Less Publicized Players to Watch in College Football
The college football season kicks off in less than six weeks, and the betting lines have been posted for many games throughout the season. Conference media days have started and the hype for the top-25 teams and conference contenders has begun.
But while the high-profile programs and players generate much of the coverage, and the average fan watches the Power 5 conferences battle on the big stage and major networks each week, other astute bettors, handicappers and fans are aware of under the radar teams and players. That includes those that won't be getting much TV time from the smaller conferences.
If you search for 'sleeper' teams, you'll see many articles still listing the Power 5 teams. But there are plenty of 'Group of Five' teams, or those outside the power conferences, with talent and proven performers. Just ask the Houston Cougars from last season, who won 13 games including a convincing 38-24 bowl win over Florida State as a 7 point underdog.
So, let's give some of these players the headline as I provide a Top 10 list of small school stars worth watching that will impact college football games and results this season. These are you're hidden gems that may provide value on the field and against the spread (ATS). Same too for college football fans that get involved with fantasy football in the college ranks.
Brett Rypien, QB – Boise State (Mountain West)
Boise State is no stranger to success, as the Broncos are an annual conference contender having dominated the WAC for a decade before moving to the Mountain West in 2010. Nine wins a season ago was a disappointment as they failed to play in the conference title game. Quarterback Brett Rypien did not play the first two games as a freshman, but he burst onto the scene as the starter at Virginia in the Broncos fourth game and never looked back following the 56-14 win. He finish the season with over 3,300 passing yards and 20 touchdowns. Boise State has the top offense in the Mountain West this season and Rypien is a prime target for a big sophomore season.
Matt Breida, RB - Georgia Southern (Sun Belt)
The diminutive senior rushed for over 1,600 yards last season to rank No. 10 in the country. But his 7.9 yards per rush was No. 1 in the nation, and he rushed for 17 touchdowns. Georgia Southern is 14-2 in Sun Belt play since joining the FBS in 2014, and their 'gun triple option offense' has produced nearly 9,300 rushing yards the last two years to lead the nation. A new head coach will keep the offense in place, and while the Eagles have all four running backs returning, Breida will still provide the speed as the lead rusher behind a top Sun Belt offensive line.
Greg Ward, QB – Houston (AAC)
Houston had a dream season with a new head coach a year ago, going 13-1 with a Group of 5 bowl win over Florida State. They are the clear cut favorite in the American Conference (AAC) this season and senior quarterback Greg Ward is the little cat to lead the Cougars. Small in stature, Ward plays big as a duel threat. He rushed for over 1,300 yards and 21 TDs and passed for over 2,800 yards and 17 TD's last season. Houston does have to replace three offensive lineman and their leading receiver, and Ward may be running from the pocket often in their opener against Oklahoma. But the Cougars had one of the most balanced and powerful offenses last season rushing and passing for an average of at least 230 yards per game. Ward will get his share again this season.
Elijah McGuire, RB – Louisiana Lafayette (Sun Belt)
McGuire is a pro prospect with his strength, balance and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He rushed for over 1,000 yards and 13 TD's last year as the Ragin' Cajuns fell way off to just 4 wins. But ULL will bounce back as a most improved team this season, and McGuire will be a key cog with his athleticism, toughness and reliability. He's rushed for over 3,100 yards in his career with 100+ receptions, and he'll surge well past 4,000 yards unless an injury derails his senior season.
Larry Rose, RB – New Mexico State (Sun Belt)
Rose also does his damage in the Sun Belt Conference, but the Aggies are not as potent on offense as Georgia Southern and their offensive line is not as strong. Rose is also on the smaller side at less than 185 pounds, and he gets little fanfare despite posting big numbers as a sophomore last season with over 1,600 rushing yards, 6.9 yards per rush and 14 touchdowns. He did have just 64 yards on 12 carries vs. Florida, and the Aggies tackle Kentucky and Texas A&M in the SEC this season.Larry Rose, RB – New Mexico State (Sun Belt)
Keevan Lucas, WR – Tulsa (AAC)
Lucas suffered a season-ending injury against league-leader Houston last season in the Golden Hurricane's fourth game of the year. He had over 400 receiving yards for the season before suffering the injury. That opened the door for fellow WR Josh Atkinson to become the team's No. 2 receiver with 76 catches for over 1,000 yards. Both are seniors this season, and Lucas has over 2,000 receiving yards in his career. He's primed to return for a big season with Tulsa's offense to remain explosive after averaging over 500 yards per game last season.
Devonte Boyd, WR - UNLV (Mountain West)
UNLV has been a bottom feeder for over a decade, and annually one of the worst teams in the country. But a former highly successful local high school coach took over last season and is leading the Rebels rebound. A key player in the process is junior wide receiver Devonte Boyd, who has tallied 119 catches and nearly 1,900 yards his first two seasons. Boyd has a strong work ethic and is the leader of a talented receiving core that will benefit from improved QB play this season.
Aaron Jones, RB – UTEP (Conference USA)
Few teams paid attention to Jones coming out of high school at 165 pounds, and he remains under the radar despite over 2,000 rushing yards his first two seasons at UTEP. He's up over 200 pounds now and a talented star to watch after suffering a season-ending ankle injury in the team's second game last year against Texas Tech. He had a 24 yard TD reception and 91 yard run against Tech before going down for the season in the second quarter. He was given a redshirt and will be a junior this season, and expect Jones to shine as he leads the Miners back to a bowl like he did in 2014.
Taywan Taylor, WR - Western Kentucky (Conference USA)
Conference USA ranks near the bottom with the Sun Belt in terms of conference strength. But Taylor is one to watch as one of the most explosive wide receivers in the country. He had 86 receptions for nearly 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. His 16 catches for 30 or more yards was top-5 in the country. The Hilltoppers have totaled over 525 yards per game on offense each of the past two seasons, and while they have a new QB this season, the rest of the pieces are in place to suggest another strong season for Taylor.
Corey Davis, WR - Western Michigan (MAC)
Western Michigan is expected to be one of the top teams in the MAC this season led by all-league performer Corey Davis. The star senior racked up 90 catches for over 1,400 yards and 12 TD's last season, but still gets little press. In 36 games at WMU, he's grabbed 33 touchdowns, and Davis led the nation last season with 24 catches of 20 or more yards. Despite the opposing team's attention, Davis still delivers and with an all-league senior QB returning, he'll pile up more catches and stats this season.
FairwayJay is a leading national sports handicapper and is recognized as one of the sports industry's most insightful analysts. Follow him on Twitter: @FairwayJay