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CFT 2014 Preseason Preview: Playoff Darkhorses

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The term “BCS busters” should be collectively erased from everyone’s memories.

It’s now time to figure out which teams have a glimmer of hope to rise from obscurity and claim a spot in the first College Football Playoff.

The Florida State Seminoles, Alabama Crimson Tide and Oregon Ducks are overwhelming favorites to participate in the inaugural playoff structure. But college football never quite works out like everyone expects.

Each team in the country is striving to be among the best. Only four will achieve this goal. Some have better odds than others. We here at CFT like to root for the underdog. As such, we’ll attempt to identify a team from each of the Power Five conference and one from the rest of the leagues that have an outside shot of playing with the big boys this season.

We advise not to bet on any of these teams, but they each have something that gives them a chance, albeit a slight one, to be a part of college football’s elite…

ACC: Virginia Tech Hokies
Any team that comes out of the ACC that isn’t the Florida State Seminoles should be considered a playoff darkhorse. The reasons the Hokies are primed to improve greatly from their 8-5 record last season are they are particularly talented and experienced along the offensive line and secondary. The enter left side of the Hokies’ offensive line, including center, is comprised of seniors. And right tackle Jonathan McLaughlin was named  second-team freshman All-American by College Football News. The Hokies’ ability to win in the trenches will improve the team’s running game from last year, particularly with sophomore running back Trey Edmunds ready to become the team’s workhorse. Plus, solid play from the offensive line will help Michael Brewer‘s transition after he transferred from Texas Tech. On the defensive side of the ball, the Hokies may have lost Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum to the NFL, but both of last year’s starting cornerbacks struggled with injuries. Sophomores Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller proved more than capable of stepping in and becoming play makers. Everyone will quickly learn whether or not the Hokies are a legitimate contender when they face a Braxton Miller-less Ohio State Buckeyes squad during the second week of the season. If Virginia Tech can go into the Horshoe and claim a major victory against the Buckeyes, the rest of the schedule is manageable, especially since it won’t face the Seminoles in regular season play.

Big 12 Conference: Texas Tech Red Raiders
Kliff Kingbury
‘s first season as Texas Tech’s head coach developed into a perfect example of style over substance. The excitement of a 7-0 start faded into five straight losses to end the regular season. Despite being as highly ranked as 10th overall, the Red Raiders couldn’t match up physically against the likes of the Oklahoma Sooners, Baylor Bears and Texas Longhorns. As Kingsbury continues to build the program in Year 2, the Red Raiders should be far more consistent. It starts at the quarterback position in the team’s Air Raid offense. Davis Webb started six of the team’s final eight games, and he was awarded the starting job during spring practice. Kingsbury played three different quarterbacks last and never found any consistency. Webb’s growth as a player during his sophomore season will only help the offense become more successful. Each of the linemen in front of Webb is experienced, and the receivers are expected to produce. The defense will continue to be a concern, but Texas Tech will enter each game under the assumption they can outscore any opponent. If the Red Raiders can navigate the Big 12 Conference, they’re toughest non-conference opponent is the Arkansas Razorbacks, who finished 3-9 last season. The opportunity is there for Texas Tech to take the next step as a program and potentially enter the national conversation.

Big Ten Conference: Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes will enjoy and possibly benefit greatly from playing in the Big Ten Conference’s new western division. Overall, the Big Ten Conference is wide open after the Ohio State Buckeyes lost Miller for the season. But that won’t matter for Iowa since they’re not scheduled to play the Buckeyes this season. Iowa not only avoids Ohio State, it won’t play the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans or Penn State Nittany Lions. The Hawkeyes cross-divisional opponents this season are the Indiana Hoosiers and Maryland Terrapins. And the team’s toughest non-conference opponent is the Pittsburgh Panthers. If the Hawkeyes don’t trip up during a game they’re expected to win — like we’ve seen previously in Kirk Ferentz‘s tenure — Iowa could cruise into the final two games against the Wisconsin Badgers and Nebraska Cornhuskers with an undefeated record. The Hawkeyes are then capable and possess enough talent on both sides of the ball to beat the primary opposition in their division. The Hawkeyes will do what they always do; they’ll run the football behind arguably the best offensive linemen in college football, Brandon Scherff, and they’ll play fundamentally sound football on defense. Their style of play leaves very little margin for error, but the season sets up perfectly for the Hawkeyes to have a little more wiggle room than they usually do.

Pac-12 Conference: Oregon State Beavers
Good quarterback play will grant a team the benefit of the doubt. Sean Mannion may not be an interesting as Florida State’s Jameis Winston or as dynamic as Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. Mannion doesn’t even draw as much attention as UCLA’s Brett Hundley. Yet, Mannion is the country’s leading returning passer. Mannion threw for 4,662 yards and 37 touchdowns as a junior. The quarterback also has pieces around him. Last year’s Biletnikoff Award winner, Brandin Cooks, is now in the NFL, but the team still has a massive target at tight end in Connor Hamlett and its top two rushers, Terron Ward and Storm Woods, return. Another overlooked aspect of the Beavers is how experienced they are on defense. Nine of the team’s defensive starters are seniors. The final two starters are juniors. Some of those upperclassmen will be starting for the first time, but the ability to be in the system over a period of time learning the scheme gives them an advantage. The Beavers even benefit slightly from their schedule. The team’s non-conference schedule should be a cakewalk. Oregon State hosts the Oregon Ducks in this year’s “Civil War.” Trips to USC and Stanford are the biggest obstacles in front of the Beavers in their attempt to go to their first major bowl game since they defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the Fiesta Bowl 13 years ago.

SEC: Ole Miss Rebels
The Florida Gators are a popular choice to be the surprise team emerging out of the SEC. However, the Rebels should be able to reap the benefits from head coach Hugh Freeze‘s ability to stockpile talent during the upcoming season. The Rebels will have to survive the SEC West, of course, which is no easy feat. The Rebels finished 2-4 in the division last season, and the Alabama Crimson Tide and LSU Tigers remain the teams to beat. Ole Miss, however, is littered with top talents primed to make a leap as a group. Former No. 1 overall recruit Robert Ndemkiche enters his second season in the program. He’s surrounded by senior edge rushers C.J. Johnson and Carlos Thompson and just nose tackle Isaac Gross. Sophomore Tony Conner quickly established himself as an intimidating presence in the secondary during his freshman campaign. On offense, sophomore Laremy Tunsil is one of the most physically talented left tackles in the SEC. Laquon Treadwell was an elite wide receiver recruit and made an instant impact as a true freshman. And senior quarterback Bo Wallace will lead the way. As the talent on this team continues to mature, the gap between the Rebels and the rest of the SEC West is quickly closing. If that same talent takes a major leap in their play this year, the Rebels could go from pretender to legitimate contender.

Best of the rest: Marshall Thundering Herd
One thing established during the BCS era was an undefeated team from the American Athletic Conference, Mountain West Conference, Conference USA or MAC can work themselves into the national conversation. This year’s most likely candidate is Marshall. There are two reasons why the Thundering Herd can crash this year’s party. First, the team’s schedule is among the easiest in college football. The team should cruise to a 13-0 finish. Second, people love to see explosive offenses and elite quarterback play. Marshall head coach Doc Holliday has quietly built one of the most explosive offenses in college football.  The Thurndering Herd operates at a breakneck pace. Last season the team’s offense finished 12th in the country with an average of 500.4 yards per contest. And quarterback Rakeem Cato is absolutely electric. Over the past two seasons, Cato has thrown for 8,117 yards, 76 touchdowns. The combination of an undefeated record, explosive offense and a talented quarterback may be enough to insert Marshall into one of the playoff slots (even though it’s still highly unlikely).

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

No. 4 Washington crushes No. 8 Colorado for Pac-12 title and all but secures a playoff berth

SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 02:  Myles Gaskin #9 of the Washington Huskies runs with the ball against the Colorado Buffaloes during the Pac-12 Championship game at Levi's Stadium on December 2, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Ticket punched? It looks that way out West.

No. 4 Washington stated their case for the College Football Playoff in impressive fashion on Friday night by blowing out No. 8 Colorado 41-10 to capture the program’s Pac-12 championship since 2000.

The Huskies struggled to move the ball against the stingy Buffs defense for most of the first half but broke things open with 24 consecutive points in the third quarter. That run was fueled in part by back-to-back interceptions from the defense to start the half, which clamped down on the South Division champions like they were the Colorado of old.

Quarterback Jake Browning had one of his worst outings of the season despite having the stage he needed to possibly get invited to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. The signal-caller finished just 9-of-24 for 118 yards but did throw two touchdowns on the night, one of which was a remarkable escape job from a sack before finding wideout John Ross for a 19 yard score.

Washington didn’t need their passing game with as effectively as they ran the ball however. Myles Gaskin picked up 159 yards on the night while backup Lavon Coleman added another 101 on the ground in addition to finding the end zone.

Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau was knocked out of the game with a lower leg injury in the first half but emerged from the locker room to start the third quarter. He promptly struggled upon his return, throwing an interception off a receiver’s hands that was returned for a score and tossing another on the next series. He finished the game with as many passes completed to the Buffs as he did to the Huskies.

To add injury to insult to Colorado and put a slight damper on their Cinderella season, the performance from Levi’s Stadium probably cost the Buffs a shot at the Rose Bowl. The selection committee could still keep them above red-hot USC in the rankings but based on the result in the title game, it seems likely that the Trojans will be smelling the roses in 2017.

Washington’s postseason destination won’t be known until Sunday either but they can rest easy after that outing in knowing they will all but assuredly go to either the Peach Bowl semifinal or stay closer to home for the Fiesta Bowl semifinal in the playoffs.

That will be a celebration for another day however, as all Chris Petersen and the Huskies could do on Friday was hoist a conference title and savor being champions of the Pac-12.

Colorado QB Sefo Liufau hurt as Washington takes halftime lead in Pac-12 title game

SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 02:  Jake Browning #3 of the Washington Huskies runs with the ball against the Colorado Buffaloes during the Pac-12 Championship game at Levi's Stadium on December 2, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Colorado’s unlikely road to the Pac-12 title may have gotten a little bit harder on Friday night.

Buffaloes starting quarterback Sefo Liufau suffered a lower leg injury midway through the first quarter and missed most of the half as the unlikely South Division champions trailed Washington 14-7 in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Liufau eventually headed to the locker room before the whistle at the end of the second quarter but it’s possible he will return to the game.

Backup Steven Montez did lead the team down on a scoring drive shortly afterward (capped off by a Phillip Lindsay touchdown run) but was under pressure on nearly every snap by the Huskies’ pass rush.

His counterpart similarly didn’t have much luck against Colorado’s stingy defense either. Washington signal-caller Jake Browning finished the half just 4-of-12 for 38 yards but the Huskies didn’t bat much of an eye by doing what they wanted on ground — rushing for 148 yards behind the tough running of both Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman.

It should make for a fantastic second half from the Bay Area as both teams harbor hopes of making it into the College Football Playoff after capturing a Pac-12 title.

Row The Boat! Western Michigan captures MAC title over Ohio and states Group of Five case

DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 02: Trevor Sweeney #25 of the Western Michigan Broncos celebrates causing a first half fumble on a kick return with teammate Leo Ekwoge #33 while playing the Ohio Bobcats during the MAC Championship on December 2, 2016 at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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Still perfect. Still rowing.

Western Michigan completed a dream undefeated regular season on Friday night and captured the school’s first MAC Championship since 1988 with a 29-23 win over Ohio.

The Broncos led from wire-to-wire on Friday night but struggled to complete drives with touchdowns against a stingy Bobcats defense on a night where they needed all the style points they could get. WMU is the College Football Playoff’s highest ranked Group of Five team but are in a neck-and-neck battle with Navy for a bid to the Cotton Bowl this season.

Even if the final margin wasn’t what head coach P.J. Fleck wanted, he nevertheless was excited at the way his team played defensively in holding Ohio to just 213 yards on the night. The normally prolific offense had their moments too, with quarterback Zach Terrell finishing with 301 yards, two scores and two interceptions.

One of those touchdown passes from Terrell went to wide receiver Corey Davis, who continued to press his case that he’s a first-round pick in the spring. The pass-catcher scored the team’s first touchdown back in the second quarter on a 70-yard scamper and the all-time leader in FBS receiving yardage finished his MAC career with 155 yards on nine catches.

The Bobcats tried to use their normal formula of running the ball and playing defense to control the clock but failed to do much of the former. The team finished with just 37 yards on the ground (and 251 overall) but did manage to make things interesting with three second half touchdowns and a late drive that could have taken the lead but instead ended with a game-sealing interception.

That wasn’t exactly the kind of high-flying #MACtion game the conference record 45,615 fans at Ford Field were looking for, with many of them sporting WMU colors as the school looks ahead to Sunday and whether or not they’re headed to a New Year’s Six Bowl at the end of the month.

On Friday night however, they just had to soak in the remarkable run the Broncos are on and row that boat all the way to a championship.

Report: Les Miles not in the mix in Purdue head coaching search

BATON ROUGE, LA - NOVEMBER 28:  Head coach Les Miles of the LSU Tigers look on during the game against the Texas A&M Aggies at Tiger Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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One of the bigger storylines of this offseason is the annual coaching carousel and where former LSU head coach Les Miles will land.

The longtime coach has stated he wants to coach again in 2017, and has plenty of credentials — over 100 wins, SEC and national championships — but where he will find a fit is one of the bigger mysteries.

A lot of folks have noted that he could be in the running for the Purdue job (Miles is a Big Ten man at heart) but it appears that will not be the case. According to Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel, a source told him to cross Miles’s name off of Purdue’s list.

There are not a ton of big openings at the moment so with the Boilermakers reportedly off the table, it might be a long offseason for the former LSU coach. Western Kentucky’s Jeff Brohm and Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck have been the two biggest names mentioned with the Purdue search but it appears unlikely any movement happens before this weekend.

Thamel also mentions Miles could be in the mix at Houston, which would be fascinating given his years at Oklahoma State and over a decade spent a few hours East in Baton Rouge. Either way, it looks like the carousel has a few more spins left in it this month.