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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)

Alabama quarterback Blake Barnett officially withdraws from school

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 05:  Blake Barnett #6 of the Alabama Crimson Tide throws before the Advocare Classic against the Wisconsin Badgers at AT&T Stadium on September 5, 2015 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Despite the wishes of Alabama head coach Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide depth chart officially became a little thinner on Thursday.

After nearly a day of speculation, Alabama announced that quarterback Blake Barnett is no longer a part of the Crimson Tide football team.

“We received word this afternoon that Blake Barnett has officially withdrawn from school and is no longer with our program,” Saban said in a statement. “The quarterback position is a very unique position where only one player can play. We are very disappointed any time a player leaves the program who feels he can compete for a starting position elsewhere, rather than here at Alabama. We wish Blake the very best of luck in the future.”

Barnett started the opener against USC and has thrown for 219 yards and two touchdowns on the year. However the redshirt freshman lost the starting job to true freshman Jalen Hurts and has only played sparingly in the first month of the season.

Saban recently said he wanted Barnett to remain with the program but it seems pretty obvious that playing time would be limited as the team’s backup signal-caller and a transfer would be forthcoming. Now it appears the only question is where to for the former five-star recruit, who is a Southern California native and was recruited by nearly everybody coming out of high school.

Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez wants changes to Big Ten scheduling

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 1:  Acting head coach Barry Alvarez of the Wisconsin Badgers looks on from the bench before the start of the Outback Bowl against the Auburn Tigers on January 1, 2015 during  at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
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Wisconsin has been one of the pleasant surprises to begin the 2016 season but a lot of folks are not counting on the Badgers to remain in the top 10 of the polls after one of the most brutal schedules in the month of October you can find.

Having already played (and beat) defending conference champion Michigan State last week, Wisconsin travels to No. 4 Michigan, has a bye week, then hosts No. 2 Ohio State. They’re not done after that though, traveling to Iowa and then hosting No. 15 Nebraska in a stretch that should determine the West division champion before the month is up.

Longtime head coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez is well aware of what awaits his team and is no fan of such an unbalanced schedule.

“I remember when that schedule came out (in 2013) and I thought, ‘How the hell did you kick out something looking like that?” Alvarez told CBSSports.com. “I think you could take a look at the general strength of some programs and split them up. Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State have been good for a long time. Penn State Nittany Lions normally is in that group. Just make sure someone doesn’t get all three year in a year. That’s hard to do. That’s something the ADs are going to have to talk about some day.”

The Big Ten recently moved to a nine game conference slate which means an additional crossover game between divisions. Wisconsin has been the beneficiary of some weaker schedules in the past (Rutgers/Maryland in 2014/15) but seem to be the poster child this year for drawing all of the major powers from the East division.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany cautioned against reading too much into the Badgers’ schedule in 2016 and wants to see how the current format works out — but didn’t rule out any future changes.

“If I was an AD, I would probably be saying the same thing (as Alvarez),” Delany said. “If I was a football coach, I know I would.”

The conference has released the league schedule through 2019 but you can bet the next set of Big Ten games will likely break up some of the more historically successful programs a little more when it comes to division crossover games. Until then though, ‘On Wisconsin’ will have to be more than the school motto in October for Alvarez and his Badgers.

Pick problems lead Bowling Green to make a change at QB

COLUMBUS, OH - SEPTEMBER 3:  James Knapke #3 of the Bowling Green Falcons is sacked by Nick Bosa #97 of the Ohio State Buckeyes during the fourth quarter on September 3, 2016 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State defeated Bowling Green 77-10. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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In 118 pass attempts this season, James Knapke has tossed nine interceptions, the most of any FBS quarterback through Week 4.  Entering Week 5, Bowling Green isn’t planning on allowing the senior quarterback to add to that total.

In a brief statement Thursday morning, BGSU head coach Mike Jinks announced that redshirt freshman James Morgan will start at quarterback Saturday against Eastern Michigan.  Morgan replaced Knapke in the loss to Memphis last week after the starter tossed three interceptions.

Morgan himself hasn’t been averse to turnovers, however, as he has thrown three in 46 attempts.

After Matt Johnson went down with a season-ending injury in the 2014 opener, Knapke took over as the starter and threw for 3,173 yards, 15 and 12 interceptions.  A healthy Johnson (shut it, 12-year-olds) reclaimed his job in 2015, but Knapke took over again in 2016 as Johnson’s eligibility expired.

Not only are Knapke’s interceptions the most in the country, but his pass efficiency rating of 88.4 is the worst of the 121 FBS quarterbacks listed on the NCAA.com stats page.

Wisconsin loses kicker Rafael Gaglianone to season-ending surgery

GREEN BAY, WI - SEPTEMBER 03:  Rafael Gaglianone #27 of the Wisconsin Badgers makes a field goal during the first half against the LSU Tigers at Lambeau Field on September 3, 2016 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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As far as kickers go, this is a rather significant development.

Last week, Wisconsin’s Rafael Gaglianone did not make the trip to East Lansing for the Michigan State game because of a back issue.  Not only will the placekicker miss this Saturday’s game against No. 4 Michigan, he will be sidelined for the remainder of the 2016 season after undergoing back surgery.

According to the school, Gaglianone’s condition improved Sunday but subsequently worsened.  It was then decided that the junior would undergo the medical procedure.

A similar back injury, the school said, led Gaglianone to miss spring practice last year.

“You’re disappointed for Rafael because of all the work he’s put in and how well he was playing,” head coach Paul Chryst said in a statement. “From a football perspective, I’ve appreciated the way the other guys in that unit have responded this week.”

This season, Gaglianone has connected on seven of eight field goal attempts and all 10 extra points.  Included in that total was what turned out to be the game-winning field goal in the opener against LSU at Lambeau Field.

Including this season, Gaglianone, who will be eligible for a medical hardship waiver, has been good on 44-57 field goals in his career and all but two of his 111 point afters.

With Gaglianone sidelined, the Badgers will turn to Andrew Endicott.  The senior, who hadn’t previously attempted a field goal or extra point at the collegiate level, made 1-1 of the former and 3-4 of the latter in replacing Gaglianone against MSU.