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You can find links to all of my Auburn Realist Blog posts here.
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Well, we are almost through with predicting the top 5 (or so) players and units for the 2015 college football season. All we have to do is wrap up DSTs.
DSTs may be one of my favorites to pick and predict. Maybe that's why I am the only guy that manages to draft one in a 20 man league that only drafts 10 rounds. But, then again, I pick the best and having a DST that averages 25 points a game sure doesn't hurt.
Like most scoring systems, we will assume that sacks are worth 2 points, turnovers worth 3, TDs worth 6 and that we have a scaling factor for points scored against, which we will say bottoms out at 30 or greater.....just to make life interesting. What we won't assume is that it is possible to get negative points...which I hate. Anyway, so the book keeping is done. Let's talk the top 5 defenses.
Temple Owls- The Owls were 4th in the Nation in points scored against with a 17.5 per game average. Astounding, really, considering they played some decent teams. What's even more astounding is the fact that the defense did so well despite having a bottom 3rd offense which ranked nearly dead last in yardage and a QB who tossed a 13:15 TD/INT ratio. They still managed to be +3 in turnover ratio, simply because of the defense.
They are near the top of the passing charts, ranking 13th with 187 yards per game allowed while hovering around 50 in the rushing category. But, lets keep in mind that they played Keenan Reynolds and Navy, who put up 487 rushing yards on the way to a a Midshipman win. However, what I love about Temple can be personified in this game. Despite having that much yardage piled up in a loss, they still held Reynolds to 80 pass yards and managed to force 3 fumbles, one of which was returned for a TD.
Against Penn State, the Owls held NFL-talent Hackenburg in check with 2 INTs. But, the Owls offense turned the ball over 5 times, several inside their own half of the field, which proved to be the difference in the game. Though it was a loss on the scoreboard, the defense still turned in great numbers in a loss.
I say all of that to say this: Temple returns 10 starters on a defense, with the 11th being a breakout star in Kareem Ali at the cornerback position. Additionally, a North Carolina swapover in Greg Webb at DT could result in a ton of sack production. The one knock against the Temple DST was their inability to kick fieldgoals, being 10-16 UNDER 40 yards. But, that's a trend that is sure to change. If it does, you have a loaded defense which is among the statistical best with an offense that can't score TDs (97th), which could mean lots of FGs. Temple should be at the tippy-top of your lists. They have a very favorable schedule including Penn State and Notre Dame at home as their toughest games. Both of these teams, on paper, look like games to avoid starting the Owls. But, I caution that line of thinking. I think they must be started in each and every game on the schedule.
Michigan State Spartans - One of two Big 10 defenses that I will feature in the Top 5, and for good reason. It seems that for each of the last few years, fantasy people have had reason to doubt that the Spartans could repeat as one of the top defenses in the country. Once again, the Spartans have to replace a top cover corner from the NFL draft. In fact, Sparty needs to replace both of their corners from a top 2014 team. But, it all starts up front. State returns 2 of the front 3 mean including an all-american in Calhoun. Although the backend must be overhauled, with as good as a front 7 as MSU has, I wouldn't sweat it. What I do know is that Dantonio is proving to be a top 5 coach in college football each and every year. Other than games against Oregon, which they get at home, they have to play at the Horsehoe against Ohio State, which is probably a sit situation. However, I don't think I would fear Oregon nearly as much as most people would.
One of my main concerns is actually about their offense, which is a clock-draining machine. Except this year MSU has to reload at every skill position other than QB, including Lippett, who was a multi-threat as a returner and WR. However, they have 4 out of the 5 front men back, so I wouldn't be terribly concerned that the identity may shift much. MSU's offense has been efficient and methodical, allowing the defense to be fresh and create that +19 turn over margin which ranked 2nd in all of college football.
All this DST needs is a good punt returner and a healthy kicker. Geiger took a massive step back in 2014 after going 15 for 16 in FGs in 2013. He is coming off hip surgery, so there is a concern. However, we know there is potential for a top-notch performance. On the returner front, replacing Lippett will be tough. But, again, Dantonio has done well without top talent. This year he landed the #22 overall class, which will pay dividends. This is one department that really needs it.
In conclusion, MSU is a annual top pick in the DST department thanks mostly to great defensive fundamentals and a grinding offense. I don't see why this year won't be a continuation of that.
Ole Miss Rebels- The chances that this unit repeats as the Number 1 unit in terms of points allowed (16 in 2014) is.....not probable. Additionally, the vaunted secondary who seemed to pick off every pass that was thrown last year are gone. So, despite losing nearly half the starters including some All-SEC and All-Americans, why do I have them listed here?
A few reasons: It's put-up-or-shut-up time for Robert Nkemdiche. He seems to be on the Clowney train where you lay low until that right time, and the time is now. Though he may get constant double teams, true sophmore Haynes is sure to have grown into an even better player even though he led the team in sacks in 2014. With the front line loaded for bear, C.J. Johnson, a solid player on the line in the past, is moving to linebacker where he will be paired with Denzel Nkemdiche, who was an All-SEC player for missing all of last year. Hilton moves over to safety from starting at cornerback in the past to make room for Tony Bridges and Tee Shepard. Shepard is a former 5 star guy who figures to be huge in 2015. Both safeties have started all 4 years they have been in the Grove.
Sure, the losses to graduation and NFL always hurt. However, this is a team that is poised to have a very similar year as 2014 where they were a fantasy monster because of turnovers and the ability to hold offenses in scores.
I really like their schedule....a lot. The first 2 games are gimmes. They have to play at Alabama, but Ole Miss has the ability to stuff the run and I honestly think that's all Alabama can do. Even if Ole Miss losses the game, I think they have a lot of fantasy value in this game because it will be a low scoring affair. They are a solid start for the next 4 games before Texas A&M comes to town. By then we will know if TAMU is for real, so wait until then. They play at Auburn. I don't think this is worth the role of the dice. I think you sit them against Auburn. Up next is Arkansas which will be very similar to the Alabama match up. Though they may lose the game, the potential for low scores makes this a decent gamble. With the mystery-meat situation at LSU, this is another solid play. LSU has the run game and Ole Miss can stop it. They finish with Mississippi State. This is a definite bench game, if you asked me RIGHT NOW. MSU may not be who we think they are by late November, but right now they have a Heisman contender and amazing receivers.
In conclusion, even a departure from the Top 10 in total scoring isn't a horrible thing for fantasy players. They will have sacks. They will have INTs. And, they play in the SEC West in tough and tight games. They are worth a first DST pick.
Utah State Aggies- In many ways, this is a homer pick. I spend a lot of time in Logan Utah, so I have gotten to know this team fairly well in the past few years. So, now you are all rolling your eyes at me asking why I have these guys listed. Let me tell you.
The Aggies defense is one of fundamentally sound and ferocious defenses found west of the SEC. Statistically, they were 12th in the nation in 2015, even playing some very prolific offenses and having an offense that started 4 different QBs by the end of the season. They are one of the very best against the run (24th) and 57th in passing despite playing mid-west and west-coast run-game-optional offenses.
Here is what matters: They were 20th in the country in turn over margin, and that's with QBs that sometimes forgot who to throw to. Guys like Nick Vigil know how to strip the ball and their cornerbacks are salty and experienced. They do have losses at safety to contend with as well as the loss of the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in Zach Vigil.
They also feature one of the best returners in the game in JoJo Natson (listed in my post on receivers) who already has 4 returning TDs.
On the topic of schedule, they don't have to worry about getting thumped by SEC competition a la Tennessee in 2014. In fact, they have a very favorable schedule which features no real top contenders. Every team that would seem to be a threat (Colorado State/Boise State) will have a new QB.
Between their great fundamental defense, potential in the kicking game, and weak competition, Utah State locks up a top 5 position for me.
Georgia Bulldogs- It really pains me to write this. Though many people had listed the Dogs as a top fantasy prospect, I initially laughed it off. I knew they lost a lot of starters and that was initially enough to ignore them. Then I did some research. The Dogs exited 2014 as #17 in total defense while sporting the 4th best turnover margin (much to do with the offense, too) in the country. They "struggled" against the run in 2014 allowing 167 yards per game, which ranked 61st. However, they were top notch against the pass, ranking 5th despite playing in a more throwing-oriented division.
In the 3-4 system, the backers are setup to make sacks off the edge, which plays to UGAs talents. Despite losing two entrenched starters to graduation the Dogs look to be fine. The front 3, though none are returning starters, are just as talented as any of the recent roadblocks the Dogs have fielded. That includes one of the top (if not THE top) recruit out of highschool in Trent Thompson. The entire secondary returns., which was one of the top...total.
In combination with the run-first/run-often offense that we all expect from the Dogs, expect a lot of low scoring games and a fresh defense that will blitz a lot. What will that mean? Lots of sacks and lots of quick/off balance/rushed throws towards one of the best defensive backfields in college football (read: picks). It will be awfully hard to lose points due to high scores with the Dogs offense.
In terms of schedule, UGA does have to play at Auburn and Alabama at home, a rare occurrence. Their in-divisional games of note are all at home, including Mizzu and Tennessee. With South Carolina having a lot of question marks in the back field and only one real playmaker on the outside, this game can still work in your favor. Simply put, only the game against Auburn is a real question mark, as most prognosticators THINK Auburn will be a run-first team, when in reality they could easily be an extremely balanced....and deadly....offense. UGA has had the ability to stuff the run and that is all Alabama will throw at them. Still, even with a low scoring game expected, turnovers may be hard to come by, forcing a decision on a start or sit for the Dogs. Tennessee, to many, would seem like a risky play, but I am not so sure the Vols are ready for the athleticism up front, nor for a good secondary. While this game may score points, dual-threat QBs are good for a lot of turnovers. This might end up being a great play, considering the likelihood of sacks and turnovers. Outside of these tests, expect UGA to with their +16 turnover ratio from last year to really shine against completely inferior opponents.
Zach's Why Nots
Ohio State- So, I am reading the Lindy's rag and they list Ohio State as a top fantasy defense. But I honestly hesitate on listing them as a top 5 DST in fantasy, and not because of the talent of the gameplay of the starters. Ohio State scored over 50 points 6 times in 2014 including another 5 games over 40 points. They had one of the best offenses in the entire country, statistically, despite playing in a very good conference. Because of that, the second and third teamers were playing a lot. That's great for OSU fans. Not for fantasy owners.
The Buckeye's were not a turnover machine. They were an overall +7 and not because the offense turned the ball over. Quite the opposite. OSU QBs combined for 12 INTs all season. If you allow points, you have to have turnovers. OSU wasn't very good at that.
What they are good at is sacks. Bosa and Co are among the very best in all of football. But, again, those sacks don't count nearly as much as those TOs and can be offset with allowing a lot of scoring.
That isn't to say that the Buckeye's aren't or can't be a top fantasy value. They can. I think their defense, with the addition of McMillen at LB may be better than last year. The problem is simply that the defense will be forced on the field more and more as the year goes on because the Buckeye offense is THAT GOOD and the opposing teams are THAT BAD.
So, I wouldn't be picking them in my top 5.
Standford-Lindy lists the Cardinal as #6 on the fantasy ranking of DSTs. But, Ty Montgomery, an incredible return tool, is in the NFL. That hurts, right up front.
Despite being perhaps the best overall defense in college football last year, sitting well inside the top 10 in every category, the fact remains that the team was -5 in total turnover ratio.
The biggest question is this: how does a unit who lost 8 starters and exited spring practice with only 1 starter playing in the spring game going to respond? The meat and potatoes that made this unit so good in 2014. In fact 4 players went in the first 5 rounds of the NFL draft. Sorry, but you don't replace that kind of talent without a slight dropoff, at least early.
While I don't think the Pac-12 will have the head-and-shoulders-above elite teams as they have had the last few years, I expect that the conference will be better, overall. The tests start in week 3 against a USC team that I predict will torch the Cardinal defense. Though Hundley is gone, I expect UCLA to be better this year than last. And, they have Oregon as usual. Washington State is another game to watch, considering that even in a blowout, WSU is still capable of putting up 35 or more points and a ton of yardage, both really bad depending on the scoring system.
In all, a top unit lost a ton of top talent to the NFL. They are playing a very difficult schedule. While people have them listed really high on their boards, I would avoid them.
TCU- TCU is listed as the number 1 fantasy defense. They were in the top 10 in scoring and against the run. But, they struggled against the pass while playing some very soft competition. Much of that COULD be attributed to garbage time, considering how they blew people out last year. Let's keep in mind that they couldn't convince the playoff committee to let them in based upon their margin of victory. Ultimately, the downfall was allowing 61 points to Baylor, the only legitimate offense they played all year.
Additionally, they return 5 starters on defense including an All-American LB. Just like the statement about Stanford, you don't have stats like those in 2014, loose more than half the starters, and have no risk of slipping.
Add in the loaded offense with Heisman hopeful Boykin and you can expect runaway victories, something that isn't good for a fantasy defense. Garbage time points are going to be a weekly possibility.
I don't want to take too much away from this defense. The numbers are solid and the Frogs are still a Top 15 DST. But, although their schedule is relatively light, I fully expect Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech to be MUCH better than they were in 2014, specifically first 3 on that list. Texas can't stay down for long, Big Game Bob MUST win the Big 12, and State had a baffling down year on offense. As usual, playing your DST against Texas Tech is a boom or bust. You can pick off 4 passes as easily has you can give up 28 points and 500 yards.
With the limited amount of returning starters, a powerful offense that will have gaudy numbers put up to showcase a Heisman candidate, and a much improved Big 12, I can't list TCU as a top 5.
In all, this is a team with a ton of turnover, weak against the pass (an Achilles heel for anyone playing pass-happy teams early in the year) , with a ZERO turn over ratio, playing a schedule with very little fantasy value. Pass.
Zach's Sneaky Teams to Watch
San Diego State- 13th in scoring in 2014. Returns 7 starters on defense including their breakout star of 2014 at LB. 3 returning starters on D-line. Excellent against the pass and returning much of that defensive backfield. Though they were gashed at times last year, specifically against very good QBs from Boise State, Oregon State, and Fresno State, the Aztecs won't have as much in-conference competition. The downside is that the out of conference play will be tought, playing Colorado State, Cal and Penn State. The former won't be as much of an issue, as they lost their coach/o-coordinator and the entire backfield. Cal and Penn State will win, but I am not sure that it isn't a solid play, as both teams are likely to sit their starters early, and that's assuming that Hackenburg and Goff don't struggle, which is certainly possible.
Pumphrey, one of the very best backs in America returns to run behind a good returning line and lead blocker. Expect a lot of clock control, which will really help the Aztec defense.
They have questions at depth on the D-line.
This unit looks to be the best in the Mountain West and I don't really see any games that I would stay away from. This team only had 30 or more points scored against it 3 times all year. Two of those teams were in conference teams who lost NFL talent QBs.
Houston-They return the entire defensive backfield and their play-making LB. Though they lost the majority of the D-line, the swap to a 3-4 will alleviate some of the depth issues. This unit was 15th in scoring ad 20th overall while boasting a +8 TO margin with a middle-of-the-road offense.
The good news is Farrow is back to run the ball after a 1,000 yard 14 TD 2014 season.
The schedule is VERY manageable with most of the in conference games at home while traveling to Louisville in week 2 against a team who will be coming off a huge opener against Auburn. That could turn out to be a sneaky-good play. Only the late games against Cincinnati and Navy (both at home) are potential sits. But, Gunner Kiel has been injury prone as has Munchie, so who knows who will be starting for the Bearcats when that game rolls around. I might be cautious of Cinci if Kiel is still healthy, but the Bearcat D has been absolutely dreadful so far in Tuberville's era and I wouldn't be surprised if Farrow controls the game.
This unit has a secondary that could pick off a lot of passes against a pass-happy laden schedule.