In this article I give six recommended plays each for the 12 PM ET and 7 PM ET slates of Saturday games. Within the six recommendations for each slate, three are “Paying Up” plays (top-12 salary at their positions), and three are “Digging Deep” plays (outside top-12 salary at their positions).
EARLY SLATE: 12 PM ET
Paying Up: Matt Johnson (Bowling Green State) – $9,400
Johnson is expensive, with the slate’s third-highest quarterback salary. He, however, is still not as expensive as he should be. Now excuse me while I plagiarize what I said last week: He is first in the Football Bowl Subdivision in yards and touchdowns passing, second in passing attempts, and third in completions. Through three games, he is the most productive passer in the country, and he has the slate’s most fantasy points per contest at the position (40.373 pts.). Until his price tag is commensurate with his production, I am likely to keep on recommending him as a high-floor higher-ceiling top-tier option.
It’s not as if his matchup this week against Purdue is challenging. In its three 2015 contests, Purdue has given up 35.3 points per contest (112th of 128), and that number would be even higher if not for the Boilermakers’ holding Indiana State (of the Football Championship Subdivision) to 14 points in their lone win of the season. When facing competition in its own subdivision (Marshall and Virginia Tech), Purdue was allowed 46 points per game. Meanwhile, BGSU has scored 39.7 points per game while having a difficult strength of schedule (8th of 128). BGSU is projected to score 40.25 points as 5.5-point road favorites in a contest with a 75-point over/under, the second-highest on the slate. Through three games, Johnson’s median passing yardage total in any contest is 443, and his median TD total is five.
Digging Deep: Skyler Howard (West Virginia) – $6,800
Howard is something of an unknown commodity, as he has only started two games this season (WVU was on bye in Week 3) and started only three games last season. Still, in the last five games as WVU’s starter, Howard has been effective, averaging 292.4 yards and 2.6 TDs passing (with no interceptions) and 38.6 yards rushing. And particularly in 2015 he has been highly efficient, competing 72.5 percent of his passes for an FBS-leading 14.2 adjusted passing yards per attempt. Following in the footsteps of other quarterbacks to have strong production under Head Coach Dana Holgorsen — such as Geno Smith, Brandon Weeden, Case Keenum, Graham Harrell, and Kliff Kingsbury — Howard is likely to continue to build upon his early success as a starter and, just a sophomore, could eventually become one of the top producers in the nation.
For this week, Howard has only the 17th-highest quarterback salary in the slate, but he actually has scored more fantasy points per contest (27.68 pts.) in 2015 than all of the top-12 salaried quarterbacks aside from the four most expensive guys. Additionally, WVU has a great matchup as a 16.5-point favorite at home projected to score 36.75 points against Maryland, which lost a 48-27 contest to BGSU in Week 2. Howard is WVU’s second-leading rusher, and when playing he has accounted for over 50 percent of WVU’s offensive TDs. With his market share of team TDs and the projected score, Howard has a good chance of having 300 yards and three TDs passing and 30 rushing yards — great production for his price tag.
Paying Up: Patrick Skov (Georgia Tech) – $6,300
Skov has been a favorite play of mine for the last three weeks, and each week he returns value. In all likelihood, I will probably continue to rely on him as long as he is a discount to his previous production. For instance, Derrick Henry of Alabama — maybe the best running back in college football — has seven TDs in three games. And that’s exactly how many Skov has. Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State — one of the top draft-eligible running backs in the country — has 23.767 fantasy points per game in 2015. Skov has 22.233. Elliott has the second-highest running back salary in the slate. Skov has the eighth. The point is not that Skov is as good as Henry and Elliott. He’s not. The point is that his production is ignored and undervalued.
Skov is a big guy (6’1 and 235 lbs.) who leads his backfield in touches and gets a lot of goal-line opportunities in a high-scoring run-heavy offense. He’s not a big yardage accumulator, but he has scored a TD each game this season. In Week 4, Tech is playing on the road against Duke as a 7.5-point favorite projected to score 31.75 points. On top of that, RBs Broderick Snoddy and Qua Searcy are injured and likely to miss the game, and their combined 10 touches per game are available. As often as he normally touches the ball, Skov could get even more touches this week. To date, Skov has 31.8 percent of Tech’s offensive TDs. In addition to accumulating 60-90 scrimmage yards, Skov is likely to score a TD in this game, and the possibility of two TDs is very real.
Digging Deep: Vic Enwere (California) – $4,500
Enwere has the 30th-highest running back salary in the slate, but his odds of outplaying his salary are good. In Week 3, starting RB Daniel Lasco missed Cal’s road game against Texas, and Enwere served as the lead back and had 16 carries for 73 yards and two TDs as well a reception for nine yards. Lasco is questionable to play in Week 4 against Washington, and since he is yet to practice this week he likely will not participate. While Enwere is not the player that Lasco is — in 2014, Lasco had 1,471 scrimmage yards, 14 TDs, and 33 receptions — the running back position is highly fungible in that, if a starter is out and a backup gets a lot of snaps, a base level of production is likely to arise from those snaps. Such is the case with Enwere, who is big (6’1” and 230 lbs.) and should be able to build upon his team-leading 26 carries and four TDs.
In Week 4, Cal is a three-point road favorite over Washington and projected to score 31.5 points. Playing on an offense with Jared Goff, one of the best draft-eligible quarterbacks in the country, Enwere should accumulate touches, a few of which will likely be goal-line opportunities. Although the UW defense has been stingy against the run so far, allowing only 93 yards rushing per contest, that number is partially the result of UW’s playing against an FCS opponent in one of its three games — and the defense has also allowed one TD rushing per game. In Week 4, that could easily go to Enwere, who has scored in all three games this season and is the only active RB on the team with more than one TD. Change-of-pace RB Khalfani Muhammad actually leads the team in rushing with an outrageous 266 yards on 22 carries (his 12.1 yards/carry rushing averaged leads the FCS), and in Week 3 he also had 10 carries for 164 yards and a TD — but he is only 5’9” and 170 lbs. and not built to be a lead back. He will undoubtedly get touches, but Enwere should be the guy who gets touches near the end zone, and that’s what you’re really looking for.
Paying Up: Corey Coleman (Baylor) – $8,500
Rarely do I pay the top salary at a position — and I still might not do it this week — but Coleman is utterly deserving of being the slate’s most expensive wide receiver. In only two games (Baylor had a Week 3 bye), Coleman has 11 receptions for 360 yards and five scores, which collectively give him the most fantasy points per contest out of all the wide receivers on the slate. And Coleman’s outsized production is not the mere result of a small two-game sample. Last year, Coleman as a sophomore led Baylor in all receiving categories with 64 receptions for 1,119 yards and 11 TDs — despite missing the first three games of the season. This year, Coleman is already tied for the lead in the FBS with five TDs receiving.
In Week 4, Baylor is playing at home against in-state private school “rival” Rice, favored to win by 34.5 points, and projected to score a slate-high 54.5 points. With the big spread and high point total, one might assume that Coleman is at risk of being pulled early and thus having his production limited. That might happen, but it’s unlikely. In Week 2, Coleman had a 6-182-4 stat line in a 66-31 victory over Lamar from the Football Championship Subdivision. In Week 1, Coleman had a 5-178-1 stat line in a 56-21 victory over Southern Methodist. Last year, in the two 30-point victories in which he played (against Kansas and Oklahoma), Coleman had 18 receptions for 391 yards and three TDs receiving and three carries for 10 yards and another TD. Baylor specializes in demoralizing overmatched opponents, and Coleman historically has been a primary beneficiary of these production onslaughts. Little reason exists as to why that trend should not continue in this game. Coleman has a good chance of piling up 150 yards and two TDs in Week 2.
Digging Deep: Kolby Listenbee (Texas Christian) – $5,600
Last week, I recommended Listenbee, he caught two passes for 51 yards and a TD, and then his salary dropped $600 from one week to the next. Given that TCU is projected to score 43.5 points on the road against Texas Tech as a 6.5-point favorite in what should be a shootout, I’m recommending Listenbee again, who has WR1 upside despite having only the 17th-highest wide receiver salary. Listenbee is TCU’s best deep threat (22.4 yards per reception), and he is second on the team in all major receiving categories with nine receptions for 202 yards and two TDs in three games. He’s not close to No. 1 WR Josh Doctson as a producer, but by the same token no one else on the team is anywhere close to him as QB Trevone Boykin’s second option.
Listenbee is a fine player on his own, but he is a rather matchup-dependent producer. As it happens, this is the type of matchup in which a boom-or-bust high-flying No. 2 receiver like Listenbee should boom. Tech has an exploitable defense that gave up 45 points on opening weekend to Sam Houston State from the FCS. If TCU approximates its projected point total, the odds are decent that at least three wide receivers will have TD receptions — and in that case the odds are also low that Listenbee won’t be one of them. A reasonable projection for him is 75 yards and a TD receiving — but he has ample room for upside.
LATE SLATE: 7 PM ET
Paying Up: Chad Kelly (Mississippi) – $7,900
This slate isn’t exactly littered with great quarterback options, given that there are fewer contests and lower over/unders in the slate in comparison to the early slate — but Kelly isn’t exactly the best quarterback of a bad bunch. He’s good in his own right, and he’s significantly discounted. Fresh off of Ole Miss’ upset victory over Alabama, Kelly is only the sixth-most expensive quarterback in the slate, despite having a slate-leading 33.873 fantasy points per contest in 2015. That on its own almost guarantees that he is a must-start player this week. As a passer, Kelly is essentially tied with Skyler Howard for an FBS-leading 14.2 adjusted passing yards per attempt, and he is first outright in the FBS with 12.3 passing yards per attempt. And his seasonal passing stats of 898 yards and nine TDs (with one interception) would likely be even more impressive if his backups wouldn’t have syphoned off three extra TDs in blowout victories. The fact that his overall production is bolstered by 14 carries for 67 yards and three TDs rushing, which provides him with a strong baseline of production, is just a bonus.
In Week 4, Ole Miss is a 24.5-point favorite at home and projected to score a slate-high 39.25 points against Vanderbilt. Last week, Ole Miss scored 43 points on the road against Alabama’s hitherto stout defense, against which Kelly had 341 yards and three TDs passing and an additional 21 yards and a TD rushing. Kelly has a chance to put up comparable numbers against a Vanderbilt defense that has allowed 31 points in its only Southeastern Conference matchup to date against a Georgia offense that has limited options at quarterback. With its upset of Alabama, the highest-scoring team in the country is also now a top-four team. Going against a vastly overmatched opponent at home, Kelly should do what the quarterbacks of high-scoring top-four teams do.
Digging Deep: Clayton Thorson (Northwestern) – $5,300
I’m really scraping the bottom of the quarterbacking barrel with this pick — and this slate’s quarterback options present a pretty shallow barrel to begin with. I don’t like any of these “Digging Deep” quarterback options, but whatever. This pick is more about matchup than anything else. NW is a 20-point home favorite projected to score 35 points against a Ball State team allowing 36.3 points, 291 yards passing, and 165.3 yards rushing per game. Ball State has an uninspiring one-dimensional run-based offense, and NW right now has one of the best defenses in the country, holding Stanford to only six points in Week 1 — the same Stanford that last week just up 41 points on Southern California in a big upset victory. NW’s defense should get a lot of stops and afford the offense many opportunities to score.
Of course, my saying that Ball State has “an uninspiring one-dimensional run-based offense” is a little unfair considering that NW probably wishes it had an uninspiring one-dimensional run-based offense as good as Ball State’s. Of course, the big difference is that, while NW’s defense has been elite to this point in the season, Ball State’s defense gives away so many points that its theme song should be a 1990s hit by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. NW’s quarterback has only the 27th-highest salary, which is appropriate considering that he is averaging only 12.227 fantasy points per contest, having seasonal passing stats that barely look like the numbers from a single game, but he is also by far the cheapest quarterback of the guys on teams projected to score at least 35 points in this slate. When in doubt, go with the cheap play on a team projected to score lots of points. Also, he does have 21 rushes for 96 yards and two TDs, so at least he (seemingly) has an elevated production floor on account of his rushing ability. Finally, note that throughout this entire blurb I haven’t said the name of NW’s quarterback once. That wasn’t by accident. That’s how I feel about this pick.
Paying Up: Justin Jackson (Northwestern) – $6,700
Just think of this as my making up for that last “recommendation.” Jackson is someone you can play with confidence. Of the clear, productive lead backs on home teams that are significantly favored and projected to score lots of points, Jackson is the cheapest, with the slate’s 11th-highest running back salary. Although this season he has scored only one TD, that has partly been the result of game flow — NW hasn’t really need Jackson to score TDs yet. Nevertheless, he has been a workhorse with 85 carries for 332 yards rushing and five receptions for an additional 28 yards. With those touches, the TDs will eventually come. Last year, he had 11 scores in 12 games, to go along with his 245 carries for 1,187 yards rushing and 22 receptions for 201 yards receiving. Despite his size (5’11” and 185 lbs.), Jackson is a workhorse.
Again, NW is a 20-point home favorite projected to score 35 points against a Ball State team allowing 36.3 points and 165.3 yards rushing per game. If most of those NW points are not going to come via the air — and NW’s quarterback has passed for only one TD all season — then the majority of NW’s TDs are likely to come on the ground, as they have all year. Eventually, the guy who gets the majority of the carries will start to get the majority of the TDs rushing. In Week 4, Jackson has a good chance of racking up 120 scrimmage yards and at least one TD.
Digging Deep: Damian Jones-Moore (Toledo) – $4,500
Whereas the quarterbacks with non-top-12 salaries are existence-annihilating options, the cheap running backs in this slate are enticing. Justin Davis of USC and Taiwan Deal and Dare Ogunbowale of Wisconsin are all reasonable plays, but I’m going with Jones-Moore of Toledo, in part because the backfield situations at USC and Wisconsin are uncertain and in part because Jones-Moore is the cheapest of the group, has a good matchup, and appears to be the clear starting running back for Toledo in the absence of stud RB Kareem Hunt, who is expected to miss this game with a hamstring injury, as he is yet to practice this week. In his two starts — one last year versus Central Michigan and one this year versus Arkansas — Jones-Moore has averaged 11.5 carries for 52.5 yards and one TD rushing per contest. That’s not outstandingly productive, but it’s good enough for a guy who has only the 24th-highest running back salary in the slate, and he has been efficient enough on those carries to suggest that, if Jones-Moore had more carries, he would likely be proportionately productive.
This week, Toledo is a seven-point favorite at home against Arkansas State and projected to score 33.75 points. This is the type of the game that should result in advantageous game flow and significant touches for Jones-Moore. Toledo has played in only two games so far because its first contest was cancelled due to weather — so we’re dealing with a sample that is small and potentially unrepresentative — but Jones-Moore is the only Rocket to rush for a TD this season, and on his own he currently accounts for an elite (read: anomalous) 50 percent of the team’s offensive TDs. Even that percentage will not be sustainable throughout the season, for this game, with Toledo’s expected point total, the odds are good that Jones-Moore scores at least one TD. Since Matt Campbell became head coach in 2012, Toledo has always had strong production from its running backs, with David Fluellen in 2012, Fluellen and Hunt in 2013, and Hunt and Terry Swanson last year. So far, Jones-Moore has been a significant contributor for the Rockets, which have allowed 145 yards and 1.5 TDs rushing per contest to opposing running backs in their two games against FBS teams this season. Jones-Moore should be able to capitalize on his opportunity this week with 75 scrimmage yards and a TD.
Paying Up: Josh Reynolds (Texas A&M) – $5,500
Last week, Reynolds was my early-slate “Digging Deep” at $5,400. That gives you an idea of how this late slate stacks up to another slate — and it also should probably let you know that Reynolds did well last week, because I am nothing if not thrall to recency bias. And he did well, with three receptions for 55 yards and two TDs. That yardage isn’t great, but with Reynolds it’s all about the TDs. Last year, Reynolds was a scoring machine for A&M, averaging one TD receiving per game and also leading the team in receiving yardage with a 52-842-13 stat line. And, now, after only three games this season, Reynolds isn’t even the highest-priced wide receiver on his own team: That’s Christian Kirk, a talented five-star recruit who, as a true freshman, is leading A&M with 16 receptions for 269 yards and two TDs. Kirk is a talented player, but it might be too soon to value him as A&M’s No. 1 receiver based on what he has done in two games that were both won by a minimum of 21 points each and a third game in which Reynolds “outbeasted” him 2-0 in TDs.
Reynolds hasn’t done a lot so far this season (only eight receptions for 136 yards and three TDs), but A&M also hasn’t needed him to do much. This week, however, A&M starts off its SEC schedule as a seven-point favorite projected to score 32.5 points against Arkansas at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. Although A&M is the favorite, the Aggies will likely be aggressive on offense against a conference opponent, and with a respectable projected point total (for this slate) A&M’s lead receiver should get targets, especially in the red zone. Reynolds has scored 16 TDs over the last 16 games, and A&M is projected to score over four TDs against Arkansas. The odds are good that Reynolds finishes this game around 60 yards and at least on TD.
Digging Deep: Johnny Jackson (Arizona) – $3,000
Yep, minimum salary — like a boss. This is a calculated risk, but Jackson’s odds of producing this week are far greater than those implied by his low cost of acquisition. He plays on the third-highest scoring team in the FBS, and he is currently first on the team in TDs receiving, second in receptions, and third in yards receiving, with a 13-143-3 seasonal stat line. Basically, with similar raw stats and a similar percentage of his team’s receiving production, Jackson is A&M’s Josh Reynolds — but he’s as cheap as any receiver in the slate. Arizona is a three-point underdog at home against California-Los Angeles and projected to score 31.5 points in a contest with a slate-leading 66-point over/under. Arizona should throw the ball a lot in the game, and Jackson, as a productive receiver to this point in the season, has a good chance of catching a fourth TD pass and accumulating about 70 yards.
Granted, one could argue that Jackson’s production is suspect in that it came in the early three-game stretch of the season against non-conference opponents — but it’s not as if all of those games were random blowouts or he got all of those TDs in one game. Jackson has scored a TD each game this year. In Week 1, he actually led the Wildcats in all receiving categories with an 8-101-1 stat line against Texas-San Antonio in a contested 42-32 victory, scoring his TD in the second quarter. In Week 2, he had only a 2-14-1 stat line against Nevada in a 44-20 — but he scored the first points of the game. And in Arizona’s 77-13 victory over Northern Arizona from the FCS, Jackson’s paltry 3-28-1 stat line is actually a good sign: The team wasn’t going to let him risk injury by piling on production late in a meaningless game. Jackson is not a garbage-time player as his salary suggest. He’s merely a discounted receiver on a high-flying team who has caught 33 percent of his team’s TDs receiving in games against FBS opponents and is riding a three-game TD streak. He could backfire. And he could also just fire.