Thor Nystrom

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CFB Preview: Team Nos. 49-40

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


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

 

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(49). Missouri Tigers

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Drew Lock (No. 41 QB)
Damarea Crockett (No. 34 RB)
J’Mon Moore (No. 16 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: Edge rusher Marcell Frazier (Rds. 1-3 grade, per Charlie Campbell)

How should I think about this team?: The Big Three (and the little 82).

In QB Drew Lock, RB Damarea Crockett and WR J’Mon Moore, Missouri has one of the best offensive trios in the entire nation. Last year’s offense was very young, and it still finished No. 42 in Off. S&P+, mostly because of the terrific trio.

Now a year older, the offense could even be a little better in 2017. Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel leverages Lock’s big arm and Mizzou’s skill talent by running at a hyper-tempo from a hyper-spaced-out alignment.

For the team to return to a bowl game, the defense will have to pull itself out of the death spiral it spent 2016 in. The Tigers finished No. 89 in Def. S&P+ last fall, No. 109 against the run and No 72 against the pass. And then they went out and suffered massive losses in the front seven—notably first-round draft pick DE Charles Harris—and among the cornerback group.

Mizzou is hoping for a full season out of oft-injured former five-star recruit DT Terry Beckner Jr. They’re also hoping a series of JUCOs and D-1 transfers (like former Kansas State S Kaleb Prewett) pan out. That’s about all the hope I’ve got for you. If Mizzou’s season plays out like I expect it to, Barry Odom will be a defensive coordinator elsewhere else next fall.


Bovada over/under win total: 6.5
Prediction: UNDER
Projected record: 4-8

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(48). Vanderbilt Commodores

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Ralph Webb (No. 31 RB)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: RB Ralph Webb (Rds. 4-6 grade, per Charlie Campbell)

How should I think about this team?: Webb’s a gem, and the defense is solid—but questions abound elsewhere.

RB Ralph Webb (3,726 yards from scrimmage and 24 touchdowns over the past three years) did a heroic job in rushing for 1,283 yards on 5.13 ypc behind an awful offensive line last fall. Bad news: That OL just lost all-SEC left tackle Will Holden.

For Vanderbilt’s offense to get any better, the line must improve despite the loss of Holden. If it doesn’t, opponents will be able to neutralize Webb (to the degree that he can be) and swarm developing QB Kyle Shurmur. Shurmur grew up quickly last fall, with a passer rating that jumped from 98.5 in the first seven games to 141.7 in the last five.

The 3-4 defense finished No. 40 in Def. S&P+ last fall. It’s not likely to improve much after losing stud OLB Zach Cunningham, but the defensive line and secondary are both highly experienced. HC Derek Mason is a gifted defensive coach who’ll get the most out of this bunch again. Unfortunately, Mason still doesn’t have the talent to compete with the SEC’s heavyweights.

Bovada over/under win total: 6
Prediction: UNDER
Projected record: 5-7

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(47). Kentucky Wildcats

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Stephen Johnson (No. 69 QB)
Benjamin Snell (No. 28 RB)
Garrett Johnson (No. 138 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: S Mike Edwards

How should I think about this team?: Kentucky found love success in a hopeless place.

Last year in this space, we talked about how incoming offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, formerly of Cincinnati, was going to fix the Wildcats’ attack by giving it an up-tempo, pass-first identity. Gran was going to repair QB Drew Barker, and Kentucky was going to return to the postseason.

One out of three ain’t bad.

Kentucky did make a bowl game. But they did so in a very peculiar way. Barker imploded at the beginning of the season and then got injured. JUCO import Stephen Johnson, a dual-threat, took over, and Gran discovered that he had something special in RB Bennie Snell, who, along with the departed Boom Williams, provided a devastating 1-2 ground duo. Kentucky averaged 37.5 ppg in the second half, exactly 13 ppg more than in the first.

The defense was mediocre against the pass last fall and horrific against the run. In a conference full of gifted running backs like the SEC, that’s most unfortunate. If there’s good news, it’s that most of the front seven returns. If there’s bad, it’s that most of the secondary’s best players are gone. Kentucky finished No. 86 in Def. S&P+. Incremental improvement can be expected under new DC Matt House. Incremental.


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

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(46). Ole Miss Rebels


Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Shea Patterson (No. 13 QB)
Jordan Wilkins (No. 77 RB)
A.J. Brown (No. 73 WR)
Van Jefferson (No. 98 WR)
D.K. Metcalf (No. 119 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: DE/OLB Marquis Haynes (Rds. 2-3 grade, per Charlie Campbell)

How should I think about this team?: As a night of Fireball shots; fun things will happen, embarrassing things will happen, and it’ll be over before you know it.

The Rebels are banned from the postseason and playing under an interim coach. Motivation is a question, but the talent on hand isn’t.

Before getting canned, former HC Hugh Freeze lured over Phil Longo from Sam Houston State to run the offense. Longo’s unique take on the Air Raid mixes in a downhill rushing attack. His quarterback at SHSU, Jeremiah Briscoe, posted a stupid 57/10 TD/INT rate last fall, and Briscoe’s top four receivers all caught 40 or more balls.

Longo’s philosophy is a great fit for this bunch. QB Shea Patterson, the No. 1 overall recruit in 2016, is a dual-threat with a whip for an arm. His receiving corps is deep, with four starting-caliber talents; three heralded sophomores (A.J. Brown, Van Jefferson and D.K. Metcalf) and veteran DaMarkus Lodge.

The OL was terrible last year, but almost the entirety of it returns, and the individual components are strong (such as former top recruit sophomore T Greg Little). The run game will be better if it is, because RB Jordan Wilkins is back after missing last year. He’s an upgrade over what the Rebels used last year.

The defense cratered last year after a highly successful three year run between 2013-2015. New DC Wesley McGriff will attempt to get things back on track by transitioning from a 4-2-5 to a traditional 4-3. The Rebels have a couple nice pieces up front in DE Marquis Haynes and DT Benito Jones, and they return two starting linebackers, but depth is a big concern. The secondary doesn’t have any stars, but it’s deeper and more experienced.

This is a flawed, top-heavy team. I expect shootouts. I expect meltdowns. I expect at least one big upset, and I expect at least one baffling loss. It’s impossible to say if interim Matt Luke can coax this group into giving max-effort through November; my projection is working under the assumption that he’ll struggle to do so.

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

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(45). North Carolina Tar Heels


Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Brandon Harris (No. 52 QB)

Jordon Brown (No. 85 RB)

Austin Proehl (No. 71 WR)


NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: CB M.J. Stewart (Rd. 3 grade, per Tony Pauline)


How should I think of this team?: Today, redemption is spelled H-A-R-R-I-S


Just one month before UNC’s Mitchell Trubisky was drafted No. 2 overall by the Chicago Bears, LSU’s Brandon Harris announced a transfer to the Tar Heels. That’s savvy timing. With Trubisky out the door, Harris now has one last shot to prove that his blue chip pedigree out of high school was warranted. He’d best get the shoulder wraps ready, because he’s going to throw far, far more in his new digs than he ever did with the Tigers. The Tar Heels flung it an average of 35.31 times last season. For comparison’s sake, Harris attempted more than 25 passes in just three of 12 games in his only year as a full-time starter with the Tigers back in 2015.


Harris is competing with redshirt sophomore Nathan Elliott, redshirt freshmen Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd for starting rights in preseason camp and HC Larry Fedora has yet to name his starter, but we’ll give the former Tiger the benefit of the doubt on this one. Unlike Trubisky, he won’t have UNC’s old toys such as wideouts Mack Hollins, Ryan Swittzer or Bug Howard to play around with. Nor will he be handing it off to Elijah Hood or T.J. Logan. The offense is truly being made over. New quarterback in Harris, new running back in Auburn transfer Stanton Truitt (or Jordan Brown or intriguing freshman Michael Carter), new wide receiving corps led by Austin Proehl, who caught 43 passes for 597 yards and three touchdowns last season and fits snugly enough into Switzer’s shoes.


Harris and company had best be up to the task, because they’re going to need to keep up on the scoreboard. A green front seven which helped surrender more than 223 yards rushing on average last season should improve with the benefit of experience. The secondary, on the other hand, has a real chance of flaming out completely You can rely on S Donnie Miles, who has posted two consecutive seasons of at least 100 tackles, and CB M.J. Stewart (four interceptions in 2015 and he’ll try to get back into that column this year after being blanked in 2016). That’s about it. Youth and inexperience will be their downfall. Last year, everybody ran on North Carolina. This year, everybody’s going to throw on them.


In a gift from above, UNC dodges both Clemson and Florida State. But they still have to contend with heavy-hitters Virginia Tech and Miami, and those two games come in a murderous back-to-back (with no bye) on October 21 and October 28.


Bovada over/under win total: 7

Prediction: UNDER

Projected Record: 5-7


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(44). South Carolina Gamecocks

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Rico Dowdle (No. 79 RB)
Deebo Samuel (No. 24 WR)
Bryan Edwards (No. 137 WR)
Hayden Hurst (No. 7 TE)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: TE Hayden Hurst (No. 5 underclassmen TE, per Mel Kiper)

How should I think about this team?: The puppy that attacks big dogs not realizing there’s a size disadvantage.

Will Muschamp performed one of the country’s most underrated coaching jobs last fall in guiding his baby Gamecocks to a bowl game. His quarterback, Jake Bentley, was a true freshman. His top two RBs Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner were also freshmen. So was WR Bryan Edwards. No upperclassmen finished in the top-nine on the team in receptions, and the offensive line, which struggled mightily, was also littered with young men not yet of drinking age.

The offense was and is full of potential. But let’s be clear: It wasn’t good last fall. It regularly wasted advantageous opportunities, it was uneconomical in its approach, and it lacked in home run plays. Part of the issue was that Muschamp and crew didn’t unleash Bentley and Dowdle until later on in the season. The emergence of those two was a big reason why the Gamecocks closed out the regular season 4-2 after starting it 2-4.

With that duo now sophomores, the receiving corps and the offensive line far more experienced, and rapidly-improving TE Hayden Hurst a year older, we can expect more offensive coherence. And with explosive receivers like Deebo Samuel (missed three games last year), Edwards and hyped true freshman OrTre Smith on the outside, perhaps the attack will stretch defenses horizontally in a way it couldn’t fall. Yep, the offense will be better. By just how much will dictate how South Carolina’s season plays out.

The defensive picture is far clearer. Most of the secondary returns from what was a solid pass defense. The run defense by Rushing S&P+ was perfectly mediocre (No. 68). Without star LB Skai Moore, who missed the 2016 campaign, the front-seven wilted as the season went on. Now Moore’s back, and he’s joined by ballyhooed JUCO recruits on the line and in the linebacking corps. Expect a far better showing against opposing rushing attacks.

Bovada over/under win total: 5.5
Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 6-6


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(43). Nebraska Cornhuskers


Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Tre Bryant (No. 74 RB)
Stanley Morgan (No. 110 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: DT Carlos Davis (Rd. 2 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: The unfortunately-timed rebuilding season.

By the time coaches enter their third season with a new school, the expectation is that the vision they’ve worked to install will fully bloom, setting the program up for years of success. You can stink in Year 1. You can struggle in Year 2. Losing in Year 3 isn’t tolerated. Especially at a program like Nebraska.

All of which sets up a fascinating season for HC Mike Riley, whose team wasn’t as good as its 9-4 record last year (but which was better than its 6-7 showing in 2015). According to SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, Nebraska benefited from 3.8 points per game last season in turnover luck.

That good fortunate certainly helped the Cornhuskers in going 9-0 against teams outside of the S&P+ top-30 (0-4 against teams in it). If those turnover points evaporate, this outfit—which will be breaking in a new quarterback, running back, center, two starting receivers, and starters along all three levels of the defense—could conceivably miss the postseason.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Nobody knows what the Cornhuskers have in Tulane transfer QB Tanner Lee, a pocket-passer who earned the starting job quickly with the Mean Green but was up-and-down once he took the field (Lee transferred when Tulane hired triple-option guru HC Willie Fritz). Sophomore RB Tre Bryant averaged less than 4.0 ypc last year as Nebraska’s rushing offense sagged, but hope for improvement in that area lies in Bryant’s natural ability and the 50 starts returning on the offensive line.

Riley did well in hiring former UConn HC Bob Diaco to run the defense. Diaco failed at UConn because he couldn’t field an effective offense. On this team, that’s Riley’s problem. Diaco transitioned Nebraska from a 4-3 look to a 3-4 scheme in the spring. He must replace Nebraska’s top-two tacklers on both the defensive line and the linebacking corps; promising front seven prospects in the pipeline offer hope that he’ll be able to do so. The secondary lost Nate Gerry but returns everyone else and will undoubtedly be the strength of the unit.

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


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(42). Iowa Hawkeyes

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Akrum Wadley (No. 38 RB)

James Butler (No. 103 RB)

Matt Vandeberg (No. 153 WR)


NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: LB Josey Jewell (Rd. 3 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: Depends on how much you trust Kirk Ferentz.

On the one hand, the Hawkeyes return a star running back (Akrum Wadley), who’ll be complimented by another star runner acquired via grad transfer (James Butler). They return all five starters from an offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award (top OL in the country) last year, and the entirety of a strong linebacking corps.

On the other hand, Iowa lost its quarterback (C.J. Beathard), most of the receivers, both defensive tackles (including Vikings fourth-rounder Jaleel Johnson) and both corners (including Chargers fifth-rounder Desmond King).

The 2017 Hawkeyes are vintage Kirk Ferentz team: A superb RB duo running behind one of the country’s best offensive lines? Check. A tremendous front seven on defense? Check. Big question marks at quarterback and wide receiver? Check and check. A bland vanilla offensive outlook? Bingo!

Nathan Stanley is likely to take over for Beathard. If he succeeds, Stanley will represent a true recruiting and developmental coup for the Hawkeyes. He’s a 6-foot-5, 235-pounder (Nick Fitzgerald dimensions) who didn’t play as a junior in high school and then ran a Wing T offense as a senior.

Brian Ferentz, Kirk’s son and the new OC, will ease Stanley’s acclimation by calling for heavy doses of Wadley. The receiving corps may be better than last year with the return of WR Matt VandeBerg (the No. 1 option before his injury in Week 4 last year) and the addition of overlooked JUCO import Nick Easley, though the loss of TE George Kittle stings.

The defense will be stout up front. We know that. The question is the secondary, which really didn’t need to see standout S Brandon Snyder tear his ACL in April after both corners moved on to the NFL. If Stanley and the secondary excel out of the gates, the Hawkeyes could go 9-3 in the regular season. If both struggle throughout, a 5-7 season isn’t out of the question. A 6-6 or 7-5 campaign is the most likely outcome.

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


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(41). Baylor Bears


Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Zach Smith (No. 70 QB)
JaMycal Hasty (No. 23 RB)
Chris Platt (No. 78 WR)
Blake Lynch (No. 108 WR)

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

How should I think about this team?: The night is darkest just before dawn.

It may not appear so on the surface, but new HC Matt Rhule stepped into a great situation. Expectations are low, the fan base will grant a long honeymoon period after last year’s devastating scandal, the facilities are new and the state of Texas remains fertile recruiting ground. Most importantly: The Year 1 schedule is manageable and the returning talent is better than you might think.

Rhule has described the new Baylor offense as an up-tempo spread attack that blends power elements from his Temple days with Chip Kelly concepts. Rhule is big on mixing up looks and attacking defensive weaknesses, so he should enjoy the toys he has to play with among Baylor’s skill talent. His new thunder-lightning RB duo of Terence Williams and JaMycal Hasty is a worthy replacement for Rhule’s two-headed Owl attack of Jahad Thomas and Ryquell Armstead. Unfortunately, Williams will miss the non-conference slate with an injury. Fortunately, Baylor doesn’t schedule good non-conference opponents.

The receivers are inexperienced but highly skilled, led by junior Chris Platt and sophomores Blake Lynch and Pooh Stricklin. At least one productive signal-caller will emerge between sophomore Zach Smith and Arizona grad transfer Anu Solomon (I’m particularly high on Smith). The offensive line returns three starters, but it’s the weakest unit on the Bears offense, with very little depth.

New DC Phil Snow brings a drastically different philosophy than former DC Phil Bennett. Where Bennett’s hyper-aggressive defenses traded big plays for turnovers, Snow’s units at Temple were disciplined and physical. Baylor’s defense was mediocre but not awful in 2016 (No. 71 scoring defense) and returns most of its personnel. Of most pressing importance to Snow: Fix that run defense (No. 87 nationally with 200.7 ypg allowed in 2016).

It would be surprising if the defense didn’t improve. The offense has a chance to as well, as the 2016 incarnation left bundles of points on the field due to maddening inconsistency (No. 6 in yards per game but only No. 35 in points per game). An improved squad playing a reasonable schedule (the non-conference slate: Liberty, UTSA and Duke) gives Rhule a shot to exceed last season’s win total of seven in his first campaign.

Bovada over/under win total: 7.5
Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 8-4

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(40). Northwestern Wildcats

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Clayton Thorson (No. 53 QB)
Justin Jackson (No. 8 RB)
Flynn Nagel (No. 48 WR)
Jalen Brown (No. 117 WR)
Garrett Dickerson (No. 16 TE)
Northwestern D (No. 20 D)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: S Godwin Igwebuike (Rd. 2 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: Revenge of the Nerds—Northwestern is a legitimate Big Ten West contender.

Northwestern has the talent to win double-digit games for the third time of the HC Pat Fitzgerald era. The Wildcats went 10-3 in 2015 with a terrible offense and a stellar defense. Last year, Northwestern fell off to 7-6 despite offensive improvement because the defense regressed.

This year, almost the entire cast of characters return, 15 starters in all. The offense lost 2016 breakout star WR Austin Carr, but has a ready-made replacement for him in Flynn Nagel. Between Nagel’s expected breakthrough, more usage for all-purpose TE Garrett Dickerson and the acquisition of Oregon WR Jalen Brown, a former hyped recruit, the receiving corps should be just fine. The offensive line returns 67 career starts (four 2016 starters), a rapidly-improving QB in Clayton Thorson, and one of the nation’s best RBs in Justin Jackson.

While the defense did regress last year from its 2015 heyday, it remained solidly above-average. Despite losing DT Anthony Walker Jr. and DE Ifeadi Odenigbo, it will remain so. The defensive line depth remains outstanding, as does the depth in the secondary. That secondary returns three starters along with Keith Watkins II, who missed last season with an injury. Fitzgerald has touted Watkins as an All-Big Ten caliber defender.

Fitzgerald picked a nice year to have one of his most talented rosters.
Northwestern avoids Ohio State and Michigan, and gets Minnesota and Iowa at home. To win the West, the Cats will have to beat either Wisconsin or Nebraska on the road; perhaps both. With this squad, that isn’t out of the question.

Bovada over/under win total: 8
Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 9-3




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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