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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)

Separation of UCLA coach Jim Mora, wife of 30-plus years announced in a statement

PASADENA, CA - SEPTEMBER 19:  Head coach Jim Mora of the UCLA Bruins greets players after a third quarter UCLA touchdown against the BYU Cougars at the Rose Bowl on September 19, 2015 in Pasadena, California.  UCLA won 24-23.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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Unfortunately, the private life of a major college football coach has once again become laid bare for public consumption.

In a statement released Friday, the agent for UCLA head coach Jim Mora, Jimmy Sexton, released a statement confirming that his client and his wife, Shannon, have decided to separate.  The couple have been married for more than 30 years, and have four children — one daughter and three sons.

“After much thought and careful consideration, Jim and Shannon Mora have decided to separate,” the statement from Sexton began. “This was a very difficult decision and they appreciate the respect for their family’s privacy at this time.”

The 54-year-old Mora will be entering his fifth season as the head coach of the Bruins.  Earlier this month, UCLA announced that Mora, 37-16 in his first four seasons with the Bruins, had reached an agreement on a two-year contract extension with the university.

There was no specific word on whether any type of raise was involved in the new agreement, which keeps Mora signed through the 2021 season.

Entire Penn State staff on receiving end of new two-year contracts

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 27:  Head coach James Franklin of the Penn State Nittany Lions hugs a police officer after defeating the Boston College Eagles in the 2014 New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on December 27, 2014 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
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Earlier this year, James Franklin saw a pair of key assistant coaches leave his Penn State staff for other jobs.  Fast-forward a few months, and the head coach’s athletic department is looking to provide the program a little more staff stability.

Speaking to area reporters earlier this week, Franklin revealed that every member of his nine-man coaching staff received new two-year contracts this offseason.  Not only that, but other members of the football staff received new deals as well.

“Our entire staff just this summer got (two)-year contracts,” Franklin said Thursday according to the Times Leader. “All of the assistants, their first contracts just ran out. And they all just signed multiple-year, guaranteed contracts. All the strength coaches did. All the administrators. Everybody.”

Arguably the best part, though, at least from Franklin’s point of view?  The new deals also addressed the buyout aspect of contracts, presumably making it harder for a Nittany Lion assistant to jump ship without some type of significant financial penalty.

“That’s really good from a stability standpoint. It’s helpful,” said the coach o the contracts, adding, “and what we did is, it’s both ways. They have the stability and protections, but we have buyouts as well.”

In January, Franklin watched as defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and offensive line coach Herb Hand leave for jobs at Tennessee and Auburn, respectively. And it’s not like the assistants left for promotions; rather, each of the moves involved was, at least in title, lateral ones.

The pay involved in those moves, however, is another matter entirely, something that, along with the buyouts, was likely addressed in the new deals. The financial particulars, though, have yet to be released, although that’s expected at some point in the next month or two.

Baylor, Art Briles mutually agree to an official divorce, acknowledge ‘serious shortcomings’ in response to sexual assaults

WACO, TX - OCTOBER 17:  Head coach Art Briles of the Baylor Bears looks on as the Bears take on the West Virginia Mountaineers in the second half at McLane Stadium on October 17, 2015 in Waco, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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After some dotting of some i’s and crossing some t’s, and some closed-door legalese, Art Briles is officially a former head football coach.

In a press release Friday, Baylor announced that it and Briles “have mutually agreed to terminate their employment relationship.”  In the release, the university mentions “[b]oth parties acknowledge that there were serious shortcomings in the response to reports of sexual violence by some student-athletes.”  The public acknowledgement of “serious shortcomings” in responding to claims of sexual assault will likely be of import to the lawyers involved in at least three lawsuits filed against the university and/or Briles that allege “deliberate indifference” in their collective response to claims of sexual assault.

Briles’ termination is effective immediately, but was essentially effective nearly a month ago when Briles was suspended “with intent to terminate” in the wake of the sexual assault scandal that’s rocked the university in Waco.

As Baylor is a private institution, the financial terms of the separation haven’t been divulged.  Briles had eight years and nearly $40 million remaining on his contract at the time of his initial “suspension.”

The official separation also comes a week after Briles reportedly reached a contract settlement with the university.

Below is the full and complete release from Baylor on this development.

WACO, Texas (June 24, 2016) – Baylor University and Art Briles have mutually agreed to terminate their employment relationship, effective immediately. Both parties acknowledge that there were serious shortcomings in the response to reports of sexual violence by some student-athletes, including deficiencies in University processes and the delegation of disciplinary responsibilities with the football program. Baylor is addressing these shortcomings and making ongoing improvements.

Baylor wishes Coach Briles well in his future endeavors. Coach Briles expresses his thanks to the City of Waco and wishes the Baylor Bears success in the future.

ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

Pair of reserve O-linemen reportedly leaving Vols

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Tennessee has become the latest FBS program to see players leave in search of greener playing-time grass, with a pair of offensive linemen reportedly set to make their exits from Knoxville.

According to a pair of tweets from UT radio network sideline reporter John Brice, Vols linemen Dontavius Blair (pictured) and Ray Raulerson have decided to leave Butch Jones‘ football program.  According to 247Sports.com‘s Wes Rucker, “multiple program sources have indicated in the past week to GoVols247 that Blair and Raulerson were indeed looking to leave the program in hopes of having better chances to play.”

Both are expected to transfer to FCS programs to either continue their playing careers or, in the case of Blair, finish it.

Blair played in nine games last season, Blair in five. Neither player started a contest as a Vol.

When it came to the 2016 season, neither player was expected to be a significant part of any line rotation.