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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)

In statement, AD John Cohen says Mississippi State is ‘disappointed’ in Mike Leach’s controversial tweet

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Mississippi State has officially responded publicly to the brouhaha kicked up by their new head football coach.

Last Thursday, Mike Leach sent out a tweet in which he apologized for anyone he offended in a previous tweet.  In the controversial tweet in question, the caption read “After 2 weeks of quarantine with her husband, Gertrude decided to knit him a scarf..”  The picture attached to it?  An elderly woman knitting a noose.

A handful of Leach’s followers were offended by the tweet.  In response to Leach’s original tweet, Mississippi State football player Fabien Lovett wrote simply, “Wtf.” Lovett soon thereafter announced that he was entering the transfer portal; his father confirmed later that the tweet played a role.  Monday, one of Lovett’s, Brevyn Jones, announced that he too will be transferring.

In the midst of that social media maelstrom, Mississippi State had been largely silent.  Until now.  In a statement, MSU athletic director John Cohen expressed disappointment in Leach’s tweet.  He also stated that the university is confident that Leach has learned from what was described as a “misstep.”

Below is the statement, in its entirety.

No matter the context, for many Americans the image of a noose is never appropriate and that’s particularly true in the South and in Mississippi. Mississippi State University was disappointed in the use of such an image in a tweet by Coach Mike Leach. He removed the tweet and issued a public apology. The university is confident that  Coach Leach is moving quickly and sincerely past this unintended misstep and will provide the leadership for our student-athletes and excitement for our football program that our fans deserve and that our students and alumni will be proud to support.

To ensure that Leach has learned from his “misstep,” Mississippi State also announced the following steps it will take when it comes to its head football coach.

Cohen said that a plan is in place for Coach Leach to participate in additional listening sessions with student, alumni, and community groups and to provide the coach with opportunities to expand his cultural awareness of Mississippi. One of those opportunities will include a guided visit to the “Two Museums” – the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum – in Jackson as soon as restrictions from the current public health crisis will allow.

Arizona State LB Tyler Johnson returns from medical retirement

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Arizona State linebacker Tyler Johnson announced after the Sun Devils’ Sun Bowl win that he planned to retire from football for medical reasons. On Tuesday, Sun Devil Source reported Johnson has changed his mind.

A 6-foot-5, 258-pound junior defensive lineman, Johnson collected 22 tackles, 5.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks in 2019 while battling injuries throughout.

Johnson recorded four sacks in the final seven games of his redshirt freshman season of 2018.

Considered one of Arizona State’s best pass rushers when healthy, Johnson is expected to move from linebacker to defensive end as the Sun Devils move from a 3-3-5 to a 4-3 scheme.

 

Mike Gundy says season should start on time because ‘we need to run money’ through state of Oklahoma

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In arguing that coaches should get back to work on May 1 and the season should start on time, Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy inadvertently argued that college football players are professional athletes. That, or indentured servants.

In an hourlong teleconference Tuesday that began with a 20-minute monologue, Gundy said, though he’s not 100 percent, the season should begin on time because players are young and, thus, “have the ability to fight this virus off” and because “we need to run money through the state of Oklahoma.”

He also said there are “too many people that are relying on” college football the sport not to be played.

Gundy floated the idea that games could be played without fans in the stands and students on campus.

Others can debate about Gundy’s thoughts on testing and antibodies and the ability of a 22-year-old to “fight off COVID-19” — though I’d add Boise assistant Zac Alley, a 26-year-old, said his bout with the disease was like breathing with a knife in his ribs — but I’d like to talk about the economic implications of Gundy’s comments.

Gundy is not wrong at all that plenty of families depend on college athletics to put food on the table and that Cowboy football is an important economic engine of the state of Oklahoma. He’s exactly right, of course.

But to argue that a college scholarship is appropriate compensation for risking exposure to the virus while fans and students remain home — “We’re trying to find a way to pay everybody’s salary and keep the economy going.” — then either the players deserve a cut of that economy, or they’re nothing more than indentured servants whose labor belongs to others.

“I’m not taking away from the danger of people getting sick,” Gundy said. “You have the virus, stay healthy, try to do what we can to help people that are sick, and we’re losing lives, which is just terrible. The second part of it is that we still have to schedule and continue to move forward as life goes on and help those people.”

Boise State assistant reveals bout with COVID-19

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Boise State assistant coach Zac Alley revealed to reporters on Tuesday that is among the 392,000 and counting Americans to test positive for COVID-19. And he said it was terrible.

“I had no symptoms, no anything, and in about a 24-hour period I went from 0 to 100,” Alley told the Idaho Press. “I just had some sharp pains in my chest and all that. It got to a point that night where I was pretty short of breath and couldn’t breathe, and thankfully my girlfriend was like ‘we’re going to the ER’. When we got there they were saying thank God you came in.

“Every breath was kind of like taking a knife and sticking it through your ribs.”

Alley, 26, is in his second year on Boise State’s staff, where he coaches the Broncos’ outside linebackers and co-coordinates the special teams. He spent his previous eight years at Clemson as an undergraduate and graduate assistant.

He said he and his girlfriend quarantined at home as all good citizens have, and the only place he’d ventured out was the grocery store, where he theorizes he contracted the coronavirus from a shopping cart.

“As a young healthy person I didn’t think it would affect me as drastically as it did,” Alley said. “I mean my health deteriorated so fast and really I didn’t show any traditional symptoms of what they were saying other than the shortness of breath.”

Alley spent one day at the hospital but was discharged the same day. He is now symptom free.

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