This article is part of our Start vs. Sit series.
It's playoff time, which means our start versus sit decisions are really under the microscope this week. If there are any toss-ups you have that aren't addressed in this article, I invite you to fire away with them in the comments section.
In terms of the broader scope of this week, we're a little light on marquee matchups. There are no ranked versus ranked matchups outside of the Ohio State-Penn State game, which in itself lost some luster after the Nittany Lions stumbled in Minneapolis two weeks ago. Still, there are plenty of matchups with crucial fantasy implications in every corner of every conference this week, so let's get into the biggest start versus sit decisions for the first week of the playoffs.
Kevin Mensah, RB, Connecticut vs. East Carolina
Two of the AAC's finest are going at it this weekend with SMU traveling to Annapolis to face Navy. That's not where I'm focusing, though. No. Give me 3-7 East Carolina versus 2-8 Connecticut, a matchup with a combined 0-12 record in AAC play. In that game we have one of the true best kept secrets in college football: Connecticut's Kevin Mensah.
Mensah is 88 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season and has run for over 100 yards against Navy and Cincinnati – two of the AAC's best defenses – in his last two games. Now he draws a matchup against East Carolina, which is somehow even more forgiving to opposing running backs than Connecticut, allowing 29.9 FPPG.
Jadan Blue, WR, Temple at Cincinnati
Cincinnati has been ruthless against AAC passing attacks this year. In six AAC games, Cincinnati is holding opposing quarterbacks to a 52.5 percent completion rate to go with nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions. This bodes ill for Blue and the Temple passing game Saturday, particularly with this game being in Cincinnati, where the Bearcats allow just 5.8 YPA and have allowed three passing scores in five games.
Blue has been playing well of late, particularly in PPR, with 25 catches for 274 yards and a touchdown on 38 targets in the last three weeks. But that distills down to just 11.0 yards per reception and 7.21 yards per target. He projects to have plenty of targets and his catch rate suggests he'll be a decent source of receptions this week, but Cincinnati's suffocating defense won't let Blue do much damage in terms of yards or especially touchdowns.
AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College at Notre Dame
This is an interesting matchup in that Notre Dame's run defense is one of the best in the nation while Dillon heads one of the nation's most run-dependent offenses. Boston College runs the ball on 67 percent of its plays, second behind only Buffalo in terms of non-option teams. Meanwhile Notre Dame has stiffened up against the run of late, holding opponents to just 3.6 YPC over the last three games along with just one touchdown. With Dillon being such a focal point of the BC offense, it's clear that the Irish will do all they can to slow him down and make the other Eagle skill position players beat them.
With Dillon, though, the workload is such that he almost can't fail. He leads the nation with 27.2 rushing attempts per game and rips off a rock-solid 5.33 YPC. Even with Notre Dame showing some backbone in stopping the run (outside of the Michigan game) Dillon is too reliable to bench, especially in the playoffs.
Hendon Hooker, QB, Virginia Tech vs. Pittsburgh
The matchup is tough here even with the way Virginia Tech has been playing of late. Pittsburgh is giving up just 17.7 fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks, the second-best mark in the ACC behind Clemson. Looking deeper, Pittsburgh is allowing a 49.9 percent completion rate along with a 5.9 YPA. With Hooker, he has posted over 20 fantasy points in four of his last five games, completing 61 percent of his passes with an 8:0 TD:INT and a 10.2 YPA, so he'll be a formidable challenge for Pittsburgh. But in the end, I'll side with Pitt's defense holding serve and keeping this as a low-scoring matchup.
Max Duggan, QB, TCU at Oklahoma
Duggan enjoyed a strong bounce-back in Week 12 with 398 total yards and three total touchdowns against Texas Tech after his disastrous outing against Baylor. Now, Oklahoma has more of a defensive backbone than Texas Tech, but the Sooners aren't a defense that's imposing enough to fear a shutout for the Horned Frogs.
Oklahoma ranks 43rd in defensive S&P+, and as for its effectiveness against opposing quarterbacks, Kansas only surrenders 0.2 more fantasy points per game than the Sooners. Duggan, meanwhile, has gone for 25.0-or-more points in three of his last four and is making it happen both on the ground and through the air. There's also a strong chance of the game flow favoring a high volume from Duggan as Oklahoma stands to keep the pressure on by putting up plenty of points.
Pooka Williams, RB, Kansas at Iowa State
Williams is coming off a tough outing against a middling Oklahoma State defense and it gets worse with a matchup in Ames. Iowa State, which just held Keontay Ingram to nine yards on eight carries, has the best run defense in the conference. The Cyclones give up less than 1.0 rushing score per game and just 3.59 yards per carry. With Kansas also entering this game as 24-point underdogs,t he run game could go by the wayside early and Williams isn't doing enough as a pass-catcher (eight catches, 72 yards in the last four games) to offset a rushing workload reduction. Williams belongs on the bench this week.
J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State vs. Penn State
This is as tough a matchup as Ohio State's run game will have all year. Dobbins will be facing a Penn State defense that leads the nation in yards per carry allowed (2.19) and fourth in rushing yards allowed per game (75.9). We also have to acknowledge that Justin Fields and Master Teague are legitimate threats to vulture touchdowns from Dobbins. Still, Dobbins should be viewed as a matchup-proof entity that is trustworthy for your playoff lineup. Dobbins leads the Big 10 in YPC (7.04) among running backs with at least 100 carries and sees 18.3 carries per game even with the other threats in the Buckeye backfield. It might not be Dobbins' best fantasy output of the season this weekend, but it'll be one worth starting.
Josh Imatorbhebhe, WR, Illinois at Iowa
A road game at Iowa is always a tough environment when looking at the Big Ten West members of your roster. With Imatorbhebhe, it's tough to leave a player with his explosiveness on the bench. He torched Michigan State of all teams for 178 yards and two touchdowns on four catches, after all. But Iowa has a way of slowing elite talents with its suffocating defense. Rashod Bateman caught just six of his 11 targets and was held out of the end zone against the Hawkeyes in Week 12. K.J. Hamler only managed 61 yards against the Hawkeyes earlier in the season on seven catches. Of course, Tyler Johnson lit it up against Iowa this past weekend in his own right, so it's not impossible. But without another legitimate threat on the outside, Imatorbhebhe will draw most of the attention from the Iowa defense on Saturday. And it's tough to trust that Brandon Peters will be able to deliver in this spot.
Gaej Walker, RB, Western Kentucky vs. Southern Mississippi
It's a tough matchup for Walker and the Hilltoppers this week as Southern Miss allows the second-fewest points per game to opposing running backs in the conference. Walker has enough going for him to make him worth starting, though. For one, the workload is strong as he's seeing over 16 carries per game over his last three outings while no other Hilltopper running back has seen more than five attempts in that stretch. He has also been effective with that workload, averaging 5.8 YPC and rushing for three scores in that span. It's a tough matchup and maybe one of the single best C-USA matchups on the slate this year but there's enough to Walker's recent production to still make him worth keeping in your lineup.
Smoke Harris, WR, Louisiana Tech at UAB
Harris was the clear top wideout in Week 12 with Justin Hardy suspended. Unfortunately, it didn't translate into major production against Marshall. Hardy and quarterback J'Mar Smith are still suspended this week, and it's still tough to buy in on Harris. He caught nine of his 13 targets against the Herd, but that allotted 91 yards and zero touchdowns. Again, the volume should be there this week against UAB, but that volume could result in empty calories overall with the lack of yardage and touchdown upside to make him start worthy in non-PPR formats. There's also the matter of UAB being tough on opposing receivers, giving up just 19.5 fantasy points per game to opposing receiving corps. Having a backup quarterback at the helm doesn't make matters easier, either.
Walter Fletcher, RB, Ball State vs. Kent State
Outside of Bowling Green, Kent State has the worst run defense in the conference. The Flashes surrender 253 rushing yards per game on 5.15 YPC and have also given up three receiving touchdowns to opposing running backs. That bodes well for Ball State's run game and specifically Fletcher, who has come on strong of late.
Caleb Huntley has gotten more carries over the last three weeks (48) but it's been Fletcher that has truly carried this backfield. Over 42 carries, Fletcher has run for 343 yards (8.17 YPC) and two scores while also catching six of nine targets for 66 yards. With a 14.0 carry per-game average and plenty of production alongside it, Fletcher should reward those who start him this week against a porous Kent State run defense.
Shakif Seymour, RB, Toledo at Buffalo
It appears that Seymour will get the bulk of the work again this week after Bryant Koback left the Week 12 matchup after seeing just two carries. Seymour did well with his expanded role, notching his second consecutive 100-yard outing. Things will be much tougher this week, though.
Buffalo doesn't just have the best run defense in the conference, allowing just 15.8 fantasy points per game to opposing rushers. The Bulls rank 17th against the run in that category in the nation. They give up 88.4 rushing yards per game (5th) and 2.7 YPC (5th). So with Toledo being an 8.5-point road underdog here, there's a chance that the run game gets shut down and ultimately abandoned Wednesday. Even with the clear path to carries, Seymour is a suboptimal play in Week 13.
John Hightower, WR, Boise State at Utah State
Whether it's been Hank Bachmeier, Chase Cord or Jaylon Henderson at quarterback, Hightower has been an undeniably explosive presence out wide for Boise State. He's got a 12.0 YPT over the course of the season and that number has ballooned to 17.6 over his last three games. Hightower has two 100-yard games in that span and four such games overall. So even if Hightower doesn't have an overwhelming target volume (6.3/game), he doesn't need to be peppered with targets to produce.
Utah State is, of course, a tough pass defense that has surrendered just two passing touchdowns to Mountain West opponents. But Boise State isn't just any Mountain West team, regardless of who's at quarterback. I'd continue to back Hightower in a week where the spread (Boise State -7.5) suggests that the Broncos won't be able to simply run the clock out.
Cedric Byrd, WR, Hawaii vs. San Diego State
It took 12 weeks (13? I don't know how to count Week Zero) but I'm finally recommending against using a Hawai'i receiver. Byrd has been nothing short of consistent this season, ranking second in the nation in targets (122) while notching a 65 percent catch rate. But the explosiveness and the touchdowns have basically been non-existent since the season opener against Arizona.
Byrd doesn't have a single 100-yard game since the opener and he hasn't scored a touchdown since Week 5, marking a six-game scoreless drought for the senior. Starting him this week would be trusting him to buck a six-week trend of being out-produced on a per-target basis by two other Hawaii receivers while facing the top-rated pass defense in the Mountain West. With an uncertain quarterback situation. No thanks.
Davis Mills, QB, Stanford vs. California
It looks like Stanford may have stumbled into a solution on offense, and it's letting Mills turn it loose. At the very least, it's a spark to what was an otherwise lifeless offense through the first nine games of the season.
Mills turned it loose 50 times against Washington State in Week 12 and converted that into 504 yards, three touchdowns and two picks. Anthony Gordon, supremely comfortable in those type of game scripts, out-dueled Mills with 520 yards and five scores, but that's alright. We suddenly have a new start-worthy quarterback in the PAC-12 with the playoffs on tap.
As for the matchup, California's defense is solid but not quite what many were expecting coming into the season. The Bears rank 41st in S&P+ on defense and have allowed 11 passing touchdowns and a 67.7 percent completion rate in conference play. Even if this week doesn't produce the type of shootout we saw in Pullman last week, there's reason to believe Mills can throw on this California defense.
Eno Benjamin, RB, Arizona State vs. Oregon
It's hard to bench someone you spent such a high draft pick on, but it's do-or-die time and there's no room to risk a dud from a starting running back regardless of the draft capital you sunk into said player. That's true of Benjamin this week with a matchup against Oregon on tap.
Benjamin hasn't gone over 20.0 fantasy points in any of his last four games, and that includes soft matchups against the likes of UCLA and Oregon State. Going against Oregon means going against the No.13 run defense in the nation and No.2 defense in the PAC-12 in terms of fantasy points allowed to opposing backs. If Benjamin isn't producing against the Oregon State's of the world, it's tough to bet on him against Oregon.
Kelly Bryant, QB, Missouri vs. Tennessee
Bryant struggled in his return to action last week with 223 total yards and no touchdowns in the loss to Florida. This week he doesn't get a cupcake matchup with Tennessee coming to Columbia, but it does set up as a more favorable matchup. Bryant's Tigers are four-point favorites, and while Tennessee ranks third in the SEC against opposing quarterbacks, there's still reason to back him Saturday.
Bryant averaged over 24.0 fantasy points per game in the month before tweaking his hamstring, with quality outings against South Carolina and Mississippi highlighting that timeframe. We're past the point where Bryant can truly live up to his preseason hype, but he can still serve as a viable starter for what sets up to be a wonky week in the SEC.
Kellen Mond, QB, Texas A&M at Georgia
We're left with pretty slim pickings this week in the SEC with most of the conference doing their annual FCS bye week before rivalry week. With that we only have three in-conference matchups, and one of those (LSU-Arkansas) has a spread that's befitting of an SEC-FCS game with LSU favored by 43.5 points.
Regarding Mond, he's got a very difficult matchup going on the road to face a Georgia defense that is No.2 in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 10.5 points per game. Mond's Aggies are expected to beat that average with an implied total of 16.25 points, but that's still not an optimistic projection from Vegas. Georgia allows 5.5 yards per attempt and 191 passing yards per game. Mond has struggles on the road, too. His YPA dips from 8.0 to 6.3 when he's away from Kyle Field and his completion percentage drops from 65.9 to 60.0. Mond falls well below QB36 in our rankings this week, making him someone only worth starting if you are completely out of other options.
Markis McCray, WR, Louisiana-Monroe vs. Coastal Carolina
McCray has been on fire during the stretch run with four touchdowns in his last three games, and there's little indication that Coastal Carolina is equipped to slow him. The Chanticleers' Sun Belt opponents are completing 73.0 percent of their passes and averaging 8.9 yards per attempt. When McCray is catching passes from one of the Sun Belt's top signal callers in Caleb Evans, there's a good chance that McCray's hot streak continues.
DK Billingsley, RB, Troy at Louisiana-Lafayette
Racking up 50 total yards on 14 touches against Texas State is a concerning outing from Billingsley, who had been putting up consistently strong production leading into that game. In the seven games leading up to his dud against the Bobcats, Billingsley ran for 652 yards and six touchdowns on 107 rushes. That ranked him third in rushing yards in the conference in that span, solidifying him as a legitimate starting option in full-FBS leagues.
The dud against Texas State could be an aberration. That's a fair opinion to hold. But this week he's going to have to prove it was a dud against the toughest run defense in the Sun Belt. The game flow could also go away from Billingsley as Troy enters this game as two-touchdown underdogs on the road. With Troy sporting a solid passing attack, the Trojans could ultimately opt to test the Ragin' Cajuns through the air rather than repeatedly run into their brick wall of a rush defense.