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CFB Preview: Team Nos. 74-62

by Mark Lindquist
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

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




(74). Wyoming Cowboys

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Josh Allen (No. 19 QB)
Milo Hall (No. 52 RB)
C.J. Johnson (No. 27 WR)
Austin Conway (No. 143 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: QB Josh Allen (Rd. 1 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: Out of the wilds of Laramie emerges a diamond.

Coming off a 2-10 season in 2015, Wyoming entered the past campaign with little fanfare in the national consciousness. The ascension of one Mr. Josh Allen and the steady-as-she-goes awesomeness of RB Brian Hill and WR Tanner Gentry changed that and then some. Allen would throw for 3,202 yards on 56% completions with a 28/15 TD/INT ratio as the Cowboys pulled off a slew of fun upsets, including wins over Colorado State, Air Force, Boise State and San Diego State. They petered out with three consecutive losses, but it was a spectacular campaign on the whole. Now let’s see whether they can keep it up with all eyes on them.

Allen reportedly considered a jump to the NFL in January before ultimately opting to return for his redshirt junior campaign. If he can sharpen up his decision-makers and improve on his efficiency (he completed just 56% of his passes last season), he has the talent to rise to the top of a loaded quarterback group in next spring’s draft. He’ll be working with some unproven talent as he goes about trying to make that happen. Both Hill and Gentry are no longer on the team. On the former front, redshirt sophomore RB Milo Hall, a former three-star recruit, took the lead on the depth chart out of the spring. On the latter front, Allen’s receiving corps is also on unknown footing -- Gentry and fellow wideout departed Jake Maulhardt accounted for almost the entirety of Wyoming’s receiving production last season, leaving the burden on C.J. Johnson (21-304-3, 14.5 YPC) and Austin Conway (11 catches for 103 yards, 17 rushes for 110 yards and one score; 6.5 YPC) to take forward developmental steps. It adds a fascinating dimension to Allen’s path to the NFL, as it would look incredibly well on him if he is able to elevate the neophyte talent around him.

Allen and friends figure to be in their fair share of shootouts this season. You can bet Wyoming's Mountain West opposition will just hit the repeat button on the ground -- Wyoming was dead-last in the FBS in runs of 20-plus yards allowed, surrendering 41 such gallops. And that was with DT Chase Appleby and LBs Lucas Wacha and D.J. May prowling about in the front-seven. All three of them are gone, now. There’s hope in a secondary led by the safety duo of Andrew Wingard (131 tackles, 7.5 TFL, two interceptions) and Marcus Epps (111 tackles, three interceptions), though they’ll probably be having to do a bit of work on the second level once more after the likes of BSU’s Alexander Mattison and San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny break through on big rushing gains.

Two of Wyoming’s first three games during the coming season will come in spotlight showdowns with Iowa (road) and Oregon (home), prime showcase opportunities for Allen to try for a big upset before the Cowboys head into Mountain West conference play.

Bovada over/under win total: 8
Prediction: UNDER
Projected Record: 7-5


(73). Texas Tech Red Raiders

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Nic Shimonek (No. 11 QB)
Da'Leon Ward (No. 89 RB)
Keke Coutee (No. 10 WR)
Dylan Cantrell (No. 84 WR)
Derrick Willies (No. 105 WR)
Cameron Batson (No. 145 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: WR Derrick Willies

How should I think about this team?: Dead man walking?

We don’t want to see Kliff Kingsbury fail. He’s been orchestrating elite offenses since 2011 at Houston; the next year he directed one of the most entertaining attacks in the history of college football, the 2012 Texas A&M offense led by Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans. His teams are must-see TV, but it feels like the cable is about to be cut.

Kingsbury has kept the good times rolling offensively with the Red Raiders, leading the offense to offensive S&P+ rankings of No. 19, No. 1, and No. 6 over the past three years. Kingsbury went 16-21 over those three seasons because his defenses were dreadful, finishing No. 114, No. 124, and No. 125 in S&P+, respectively.

Chiefs first-round QB Pat Mahomes II isn’t around anymore to heroically engage in firefights. Mahomes’ leading 2016 receiver, Biletnikoff semifinalist Jonathan Giles, transferred to LSU, taking 1,158 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns with him. Sure, Kingsbury’s Air Raid system itself all but guarantees another strong offense, but it’s essentially assured that the offense won’t be as good as it was last year.

That’s a huge problem because we can’t see how the defense will be any better with former blue-chip DTs Breiden Fehoko (also transferred to LSU) and Ondre Pipkins (UDFA) having left. Tech opens with Eastern Washington, Arizona State, (at) Houston and Oklahoma State. If the Red Raiders head to Lawrence on Oct. 7 with a 1-3 record and get upset by the Jayhawks, Kingsbury may become the first Power 5 coach of 2017 to get his walking papers.

Bovada over/under win total: 5.5
Prediction: UNDER
Projected record: 4-8


(72). Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Chad President (No. 32 QB)
D’Angelo Brewer (No. 20 RB)
Justin Hobbs (No. 20 WR)
Keenen Johnson (No. 51 WR)
Redford Jones (No. 4 K)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: G Evan Plagg (UDFA grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: The schoolyard bully who wilts when confronted.

Last season’s 10-3 Tulsa squad went 1-3 against teams S&P+ ranked in the top-60 and 9-0 against teams ranked lower. The 2017 Golden Hurricanes should look much the same: The up-tempo offense and aggressive defense will smack around bad teams, but the script will get flipped against opponents with superior talent.

Tulsa lost QB Dane Evans and WRs Keevan Lucas and Josh Atkinson over the winter, but most everyone else on this explosive offense returns. The bread and butter of the attack will pair RB D’Angelo Brewer with one of the best offensive lines in the Group of 5. Between Justin Hobbs, Keenen Johnson and a host of promising prospects, the receiving corps will be strong again.

Quarterback? That’ll depend on whether former hyped recruit Chad President lives up to his prep scouting reports. Based on HC Phil Montgomery’s track record, the supporting cast and President’s skill set, my assumption is that President will excel. To do so, he’ll need to fend off Luke Skipper. That competition was neck-and-neck when we went to press.

On defense, Tulsa returns six starters and most of its backups. The unit allowed plenty of big plays last year, but did its job in finishing in the top-10 in three-and-outs forced and No. 53 in turnovers. The pass defense was solid, and the run defense was passable against the non-Playoff (Ohio State jacked it) and non-option teams (Navy and Tulane jacked it too) it faced.

Tulsa draws Oklahoma State and Toledo on the road in the non-conference schedule, and also must play at South Florida. Those are the types of teams that will continue to give the Hurricanes fits until they make a Houston-like talent leap.

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


(71). Syracuse Orange

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Eric Dungey (No. 9 QB)
Dontae Strickland (No. 75 RB)
Ervin Phillips (No. 15 WR)
Steve Ishmael (No. 22 WR)
Jamal Custis (No. 89 WR)

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

How should I think of this team?: A velociraptor in the minute it goes from being a cute baby dinosaur to a lethal disemboweling machine.

Dino Babers brought plenty of excitement over to Syracuse when he was hired after his successful run at Bowling Green. The Orange had their moments in his first year, most emphatically in acing back-to-back wins over Virginia Tech and Boston College. Yet for all of the hype of Babers’ Air Raid and offensive schemes, Syracuse was largely an extreme hit and miss team on offense, failing to crack 30 points in eight of their 12 games. Next step, to see if Babers and friends can actually make good on the offensive promise that’s lurking under the surface.

Eric Dungey (2,679 yards passing, 15/7 TD/INT ratio, 293 rushing yards, six rushing touchdowns) leads the charge, but senior QB Zack Mahoney could be an important piece, too. While Dungey is entrenched at starter, he also missed three games last season due to concussion concerns. The Orange are out breakout star Amba Etta-Tawo, but return a deep receiving corps in Ervin Phillips (90-822-6), Steve Ishmael (48-559-1) and Jamal Custis (took a medical redshirt last season). That’s more than enough firepower for Dungey to bring down the house with. A stronger season from RB Dontae Strickland (566 yards, 3.5 YPC) would just serve as a cherry on top of the Sunday. We should see very noticeable offensive improvements from Syracuse now that Babers has had some time to teach his scheme. If we don’t, that would be confusing.

With an allegedly high-powered offense largely failing to rev last season, Syracuse needed some big defensive efforts. That didn’t work out, either. The Orange ranked in the bottom-ten in the country in terms of points allowed on average, coughing up 38.58. They were particularly horrid at preventing the big play -- a silly 75 plays of more than 20 yards allowed, an equally silly 12 passes of at least 50 yards. Only two teams were worse when it comes to that 50-yard stat.

There’s a silver lining of sorts, here, though. Syracuse was forced to throw young bodies into the woodchipper of the secondary due to injury and they’ll not only have the benefit of one more year of experience, they’ll also be joined by the healthy likes of safeties Antwan Cordy (just two games played last season) and Chauncey Scissum (just one game played) as well as corners Cordell Hudson (eight games) and Juwan Dowels (one game). If everybody can stay healthy, there’s depth in the secondary. Bowling Green made massive leaps and bounds defensively in its second year under Babers. It’s hard to see the Orange similarly jumping to the middle of the pack, but with health and added experienced, they should at least be able to start walking out of the basement.

Bovada over/under win total: 4.5
Prediction: OVER
Projected Record: 6-6


(70). Iowa State Cyclones

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
David Montgomery (No. 99 RB)
Allen Lazard (No. 29 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: WR Allen Lazard

How should I think about this team?: One year away from a return to bowl season.

Since 2013, Iowa State has gone 11-37. Last year, 3-9. But look deeper than the bottom line and you’ll see the momentum HC Matt Campbell started to build. Had three potential wins not been frittered away late last year, Campbell would be getting more ink this offseason as one of college football’s brightest young coaches.

He may be just that, but in hindsight, Campbell should have turned the keys over to QB Jacob Park sooner. With Park leading the offense over the last five games, the Cyclones averaged 33 points per game. Iowa State finished No. 48 in offensive S&P+, their best showing in over a decade.

That unit should be even better this fall. Park will improve with experience, and he’s joined by two high-end running backs (Mike Warren and David Montgomery) and one of the nation’s best NFL receiving prospects in Allen Lazard. The 6-foot-5 Lazard, a former blue-chip recruit and a Day 2 NFL prospect heading into the year, bumped his average from five catches for 64 yards per game with Joel Lanning at QB through the first seven games to seven for 114 after Park took over. This year, he’s joined by hyped 6-foot-4 JUCO transfer Matthew Eaton. With a legitimately strong offense, the Cyclones will have at least a puncher’s chance in just about every game they play in 2017.

You’re waiting for the but. And the but is this: The defense stunk last year and may not be much better this fall. Campbell tried to fortify his beleaguered defensive line on the fly with JUCO transfers over the winter. If there’s a piece of good news, it’s that strong pass-rusher sophomore JaQuan Bailey returns. This team will go as far as defensive improvement will allow; as such, its 2017 projection carries a good amount of variance. We’re pegging the Cyclones at 4-8, but anything between 3-9 and 7-5 is in play.

Bovada over/under win total: 5.5
Prediction: UNDER
Projected record: 4-8


(69). Boston College Eagles

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Jon Hilliman (No. 82 RB)
Tommy Sweeney (No. 27 TE)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: DE Harold Landry (Rd. 1 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: The sun: If you stare directly at Harold Landry, you will be blinded by brilliance; if you stare directly at the Eagles’ offense, you will be blinded by unpleasantness.

The offensive side of the ball naturally draws more attention with most teams, but in the case of Boston College, starting anywhere other than with HC Steve Addazio’s fantastic defense and more specifically, star edge rusher Harold Landry, would be a crime. The Eagles did surrender 40-plus points in four contests -- all losses -- but those occurred against Virginia Tech, Clemson, Florida State and Louisville. Predictable enough. The Eagles did not allow more than 30 points in any other game.

Landry is a transcendent talent, whom Draft Analyst’s Tony Pauline has compared to Dwight Freeney. During the past season, the senior wrecking ball went off for 50 tackles, an eye-popping 22 of which went for loss with 16 sacks. He also picked off one pass, defensed another four and shredded with seven fumbles forced. The 16 sacks were tops in the country, ditto the seven fumbles forced. Landry is currently 17th in ACC history with 40 career tackles for loss. He’s a star, but he wasn’t alone on this ferocious unit. Then-junior LB Connor Strachan (80 tackles, 11.0 for loss, 3.5 sacks) was named All-ACC honorable mention and senior corners Kamrin Moore, Isaac Yiadom, and Gabriel McClary provide rock-solid support in the secondary. The Eagles are in for a ton of turnover in 2018, but for the coming season at least, this should be a terrific group.

So, BC’s offense. So. After trotting out Kentucky grad transfer Patrick Towles at quarterback last season, it looks like we might finally get an extended look at redshirt junior Darius Wade (Rivals No. 21 dual-threat quarterback in the 2014 class). Wade attempted just 19 passes last season, but was taking the majority of first-team snaps in the spring and is doing likewise as Addazio starts up preseason camp. Redshirt freshman Anthony Brown could press him, but it would probably take a terrible August for Wade to lose his spot atop the depth chart. In terms of what he’ll have to work with, there’s TE Tommy Sweeney (26-353-3) and quarterback-turned receiver Jeff Smith, who did double-duty as a receiver (27-393-3) and runner (199 yards rushing, 5.7 YPC, one touchdown). That’s about it. Wideouts Michael Walker and Charlie Callinan could play minor roles on offense, but realistically, it’s all pretty dire.

Boston College’s last best hope for offense is probably RB Jon Hilliman. That’s not saying much -- Hilliman rushed for 542 yards last season but did so at a ghastly 2.9 YPC. To be at least a little fair, Hilliman has struggled with injuries at times during his career and is expected to hit August camp running, at least for about three yards until he needs a break (mean? probably).

Most of this is dire enough and the schedule does the Eagles no favors, either. The few breathing spots they have to look ahead to are Central Michigan (sandwiched between September contests against Clemson and Virginia Tech), Virginia (stuck between Virginia Tech and Louisville) and UConn (between NC State and Syracuse). That’s a terrifying slate to navigate for a bowl. Harold Landry will be fun, at least.  

Bovada win total over/under: 4
Prediction: UNDER
Projected Record: 3-9


(68). Arizona Wildcats

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Brandon Dawkins (No. 45 QB)
Nick Wilson (No. 106 RB)
J.J. Taylor (No. 117 RB)
Shun Brown (No. 130 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: RB Nick Wilson (Rd. 7-UDFA grade, per Charlie Campbell)

How should I think of this team?: If the guy in ‘Thinner’ was a football team.

The Wildcats looked like a fun little up-and-comer in 2014, when QB Anu Solomon exploded to help lead his crew to the Pac-12 Championship Game (they were wiped off the face of the earth by Oregon) and a bowl win over Boise State. That seems like a long time ago, now. Arizona would finish just 6-6 during the 2015 regular season before crashing even further last season, when they finished 3-9 -- and that was after they started the campaign 2-1. A brittle team broke, with supposed lead RB Nick Wilson appearing in just five games due to various injury concerns. Wilson had plenty of company among the walking wounded. Redshirt junior QB Brandon Dawkins suffered both a rib injury and a concussion, missing two games as a result, while Wilson’s ostensive backup J.J. Taylor healthy enough to appear in just four contests.

Solomon is gone, now, off to Baylor to finish off his career, leaving the field clear for Dawkins to rock and roll -- presuming health, which maybe we shouldn’t presume with Arizona. He didn’t offer much in the way of aerial fireworks last season (1,348 yards, 53.8% completions, 8/6 TD/INT ratio) but was superb when he took off running, compiling 944 yards (7.2 YPC) and 10 touchdowns. Here’s a stat to thrill and amaze your guests when you are next taking in an Arizona game -- with his 131 carries last season, he had 38 totes of the rock more than Wilson and Taylor combined.

Wilson/Taylor/Dawkins could be one of the best rushing backfields in the Pac-12 if everybody can stay healthy. That is a gigantic “if,” though. And while the receiving corps has yet to succumb to the same plague of locusts as Wilson/Taylor, that’s probably only because there’s not much there to begin with. Shun Brown (29-521-3, 18 yards per reception) gives Dawkins one surefire target. Beyond him, there is not an established wideout on the roster. Again, Arizona’s strength should be its ability to cram the ball down everybody’s throats. Theoretically.

The Wildcats play a decidedly bottom-of-the-barrel Pac-12-ish defense, which is to say, not much. They were shredded for over 38 points a game on average last season. There’s both good news and bad news for the coming campaign. We’ll start with the bad news. Zona must replace its five (!) leading linebackers from last season. Senior Deandre Miller might be the proven commodity returning to the unit and he recorded all of 18 tackles last season. Now for the good news. In the secondary, corners Dane Cruickshank (seven passes defended, two interceptions) and Jace Whittaker (11 passes defended one interception) are reliable options, while Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, Isaiah Hayes, Tristan Cooper, and Jarvis McCall Jr. make for a deep safety rotation. The pass defense might not be a good unit, exactly -- Arizona ranked 113th in the country in S&P+ defensive pass rating -- but it at least brings back a few bodies, the same of which can’t really be said for the front seven.

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


(67). Oregon State Beavers

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Ryan Nall (No. 43 RB)
Thomas Tyner (No. 130 RB)
Jordan Villamin (No. 141 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: WR Jordan Villamin (UDFA grade, per Pro Player Insiders)

How should I think of this team?: A baby bird attempting to fly.

Bowl-Bound Beavers? Maybe. They are working with some super-intriguing pieces on offense. On the ground, they already had a strong running game led by Ryan Nall (951 yards, 6.5 YPC, 13 touchdowns) entering the offseason. Former Oregon RB Thomas Tyner’s decision to attempt a comeback from a medical retirement while transferring over to OSU simply aids the cause. The speedster’s health will be a storyline to monitor in camp, but at least on paper, Nall and Tyner make for a potent duo. It’s not out of the question that Nall could lead the Pac-12 in rushing if he stays healthy. But wait, there’s more. Joining Nall and Tyner in the rotation will be Artavis Pierce (523 yards, 5.3 YPC, four touchdowns). It’s a loaded position group.

The receiving corps might not be quite up to that kind of pulverize-you-in-five-ways running backs room, but it’s starting to take shape, too. Gone is Victor Bolden, but senior Jordan Villamin (21-253-1 in a limited 2016 season, 43-660-5 in 2015) is an established outside threat who will play opposite a true freshman in four-star WR Isaiah Hodgins while Seth Collins (36-418-1) shifts inside to slot receiver. Hodgins and Collins were named starters from the outset in August camp. There’s not going to be any uncertainty, there, so long as everybody stays healthy.

Another Oregon State offensive starter was named earlier this week, too, in former Idaho Vandal QB Jake Luton, who initially signed with Paul Petrino’s crew in Moscow before transferring to a JUCO and then on to the Beavers. He beat out Marcus McMaryion and Darrell Garretson for starting honors during the coming season, made all the more impressive by the fact that both McMaryion and Garretson saw starts in 2016, while Luton enrolled at the program this offseason completely green to the system. All of this is makes for a potentially fun offense which should start to be able to hang with the middle tier of the conference. Perhaps a Pac-12 After Dark darling, here?

Preventing them from a more serious look as a seven-plus win contender is a defense which was stubbornly split last season, doing a fine job against the pass (31st in passing S&P+) and an equally terrible job against the run (115th in rushing S&P+). That stalwart secondary must find a replacement for Treston Decoud, but they already have Xavier Crawford  (70 tackles) in the fold and they’ll be bringing back CBs Dwayne Williams and Jay Irvine, plus Christian Wallace (who missed the past season due to academic issues). There’s depth to weather Decoud’s loss. As the saying goes, everything looks perfect from far away. It’s only after you start zooming in from a nice secondary to an aggressive-but-flawed linebacking corp to a somewhat punch-less defensive line that Oregon State’s defensive flaws really show.

In terms of schedule, their most problematic stretch comes in a three-step of Washington State (road), Washington (home) and USC (road) from mid-September into early October.

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


(66). Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
J’Mar Smith (No. 21 QB)
Jarred Craft (No. 25 RB)
Teddy Veal (No. 12 WR)
Alfred Smith (No. 135 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: DE Jaylon Ferguson (Rnd. 2-4 grade, per Charlie Campbell)

How should I think of this team?: Replacing the engine in a sports car.

The Bulldogs put up a bushel of points behind QB Ryan Higgins and wideouts Carlos Henderson and Trent Taylor last season, averaging 44.29 a game -- good for second in the country just behind Western Kentucky. All three of Higgins/Henderson/Taylor are no longer with the team, leaving HC Skip Holtz with a big offensive revamp in the offseason. This is old hat for Holtz, who will be working in a new starting quarterback for the fourth year in a row. Stepping in for Higgins will be J’Mar Smith, who saw a slight cameo against Arkansas in the 2016 season-opener after Higgins was arrested for a DUI. He hit on 19-of-31 passes for 212 yards in that game, though he was also intercepted three times. Let’s give him a mulligan for that feet-to-the-fire start. He’s had the full offseason to prepare as starter and has one gimme game to get into the groove early when the Bulldogs tango with Northwestern State in the season-opener next month.

As for who will be replacing Henderson and Taylor, that mantle will fall on the shoulders of redshirt junior WR Teddy Veal, who sat out the past campaign after transferring over from Tulane while the Green Wave transitioned to a triple-option under HC Willie Fritz. Prior to his move to Tech, Veal caught 48 passes for 644 yards and five touchdowns.in 2015. Another transfer (this one from Oklahoma) in former three-star talent Adrian Hardy will try to help augment Veal’s work. While Smith and Hardy remain wild cards by degrees, no such worries in the rushing game. On the ground, Jarred Craft (1,074 yards, 5.6 YPC, nine touchdowns) and the diminutive 5-foot-6, 199-pound Boston Scott (515 yards, 7.4 YPC, six touchdowns) make for a productive duo and could be leaned upon to an even greater degree if Smith struggles to get the car running.

Flipping to the other side of the ball, the Bulldogs had something of an odd defensive profile last season. They were spectacular at preventing the big run (just 13 of more than 20 yards last season) and equally inept at stopping the big pass -- on the whole, Louisiana Tech surrendered a mind-boggling 58 passes of more than 20 yards, ranking fourth-last in the FBS on that front. Senior S Secdrick Cooper (73 tackles, 6.5 for loss, five passes defensed) is a stalwart performer in the secondary, but they’ll need the injury prone Ephraim Kitchen to stay in the lineup more consistently and beyond those two, the secondary remains a concern. The defensive line, at least, brings back strong depth, notably in stud DE Jaylon Ferguson (49 tackles, 14.0 for loss, three fumbles forced) and there are plenty of toys beyond Ferguson in the front seven, with Deldrick Canty, Eric Kendzior, and Willie Bake all expected to see significant work this year.

Tech faces a potentially turbulent September outside of that Northwestern State opener, with contests against Mississippi State (home), Western Kentucky and South Carolina (the latter two games coming on the road), but the schedule eases up after that and seven or eight wins is very much in play so long as the retooled offense is able to more or less pick up where it left off with Higgins and friends last season.

Bovada over/under win total: 8.5
Prediction: OVER
Projected Record: 9-3


(65). Troy Trojans

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Brandon Silvers (No. 30 QB)

Jordan Chunn (No. 19 RB)

Emanuel Thompson (No. 68 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: QB Brandon Silvers

How should I think of this team?: This Trojan horse hides soldiers capable of ransacking various Power 5 cities.

The cream of the Sun Belt crop along with Appalachian State, Troy will field a loaded, experienced outfit this season. Brandon Silvers has tossed increasing touchdown tallies each of his three seasons starting. He topped out with 23 last season while also throwing for a career-best 3,180 yards. His also threw a career-worst 12 interceptions, but so long as he cuts down on the turnovers, he’s a rock-solid bet for a respectable campaign. He will have a bevy of skill-position options to aid the cause. Those range from WR Emanuel Thompson (80-820-6) to WR Deondre Douglas (60-740-6) to RB Jordan Chunn (30 grabs for 228 yards).

The versatile Mr. Chunn chipped in with those 30 catches while rushing for a Sun Belt-best 16 touchdowns, plus 1,288 yards, good for second-best in the conference. Chunn averaged a steady 4.6 YPC. That fits in with what Thompson and Douglas provide in the receiving game -- steadiness. Troy won’t bombard you with explosive plays, but they don’t really need to. They’ve got a defense that will allow them more than enough room to patiently dole out the opposition’s doom.

The Trojans excelled on all defensive fronts last season, but especially against the run, when they surrendered just 120 yards on average. Credit here goes in large part to a spectacular set of defensive linemen, in particular at defensive tackle, where Jamal Stadom (36 tackles, 9.0 for loss, two sacks), Seth Calloway (30 tackles, 5.5 for loss), Baron Poole (21 tackles, 8.0 for loss, 3.5 sacks) and Trevon Sanders (22 tackles, 3.0 for loss, 1.5 sacks) proved to be a rotating ball of spike for opposing run games. That interior will need to keep up their end of the bargain while HC Neal Brown works a complete overhaul of the linebacking corp. It’s nice to have a clear strength up front, where the action starts.

Their two biggest tests of the season will come in September, when they travel to Boise to take on the Broncos in their opener. That will be a tough one. The bookend on the month will be even tougher -- Troy will be traveling to LSU on September 30. The schedule clears into Sun Belt-goodness after that.

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


(64). Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Mike White (No. 26 QB)

Quinton Baker (No. 73 RB)

Lucky Jackson (No. 26 WR)

Nacarius Fant (No. 60 WR)

Deon Yelder (No. 33 TE)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: QB Mike White

How should I think of this team?: All of the points (all of the points) (Points, points) All of the points... [Rihanna] Turn up the points in here ba-bay.

Jeff Brohm’s offense soared last season, leading all FBS-comers with their 45.5 points scored on average. He has moved on, now, to try to inject something vaguely resembling life into Big Ten basement-dweller Purdue. In his place as head coach steps 35-year-old wonderkid Mike Sanford, who oversaw Notre Dame’s offense for the past two seasons before the seat upgrade to WKU’s head coach over the winter. It would outwardly seem like a tall task to keep up the offensive standard -- at least on a pure PPG basis -- but Sanford should have the pieces to keep the engines humming, assuming that a few key spots are filled with authority.

Running back and receiver are both positions to watch this August. At the former, the team will try to replace the uber-productive Anthony Wales with a veritable Frankenstein’s monster of options -- big back D’Andre Ferby and speedster Leon Allen are both returning from injuries which cost them the 2016 season, while Quinton Baker (542, 5.5 YPC in 2016) and Marquez Trigg (298 yards, two touchdowns) will be attempting to hold onto depth chart gains made with opportunity last season. At wideout, Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris are no longer around to depress Conference USA defenses. That burden now falls to Lucky Jackson (26-395-2, 15.2 yards per reception) and Nacarius Fant (29-407-2, plus 172 punt-return yards which were good for fourth-best in the conference). Fant missed the final four games of the campaign due to a knee injury, but is healthy and ready to roll for the start of preseason camp.

There is no uncertainty at quarterback, at least, not after then-redshirt junior Mike White (4,363 yards passing, 67.3% completions, 37/7 TD/INT ratio) stepped in for the departed Brandon Doughty without missing a beat last season. While White and company will be working behind a rebuilt offensive line, this offense should fly once again during the coming season.

Outfits which play all-offense, no-defense are a dime-a-dozen on the landscape, but you can’t count WKU among that crowd. They allowed a bushel of passing yards (279 on average), but Leverick Johnson, De'Andre Simmons and Joe Brown are all ace corners and that pass-happy mark can be attributed to the fact that WKU scores a billion points a game and you can’t really run against them. At all. Per Bill Connelly’s advanced S&P+ run defense metric, the Hilltoppers ranked second against the rush season. That played out identically in more traditional statistical terms, as they also ranked second-best in the FBS in terms of average rushing yardage allowed at 97.21 yards per game (Alabama led the country in allowing a WTF 64.27 rushing yards on average). The front-seven returns notables in DE Erik Overstreet (34 tackles, 8.5 TFL, four sacks), DT Chris Johnson (43 tackles, 12.5 TFL, four sacks) and LB Joel Iyiegbuniwe (64 tackles, 10.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks) and the run smackdown should once again be in order this year.

An undefeated season is very much in play, here. Western Kentucky took three losses in 2016, but two of those three were against non-conference foes from the SEC in Alabama and Vanderbilt (the third coming to Louisiana Tech in a 55-52 shootout). Such non-con stumbling blocks are lacking this time around -- the Hilltoppers face Illinois (road), Ball State (home) and Vanderbilt (them again, in a road showdown) in 2017. That Vandy game will be tough, but otherwise, this could be a cushy ride. Let’s all buckle up and enjoy it.

Bovada over/under win total: 9.5

Prediction: OVER

Projected record: 10-2


(63). Appalachian State Mountaineers

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Taylor Lamb (No. 62 QB)

Jalin Moore (No. 4 RB)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: RB Jalin Moore

How should I think of this team?: Old Faithful.

Remember how last season was supposed to be the year for the Tennessee Volunteers? How they were supposed to finally put up a challenge to big bad Bama? Appalachian State started that season out on the wrong foot for the Vols, nearly toppling them in the season-opener only to fall by a 20-13 final in overtime. The Mountaineers have another chance to spring an SEC upset this year, as they will open against Georgia.

Appy State HC Scott Satterfield is working with an experienced, well-tuned machine and his crew is the favorite to win the Sun Belt barring a run from Troy. A bounceback season from QB Taylor Lamb would aid that cause. It’s not that Lamb was “bad” last season -- he threw for 2,281 yards (60.6% completions) with a 15/8 TD/INT ratio -- it’s just that those numbers were markedly diluted from what he did in 2015, when he posted a 31/9 TD/INT ratio. He’s got an experienced receiving corps to aid that cause, led by Shaedon Meadors (45-716-2), Ike Lewis (18-234-1) and Zy Letman (10-165-1), plus potential slot magician Darrynton Evans, who has been receiving reps at receiver after spending the bulk of the past season as a rusher and return man.

The Mountaineers have a solid -- if unspectacular -- passing game to their credit, but the real offensive juice comes in the form of RB Jalin Moore (1,402 rushing yards, nine touchdowns, 5.9 YPC). Moore found his groove while filling in for a sometime-injured Marcus Cox last season, putting together eight games of at least 100 yards on the ground. Cox is no longer with the team and Moore should put up monster numbers during the coming season. Appalachian State’s offense is the definition of workman-like. They won’t be routinely putting up 35 points a game, but they don’t need to with the defense they have backing them.

Opposing passers just couldn’t against Appy last season -- they completed just 57% of their passes and collectively posted a 12/20 TD/INT ratio. That secondary was led by a true freshman last season in CB Clifton Duck (57 tackles, five interceptions, eight passes defended), who should be fantastic once again in 2017. Unfortunately, the team will be without fellow corner Latrell Gibbs, who sat out the past season due to academic issues and has since opted to transfer out of the program.

Gibbs’ loss is not a minor one -- he had 19 passes defended when eligible in 2015 -- particularly given that Mondo Williams (four interceptions, six passes defended) has moved on. Tae Hayes and Brandon Pinckney will try their best to match Duck’s fine work, but neither has any amount of significant playing time to their name. There’s less turnover in the front seven, which will be anchored by defensive ends Tee Simmons (33 tackles, 12 for loss, seven sacks) and Caleb Fuller (21 tackles, 5.5 for loss, three sacks), plus linebackers Devan Stringer (71 tackles, 3.5 for loss)  and Rashaad Townes, who saw the field in only six games last season but is expected to start for the coming campaign. The Mountaineers surrendered just 17.85 points on average last season and there’s no reason to believe the defense is in for any sort of significant step back.

You probably get the picture with Appalachian State by now. Outside of a player like Moore or Ducks, there’s not much upside for explosivity on either side of the ball -- and that really doesn’t matter. This as well-rounded a team as there is on the FBS landscape. Georgia had best have their A-game ready on September 2.

Bovada over/under win total: 9

Prediction: OVER

Projected record: 11-1


(62). Toledo Rockets

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Logan Woodside (No. 14 QB)

Terry Swanson (No. 21 RB)

Cody Thompson (No. 4 WR)

Jon’Vea Johnson (No. 38 WR)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: LB Olasunkanmi Adeniyi (Rd. 2-3 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: A fine-tuned Swiss watch which also shoots fireworks.

A true contender for the MAC title, Toledo earns its bread through a titanic offensive attack led by QB Logan Woodside. One of the most statistically-accomplished passers in all the FBS last season, Woodside is coming off a campaign in which he threw for 4,129 yards with a 45/9 TD/INT ratio. We can have lots of fun with his stats -- those 45 touchdowns were tops in the country and he led the MAC in passing yardage, passer efficiency rating (only Baker Mayfield topped him nationally on that count), passing yards per attempt and pass completions. Phew. Simply put, Woodside is awesome. He spreads the ball around like a champ, but the biggest beneficiaries of his sublime work are wideouts Cody Thompson (64-1269-11, 19.8 yards per reception) and Jon’Vea Johnson (40-773-10, 19.3 yards per reception) -- both of whom bring the heat when it comes to working downfield, hence Woodside’s silly 9.9 YPA.

There are a few potential chinks in the offensive armor. The first might not even be. While Toledo brings back a ton in the passing game, they do have some work to do in shoring up their ground attack. Gone is the ultra-productive Kareem Hunt (1,475 yards, 10 touchdowns), but next man up should be able to take over smoothly enough. Terry Swanson (583 yards, 5.0 YPC, 10 touchdowns) would be that next man. He almost eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2015 and should be considered a strong bet to surpass that mark while chipping in with double-digit touchdowns in Hunt’s stead.

Swanson should be more than capable. The line he’s running behind -- and the one that will be protecting the golden-armed Woodside -- is more problematic. The team is replacing experienced seniors in T Storm Norton and guards Mike Ebert and Paul Perschon. There’s not much that figures to bring down this offense, but shaky line play is always a concern and that will be the big thing to watch (especially early) with the Mudhens.

Flipping over to the other side of the ball, Toledo offers up a fractured, odd defense. On the whole, they played respectable ball (25.69 PPG, 175 rushing yards, 220 passing yards), but a deeper dive into those numbers reveals a few trouble spots, particularly against the run. Toledo was out-and-out dreadful at preventing the big-play, surrendering 89 gallops of at least 10 yards and 30 of 20 yards or more. Both of those marks were among the worst in the country. Their front does have some pieces, including DE Olasunkanmi Adeniyi (49 tackles, 8.0 for loss, four sacks), DT Marquise Moore (36 tackles, 2.0 for loss) and LB Jawuan Woodley (80 tackles, 13.0 for loss, 3.5 sacks, two fumbles forced). The depth thins considerably behind those headliners. The secondary looks considerably more solid, particularly at corner, where the Mudhens are anchored by Trevon Mathis (44 tackles, one interception) and Kader Hollman (33 tackles, eight passes defended).

Toledo will have one crack at a big upset when they take on Miami in a road tilt on September 23. If they can’t pull that one off, well, they are still in play for 10-11 wins. They should be favored in every game outside of that Canes showdown.

Bovada over/under win total: 8.5

Prediction: OVER

Projected record: 11-1


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