Thor Nystrom


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CFB Preview: Team Nos. 61-50

Monday, August 14, 2017








Note: My fantasy rankings can be found here (quarterbacks), here (running backs), here (wide receivers), here (tight ends) and here (kicker/defense). 


(61). Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Cade Carney (No. 114 RB)
Cam Serigne (No. 13 TE)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: DE Duke Ejiofor (Rd. 3 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: A group project in which one person does all the work.

The Demon Deacons rode to bowl glory on the strength of a 5-1 start and an all-defense, no-offense mantra last year. They went 1-5 in the second half, but a bowl is a bowl is a bowl for a program like this. While their fantastic defense (22.15 points allowed on average, No. 22 in defensive S&P+) faces turnover, notably in the losses of LB Marquel Lee and secondary members CB Brad Watson, S Josh Okonye and S Ryan Javion, there’s still plenty of talent here. Wake boasts a pair of wrecking-ball defensive ends in Duke Ejiofor (50 tackles, 17.0 for loss, 10.5 sacks) and Wendell Dunn (32 tackles, 6.0 for loss, 2.5 sacks), a four-star redshirt freshman defensive tackle in Sulaiman Kamara and a ball-hawking safety in Jessie Bates (100 tackles, five interceptions). The offense just needs to give them something. Anything, really.

That offense somehow managed to average fewer points (20.13) than that shiny defense allowed (the aforementioned 22.15), with senior QB John Wolford proving turnover-prone and inaccurate after redshirt sophomore QB Kendall Hinton went down with a knee injury three games into the season. Wolford started the rest of the way without impressing, finishing with a 9/10 TD/INT ratio while completing just 55.5 percent of his passes.

Wake HC Dave Clawson said in early August that while Wolford would probably play this season, the starting job will be Hinton’s to lose. Hinton was a three-star recruit coming out of high school in 2015 and offers a level of mobility that Wolford does not. He will need to make significant strides as a passer, though, if the offense is to gain any real traction. Hinton owns a 4/6 TD/INT ratio in 12 career games.

Redshirt senior TE Cam Serigne (30-426-3) would be eternally grateful for an improvement Wake receives behind center. Serigne’s stats have been blunted due to quarterback play. Ditto for wideouts Cortez Lewis (32-415-1), Alex Barnes (23-248-1) and Tabari Hines (38-447-3). It’s difficult to tell just how much upside this receiving group could have given that they were without any sort of dependable quarterbacking play last season. Indeed, the running game downright rocks in comparison, even though neither Cade Carney nor Matt Colburn averaged more than 4.1 ypc. They did combine for 1,215 yards. Unless Hinton blossoms, it’s hard to see all of this coming together in any sort of palatable form.     

In a perfect world, Wake’s defense continues to do its thing while the offense steps up just enough for seven wins and a bowl. We do not live in a perfect world.

Bovada over/under win total: 5.5
Prediction: UNDER
Projected Record: 3-9


(60). Maryland Terrapins

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Ty Johnson (No. 58 RB)
D.J. Moore (No. 112 RB)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: DE Jesse Aniebonam (UDFA grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: As a second-year regression to the mean.

HC DJ Durkin somehow coaxed a bowl appearance out of a team that was on the same talent plane as Illinois, Rutgers and Purdue last year. He did it by going 6-2 against teams not ranked in the final S&P+ top-50. Maryland went 0-5 against those that were.

Durkin leveraged that fluky postseason bid into a top-20 recruiting class. Things are looking up for Maryland, but that may not be obvious this fall. The Terps struggled to throw in 2016 and may not be any better in 2017, seeing as though QB Perry Hills and two of his top three receivers have moved on.

Maryland boasts an outstanding RB duo in Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison. The offense’s upside will be dictated by how well former UNC four-star QB Caleb Henderson plays. Jury’s out on that front.

Maryland’s defense was run over last season, finishing No. 127 in Rushing S&P+. It must replace only two starters in the front seven, and adds to it several promising recruits. The secondary, which was far better, must replace three contributors, but it also added several top prospects on the recruiting trail.

With a fearsome schedule that includes a road tilt at improving Texas and nine Big 10 opponents (including road games at Ohio State and Wisconsin, and home games against Michigan and Penn State), we don’t see Maryland’s one-dimensional offense and young defense being up to the task of returning the team to the postseason. Las Vegas agrees.

Bovada over/under win total: 3.5
Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 4-8


(59). Arizona State Sun Devils

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Manny Wilkins (No. 57 QB)
Kalen Ballage (No. 37 RB)
Demario Richard (No. 125 RB)
N’Keal Harry (No. 13 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: RB Kalen Ballage (Rd. 4 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: The embodiment of #Pac12AfterDark.

Read any “Hot Seat” column this offseason and you'll be confronted by Sun Devils HC Todd Graham. After a strong start to his time in Phoenix, including back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014, things have gone south. ASU squeaked into a bowl in 2015 with a 6-6 record, then missed the bus completely last year, bottoming out at 5-7. This year’s Sun Devils have a crucial Achilles heel -- looking at you, pass defense -- but some of their pieces are not without charm.

To start with, the Sun Devils boast a pair of productive rushers. Demario Richard put up 593 yards and three touchdowns last season, and while he did so with a cloud-of-dust 3.8 YPC, his career mark of 4.8 suggests that he’s capable of a little more wiggle. Meanwhile, backfield partner-in-crime Kalen Ballage bowled his way to 14 touchdowns (including seven against Texas Tech) and 536 yards. Ballage wasn’t particularly explosive, either, at 4.3 ypc, but he’s also an ace pass-catcher who posted a 44-469-1 receiving line last year.

The real star in the making on this offense, though, is true sophomore N’Keal Harry, who notched a 58-659-5 line as a freshman out of high school. Augmenting Harry will be Jalen Harvey, who has been taking first-team reps in the slot and is primed to take over Tim White’s cog in the offensive machine.

ASU's offensive upside will be informed by their quarterback play. Manny Wilkins (2,329 yards, 12/9 TD/INT ratio, 246 yards rushing) flashed at times last season, but he also struggled with injuries (including a concussion and rib issues), ultimately missing two games. Wilkins has been battling with Alabama transfer QB Blake Barnett in August camp, but so far, has held court without issue.

Graham’s ASU teams have always been known for their aggressiveness. But as the old saying goes, live by the blitz, die by the blitz. They did a lot of the latter last season, surrendering almost four plays of 30 yards a game. They were fine against the run, allowing 163.08 yards on average. That number more than doubles when it comes to opposing passing games, though. Arizona State was the worst team in the nation on pass defense, allowing more than 357.42 yards through the air on average. That might not get better this season. The team is replacing two of its top four corners (and granted, “top four” is relative) and even if they aren’t bottom-of-the-basement bad again, they’re going to be close to it.

It’s not all doom-and-gloom on defense -- just in the secondary. The team does offer up an interesting front seven, at least, led by defensive linemen JoJo Wickers (39 tackles, 11.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks) and Tashon Smallwood (28 tackles, 9.0 for loss, 2.5 sacks) and linebackers D.J. Calhoun (77 tackles, 11.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks) and Koron Crump (37 tackles, 10.5 for loss, nine sacks, three forced fumbles). That corp of defenders is something to hang the hat on, but half a defense won’t cut it in the pass-happy Pac-12.

ASU’s non-conference schedule includes a road rematch with Texas Tech (remember, they allowed seven touchdowns to Ballage last year) and a hosting of San Diego State. Those are essentially either/or propositions. Even if they win both (plus an expected victory over New Mexico State to open the season), their Pac-12 schedule is a brutal one, including a back-to-back-with-a-bye-between against Stanford (road) and Washington (home), which they then follow up with a road trip to the always tough Utes before they return to face USC. That’s a terrifying stretch, even for a well-rounded squad. It’s not inconceivable that they lose all of those contests.     

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


(58). Duke Blue Devils

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Daniel Jones (No. 26 QB)

Shaun Wilson (No. 104 RB)

T.J. Rahming (No. 53 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: LB Joe Giles-Harris (Rnd. 3-4 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: A successful long-running television show searching for the consistency of better seasons.

Coming into the 2016 season, HC David Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils had posted a 27-13 record (including bowl action) over the previous three campaigns. Those good vibrations melted away last year, starting with QB Thomas Sirk going down with an Achilles tear (the second of his career) in February. There was early summer optimism that Sirk might be able to play, but a third Achilles injury suffered in August camp doused those hopes. Thrust into the fire, then, was redshirt freshman QB Daniel Jones. And Jones put in an admirable effort, throwing for 2,836 yards with a 16/9 TD/INT ratio while rushing for 486 yards and seven touchdowns in 12 games. Sirk transferred to East Carolina over the winter.

The oil slicks that Duke’s offense might hit this season will not be due to quarterbacking deficiency, but rather a mostly punch-less running game (lead returning RB Shaun Wilson did rush for 623 yards last season, but averaged just 4.1 ypc and there is no proven depth behind him) and a next-to-non-existent deep game. It’s not that the Blue Devils don’t have receiving talent -- T.J. Rahming logged a 70-742-1 receiving line a year ago and is a threat to lead the ACC in receptions when the current campaign boots up while both Chris Taylor and Johnathan Lloyd notched more than 300 yards receiving last season -- it’s that almost everybody on roster qualifies as a possession threat at best.

This manifested in a big way statistically in 2016, with Duke managing a paltry 16 passes of 30 or more yards. This was an offense that averaged just over 23 points a game last season and as much as pieces like Jones and Rahming are fun cogs, there’s just not much explosive talent, here. They also lost two starting linemen in Casey Blaser and Tanner Stone, as if they needed that added level of difficulty.

A year ago, Duke surrendered at least 30 points in five games, three of which came during their 1-5 careen into failure over the last month-plus of the season. They might be looking at a little more of that kind of action this time around, given that they will be breaking in an exceedingly green set of defenders, with little upperclassman stability. Perhaps their brightest shine comes in a pair of dynamic linebackers in redshirt sophomore Joe Giles-Harris (107 tackles, 9.5 for loss, an interception) and junior Ben Humphreys (107 tackles, 12.0 for loss, 4.5 sacks, an interception). They make for one of the best linebacker duos in the country and serve as the backbone for a respectable run defense (174 yards allowed on the ground on average). The secondary is in a more tenuous position and increased contributions from the likes S Jordan Hayes (24 tackles, no interceptions) and CB Mark Gilbert (18 tackles, no interceptions) are going to be necessary if the Blue Devils are to make any sort of a turn from being “reliably decent” to “consistently good.”

There’s plenty of range for their record, with games against Northwestern, Virginia, Pitt, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest all coin-flip propositions or close to it. A bowl berth would not be out of the question. Neither would a second consecutive four-win season.

Bovada over/under win total: 5.5

Prediction: UNDER

Projected record: 5-7


(57). Indiana Hoosiers

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Nick Westbrook (No. 65 WR)
Simmie Cobbs (No. 81 WR)
Griffin Oakes (No. 15 K)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: CB Rashard Fant (Rd. 3 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: The quality you’ve come to expect from former HC Kevin Wilson, only executed in the exact opposite way.

Kevin Wilson brought Indiana to consecutive bowl games in 2015-’16 after the program had only reached the postseason once in the 22 years before that. In 2015, Wilson did it with the Big Ten’s best offense. Last year, he eked it out with a less-talented roster by going 3-0 in non-conference play and beating his three worst conference foes on the Big Ten schedule.

Wilson was pushed out before last year’s bowl game after clashing with school administrators. The football program was turned over to DC Tom Allen, and now the Hoosiers will embrace a defensive identity while continuing to gun for the six wins they’ll need to reach the postseason. Same destination, different route.

Allen hired Mike DeBord as OC, tipping his hand to the defensive-first identity Indiana will presumably have for the duration of his stay. DeBord, last seen as Tennessee’s OC, is more conservative than the Tea Party. He takes over an offense that struggled mightily in 2016, finishing only No. 88 in points per game (25.8).

You can bet he’ll reign in QB Richard Lagow, who threw for 3,362 yards last year while getting picked off 17 times. With WR Simmie Cobbs back to team with Nick Westbrook, Indiana has one of the conference’s best 1-2 WR duos. But will DeBord allow for aerial aggression? Indiana’s offense may bog down if it can’t move the ball through the air. The Hoosiers finished No. 108 in Rushing S&P+ last year (No. 92 in rushing ypg) and lost RB Devine Redding and three starting OL.

While a one-dimensional offense with personnel that on paper doesn’t fit with its play-caller’s prerogative isn’t ideal, DeBord’s M.O. should jive with Allen’s. Allen’s is to strangle the life out of your offense; DeBord’s is not to put his team’s defense at a disadvantage. Allen improved the Hoosiers from No. 108 to No. 31 in Def. S&P+ during his sole season as DC. His aggressive defense may be even better in 2017, as it returns nine starters. Most importantly, the excellent run defense shouldn’t have to cover for the up-and-down pass defense anymore, now that both corners and safeties are back.

Bovada over/under win total: 6
Prediction: PUSH
Projected record: 6-6


(56). Michigan State Spartans

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

L.J. Scott (No. 46 RB)
Trishton Jackson (No. 85 WR)
Matt Sokol (No. 39 TE)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: RB L.J. Scott (Rd. 2 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: They aren’t 3-9 bad, but they aren’t 9-3 good either.

To quickly return the Spartans to recent glory (top-15 finishes in five of the last seven years), HC Mark Dantonio needed to have a perfect offseason. Michigan State didn’t get that. They got the opposite, including the dismissal of four recent four-star recruits due to sexual assault charges.

Not only that, but the Spartans enter the new season with big question marks on both sides of the ball and serious depth issues created by the offseason roster purge. The offense is the bright spot. Led by punishing RB LJ Scott and what should be a solid offensive line, Sparty should be able to run the smash-mouth attack they prefer.

On the other hand, only four starters return, the quarterback (Brian Lewerke) is unproven, the WR corps needs to be completely rebuilt and the play-calling has grown stale amidst the up-tempo, spread revolution. “The offense needs new ideas,” an opposing Big Ten assistant coach told Athlon. “Do something fresh and different. They’re in a rut with play-calling.”

The defense will be even greener than the offense. Over the offseason, it lost most of its secondary and about half the two-deeps at defensive line and linebacker. Only three starters return. Sparty was gouged through the air consistently last year, and without Malik McDowell and four of the top five secondary contributors, it’s difficult to envision the pass defense getting much better in 2017.

Bovada over/under win total: 6.5
Prediction: UNDER
Projected record: 6-6


(55). Minnesota Golden Gophers

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Rodney Smith (No. 50 RB)
Rashad Still (No. 114 WR)
Brandon Lingen (No. 40 TE)
Emmit Carpenter (No. 13 K)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: RB Rodney Smith (Rd. 7 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: A small step back for what is hopefully a future leap forward.

Tasked with turning around a program that had fallen into a state of ill repute by the end of Bill Cubit’s tenure, P.J. Fleck went 1-11 in his first season at Western Michigan (2013) while playing mostly underclassmen. QB Zach Terrell was a freshman on that team. So was a little known receiver named Corey Davis, who set WMU freshman records for receiving yards (941) and receptions (67). Those freshmen were seniors in 2016, and the Broncos went 13-1.

Now Fleck takes over a top-heavy Gopher roster with a 10-win ceiling but an extremely low floor. Will he punt this season in the same of getting underclassmen the type of experience that could pay off in two or three years? Or will he be able to win out of the gate, as Tracy Claeys did?

Fleck and OC Kirk Ciarrocca ran an old-schoolish run-first attack at WMU, adding a bit of tempo in the name of modernization. The personnel they inherit with the Gophers is perfect for what they want to do: the RB duo of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks is superb, and the success of those two runners will increase the effectiveness of the play-action passing game Ciarrocca prefers. Davis made his name as the recipient of many play-action catches at WMU.

Former Ohio State OL coach Ed Warinner takes over a group that returns four with starting experience. Those four average 6-foot-5, 325 pounds, giving Smith and Brooks an elephantine envoy to run behind. The quarterback position will come down to senior QB Conor Rhoda against sophomore Demry Croft. Neither has much experience.

On defense, former Arkansas coordinator Robb Smith is fresh off installing his 4-3 scheme. He already had outstanding DTs Steven Richardson and Andrew Stelter to front his attack, and he shifted former four-star OLB Carter Coughlin to rush end to compliment them. Add in LBs Jonathan Celestin and Blake Cashman, and Minnesota boasts a strong front seven. The secondary loses CBs Jalen Myrick and KiAnte Hardin from what was a strong pass defense. Experience and depth are both a concern.

Bovada over/under win total: 7.5
Prediction: UNDER
Projected record: 6-6


(54). Navy Midshipmen

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Zach Abey (No. 27 QB)
Chris High (No. 127 RB)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: Tony Pauline gives no Midshipmen a draftable grade.

How should I think about this team?: Bet against them at your own peril.

Most of the offense is gone, the quarterback, five of the top seven running backs, most of the WR corps and three all-AAC linemen. The pass defense was appalling last year (121st in Passing S&P+), while the defensive line lost three of its top four.

Nevertheless, Navy is going bowling this fall. That’s what they do.

The offense will be led by QB Zach Abey, who acquitted himself well enough in a late-season stint replacing the injured Will Worth, and RB Chris High, a big back who averaged 6.4 ypa last year.

The good news defensively is that the pass defense is almost guaranteed to be much better, with most of the 2016 secondary crew returning. Unfortunately for the Mids, they lost their best defensive back in the spring when promising sophomore S Alohi Gilman transferred to Notre Dame. The front must be rebuilt, but the linebacking corps returns mostly intact.

This looks like something of a rebuilding year. But at Navy under HC Ken Niumatalolo, the makings of rebuilding campaigns always end up in the postseason.

Bovada over/under win total: 7
Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 8-4


(53). San Diego State Aztecs

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Rashaad Penny (No. 9 RB)

David Wells (No. 38 TE)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: RB Rashaad Penny

How should I think of this team?: A battering ram.

This is a team predicated on two things -- their running game and their run defense. They are devastatingly effective on both fronts and that’s even with all-time leading rusher Donnel Pumphrey no longer on the team. There will be no breather for the Mountain West, thanks to the returning presence of Rashaad Penny. Penny played second fiddle to Pumphrey in name only last season, rushing for 1,018 yards (7.5 YPC) and 11 touchdowns while turning in a 15-224-3 receiving line. He ranked 10th in the nation in yards per carry while ripping it up with five 100-yard games, again all while ostensibly ceding the spotlight to Pumphrey. So long as he stays healthy, he will be a beast this season. Backing him will be Juwan Johnson (441 yards, 8.0 YPC, six touchdowns), who figures to play Penny to Penny’s Pumphrey in 2017.

SDSU’s offensive bread is buttered on the ground, but they aren’t completely inept as a passing team. Christian Chapman only attempted 251 passes last season, but he completed 61% of those at a strong 7.9 YPA and limited his mistake-tendencies in posting a 20/6 TD/INT ratio. Former Rutgers QB Chris Laviano joined the team as a graduate in May, but there are no indications at this juncture that Chapman is in any danger of losing his starting job. He figures to be good to pop a few big pass plays to senior WR Mikah Holder once again this season after Holder made a modest 27 catches a year ago while averaged a very, very risque 21.5 yards per grab. Penny, Johnson and Holder make for one of the more explosive big-play trios in the conference.

The Aztecs’ run game is impressive, its run-defense equally so. They surrendered just 105.71 rushing yards a game, a mark which placed them as sixth-best in the country in that category. They proved slightly more susceptible to the pass (210.29 yards through the air), but we’re talking about relative matters, here, and San Diego State’s defense is plenty adept on all fronts -- they just happen to be otherworldly in one of them. They’ve lost starters at every level of the defense heading into this season, but they’ve got replacements locked and loaded to keep up the beat, many of whom (such as S Parker Baldwin and CB Ron Smith) saw playing time due to injury last season.

Three games on the schedule stand out, with two coming in September against Arizona State (road) and Stanford (home). That Cardinal contest is a probable loss, but an upset of the Sun Devils is well within the realm of possibility. Their other big game this season will come in a hosting of Boise State on October 14. That could end up deciding the conference depending on if SDSU can pull off an upset in Phoenix next month.

Bovada over/under win total: 9.5

Prediction: UNDER

Projected record: 9-3


(52). Colorado State Rams

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Nick Stevens (No. 44 QB)

Izzy Matthews (No. 123 RB)

Dalyn Dawkins (No. 129 RB)

Michael Gallup (No. 6 WR)

Olabisi Johnson (No. 118 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: WR Michael Gallup (Rnd. 4-6 grade, per Charlie Campbell)

How should I think of this team?: The grand finale of a fireworks show.

Few teams in the country hit the nitro button quite like Colorado State last season. It was hard to see it coming early. Through the first month of the campaign, they struggled for offensive consistency while switching between QBs Nick Stevens, Faton Bauta (Georgia transfer) and Collin Hill. And just when Hill looked like the was starting to get the hang of the game, he suffered a torn ACL suffered at the beginning of October to force Stevens back into action. Enter the nitro button. Stevens nailed his audition the second time out, finishing the year with a 19/3 TD/INT ratio in the final seven games, including a saving-the-best-for-last 445-yard, five-touchdown performance against Idaho in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

With Stevens seemingly having squared away his early inconsistencies, he has a chance to be one of the best quarterbacks in the Mountain West for the coming season, with one of the best receiving tandems in the country. Michael Gallop has NFL potential and is coming off a 76-1272-14 receiving line while Olabisi Johnson (28-613-4) averaged 21.9 yards per reception. There’s plenty of help on the ground, too, with RBs Dayln Dawkins (919 yards rushing, four scores) and Izzy Matthews (734 yards, 13 touchdowns) a formidable duo in their own right. On paper, at least, Colorado State should have a strong offensive attack, so long as there is no regression in order for Stevens. The pieces around him are there if he can make use of them.

More concerning is a passing defense which is looking to replace two of its top three corners -- and they were considerably more consistent against the pass last season (65th in S&P+) compared to the run (100th in S&P+). There’s probably more reason to hope for the latter category to improve than it is to hope for the former to stay more or less on the level (though granted, the run defense has more room for positive growth). Linebackers Evan Colorito (63 tackles, 10.0 for loss) and Tre Thomas (38 tackles, 7.0 for loss) both return as potential strong points in the front seven.

September could be tough for the Rams -- Oregon State, Colorado, Alabama and a flight to Hawaii all await them before the calendar flips to October, but after that stretch, only a home game against Boise State should prove any real amount of trouble. True contenders for the Mountain West crown.

Bovada over/under win total: 7.5

Prediction: OVER

Projected Record: 10-2


(51). Memphis Tigers

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Riley Ferguson (No. 15 QB)
Doroland Dorceus (No. 90)
Anthony Miller (No. 2 WR)
Joey Magnifico (No. 37 TE)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: QB Riley Ferguson

How should I think about this team?: USF and Houston- Look out below!

Memphis’ offense returns almost completely intact. QB Riley Ferguson finished last season strong, and he’ll once again team with WR Anthony Miller (95 catches for 1,434 yards and 14 touchdowns) to form one of the NCAA’s most devastating duos.

The passing attack will be stellar, and the running game, which was up-and-down in 2016, should be improved due to a combination of continuity and the resources opposing defenses must devote to defending the pass.

The Tigers stopped the pass reasonably well last year, but they did no such thing against the run. It’s anyone’s guess as to how well they’ll do in those areas this year, with most of the secondary gone but most of the front seven returning.

If the pass defense implodes, Memphis will be susceptible against any team able to air it out (Central Florida, UCLA, Houston, Tulsa, SMU and East Carolina come to mind on the 2017 schedule). But if the Tigers can rebuild the secondary on the fly, the offense may be good enough to contend for the AAC title. Outside of UCLA (No. 34) and Houston (49), Memphis plays no other team that S&P+ ranks in the top-70.

Bovada over/under win total: 8.5
Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 10-2


(50). Houston Cougars

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Kyle Allen (No. 33 QB)
Duke Catalon (No. 63 RB)
Linell Bonner (No. 8 WR)
Steven Dunbar (No. 94 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: ILB Matt Adams (UDFA grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: The post-hype sleeper.

Every spring in fantasy baseball drafts, I target second-year former top prospects that struggled as rookies. Bargain shopping for potential high-end talent. If this year’s Houston Cougars were a baseball player, they’d be near the top of my target list.

The Cougars entered last season with undefeated aspirations. After beating Oklahoma in the opener, Houston was talked about as a darkhorse Playoff contender. The wheels fell off down the stretch, with Houston going 4-4 in their last eight. Tom Herman left for Texas, leaving the HC job to Major Applewhite.

The issue late last season was the offense. Specifically the offensive line, which the coaching staff shuffled, reshuffled and re-reshuffled. Alas, there was no winning combination to be found. The running backs were consistently stonewalled at the line of scrimmage, and QB Greg Ward, the converted receiver now running for his life, was asked to move the offense through the air. You know how well that turned out.

If you’re buying into the post-hype potential of Houston, it’s because you think the offensive line will rebound. With eight members with five or more career starts returning, it can’t be worse, and any improvement could lead to a breakthrough for former hyped Texas signee RB Duke Catalon. The Cougars upgraded behind center, with former Texas A&M blue-chipper Kyle Allen taking over for Ward. Allen will throw to one of the nation’s best 1-2 receiver combos in Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar.

So there’s hope for the offense. The defense needs no such thing: It was strong last year, and it may be better in 2017. Five-star DT Ed Oliver, who will be a Rd. 1 pick in 2019 assuming good health, had a ridiculous 22.5 TFL as a true freshman. Regardless of position or conference, Oliver is one of the nation’s best players. A majority of the contributors around him return, though Houston will miss LBs Steven Taylor and Tyus Bowser and CBs Howard Wilson and Brandon Wilson.

With a defense that could be top-25 nationally, a strong special teams unit, an offense likely to noticeably improve and a manageable schedule (Arizona and Texas Tech are the only two Power 5 teams on it, and both may stink), Houston could be favored in every game outside of the road tilt at South Florida on November 4.

Bovada over/under win total: 8
Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 10-2

Thor Nystrom is a former 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.
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