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)

Kyle Whittingham confirms Darren Carrington is at Utah, not yet a Ute

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Former Oregon wide receiver Darren Carrington‘s father confirmed his son of the same name was headed to Utah on Wednesday, and the head coach of the team in question has now double confirmed it.

But just because Carrington is at the University of Utah does not make him a Ute. Not yet.

Speaking at Pac-12 media days, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said Carrington is in school but has hurdles to clear to join the team.

“Not just yet. There’s a process that has to occur, some things that have to transpire and we’ve just got to wait for all that to kind of take place,” Whittingham said, via Deseret News.

It’s not sure what “things” have to transpire and when that is expected to happen; Whittingham couldn’t be sure Carrington would be with the team when camp opens Friday.

“Right now I don’t have a good answer because everything’s being sorted through right now,” Whittingham said.

Carrington will be immediately eligible to play as a graduate transfer. He caught 43 passes for a team-leading 606 yards and six touchdowns last season. Utah’s leading returning receiver, junior Raelon Singleton, nabbed 27 passes for 464 yards and four scores a year ago.

Clay Helton: O.J. not welcome back at USC

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OJ Simpson is one of the greatest Trojans of all-time. A unanimous two-time All-American, Simpson won the 1968 Heisman Trophy and was a member of USC’s 1967 national championship team.

OJ Simpson will also soon be a free man.

Granted parole from his felony armed robbery conviction last week, Simpson will be free on Oct. 1. The question, then, if you’re a reporter at Pac-12 media days is whether or not USC will welcome back one of its most accomplished — if not favorite — sons.

The answer? Uh, no.

To be clear, Simpson has not indicated he wanted to be part of USC football again. The 70-year-old indicated to the parole board he would return to Florida if granted his freedom.

USC has distanced itself from Simpson ever since his 1994 double-murder trial, but his Heisman Trophy remains on display at Heritage Hall.

4-star QB explains why he picked Princeton over Power 5 offers

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The NCAA likes to remind us that it represents thousands of athletes and most of them will go pro in something other than sports. Most of those athletes consciously know that, yet their college decisions are usually based on what school will help them go pro in sports.

Not Brevin White.

The Lancaster, Ca., quarterback is a 4-star prospect in 247Sports‘s 2018 rankings, with reported offers from Tennessee, Washington, Auburn, North Carolina and others. He’s going to Princeton. White committed to the Tigers on Wednesday, making him Princeton’s highest-rated recruit since Woodrow Wilson.

On Thursday, White appeared on The Dan Patrick Show to talk through why he turned down the SEC for the Ivy League.

Nevada names ‘Bama transfer as starting QB, but doesn’t say he’ll start opener

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David Cornwell, an Alabama transfer, will be Nevada’s starting quarterback — until he isn’t.

Wolf Pack head coach Jay Norvell said at Pac-12 media days that Cornwell will enter fall camp, which begins Monday, as the starter but that doesn’t mean Cornwell will actually start Nevada’s opener at Northwestern.

“David’s the starting quarterback right now and he’ll have to compete and earn that spot throughout training camp and if there’s reason for him not to be (the starting quarterback) we’ll address,” Norvell said, via the Reno Gazette-Journal. “Until we see that, we won’t make any changes at that position.”

A junior from Jones, Okla., Cornwell did not throw a pass with the Crimson Tide. He started Nevada’s spring game and completed 22-of-33 throws for 302 yards with two touchdowns.

“David fits those qualities and demonstrated those strengths the best out of all of our quarterbacks in the spring, and that’s why he was the starting quarterback,” said Norvell. “And the way he played in the spring game gave us even more evidence of that.”

Cornwell’s competition for the starting spot will be incumbent Ty Gangi, also a junior. Gangi appeared in 10 games last season, nailing 99-of-172 throws for 1,301 yards with eight touchdowns against six interceptions whilst rushing 49 times for 217 yards and three scores.