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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)

NCAA grants NC State QB Ryan Finley another year of eligibility

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Not surprisingly, Ryan Finley‘s stay in Raleigh has been extended.

North Carolina State confirmed Tuesday that Finley has been granted an additional season of eligibility by the NCAA.  Finley received a medical waiver from The Association that will give him a sixth year if he ultimately chooses to use it.

So, in summation, Finley has three years of eligibility remaining beginning this season and running through the 2018 season.

In April of this year, the quarterback announced that he had decided to transfer from Boise State.  A month later, he moved on to NC State as a graduate transfer.

Finley started the first three games last season as a redshirt sophomore for the Broncos before suffering a broken ankle and losing the job he won in the summer to Freshman All-American Brett Rypien, with the latter further solidifying his hold on the position this spring and triggering the transfer decision.

On the depth chart the Wolfpack released earlier this week, Finley was listed as the co-starter along with redshirt sophomore Jalan McLendon.

Maryland names starting QB, adds UNC transfer QB Caleb Henderson

COLLEGE PARK, MD - NOVEMBER 07: Quarterback Perry Hills #11 of the Maryland Terrapins makes a pass against the Wisconsin Badgers during the first half at Byrd Stadium on November 7, 2015 in College Park, Maryland.(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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There were a couple of developments on the quarterback front for Maryland Wednesday morning.

The one with the most immediate impact was the announcement that Perry Hills has been named the Terps’ starter at the position.  Hills, a senior, had been involved in an offseason-long competition with fellow senior Caleb Rowe for the starting job.

Hills started eight games last season and ran for 535 yards, the fourth-most by a quarterback in the program’s history.  He also tossed 13 interceptions; in fact, Hills and Rowe, who started the other four games, combined to toss a staggering 28 interceptions.

Of the 114 quarterbacks in passing efficiency listed on the NCAA’s stats website, Hills was 109th.  The 114th?  Rowe.

“After an open competition through the spring and the first two-plus weeks of training camp, we’re excited to move forward with Perry as our starting quarterback,” said first-year head coach DJ Durkin in a statement. “Perry has embraced this challenge from day one and has put in the work and shown improvement every day. He’s grasped our offense and the way we want to do things, and has shown tremendous leadership.”

In addition to the Hills news, the U of M also announced the addition of transfer Caleb Henderson.  The quarterback had just confirmed via Twitter four days ago that he would be transferring from North Carolina.

A four-star member of UNC’s 2014 recruiting class, Henderson was rated as the No. 10 pro-style quarterback in the country and the No. 7 player at any position in the state of Virginia.

After redshirting as a true freshman, Henderson played in a pair of games last season.  He attempted one pass, which fell incomplete.

Henderson will be forced to sit out the 2016 season.  He’ll then have two years of eligibility remaining beginning in 2017.

Hogs QB Rafe Peavey confirms transfer, move to SMU

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 26:  Arkansas Razorbacks flag girl during the Southwest Classic at AT&T Stadium on September 26, 2015 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Expected to be Arkansas’ backup quarterback, Rafe Peavey is instead on the move.

Following up on speculation that began surfacing earlier in the day, Peavey confirmed Tuesday night that he will be transferring from the Razorbacks.  Not only that, but the redshirt sophomore also revealed his destination: SMU.

Peavey, who will have to sit out the 2016 season with the Mustangs and will have two years of eligibility remaining thereafter, said he came to the decision “[a]fter much prayer and consideration,” although he didn’t give a specific reason for the move.

Peavey was hampered by a back injury that required surgery in the middle of last month.  At the time the surgery was announced July 14, it was described as “minor” in nature, but its lingering nature caused him to fall behind redshirt freshman Ty Storey and true freshman Cole Kelley since the start of camp.

“We have a lot of guys in the program who do everything right, but that doesn’t automatically guarantee them a spot in the two-deep. We’ve got to earn it,” head coach Bret Bielema said following a scrimmage this past Saturday in which Peavey didn’t play a snap.

Peavey, a three-star prospect, took a redshirt as a true freshman in 2014, then didn’t see the field in 2015.  After Austin Allen was named the Hogs’ starter exiting spring, Peavey was viewed as his backup entering summer.

Report: Ex-Illini coach Tim Beckman now a volunteer assistant at UNC

CHAMPAIGN, IL - SEPTEMBER 20: Head coach Tim Beckman of the Illinois Fighting Illini protests a call to the officials during the game against the Texas State Bobcats at Memorial Stadium on September 20, 2014 in Champaign, Illinois.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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This one might not go over too well with some/most segments of the North Carolina fan base.

According to a report overnight from the Champaign News-Gazette, former Illinois head coach Tim Beckman has been added to Larry Fedora‘s UNC football staff as a volunteer assistant coach.  Beckman and Fedora have a previous working relationship, having been on the same Oklahoma State staff in 2007.

The Tar Heels have thus far declined to comment publicly on Beckman’s reported addition, and likely for good reason.

Nearly one year ago to the day, Beckman was fired as the head coach at Illinois amidst allegations of mistreatment of players, specifically those who were injured.  Those allegations led to an independent investigation initiated by the university.

The firing came more than three months after a former player accused the coach of “misuse and abuse of power,” while another stated shortly thereafter that Beckman “takes the cake as the worst coach I ever met.”  Athletic director Mike Thomas initially supported Beckman, but the preliminary results of an external review into the accusations forced Thomas into pulling the trigger.

Saying he was “shocked and disappointed,” Beckman labeled the allegations “totally false” in a post-dismissal statement. “I firmly deny the implications in Mike’s statements that I took any action that was not in the best interests of the health, safety and well-being of my players,” the coach stated, adding, “The health and well-being of our student-athletes is of paramount importance.”

To add another layer to this development?  North Carolina and Illinois will face each other Sept. 10 this year in Champaign.  It’s unknown if Beckman will be a part of UNC’s traveling party.