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)

UCLA, Wisconsin reach agreement on future home-and-home

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Still a dozen years down the scheduling road, a future Big Ten-Pac-12 series has nonetheless been revealed.

UCLA and Wisconsin announced Tuesday that the two football programs have reached an agreement on a future home-and-home.  The two teams play at the Rose Bowl on Sept. 15, 2029, and at Camp Randall Stadium on Sept. 7, 2030.

“UCLA is one of the premier programs in college football,” UW athletic director Barry Alvarez said in a statement. “We had some memorable bowl games when I was on the sidelines but this is a great opportunity for us to play them at Camp Randall. Non-conference scheduling is always a challenge but the folks at UCLA have been great to deal with and we look forward to the series.”

The two teams have met 11 times previously, the most recent coming in the 2000 Sun Bowl.  The last regular season meeting between the programs came in 1982.

The Bruins own a 7-4 advantage in the all-time series, including a perfect 5-0 mark in Madison.  The Badgers, though, have won the last three meetings, all of which came in the postseason and the first two of which were Rose Bowl victories.

Philly to play host to four of next five Army-Navy games

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Earlier this year, it was reported that both the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees were looking into hosting future Army-Navy football games.  In fact, the latter American League East team had submitted a formal bid for the 2018 edition of one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports.

Unfortunately for both organizations, 2023 is the absolute earliest either would potentially play host to a game.

The athletic directors at both Army and Navy, Boo Corrigan and Chet Gladchuk, respectively, jointly announced Tuesday that the 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022 games will be played at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.  The vast majority of the 117 games in the rivalry, 86 to be specific, have been played in Philadelphia.

That city will also host the 2017 game.

“The legacy of the City of Brotherly Love and the home of Army-Navy continues to be the benchmark for hosting America’s game,” said Gladchuk in a statement. “This tradition in Philly is so well received and embraced by the city and community that it remains a highlight of the season for the teams, alumni, and fans. Our appreciation to everyone, including USAA, who works so hard to make this week-long festival, culminating with our nation’s cherished match-up between Army and Navy, the fantastic experience it is.”

“Philadelphia is synonymous with the Army-Navy game, so it is fitting that we are playing at Lincoln Financial Field for four of the next five matchups,” Corrigan said in his. “I want to thank the Philadelphia Eagles and PHL Sports. We look forward to continuing the relationship with the City of Philadelphia and creating more memories for America’s Game. The interest level in the game and our future sites was extremely high with first-class bids coming from some of the nation’s best cities, which made for extensive discussions and a difficult decision for those involved.”

An official announcement on the 2021 game is expected later today, with MetLife Stadium in New Jersey the likely choice.  That season’s game will coincide with the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Baltimore (Baltimore Ravens, M&T Bank Stadium), Foxborough (New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium) and the District of Columbia (Washington Redskins) had also submitted bids to host games.

 

North Carolina State dismisses two freshmen, suspends three others

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North Carolina State is the latest to feel the wrath of off-field tumult just ahead of the start of the 2017 season.

The football program announced Tuesday afternoon that two freshmen, wide receiver Antoine Thompson and defensive end Kevince Brown, have been dismissed from Dave Doeren‘s football program.  Additionally, a trio of additional freshmen, linebacker Isaiah Moore, defensive lineman Erin Collins and defensive lineman Xavier Lyas, have been indefinitely suspended by Doeren.  It’s believed those three will miss at least one game apiece.

The disciplinary measures stem from what were described as “violations of the Student Athlete Code of Conduct.”

The discipline also comes a month or so after an investigation into allegations of three separate sexual assaults at one on-campus party was launched.  According to the school, however, the dismissals and suspensions “are not regarding allegations of sexual assault.”

From WNCN-TV in Raleigh:

The five freshman football players were at the on-campus party in a student’s room at Wolf Village where alcohol and marijuana were present, the school said.

Investigators executed search warrants where they looked at cell phones, the residence and reviewed video from campus security cameras.

“We had five freshmen, two of whom have been dismissed, who made poor decisions that don’t align with the values of our program and each has been handled accordingly,” Doeren said in a statement. “Although I’ve disciplined these players for violations of the Student Athlete Code of Conduct, I want to make it clear that I respect due process in the University and legal proceedings. Our players understand that I’m going be firm, but fair when it comes to discipline.”

“The football players who violated the Student Athlete Code of Conduct and Football Team Rules have been disciplined by Coach Doeren, with my full support,” athletic director Debbie Yow said in hers. “Coach Doeren continues to responsibly manage difficult circumstances in an appropriate and forthcoming manner, which is greatly appreciated. Two have been dismissed from the team and are no longer enrolled at NC State, and three others have received suspensions from competition, as well as other discipline. These actions are not regarding allegations of sexual assault. We reserve the right to impose additional sanctions if new violations are discovered.”

All five players were three-star members of NCSU’s 2017 recruiting class.  Only three members of that class were rated higher than Thompson.

Lane Kiffin informally utilizing Art Briles to help FAU offense

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Leave it to Lane Kiffin to leave no stone unturned, regardless of how controversial it may be.

Not long after he was hired as the head coach at Florida Atlantic, Kiffin came under fire after hiring Kendal Briles as his offensive coordinator, especially after a woman alleged in a lawsuit that the assistant coach had contributed to the “culture of sexual violence” at Baylor.  Kiffin subsequently stood by his hiring of Briles, saying that the coordinator was thoroughly vetted by the athletic department before joining the program.

Over the weekend and on into this week, Kiffin opened himself up to additional criticism when both he and Briles confirmed that each of them have turned to Art Briles, ousted as BU’s head football coach in the midst of the sexual assault scandal, for help and advice when it comes to the Owls’ offense.

From the Sun-Sentinel:

Obviously, he has ideas,” Kendal said. “He wants to know personnel and different guys and making sure we’re getting those guys in the right spots and getting them touches and all that stuff. He’s a football coach, that’s all he’s ever been. He’s definitely involved and we talk daily.”

Kendal said he’s sent film to Art before to help with the FAU offense. On Monday, Kiffin said he’s spoken with Art a couple times.

“Obviously, he’s done unbelievable things on offense,” Kiffin said. “It’s his system that he started years and years ago. Every once in a while, I’ll text or call him and bounce something off of him.

The newspaper made sure to note that, per the younger Briles, the elder Briles has not been on the FAU campus.  And, when such a note is necessary, publicly associating yourself with the disgraced head coach in any way, shape of form might not be the best idea.  Then again, for better or worse, Kiffin’s gonna Kiffin, regardless of what anyone else thinks.