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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)

Convicted of federal drug charge, former Arkansas RB Cedric Cobbs says he is dealing with CTE

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Former Arkansas running back Cedric Cobbs plead guilty to conspiracy to distribute oxycodone and other narcotics in a United States District Court on Thursday, but was granted a no-prison sentenced because Cobbs told the judge he is undergoing treatment for brain disease.

He was sentenced to three years of probation contingent upon continuing treatment for drugs and mental health counseling.

According to Eric Bolin of Arkansas News, Cobbs is a patient at The Crosby Center, an Escondido, Calif., treatment center that claims to be “recognized as one of the nation’s foremost sports treatment centers for helping athletes reclaim their lives.” Bolin writes Cobbs is battling CTE, which Boston University says may only be diagnosed posthumously.

Cobbs accumulated 3,018 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns as an Arkansas running back from 1999-03. He left school as the Hogs’ third-leading rusher and helped the club reach the 2002 SEC championship game. Cobbs won a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots and played for the Denver Broncos.

In addition to his 2014 indictment, Cobbs was arrested last July on a charge of first-degree promoting prostitution, where police found two meth pipes, meth and prescription pills in his car. Cobbs was also arrested in 2013 for prescription fraud and evading arrest. He was sentenced to probation for misdemeanor fleeing and drug fraud.

Substance abuse is a known symptom of CTE.

Les Miles issues statement on wreck that claimed lives of MSU, Nebraska punters, injured LSU’s kicker

BATON ROUGE, LA - NOVEMBER 08: Colby Delahoussaye #42 of the LSU Tigers kicks a field goal in the fourth quarter against the Alabama Crimson Tide during a game at Tiger Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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A tragedy that struck the Michigan State and Nebraska football communities has also touched LSU’s.

On their way home from a kicking camp overnight, Nebraska punter Sam Foltz and former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler were killed in a car accident in Wisconsin this weekend.  Additionally, LSU placekicker Colby Delahoussaye was injured in the crash that claimed the players’ lives.

Delahoussaye has since been released from an area hospital after sustaining burns to his legs and lacerations that required stitches.  LSU issued a press release revealing a couple of details surrounding the accident:

The car crash occurred at 11:43 p.m. on Saturday on Beaver Lake Road. According to the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department, the vehicle, which was driven by Sadler, lost control on a wet pavement and crashed into a tree. Foltz was sitting in the front passenger seat, while Delahoussaye was the lone passenger in the backseat.

A short time ago his football coach released a statement addressing the tragic situation.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of Sam Foltz and Mike Sadler. We grieve for them,” Les Miles stated. “This isn’t supposed to happen to young people who have so much to live for.

“We are so thankful that Colby will be able to return home to his family and friends.”

In 2013 and 2014, Delahoussaye, a senior walk-on with the Tigers, converted on a combined 24-of-29 field goal attempts.  He was replaced last season by Trey Domingue, who announced earlier this month that he was transferring from LSU after his scholarship wasn’t renewed before confirming this weekend that he’ll be continuing his collegiate playing career at Texas.

Nebraska P Sam Foltz, former Michigan State P Mike Sadler killed in car accident

PISCATAWAY, NJ - NOVEMBER 14:  Drew Brown #34 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers is congratulated by teammate Sam Foltz #27 after Brown kicked the extra point in the first half 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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Nebraska punter Sam Foltz and former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler were killed in a car accident overnight in Wisconsin, both programs have confirmed. The pair were on their way home from a kicking camp, according to the Lincoln Journal-Star. LSU kicker Colby Delahoussaye was also injured in the crash but is no longer under the care of Waukesha Memorial Hospital according to the Baton Rouge Advocate.

“Last night, we lost one of the best young men who I have ever had the honor to coach and who has ever worn the Nebraska uniform,” Huskers head coach Mike Riley said in a statement. “Sam was universally loved and respected by everyone he touched and on whom he had a positive influence each and every day.  His tragic loss is immeasurable to his family, his friends, his classmates, his teammates and his coaches and our thoughts and prayers are with all of them.  The young men in our football program are hurting but I know that their strength of character and resolve will bring us together and we will honor Sam every day moving forward.”

Kohl’s Kicking Camp director Jamie Kohl also released a statement on the pair’s passing.

Foltz, 22, was named the Big Ten’s punter of the year in 2015 and was named a First Team All-Big Ten performer. A three-year starter for the Huskers, Foltz earned a bachelor’s degree in agronomy in May.

Sadler, 24, occupied the Spartans’ punter position from 2011-14 and earned recognition as the first four-time Academic All-American in the history of Michigan State’s football program. A finalist for the William V. Campbell Award, college football’s highest academic honor, in 2014, Sadler ranked among the top six in Spartans history for punts, punting yardage and punting average.

Sadler announced in April he had been accepted to Stanford Law School. “So I woke up at 8 o’clock in the morning, just had nothing going on that day, so like any good nerd I started watching physics lectures online, because I had nothing else to do with my time, got through two separate ninety minute lectures um actually from Stanford on String Theory, so as soon as I was about to start the third ninety minute session, I get a call from a Palo Alto number and I’m thinking, there’s no way this has anything to do with law, this is the physics department saying get off our website ah but sure enough it was the dean of the law school telling me that I had gotten in and I was ecstatic at that point,” he told WLNS of learning his acceptance.

Nebraska has announced that it will not partake in Big Ten media days festivities this week.

Details of the crash are still oncoming from officials in Waukesha, Wisc.

Iowa DE says he was held at gunpoint while playing Pokemon Go

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01:  Christian McCaffrey #5 of the Stanford Cardinal runs past Faith Ekakitie #56 and Cole Fisher #36 of the Iowa Hawkeyes in the 102nd Rose Bowl Game on January 1, 2016 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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Iowa defensive lineman Faith Ekakitie (No. 56, above) nearly became a tragic combination of two of this nation’s hot button topics, according to a post on his Facebook page.

Ekakitie says he was in an Iowa City park playing Pokemon Go when officers approached him with guns drawn, suspecting him of being involved in a nearby bank robbery. Ekakitie wrote his profile — a large black man dressed in black clothes — led five Iowa City officers to approach him, but the Hawkeye defender did not hear their approach due to having headphones in his ears — which led the officers to draw their guns. Ekakitie wrote police searched him before letting him go.

“My pockets were checked, my backpack was opened up and searched carefully, and I was asked to lift up my shirt while they searched my waistband,” Ekakitie wrote. “Not once did they identify themselves to me as Iowa City Police officers, but with four gun barrels staring me in the face, I wouldn’t dare question the authority of the men and woman in front of me. This is what happened from my point of view.”

Sgt. Jorey Bailey confirmed Iowa City offers stopped Ekakitie, and an Iowa spokesman confirmed Ekakitie’s version of events.

“In this situation, what the media would fail to let people know is that the suspect had his headphones in the entire time the Police Officers approached him initially,” Ekakitie wrote. “The suspect had actually just pulled up to the park because he was playing a newly popular Game called Pokémon Go. The suspect didn’t realize that there were four cops behind him because his music was blaring in his ears. The suspect had reached into his pockets, for something which was his phone, but for all the cops could have known, he was reaching for a gun. The suspect could very well become another statistic on this day.

“I am not one to usually rant on Facebook or anywhere else, but with all of the crazy things that have been happening in our world these past couple of weeks it is hard to stay silent. I am thankful to be alive.”

A senior from Brampton, Ontario, Canada, Ekakitie recorded 13 tackles in 12 appearances last season.