ppg allowed (No. 116). It wasn’t all bad, though, with Rutgers finishing No. 18 with 186.5 passing yards per game allowed. Part of that had to do with opponents running out the clock in the fourth quarter, but the strong CB duo of Blessuan Austin and Isaiah Wharton did outstanding work. Both return.

The defense could be average, but it’s difficult to envision the offense taking the step forward Rutgers would need to contend for bowl eligibility.

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

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(89). Virginia Cavaliers

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Olamide Zaccheaus (No. 132 WR)
Doni Dowling (No. 148 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: LB Micah Kiser (Rd. 7-UDFA grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: A dented 1993 Toyota Camry located along a desolate, deserted stretch of highway with a faded “For Sale” sign in the window.

Sometimes the end-of-season-coaching-change pays almost immediate dividends. Sometimes it does not. The latter was the case for the Cavaliers last season, as they hired Bronco Mendenhall away from ever-consistent BYU two winters ago only for UVA to stumble to a 2-10 season in his debut. They lost to Richmond and UConn. The night is always darkest before the dawn, they say. Unfortunately, the dawn is not coming for Virginia this season.

First, the positives. ECU transfer Kurt Benkert, who missed two games last season due in part to a knee injury, no longer needs a brace. Even with his late injury, he had his moments while throwing for 2,552 yards with a 21/11 TD/INT ratio. Granted, there’s a fair amount of dink-and-dunk there -- Virginia finished just 15 passes of more than 30 yards last season, a number which hurts the soul. Olamide Zaccheaus (51-584-7) is the closest the team comes to a No. 1 receiver.

Also problematic, they can no longer lean on RB Taquan Mizzell (940 yards rushing, five touchdowns; 52 catches, 404 yards, two touchdowns) in the backfield when things inevitably start to collapse. He’s gone now, leaving in his place only question marks. Redshirt junior Jordan Ellis will probably be first man up, but Ellis has just 75 carries to his name and there’s not much behind him. The Cavaliers might not be as mind-numbingly awful on offense next season as they were in 2016, but if you set the bar on the ground, even my one-and-a-half month old niece Katy could leap over it.

Defensively, there’s at least a little light. Mendenhall’s crew held the opposition to 190 yards rushing on average and the front seven is peppered with standouts ranging from LB Micah Kiser (133 tackles, 10 TFL, six sacks) to DE Andrew Brown (38 tackles, 13 TFL, six sacks). If Virginia has a strength, it’s this. And not the pass defense. Not that. Safety Quin Blanding (118 tackles, two interceptions) is a known name, but even he could not prevent opponents from putting up more than 256 yards passing on average.

It’s going to be another long year.

Bovada over/under win total: 5

Prediction: UNDER
Projected record: 2-10


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(88). Old Dominion Monarchs

Thor Nystrom fantasy targets:
Blake LaRussa (No. 68 QB)
Ray Lawry (No. 23 RB)
Jonathan Duhart (No. 55 WR)
Travis Fulgham (No. 149 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: RB Ray Lawry (Rd. 6 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: Cinderella, the day after the mice and the pumpkin and all that.

It’s easy to feel optimistic about Old Dominion. Awash in the good vibes of their first bowl win in school history (against Eastern Michigan in the Bahamas Bowl), the Monarchs are locked and loaded with a number of exciting, returning pieces, headlined by RB Ray Lawry, who rushed for 1,255 yards (6.3 YPC) and 11 touchdowns last season -- and those 11 scores did not even lead the team, as junior RB Jeremy Cox actually clipped Lawry with 13 of them. They’re set on the ground -- expect them to run, a lot -- and while they lost last season’s leading receiver in Zach Pascal, Jonathan Duhart (48-735-9) figures to slot into his place without missing a beat.

Waters are darker when it comes to the quarterback. Or if not darker, at least slightly muddier as they look to replace David Washington, who went out with a flourish via a 31/5 TD/INT ratio last season. Redshirt sophomore QB Blake LaRussa took the spring lead and earlier this month, HC Bobby Wilder said that LaRussa would begin August as the starter. JUCO transfer Jordan Hoy could potentially jostle the former walk-on (he was fantastic with Fullerton College in the JUCO ranks last season), but LaRussa is on track to win the job. He attempted all of 22 passes while backing up Washington in 2016, so the Etch-A-Sketch is essentially clear at the position regardless of who wins it.

Not only is there plenty of firepower on the ground, here, the defense took big steps forward across the board last season and brings back most of the talent that made that happen. Linebacker is the area of most concern, here, with Anthony Ricks and T.J. Nelson taking their talents out the door. ODU must now replace four of their top six tacklers at the position -- and that could actually thin out more in the coming weeks, as Isaiah Worthy (who did not make the bowl trip and did not participate in spring practice) remains a question mark.

There are ways this could go wrong -- LaRussa struggles to replace Washington, the Monarchs are unable to make up for their losses at linebacker -- but they return 16 of 22 starters from last season. A repeat of their 10-3 magic carpet ride from 2016 is a big ask, so let’s settle for a solid bowl on this one.

Bovada over/under win total: 6.5

Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 7-5

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(87). Army Black Knights

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Andy Davidson (No. 80 RB)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: RB Andy Davidson

How should I think of this team?: As veteran as a group of college kids can be.

The Black Knights had themselves a charmed 2016 season which included upsets of Temple and Wake Forest as well as a signature win over Navy for the first time since 2001. Their triple-option sorcery helped them to finish second in the country in rushing yardage on a per-game average with 339 yards on the ground. A bulk of the talent that rolled its way to that impressive mark will be at it once more during the coming season. It’s an ultra-experienced bunch: Four seniors on the offensive line, a senior quarterback in Ahmad Bradshaw (824 yards rushing, eight touchdowns; 703 passing yards, 4/9 TD/INT ratio) and junior FBs Andy Davidson (961 yards rushing, 12 touchdowns) and Darnell Woolfolk (600 yards rushing, nine touchdowns).

If we’re to poke holes, here, this is not a particularly effective passing attack, even by the standards of the triple-option. The loss of gothic poet/wide receiver Edgar Poe (who averaged 21 yards on his 16 receptions) stings and the roster lacks another proven downfield target to make the defense pay for inevitably overplaying the run. Jeff Ejekam, Christian Poe and Glen Coates -- all statistically quiet to this point in their careers -- provide pieces, kind of, but quoth the raven, “It’s not easy to develop a deep threat when you don’t have one on roster.” Army won’t have to throw it that much, of course, but it would be nice that if, on the occasion Bradshaw does fling it, he might have somebody open beyond 10 yards.

Head coach Jeff Monken does have to replace the team’s two leading tacklers from last season in LBs Jeremy Timpf and Andrew King, but those losses are minimized by degrees thanks to the return of LBs Alex Aukerman (59 tackles, 15.0 TFL, 7.5 sacks) and Kenneth Brinson (45 tackles, 7.5 TFL, four sacks, two interceptions). So long as Army can weather Timpf and King exiting stage left, it should remain a sturdy unit for the coming season. The Black Knights not only held opposing offenses to 19 points a game during the past campaign, they also allowed average rushing tallies of 122 yards and passing tallies of 170 yards.

The last time Army beat Navy in back-to-back seasons was 1995-1996, if you were wondering.

Bovada over/under win total: 7.5

Prediction: UNDER
Projected record: 7-5

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(86). Illinois Fighting Illini

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Kendrick Foster (No. 124 RB)
Malik Turner (No. 127 WR)

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

How should I think about this team?: If rebuilding is a song, this one is The Song That Never Ends.

Lovie Smith’s first Illini squad went 3-9 in the most boring way possible. It finished with the No. 114 Off. S&P+ while playing at a snail’s pace. The quarterback play was abysmal, and the solid RB duo of Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin was rarely given room to run by the poor offensive line.

QB Chayce Crouch, named the starter in the spring, gets WR Mikey Dudek (74 catches in 2014) back after Dudek missed the past two seasons with knee injuries. The offensive line that struggled so badly in 2016 returns three starters. If this unit improves, it will only be by degrees.

Last year’s defense was terrible against the pass but highly disruptive up front. More bad news, that: DEs Carroll Phillips, Dawuane Smoot, Gimel President and DTs Chunky Clements and Rob Bain are all gone. The young secondary should improve, but the overall defense, which finished No. 59 in Def. S&P+ last year, will almost assuredly be worse.

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

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(85). SMU Mustangs

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Ben Hicks (No. 48 QB)
Xavier Jones (No. 128 RB)
Courtland Sutton (No. 3 WR)
James Proche (No. 93 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: WR Courtland Sutton (Rd. 1 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: S(coring) M(achine) U(nboxed)?

Chad Morris’ offense plays fast. It spreads you out, motions you around and then attacks wherever you’re weakest. Whether run or pass, the quarterback is given multiple options to choose from. It’s the type of offense that becomes freaking terrifying with skilled, experienced personnel.

Which means there’s a real chance that it’ll scary this fall. Most of the offense returns, including QB Ben Hicks and the Group of 5’s best set of receivers. That group is led by potential future first-rounder Courtland Sutton (76-1,246-10 last year), James Proche and former LSU four-star recruit Trey Quinn. Five of the seven offensive linemen with starting experience return, as do the top three running backs. SMU even has a ready-made replacement if Hicks doesn’t work out in former Arkansas four-star Rafe Peavey. Good stuff, all that.

The other side of the ball? Not as lit. The Mustangs couldn’t stop the run last year—Navy dropped 75 points on them using less than 60 offensive snaps—and now must replace a few starters in the front seven. They may not be much better against the run, but the Ponies should field a solid pass defense again.

If this is one of the country’s worst 30 defenses again, the Mustangs will have to scratch and claw to make a bowl game, despite its offense. But if the defense overachieves, eight or even nine wins is not out of the question. We’re straddling the middle by projecting seven wins. SMU is one of our favorite overs of the country’s bottom 50 teams.

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

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(84). Ohio Bobcats

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Papi White (No. 108 RB/WR)
Brendan Cope (No. 116 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: ILB Quentin Poling (Rd. 6 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: A long wait at the DMV.

Eight times last season, Ohio failed to crack 30 points. The Bobcats made the MAC title game, which they lost to Western Michigan. There’s a lack of sex appeal, here, I know, but not everybody can be a belle of the ball with all the sparkles and such. Sometimes just making it to the ball is enough. Even if it takes beating Akron 9-3 in the final game of the season to get there. This ragtag band will be led by redshirt sophomore QB Quinton Maxwell. He has the requisite arm strength to do fun things, but he also turns it over a lot, like eight fumbles a lot. Hanging onto the ball would be a good development for his first year as a full-time starter.


Not everything is painted black, though. Brendan Cope (who averaged 17 yards per reception in 2015) is lurking as a deep threat if he can come back healthy from injury which sidelined him for the past campaign. And if Maxwell can get Papi White the ball, look out. White posted a 41-672-6 receiving line last season while averaging 16.4 yards per reception -- seventh-best in the MAC on that last front -- and chipped in with 47 rushes for 206 yards and three touchdowns just for good measure. The pure running backs are good, too. AJ Ouellette is looking to make a full comeback from a Lisfranc injury he suffered in September of last year, with HC Frank Solich calling Ouellette “a key element to our running game” earlier this offseason. If Ouellette (who rushed for 686 yards and six touchdowns in a healthy 2015) isn’t quite there early, that would mean opportunity for Dorian Brown. Maleek Irons -- who filled in for Ouellette with 825 yards last season -- figures to see plenty of work, too.     

Remember that 9-3 win over Akron that we touched on earlier, the one which allowed them into the ball? The Bobcats were better than Texas A&M in terms of points surrendered last season. They were better than USC. They gave up just over 22 on average. That’s despite the fact that an incredibly young secondary was prone to mistakes. Corners Kylan Nelson, Jalen Fox, and Mayne William and safety Javon Hagan -- all freshmen or sophomores last season -- are a year older now (as are we all) and they figure to give up far fewer than 256 yards they did through the air. You’re not going to see the Bobcats on ABC’s Saturday Game of the Week any time soon, but they’re going to do their thing nonetheless. Solich will make sure of that.

Bovada over/under win total: 7.5

Prediction: UNDER
Projected record: 7-5


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(83). Southern Miss Golden Eagles

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Kwadra Griggs (No. 40 QB)
Ito Smith (No. 3 RB)
Allenzae Staggers (No. 56 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: RB Ito Smith (UDFA grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: Switching showrunners on an Emmy-winning television series.

After four years of the Nick Mullens Experience at Southern Miss, HC Jay Hopson needs to find a new signal-caller. He’s been in full coach-speak mode on that question this offseason, but if we were to proffer a guess, we think the job eventually goes to redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs, a JUCO transfer who had to work through some academic issues while sitting out last season but looks to be good to go for the coming campaign. Sophomore QB Keon Howard would take the mantle if Griggs has any stumbles in camp.

Whoever wins out has some very big toys to play with. Ito Smith is one of the most productive running backs in the country, not only as a pure runner (1,459 yards rushing) but also as a receiving threat (92 catches over the last two seasons). Smith pairs with wideout Allenzae Staggers (63-1165-7, 18.5 YPR) to give the Eagles one of C-USA’s most lethal skill-position duos. It would probably be a stretch to say that Southern Miss won’t miss a step in the absence of Mullens, but the subsequent step back has the potential to be a small one.

They should field a good defense, too. It was one of the best in the conference last season and will be loaded down with an experienced group of established names, including DE Xavier Thigpen (13.5 TFL, three forced fumbles), LB Sherrod Ruff (10 TFL) and three senior corners in Cornell Armstrong, Curtis Mikell, and Trae Collins. If they can prevent some of the major blow-ups akin to those of a year ago -- 55 points allowed to UTSA, 38 allowed to Charlotte, 29 allowed to North Texas -- this is a conference-title type of defensive unit, one which will allow Griggs/Howard time to make mistakes without necessarily costing the Eagles games.

Bovada over/under win total: 7

Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 8-4


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(82). Purdue Boilermakers

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
David Blough (No. 23 QB)
Markell Jones (No. 40 RB)
Corey Holmes (No. 40 WR)
Jackson Anthrop (No. 128)
Cole Herdman (No. 9 TE)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: OLB Danny Ezechukwu (Rd. 7 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: One year away from potentially turning the corner, but 2017 is gonna be rough.

If you were to rank every coach hired over the offseason and similarly rank every job available, Purdue inarguably overachieved the most: The Boilermakers outkicked their coverage in luring HC Jeff Brohm from Western Kentucky.

Brohm has a lot of work to do in taking over for Darrell Hazell, who went 9-33 on the field and recruited even worse. Brohm has succeeded wherever he’s gone with high-flying offenses. He’s coming off of consecutive top-20 overall S&P+ finishes at WKU.

In particular, Brohm is a quarterback whisperer. He has a solid prospect to work with in David Blough, and you can expect Blough to be one of the nation’s most improved signal-callers in 2017. Unfortunately, Blough’s top four receivers are gone. Fortunately, RB Markell Jones returns, and Purdue lured former four-star Notre Dame WR Corey Holmes over as a grad transfer.

Purdue’s defense was awful last year. If you’re looking for silver linings, the majority of the front seven returns, and it picked up one of Brohm’s former defensive leaders, WKU grad transfer LB T.J. McCollum. The secondary returns three starters, but loses its best player, S Leroy Clark.


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


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(81). Arkansas State Red Wolves

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Justice Hansen (No. 72 QB)
Warren Wand (No. 64 RB)
Blake Mack (No. 21 TE)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: Edge rusher Javon Rolland-Jones

How should I think of this team?: The offense is looking to find its way out of the woods after getting lost ‘Blair Witch’ style last season.

Arkansas State pulled off a Mr. Hyde act on offense last season, dropping off in their per-game scoring average by more than 10 points and sliding all the way to 113th in offensive S&P+ (per SB Nation’s Bill Connelly). The hope, here, is that redshirt junior QB Justice Hansen, a Unitas Golden Arm watch-lister for 2017, will be able to help remedy that with a full offseason of preparation -- Hansen opened the past season behind Chad Voytik and did not receive his first start until mid-September. The former four-star Oklahoma recruit would go on to throw for 2,719 yards (57.9% completions) with a 19/8 TD/INT ratio.

Hansen’s receiving corps is still sorting itself out -- Chris Murray and Dijon Paschal probably sit atop the depth chart heading into August -- but he’ll have at least one monster to throw to. That would be TE Blake Mack, the team’s biggest (and best) downfield weapon. He blew up for a 36-652-3 line while averaging a Sun Belt-best 19.2 yards per reception last season. There is no other skill-position player on the team who approaches his game-changing ability. Running backs Warren Wand (879 yards rushing, 4.4 YPC, seven touchdowns) and Johnston White (472 yards, 4.5 YPC, four touchdowns) are fine, if unspectacular, options on the ground. The chances for an offensive uptick really hinge on whether former four-star Hansen is able to elevate his available targets beyond Mack.

Maybe the defense could lend a hand. They boast Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year in Javon Rolland-Jones, a beast of a defensive end who crumpled the conference with 19.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks last season, as well as LB Kyle Wilson (80 tackles, 18 TFL, 3.5 sacks), who proved to be a thorn in the side of the opposition running game. Those two are going to be the must-watch performers in the front seven, while junior nickelback Justin Clifton (88 tackles, 8.5 TFL, two interceptions, five passes) and senior CB Blaise Taylor (35 tackles, three interceptions) offer dependable presences in a secondary which may end up relying on JUCO transfers Jefferie Gibson and Darreon Jackson at the safety position.

Arkansas State was steady-as-she-goes defensively last season. They’ll need a more sustained offensive push, though, if they want to duke it out with conference big boys Troy and Appalachian State.    

Bovada over/under win total: 7.5

Prediction: OVER     
Projected record: 8-5


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(80). Cal Golden Bears

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Chase Forrest (No. 66 QB)
Tre Watson (No. 72 RB)
Melquise Stovall (No. 74 WR)


NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: RB Tre Watson

How should I think of this team?: A big red button which reads “RESET.”

A focus on defense can go a long way in the Pac-12. There’s a reason Utah is consistently in the conference conversation despite routinely fielding mostly inert offensive attacks. If former Wisconsin DC and new Cal HC Justin Wilcox can make inroads on that front, he could stick around for a while. Just one problem -- there’s no real bridge for him to reach those mythical inroads. Texas Tech allowed the most points in the country on average at 43.50 last season. Cal was second-worst at 42.58 (followed immediately by Oregon, because of course).

All aspects of the Golden Bears defense under Dykes were cause for emotional distress, but it was their inability to stop the run (272.92 rushing yards per game) whatsoever which truly makes the heart ache. Only Nevada was worse in that particular aspect. Complicating matters, Cal’s moving to a 3-4 defense this season, a big ask given a thin linebacking unit outside of Cameron Saffle (57 tackles, 8.5 TFL, four sacks) and a defensive line which offers a little upside in DT James Looney (51 tackles, 7.5 TFL, two sacks) and not much else in terms of proven contribution. Wilcox has some work to do on this front.

On the other side of the ball, the hiring of Eastern Washington HC Beau Baldwin to serve as offensive coordinator could be a stroke of genius for the defensive-minded Wilcox, with Baldwin’s offenses in the FCS fast-paced beauties which put up huge point totals and could hang with the big boys when FBS outfits showed on their schedule. Just ask Mike Leach. Accepting the seat upgrade to the FBS, Baldwin will be breaking in a new signal-caller but a familiar name. Chase Forrest sat patiently behind Jared Goff and was in line to start after Goff embarked on his landmine-filled journey to the NFL in the spring of 2016, but Davis’ Webb’s decision to reverse course on his Colorado transfer plans last winter once again put Forrest’s ambitions on hold. No impediments this time around and the receiving corps should give him chances to make plays.

As a true freshman last season, Demetris Robertson logged a 50-767-7 receiving line while averaging 15.3 yards per catch. He ranked in the conference’s top-10 in all three of receiving yards, touchdowns and yards per catch. That performance came in lockstep with the work of fellow true frosh wideout Melquise Stovall, who posted a 42-415-3 receiving line of his own a year ago. Both players should be beneficiaries of Baldwin’s system. Robertson, in particular, is a candidate to shine. Tre Watson (709 yards, 5.0 YPC) is proven and fine at running back, too.

Cal won’t be good next season -- the defense will see to that -- but it should provide for a few fun Pac-12 After Dark fireworks if Baldwin can rev up the offense while Wilcox tries to set the stage for better things in 2018 and 2019.  


Bovada over/under win total: 3.5

Prediction: UNDER
Projected record: 3-9

****


(79). Western Michigan Broncos

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Jarvion Franklin (No. 55 RB)
D’Wayne Eskridge (No. 134 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: T Chukwuma Okorafor (Rd. 2-3 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: Overhauling the offensive boat with a new captain.

Purdue QB coach Tim Lester takes over at the helm for Minnesota-bound energy ball HC P.J. Fleck. Lester and OC Kevin Johns will be installing an up-tempo, run-heavy offense -- which is actually somewhat convenient for them, given that the passing game just took an unexpected grenade with the transfer of QB Tom Flacco earlier this month. Flacco was the favorite to replace Zach Terrell. The baton passes to redshirt sophomore Jon Wassink, now, who rated as a three-star recruit out of high school but has yet to throw a pass in a collegiate game.

Not only do the Broncos have to replace QB Terrell, the receiving corps is also being completely renovated, with replacements needed for all of Corey Davis, Michael Henry and Carrington Thompson. The team’s leading returning receiver is sophomore D’Wayne Eskridge. He caught 10 passes last season. You get the picture. This will be a green unit. The running game -- OC Johns’ bread-and-butter -- is much more settled. Jarvion Franklin (1,353 yards, 5.5 YPC, 12 touchdowns) and Jamauri Bogan (923 yards, 5.2 YPC, eight touchdown) are one of the MAC’s best duos and there’s depth beyond them to boot. You just wish you had that kind of certainty through the air, too.

The Broncos suffered a little notable turnover on defense after the past season’s conclusion -- notably in DE Keion Adams and LB Robert Spillane -- but by-and-large returns a unit which clamped opposing offense to under 20 points a game last season. On the defensive line, ends Eric Assoua (47 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks) and Nathan Braster (31 tackles, 7.0 for loss, .2.5 sacks) are going to see increased work, with second-level support notably coming from linebackers Asantay Brown (95 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) and Caleb Bailey (71 tackles, 9.0 for loss, three sacks). If WMU struggles this season, it’s not going to be because of the defense and it’s not going to be because of the running game.

Bovada over/under win total: 8.5

Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 9-3

****

(78). Miami (OH) Redhawks

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Gus Ragland (No. 58 QB)
James Gardner (No. 65 WR)
Ryan Smith (No. 14 TE)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: WR James Gardner (Rd. 5-6 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: An offensive ATM which is about to start spitting out money.

After slogging out to an 0-6 start last season, the Redhawks turned that car around and finished the season on a 6-0 sprint. They almost beat Mississippi State in bowl action, too, falling short on a few late mistakes. The delineating mark, here, came when redshirt junior QB Gus Ragland made his starting debut after sitting out the first six games of the season rehabbing a torn ACL suffered in spring practice of 2016. The quick turnaround on the record-front was remarkable, as was what Ragland did after he came back -- he threw for 1,537 yards, averaged 8.6 YPA while completing 64.2% of his passes and posting a 17/1 TD/INT ratio. Again, this was in just six games.

Ragland is working with an absurdly deep receiving corps headlined by wideouts James Gardner (45-750-6, 16.7 yards per reception) and Jared Murphy (43-552-5), with TE Ryan Smith (31-356-5) providing additional firepower. The Redhawks are most interesting as a passing team, rather than a running one, but Kenny Young (557 yards, 6.3 YPC; 17-201-2 as a receiver) offers an intriguing versatility. Upside galore with this offense so long as Ragland stays healthy.

A strong pass defense last season (208.8 yards through the air on average) figures to remain strong with all of the key names like CBs Heath Harding/Deondre Daniels and safeties Tony Reid/Joshua Allen back in the fold to battle once more. That secondary also played a key role in helping to compensate for the occasional struggles of an undersized front seven -- in a remarkable stat, only five rushes went more than 30 yards against the Redhawks.

Barring substantial improvements from Bowling Green or Akron, their only real competition for MAC East supremacy is Ohio.

Bovada over/under win total: 8

Prediction: UNDER
Projected record: 7-5


****

(77). Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Brent Stockstill (No. 16 QB)
Shane Tucker (No. 85 RB)

Maurice Gordon (No. 111 RB)
Richie James (No. 1 WR)
Ty Lee (No. 30 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: WR Richie James (Rd. 6-UDFA grade, per Charlie Campbell)

How should I think of this team?: Eating an entire container of Funfetti frosting and chasing it with two Red Bulls.

Middle Tennessee was struck a blow late last season when redshirt junior QB Brent Stockstill went down with a broken collarbone against UTSA on November 5. He had been rolling to a brilliant season prior to the injury, having thrown for 3,233 yards with a 27/5 TD/INT ratio. Stockstill would return to predictably throw for 432 yards and four touchdowns against Hawaii in bowl defeat. He then underwent offseason surgery on that bum shoulder and missed spring practice. Healthy in advance of August camp, Stockstill could be chomping at a potential 40-TD season in 2017. He has a rocking supporting cast to help that happen, led by WR Richie James, who might be an actual Transformer. Everything he was asked to do last season, he excelled at -- receiving (105-1625-12), rushing (339 yards, 8.9 YPC four touchdowns) and hey, sure, passing (5-of-6 for 76 yards). Vacuum-handed sophomore WR Ty Lee (63-699-9) offers the steady possession drumbeat to James’ wild, Jimi Hendrix-esque solos.

There’s slightly more work to be done in the running backs and offensive line rooms. At the former position, JUCO transfer Maurice Gordon has (No. 7 JUCO RB) pushed his way to the top of the depth chart heading into August camp, with Shane Tucker -- who has returned to running back after a stint as a receiver -- and Terelle West both in the carry-mix, too, as MTSU looks to replace the uber-productive I’Tavius Mathers. Gordon/Tucker/West won’t have the luxury of running behind the same established, experienced line that Mathers did, though -- three of four linemen who garnered All-Conference USA honorable mention are no longer with the team. That’s somewhat concerning for a quarterback coming off shoulder surgery, too.

The Blue Raiders are actually thin on both lines, maybe even more so defensively. Of the six defensive linemen who recorded at least 15 tackles a year ago, five have moved on. This means big opportunities for incoming Missouri DL Walter Brady, who 11.5 TFL and seven sacks as a freshman with the Tigers before coming on over to HC Rick Stockstill’s outfit prior to the 2016 season (which he sat out due to transfer regulations). Unless Brady can get some help, though, this is a saggy run defense. 198 yards allowed on average last season and that number is probably just going to grow. Matters do improve in the secondary, at least, with the only real loss being CB Jeremy Cutrer (three picks, nine passes defended). Returning corners Michael Minter, Darryl Randolph and Charvarius Ward should be able to paper over that absence. MTSU surrendered 35.77 points per game last season and while the man in charge of that trainwreck (DC Tyrone Nix) has been punted for former Syracuse HC Scott Shafer, Shafer needs to restock the cupboards in the front seven before he can cook the meal.

Bovada over/under win total: 7

Prediction: PUSH
Projected record: 7-5

****


(76). Kansas Jayhawks

Thor Nystrom's fantasy targets:
Peyton Bender (No. 53 QB)
Steven Sims (No. 34 WR)
LaQuvionte Gonzalez (No. 115)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: DE Dorance Armstrong Jr. (Rd. 1-2 grade, per Charlie Campbell)

How should I think about this team?: As the friskiest bad team of the Power 5.

Since starting 5-0 in 2009, the Jayhawks are 14-77 over the past seven-and-a-half seasons (and 2-22 under HC David Beaty). This year, they’re a deep darkhorse to go bowling, though a “jump” to 3-5 wins is the more likely scenario.

The offense appears to be on the doorstep of becoming strong after it struggled mightily in 2016. Beaty lured Doug Meacham, one of college football’s best offensive coordinators, from TCU to finish off installing the Air Raid system Kansas has labored towards learning since Beaty took over in 2015.

Meacham has two legitimate starting options at QB in sophomore Carter Stanley and former Washington State Cougar Peyton Bender. Kansas also has a handful of capable running backs, a strong receiving corps led by LaQuvionte Gonzalez, WR Steven Sims Jr. and Alabama transfer Daylon Charlot, and an offensive line that returns six players with starting experience and adds former blue-chip Crimson Tide T Charles Baldwin.

It’s hard to feel confident about Kansas’ back-seven heading into the fall, but the defensive line—fronted by ace NFL prospect DE Dorance Armstrong Jr. and DT Daniel Wise (who combined for 13 sacks and 30 TFL last season)—is going to be highly disruptive again. The Jayhawks ranked No. 16 in defensive line havoc rate last year and there’s no reason to think that they’ll be any less stout up front.

Kansas won two games last year but had opportunities to additionally upset TCU, Oklahoma State and Iowa State. The 2017 Jayhawks are more experienced and more talented than the 2016 Jayhawks. Expect the final record to show just that. We anticipate double the wins.


Bovada over/under win total: 3
Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 4-8


****


(75). Temple Owls

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Ryquell Armstead (No. 17 RB)
Ventell Bryant (No. 79 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: WR Ventell Bryant (Rds. 3-4 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: Rhule of thumb - When you lose an RB like Jahad Thomas, an OL like Dion Dawkins, a defensive superstar like Hassan Reddick and a superb HC, you probably aren’t going to win 10 games again the following year.

From his second season on at Temple, former HC Matt Rhule went 6-6, 10-4 and 10-4. Now that he’s moved south to clean up a mess in Waco, Texas, the Owls are looking at a transitionary year under new HC Geoff Collins. This won’t be the type of rip-it-down-to-the-studs-and-start-over rebuilding year that Rhule needed (a Year 1 record of 2-10 in 2013), but more of a please-be-grateful-for-a-seven-or-eight-win-bowl-team-that-doesn’t-compete-for-the-AAC-title segue year into what the program hopes will be a return-to-AAC contention 2018.

Got all that?

Rhule’s teams were mediocre offensively (not once better than No. 64 in Off. S&P+) and superb defensively (top-25 Def. S&P+ in each of the past three years). Collins’ teams should look much the same, though it remains an open question as to whether he can cook up a Philly Cheese Steak as delicious as Rhule while using a similar recipe.

New OC Dave Patenaude fits the bill as a play-caller who’s had success with run-orientated attacks. Despite Thomas’ departure, Patenaude has a premier runner to work with in RB Ryquell Armstead, who was better than Thomas last year apples-to-apples. The top-three WRs Ventell Bryant, Keith Kirkwood, and Adonis Jennings are all big targets at 6’3 a pop. Most of the OL is back outside of Dawkins, a second-rounder in the spring.

To come together, the offense must identify an effective quarterback. Last year’s backup, QB Logan Marchi, will battle with a trio of former three-star recruits this summer.

Collins’ Florida defenses shared much in common with Rhule’s Temple defenses. To succeed immediately to the degree that fans are accustomed to on that side of the ball in Philly will require rebuilding the front-seven. In addition to losing Reddick, Temple lost two other starting linemen and all three starting linebackers. The saving grace is that a super secondary returns intact, and it added standout NC Central transfer CB Mike Jones.

The schedule is forgiving outside of road trips to Notre Dame and USF and a home date against Houston. Eight or even nine wins are available, here. If Collins fails to win seven, this segue will justifiably be considered a setback.

Bovada over/under win total: 6.5
Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 7-5





Thor Nystrom is a former MLB.com associate reporter whose writing has been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to Rotoworld's college football writer on Twitter @thorku.
Email :Thor Nystrom



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