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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)

Western Kentucky gets Brian Brohm’s coaching career started

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' quarterback Brian Brohm runs in a touchdown during second half CFL football action in against the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Regina, Saskatchewan on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015. (Mark Taylor/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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Louisville legend Brian Brohm is heading back to Kentucky. Western Kentucky has added the former Cardinals quarterback to the coaching staff, the school announced Monday. Brohm will take on the role of quarterbacks coach with the Hilltoppers, his first coaching job. Of course, WKU head coach Jeff Brohm is the older brother to the new assistant coach. WKU Director of Football Operations Greg Brohm is also one of Brian Brohm’s older brothers.

Brian Brohm is now one of three former college quarterbacks on the staff for Western Kentucky. Both Brohm brothers on the coaching staff have quarterback experience, as does Bryan Ellis, who is being moved from coaching running backs to wide receivers.

Brohm was a former Conference USA Player of the Year in 2005 and Orange Bowl MVP in 2007 with Louisville. He later was a second-round NFL draft pick of the Green Bay Packers but the Packers had Aaron Rodger in place, so Brohm ended up on the practice squad. The Buffalo Bills signed Brohm in 2009 and he entered free agency at the end of the season. That took Brohm to the one-year experiment that was the United Football League with the Las Vegas Locomotives. Brohm then spent the past three seasons in the CFL with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Before getting to Louisville, Brohm was a three-time state champion at Trinity High School in Louisville, earning MVP honors in all three games. It goes without saying Brohm is a big name in the state of Louisville.

Perhaps returning home to his roots will be refreshing.

Steve Spurrier takes on role of ambassador with Gamecocks

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier gestures during a news conference Friday, Dec. 26, 2014, in Shreveport, La. The Gamecocks face Miami in the Independence Bowl NCAA college football game on Saturday. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
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You just knew it was going to be tough for Steve Spurrier to step away entirely from college football. Though he may no longer be calling the shots on the sideline with his signature visor, Spurrier will continue to be a face of South Carolina as he takes on an ambassador role.

Spurrier will be a special assistant for South Carolina president Harris Pastides and athletic director Ray Tanner, but his responsibilities in assisting the school’s leaders will extend far beyond simply getting coffee and making a quick run to Staples for office supplies. Spurrier will be used as a resource for his opinions when needed and he will continue to spread the word about South Carolina at any opportunity that presents itself. If that means playing a round of golf with some potential big donors, you know Spurrier will oblige to fulfill his duties.

Spurrier retired from coaching in early October 2015. Spurrier’s contract had a clause that allowed him to take on an ambassador’s role with the university if he chose to take advantage of it. Spurrier did not immediately jump on that option but is now reportedly settling in.

Virginia and Old Dominion set for future 3-game set

Virginia fans cheer on the Cavaliers after they scored a fourth quarter touchdown against Georgia State in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va. (AP Photo/The Daily Progress, Ryan M. Kelly)
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Old Dominion’s push to add nearby ACC programs to its schedule continues with the addition of a three-game set with Virginia. The two schools announced a three-game scheduling agreement that will see Virginia get two home games and play one game at Old Dominion.

Virginia will host Conference USA’s Old Dominion on November 17, 2018 and again on September 17, 2022. Old Dominion will welcome Virginia to Norfolk on November 21, 2020. According to The Virginian Pilot, Virginia will pay Old Dominion $400,000 per home game (Old Dominion will not pay Virginia for its home game).

Old Dominion has done a solid job of locking up contracts with multiple ACC opponents for years to come. The Monarchs visit NC State this fall in the second half of a home-and-home deal. Old Dominion has a home-and-home deal with North Carolina kicking off in 2017 and concluding in 2020. In between is a home-and-home deal with Virginia Tech as part of a long-term scheduling agreement. Wake Forest is also added for a home-and-home series in 2019 and 2020 (which means three ACC opponents for Old Dominion in 2020).

Old Dominion has tried sticking to straight home-and-home deals but the financial strain that leads to inevitably took a toll and influenced the decision to concede a home game against Virginia. Part of that appears to be the expected reduction in television revenue coming for Conference USA. Per The Virginian Pilot;

Conference USA officials recently learned that new TV contracts that go into effect in July will reduce the league’s revenue by about $500,000 per school per year. In addition, ODU is set to begin paying athletes stipends in August that are part of the so-called full cost of attendance. The stipends, which pay for cell phones, entertainment and travel not included in scholarships, will cost ODU about $800,000 per year.

With that in mind, it might not be a shock to see Old Dominion’s next scheduling agreement with a power conference opponent come with an extra road game as well.

Temple trustees vote to pursue new on-campus football stadium

Students, such as Casey Dougherty, rally outside a meeting of Temple University's Finance Committee on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, in Philadelphia. Temple University is pumping the brakes on plans to study building a $100 million football stadium on its north Philadelphia campus. (Charles Fox/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)  PHIX OUT; TV OUT; MAGS OUT; NEWARK OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT
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With a loud protest taking place just outside, Temple’s board of trustees voted unanimously in favor of pursuing a new football stadium for the Owls program. A study to review potential stadium options could cost the school up to, but not exceeding, $1 million.

The latest plans for a new football stadium would have a proposed 35,000-seat stadium costing up to $126 million placed on Temple’s campus, thus eliminating the need to rent out space in Lincoln Financial Field. Temple’s football program has called The Linc home since the doors opened in 2003. Temple has not played its home games on its campus since leaving Temple Stadium in 1977, at which point it moved its home games to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia’s sports complex. The vote to pursue a new stadium today is a giant step forward for Temple and the football program and perhaps a long time coming, but it is not one without its share of controversy.

The talks of a new football stadium at Temple have gone on for years, but are now finally seeming to take some steps forward despite a vocal objection from many around Temple’s campus and the Philadelphia community. Protests and demonstrations were planned as the board reviewed the next steps in a new stadium, which is still not a certainty for the university at this point. Among those voicing their opinions on Monday afternoon were students, Philadelphia citizens and more concerned about what a stadium dropped in the middle of North Philadelphia might mean for the community. Given the lackluster impact and results seen at similar campuses, there is legitimate reason for some concern at Temple, which is just now experiencing a new high in football success.

This is just one step out of many that needs to happen in order for Temple to construct a new football stadium. Approval from the city to build such a facility would have to be given, and that is no guarantee.