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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)

Georgia raises ticket prices following Kirby Smart hire

ATHENS, GA - SEPTEMBER 28: A general view of the Sanford Stadium before the game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the LSU Tigers on September 28, 2013 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
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Running a college athletics department is only getting more expensive, so attending a college football game will only get more expensive. Or, at least attending a Georgia game will.

Bulldogs president Jere Morehead and athletics director Greg McGarity revealed Thursday per-seat donations would rise an average of 17 percent for priority season ticket holders beginning in the 2017 season.

“It’s in anticipation of things that are ahead,” McGarity told the Athens Banner-Herald.

Cost-of-attendance scholarships bumped that line item up $766,000, and other costs across the department added an additional $5.3 million to the budget. All this while Georgia is building a new indoor facility and replacing Mark Richt and his staff while hiring Kirby Smart and his new staff.

“Those projects are going to be expensive,” Morehead said. “The cost of operating our athletic program each year continues to rise particularly as you look at the enhancements that are being provided to our student-athletes and to the support that we’re providing our student-athletes.”

The bump in prices will raise an extra $2.5 million for Georgia, and represents the first time Bulldogs fans have been asked to ante up since 2005.

“We wanted to be respectable in the increase to not price people out of a certain area but we did feel like we needed to make an adjustment,” said McGarity. “We want to continue to encourage people to come to games. We’ve got our work cut out to make sure (that happens).”

Ohio State to host Tulane in 2018

COLUMBUS, OH - SEPTEMBER 6:  The Ohio State Buckeyes kickoff to the Virginia Tech Hokies at Ohio Stadium on September 6, 2014 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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The Fighting Frites are heading to the Horseshoe.

Ohio State and Tulane announced a one-time game to be played in Columbus on Sept. 22, 2018.

“Tulane enhances and completes a non-conference schedule in 2018 that already includes Power 5 conference teams TCU and Oregon State,” Ohio State deputy AD Martin Jarmond said in a statement. “The Green Wave is part of a fine American Athletic Conference, which produced a New Year’s Day 6 bowl winner last year [Houston over Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl], so its first trip to Ohio Stadium should be exciting for our students and fans.”

The two teams have never met previously. Tulane last faced a Big Ten team on Sept. 27, 2014, a 31-6 loss at Rutgers. Ohio State last faced an American Athletic Conference program in the 2014 opener, a 34-17 Buckeyes win over Navy in Annapolis, Md.

We are excited for the opportunity to play Ohio State, one of the premier programs in the country,” Tulane executive associate athletics director Brandon Macneill said in a statement.  “Our coaching staff and players, along with our fans are eager to play against the very best and this should be a great game.  There will be a significant number of Tulanians from around the country joining us at the Horseshoe.”

Adding Tulane completes Ohio State’s 2018 non-conference schedule; the Buckeyes host Oregon State on Sept. 1 and visit TCU on Sept. 15. Tulane still lacks two games for 2018 but is slated to visit Georgia Tech on Sept. 8.

Georgia AD apologizes for giving Ludacris everything he demanded for spring game concert

Greg McGarity
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The University of Georgia paid Ludacris $65,000 to perform a concert at Georgia’s spring football game, and now the athletics director is apologizing for catering to every demand made by the artist.

In a meeting with the Georgia athletic board of directors, athletics director Greg McGarity offered an apology for giving in to a lengthy list of demands from Ludacris, which included condoms and alcohol.

“I do want to take this opportunity to apologize to our board for mistakes we made with certain aspects of the details of an entertainment agreement,” McGarity said, according to The Athens Banner-Herald. “Few things in my professional life have bothered me more than this situation. There are no reruns in life so we need to turn the page, learn from our mistakes and do everything we can to make sure errors of this nature do not reoccur.”

Georgia set a school attendance record for its spring game with an estimated total of 93,000 fans coming out for the first spring game under new head coach Kirby Smart. Of course, more than a few of those fans were encouraged to come out to see Ludacris perform, so it all worked out well for Georgia even if some people were not happy with the goods supplied to him during his stay.

“Some more than others as far as different age groups,” McGarrity said of the people expressing their displeasure with Georgia’s hospitality. “It was all over the map. I think there were a lot of things that came into play.”

Auburn RB Roc Thomas apparently heading to Jacksonville State

AUBURN, AL - SEPTEMBER 6: Running back Roc Thomas #9 of the Auburn Tigers runs the ball in for a touchdown as offensive linesman Jordan Diamond #76 of the Auburn Tigers blocks safety Forrest Hightower #12 of the San Jose State Spartans on September 6, 2014 at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Alabama. Auburn defeated San Jose State 59-13.  (Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images)
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Auburn running back Roc Thomas is possibly looking to join one of the top programs from the FCS ranks. Reports today surfaced suggesting Thomas is looking to transfer to Jacksonville State, although another report says he has yet to ask Auburn for a request to transfer.

During a radio interview, Jay G. Tate of AuburnSports.com said Thomas is likely on his way to Jacksonville State…

As that message was spreading around the college football landscape, largely under the ominous storm cloud from Waco, Texas, SEC Country updated their report by saying Thomas has not yet made a request to transfer from Auburn. That may have been accurate, but may not suggest a transfer to Jacksonville State is off the table. It could just be a matter of semantics, where Thomas is set to join the Jacksonville State program but still must go through the formalities of transferring from Auburn.

Thomas does have two years of eligibility remaining.