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)

Louisville transfer reverses course after Bobby Petrino was fired, will remain with Cardinals

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The Bobby Petrino Era, y’all!

Last week, it was reported that Russ Yeast had decided to leave the Louisville football program and transfer to an undetermined elsewhere.  Sunday, the university announced that Petrino has been fired as the Cardinals’ head football coach.

Those two stories are intertwined as, in the wake of Petrino’s dismissal, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that Yeast has reversed course on his transfer and will remain with the team.

In fact, the Courier-Journal wrote, “the sophomore cornerback was back with the Cards for team meetings on Sunday night and is expected to practice this week.”

Yeast, the son of former Kentucky wide receiver Craig Yeast, started seven games in 2017 due to injuries ahead of him on the depth chart. He had played in nine games this season, with zero starts, prior to what turned out to be a brief sabbatical.

A three-star member of the Cardinals’ 2017 recruiting class, Yeast was rated as the No. 33 cornerback in the country and the No. 3 player at any position in the state of Indiana. Only two signees in the U of L’s class that year (safety CJ Avery, running back Colin Wilson) were rated higher.

Oklahoma dismisses OL Tramonda Moore

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Another day, another college football player has seen the wrong end of his head coach’s boot.

On that front, Oklahoma confirmed Tuesday that Tramonda Moore has been dismissed from Lincoln Riley‘s football program.  The only reason given was the standard unspecified violations of team rules.

Moore had originally signed with Bedlam rival Oklahoma State in 2016 but didn’t qualify academically with the school and was forced to go the junior college route.  After a couple of years at Independent Community College in Kansas, the offensive lineman transferred to OU over the summer.

Through 10 games, Moore hadn’t played a down for the Sooners.

Moore was a four-star recruit coming out of high school in Oklahoma City and was rated as the No. 1 player at any position in the state of Oklahoma in 2016. He was a four-star JUCO prospect as well, rated by 247Sports.com on its composite board as the No. 4 recruit overall at that level in 2018.

All-American Ed Oliver to miss fourth straight game for Houston

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At least this week there won’t be any pre-kickoff drama.

Because of an injury suffered to his right knee in the Week 8 win over Navy, Ed Oliver has missed the past three games as he works through the issue.  With a key AAC West matchup with Tulane looming Thursday night, head coach Major Applewhite confirmed Tuesday that the standout defensive lineman will be sidelined for the Green Wave game because of the same injury issue.

Double-teamed most times — and even triple-teamed on occasion — Oliver was held sack-less through the first six games of this season.  The last two in which he played, however, he was credited with three — two against East Carolina, one against Navy.

In March of this year, Oliver announced that the 2018 season would be his last at the collegiate level as he will leave the Cougars early and make himself available for the 2019 NFL draft, where he is widely projected to be a Top Five selection at worst.

After a consensus Freshman All-American season that saw him land on numerous first-team All-American squads, Oliver was a consensus All-American in a 2017 season that saw him become the first underclassman to win the Outland Trophy in the 70-year history of the award.

In his first two seasons with the Cougars, the 6-3, 290-pound Oliver had totaled 39.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks.  In addition to the three sacks, Oliver has 13.5 tackles for loss this season; his 1.9 tackles for loss were tied for third nationally prior to his injury.

At 4-2, Houston is currently tied for first place in the AAC West with SMU and Tulane.  Houston has already lost to SMU this season, while they’ll face Memphis in the regular-season finale.  Whether Oliver will (or should) play in that game, or any other for the Cougars for that matter, remains to be seen.

Michigan State staying mum on starting QB

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Brian Lewerke or Rocky Lombardi? Stay tuned to find out.

Lewerke, the starter for most of the last two seasons, has been working his way through an injury to his right (throwing) shoulder. His streak of 20 straight starts was snapped last month because of the injury as Lombardi took over in the win over Purdue, although Lewerke returned to start the last two games.

In that last game, a loss to Ohio State, Lewerke struggled mightily (again), leading to questions as to just who will get the starting nod this Saturday against Nebraska. Posed that very question, Mark Dantonio declined to give any indication as to which direction he may be leaning.

“We make decisions and as we go forward those decisions become complicated at times, but we do the very best we can and everybody’s involved,” the head coach said by way of mlive.com. “I don’t really think it’s in this team’s best interest to air those decisions prior to football games. I think that’s something that needs to be kept in-house for everybody’s best benefits.”

Prior to suffering the injury in the Oct. 13 win over Penn State, Lewerke was completing 60 percent of his passes. Since then, he’s completing just 35 percent.

In his lone start, Lombardi went 26-of-46 for 318 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.