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CFT 2014 Preseason Preview: Playoff Darkhorses


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)

No charges filed in alleged rape at Nebraska players’ house

PISCATAWAY, NJ - NOVEMBER 14:  Tommy Armstrong Jr. #4 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers congratulates teammate Jordan Westerkamp #1 after he scored a touchdown in the first quarter against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights  on November 14, 2015 at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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An investigation into an alleged sexual assault at the home of three current Nebraska football players will not result in charges, Lancaster County (Neb.) officials announced Wednesday.

An unidentified 20-year-old female claimed she was raped Nov. 15 at the residence of NU quarterback Tommy Armstrong (pictured, left), tight end Trey Foster and wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp (pictured, right). The subsequent investigation could not prove that any type of an assault had taken place.

“Filing charges would require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. That simply is not there,” district attorney Joe Kelly stated in announcing the decision.  Armstrong had previously claimed that “[f]rom what we’re hearing, everything was consensual.”

The university’s athletic department released a statement in the wake of today’s announcement.

We are aware of this morning’s announcement by the Lincoln Police Department and the Lancaster County Attorney. There is no change in the status of any student-athletes. We will continue to follow University policies.

The school is in the midst of conducting its own investigation into the situation. As it stands now, all three players will be available for Friday’s game against No. 4 Iowa..

Baylor loses QB Jarrett Stidham to broken bone in ankle

Jarrett Stidham, Lemaefe Galea'i
Associated Press

If Baylor’s designs on a national championship are to come to fruition, it appears the Big 12 school will be forced to go the Ohio State route and do it with their third-string quarterback.

The university has reportedly confirmed Wednesday that Jarrett Stidham sustained a broken bone in the back of his ankle in the second quarter of Saturday’s win over previously unbeaten Oklahoma State.  As a result, the true freshman will miss the remainder of the 2015 season.

Stidham had started the last three games in place of Seth Russell, who will miss the rest of 2015 as well because of a broken bone in his neck.

With Stidham and Russell sidelined, the Bears’ title hopes will fall in large part to Chris Johnson. The redshirt sophomore had been moved to wide receiver during summer camp before becoming Stidham’s backup a month ago.  In the win over OSU, Johnson completed five of his 10 passes for 138 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

Should Johnson find himself injured, the only other player listed as a quarterback on Baylor’s roster is Zack Bennema. A true freshman, Bennema joined the Bears earlier this year as a walk-on.

Baylor will travel to TCU and host Texas to close out the season.  Because of a loss to Oklahoma earlier this month, the Bears will need a Sooners loss in Bedlam in addition to winning its last two in order to claim a Big 12 title and, potentially, a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Federal fugitive arrested at home of Buffs players following hours-long standoff

BERKELEY, CA - SEPTEMBER 27:  Colorado Buffaloes head coach Mike MacIntyre argues with lines judge Michael Feldman during their game against the California Golden Bears at California Memorial Stadium on September 27, 2014 in Berkeley, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Every year I type a headline that I never thought I’d have to type. Welcome to at least the third one of those in 2015.

Tuesday, 24-year-old Donte Faison, the subject of a manhunt led by the U.S. Marshals Service, was arrested following a six-hour standoff that involved the Boulder Police Department SWAT team. Faison was wanted in connection to a shooting in Baltimore — he’s facing first-degree attempted murder charges once he’s extradited — although the fact that the standoff took place at the residence of a current, unnamed member of the Colorado Buffaloes football team brings this under the CFT purview.

According to a statement from the university, Faison is “a childhood acquaintance” of the unnamed Buffs player, and neither the unnamed player nor any of the other CU players who interacted with him since his arrival in the state Monday were aware of his status as a wanted fugitive.

Mr. Faison is a childhood acquaintance of a CU football player and recently asked to reconnect and stay in his home with other players. Every indication we have is that the players had no knowledge that law enforcement agencies had an active warrant for Mr. Faison’s arrest. Our players are cooperating with Boulder police during this investigation.

Faison is originally from Washington D.C.; three current Buffs, defensive backs Ken Crawley and John Walker and defensive lineman De’Jon Wilson, claim the nation’s capital as their hometown on the football program’s official online roster.

Exactly two weeks ago, athletic director Rick George very publicly stated that Mike MacIntyre, 10-26 overall and 2-24 in Pac-12 play, “is going to be our coach next year.

Bowl-eligible Cal might need another win to actually become bowl-eligible

TUCSON, AZ - SEPTEMBER 20:  Head coach Sonny Dykes of the California Golden Bears reacts on the sidelines during the second half of the college football game against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium on September 20, 2014 in Tucson, Arizona. The Wildcats defeated the Golden Bears 49-45.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Following a Week 10 win over Oregon State, Cal won its sixth game of the season and became bowl-eligible… or did they?

Cal opened the 2015 season against FCS Grambling State, a win that is supposed to count toward the six needed for bowl eligibility. According to USA Today, however, a scholarship issue on Grambling’s side could lead to the win not counting for Cal’s bowl eligibility.

More to the point, Cal has already requested a waiver from the NCAA that would allow for the win to count toward bowl eligibility regardless of the scholarship accounting that’s currently ongoing. From Steve Berkowitz‘s USA Today report:

Grambling is a Football Championship Subdivision School, and Cal athletics spokesman Wes Mallette told USA TODAY Sports that the request was made because Grambling officials are trying to determine whether the school has awarded a sufficient amount of financial aid to football players for the game to count without a waiver.

Under NCAA rules, FBS schools generally can count one win against an FCS team per season toward the six needed for bowl eligibility. However, for the game to count without a waiver, the FCS school needs to have awarded — on average — at least 90% of the 63 scholarships allowed under FCS rules during a rolling two-year period.

According to Grambling’s 2013-14 financial report to the NCAA — the most recent one available — the school awarded the equivalent of 52.55 football scholarships in 2013-14. However, that document covers only financial aid awarded by athletics department sources — not all forms of aid that can count toward the scholarship limit. In response to an inquiry from USA TODAY Sports, Grambling’s interim assistant athletic director Patricia Simmons said the school’s athletics department and financial aid office had determined the school awarded the equivalent of 56.44 football scholarships, including all countable aid, in 2014-15. That’s fractionally short of meeting the NCAA’s 90% requirement.

Should the NCAA decide that Grambling falls under the scholarship threshold and Cal’s waiver is denied, it’d mean that the 6-5 Bears would need to beat 6-5 Arizona State Saturday night in Berkeley to become bowl-eligible for the second time this season. Bowl eligibility has served as a flashpoint issue of late, with Cal’s potential postseason plight shining a harsher and much-needed light on the oversaturation of the bowl market.

This year there will be a record 40 bowl games — including the two College Football Playoff semifinals, not including the stand-alone CFP title game — that will need filled with 80 teams. Entering Week 13, and including Cal, there are 71 teams that are currently bowl-eligible. There are 14 five-win teams that could get to that six-win mark this weekend: Buffalo, East Carolina, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Old Dominion, San Jose State, South Alabama, Tulsa, Virginia Tech and Washington. There are also four 4-6 teams that could get to six wins with victories the last two weeks of the season: Georgia State, Kansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Texas.

It should be noted that South Alabama is currently 5-5 and needs a win either this weekend or the next to become bowl-eligible.

It should also be noted that there are way too damn many bowl games, and the issue of whether a 5-7 team — or teams — will get rewarded for a sub-.500 season will continue annually until the postseason market corrects itself. I’m all for more quality football, just not more football for the sake of more football. I fear, though, I’m in the minority.