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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)

Shaq Davidson goes from FBS Gamecocks to FCS Gamecocks

Jacksonville State
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Shaq Davidson may have left South Carolina, but he’ll still be a Gamecock in 2016.

Davidson first hinted on Twitter then confirmed to 247Sports.com that he has decided to continue his collegiate playing career at Jacksonville State.  A member of the JSU coaching staff also confirmed the move in a tweet.

As the Gamecocks play at the FCS level, the wide receiver will be eligible to play immediately in 2016.

According to Richardson, he also considered Tennessee-Chattanooga, Furman and Winston-Salem State, but a visit to JSU last week sealed the deal.

“I felt at home,” Davidson said. “They came on late for me but they came on strong.”

A four-star member of USC’s 2014 recruiting class, Davidson was rated as the No. 5 player at any position in the state of South Carolina and the No. 30 receiver in the country.

Richardson never lived up to that lofty recruiting pedigree, however, as he took a redshirt as a true freshman and tore an ACL last August.  Then, he was reportedly dismissed by first-year head coach Will Muschamp this past February.

A&M got down & dirty — and crude & sexist — at football clinic for women

COLLEGE STATION, TX - SEPTEMBER 21:  Fans of the Texas A&M Aggies proudly stand in the Home of the 12th Man during the NCAA football game against the Virginia Tech Hokies on September 21, 2002 at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas. The Hokies won 13-3. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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And boy, did they ever.

Myriad football programs across the country have, for many years, put on football clinics specifically targeted for women in an effort to help that gender better understand the game of football.  As Raekwon McMillan can attest, some women take the sport very seriously.

At Texas A&M, meanwhile, they used what was titled “Chalk Talk for Women” to get their sexual innuendo on this past week.

Scout.com was on the receiving end of some photos from a slide show at the A&M women’s clinic, attended by 700 females, on what to do and not to do in run-blocking and, suffice to say, they left little to the imagination.

A&M 1

A&M 2

A&M 3

Additionally, A&M decided to “tweak” the words to the “Aggie War Hymn” and, suffice to say, it didn’t go over all too well as some viewed it as overtly sexist.

Very smooth, A&M.  Very smooth.

I, personally, think it’s very forward and progressive thinking to allow 12-year-old boys to handle at least a portion of such a high-profile presentation.  I’m sure all of your mothers and wives would be very proud.

Given the burgeoning uproar over the event, head coach Kevin Sumlin subsequently issued a statement in which he revealed that two of his assistant coaches responsible for the presentation, offensive line coach Jim Turner and special teams coordinator/tight ends coach Jeff Banks, have been suspended for two weeks without pay.  Additionally, the two will serve 20 hours of community service.

“There is absolutely no place in our program or in our University community for inappropriate conduct or degrading comments towards women, or anyone, regardless of intent,” Sumlin said in a statement. “On behalf of Aggie football, I want to apologize for the comments at Chalk Talk and also for my failure to review their individual presentations.”

“We want to sincerely apologize to the passionate Aggie fans and to women everywhere for our failed attempt at humor during this week’s Aggie Football Chalk Talk and fundraiser,” a statement from the assistants began. “We clearly understand now that our comments and slides were not appropriate or consistent with the values of our football program or our Department. We must do better, and we will.”

SJSU loses third-leading receiver in school history to academics

SAN JOSE, CA - NOVEMBER 29:  Wide receiver Tyler Winston #15 of the San Jose Spartans pulls in a touchdown pass against Jonathan Norton #37 of the Fresno State Bulldogs in the first quarter on November 29, 2013 at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, California.  The Spartans upset the Bulldogs 62-52 to drop them to 10-1.  (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
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San Jose State will enter the 2016 season without one of its most experienced and dependable playmakers in the passing game at its disposal.

Head coach Ron Caragher confirmed Thursday that Tyler Winston will miss the entire 2016 season because of academics.  Provided he gets his academic house in order, Winston is expected to return to the playing field for his senior season in 2017.

Until then, Winston will be permitted to practice with his Spartan teammates.

“He’ll be a great scout team receiver for us,” the coach said according to the San Jose Mercury News.

Last season, Winston was tied for fourth on the team with 35 receptions, and was fourth in yards with 368 despite a season-ending knee injury he suffered in late October.  He is currently third on the school’s all-time list in receptions (171) and eighth in yards (1,920).

Of the 30 games in which he’s played, Winton has started 28 of those contests.  After being named the Mountain West Freshman of the Year in 2013, he followed that up by being named second-team All-MWC in 2014.

Big 12 reportedly prefers expansion to be settled before start of season

WVU vs Marshall
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Unlike most goings-on in the conference, it doesn’t appear the Big 12 is going to drag its feet on the biggest issue it’s currently facing.

The Big 12 announced earlier this month that the conference will expand, whether by two teams or four.  Regardless of the final number, CBSSports.com‘s Dennis Dodd, citing three individuals with knowledge of the ongoing process, reported Thursday, the conference “would prefer to wrap up the expansion process before the start of the 2016 football season.” The reasoning for an expedited timeline is simple: the powers-that-be in the league do not want expansion talk and speculation to overshadow actual football.

Such a timeline would also be beneficial for any incoming teams.

If the expansion teams are indeed announced before the season, that conceivably would give the new schools a chance to begin playing in the conference in 2017. For now, the league is in the process of contemplating how it will decide participants for its championship game that has been reinstated for 2017.

“I have not made any comment on time frame and do not plan any such statement,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told Dodd in a statement.

It’s believed that any new members for the Big 12 will come from a group that includes teams from both the AAC (Cincinnati, East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, SMU, Tulane, UCF, USF) and Mountain West (Boise State, Colorado State, San Diego State) as well as football-independent BYU.  More specifically, BYU, Houston, Memphis, UCF and UConn are considered by some/most observers as the front-runners, with some throwing Cincinnati in as well.

The AAC kicks off its Media Days Monday, and expansion will no doubt dominate the conversation during the two-day event.