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)

Kentucky’s Marcus Walker charged with trafficking coke, weed

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The latest incident to trigger a resetting the “Days Without An Arrest” trigger is a rather serious-sounding one.

According to multiple media outlets in the area, Kentucky’s Marcus Walker was arrested early Thursday morning on multiple drug charges. WKYT-TV in Lexington reports that the defensive back was jailed — and remains jailed at this time — on charges of trafficking in cocaine and marijuana as well as one count of possession of drug paraphernalia.

From the Lexington Herald-Leader:

Walker… was arrested at 4:40 a.m. Thursday by Lexington Police. He was allegedly trafficking in about 5 pounds of marijuana and 4 grams of cocaine, his arrest citation said. He was also charged with possessing drug paraphernalia.

A large amount of cash was also found when Lexington Police executed its search warrant at a home on Unity Drive, police said.

A UK spokesperson stated that the football program is “aware of the situation and are in the process of gathering more information.”

247Sports.com‘s composite board had Walker rated as a three-star recruit in the Class of 2015.  After redshirting as a true freshman, the Florida native played in 21 games the past two seasons — 12 in 2017, nine in 2016.  He’s been credited with 17 tackles in those two seasons, including a career-high seven in a 2016 win over Austin Peay.

Pitt, Wisconsin announce future home-and-home

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It’s been more than half a century since they last met, but a pair of teams from the ACC and Big Ten are set to get it on once again.  Eventually.

Both Pitt (head coach from 2012-14: Paul Chryst) and Wisconsin (current head coach: Paul Chryst) announced Thursday that the football programs have reached an agreement on a future home-and-home series.  The Panthers will travel to Madison on Sept. 19, 2026, while the Badgers will make the trek to Heinz Field the following season on Sept. 11.

“In speaking with (Wisconsin athletic director) Barry Alvarez, we both felt this was a great scheduling opportunity,” Alvarez’s Pitt counterpart, Heather Lyke, said in a statement. “Despite our regional proximity, we’ve rarely played each other in football. It is a challenging and compelling non-conference game that our respective teams and fans can look forward to.”

The two teams have played each other twice previously, with the most recent coming during the 1967 season.  The last time the Badgers faced the Panthers in Pittsburgh came in 1937.

Pitt has won all three games in the mini-series, two of which were played in Madison (1938, 1967).

USC WR Joseph Lewis pleads no contest to domestic battery

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Late last week, USC wide receiver Joseph Lewis‘ trial in connection to a pair of domestic violence incidents was set to begin.  Less than a week later, the trial phase has come to an end before it really began.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Lewis reached an agreement on a plea deal Wednesday that saw the Trojans football player plead no contest to two counts of domestic battery.  The Times reported that the plea arrangement came as jury selection was nearly complete and opening arguments in the case had been scheduled for the same day.

Lewis had been facing two years in jail; as part of the plea agreement, Lewis has been sentenced to 60 days in the Los Angeles County Jail, a sentence that will likely be reduced to 30 days based on what the newspaper describes as “good time, work time” credit.

Per the Times, the other terms of the plea deal include…

36 months summary probation… a 10-year ban on owning, using or possessing firearms; enrollment in a weekly yearlong domestic violence treatment program and a protective order that prohibits him from approaching within 100 yards of the victim or contacting her.

In late February, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined to pursue a felony charge against the USC wide receiver after he was arrested on one count of corporal injury on a spouse or cohabitant.  At the time, though, it was reported that the case had been referred to the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, which would decide whether misdemeanor charges would arise from the arrest.

Not long after, the city attorney’s office filed five misdemeanor counts against Lewis.  The charges stemmed from two separate incidents in February, and included three counts of domestic battery with an injury, false imprisonment and domestic battery without an injury.

In the wake of the arrest, Lewis was suspended from the football team.  In fact, his name was removed from the roster and remains that way.  While the player is hopeful he’ll be permitted to rejoin the team before the start of the upcoming season, the football program has yet to address said player’s status moving forward.

It should be noted that, thus far, no details of what led to the arrest and charges have been released.

A five-star member of the Trojans’ 2017 recruiting class, Lewis was rated as the No. 4 receiver in the country; the No. 6 player at any position in the state of California; and the No. 31 player overall on 247Sports.com‘s composite board. The only player rated higher in USC’s class that year was running back Stephen Carr.

As a true freshman last season, Lewis caught four passes for 39 yards. He had been expected to play a bigger role in the Trojans’ passing game this season, although the off-field situation will obviously be a factor in that.

Sun Bowl returns to noon time slot on New Year’s Eve for 2018

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After four years in various time slots, the Sun Bowl is back where it’s used to being: on New Year’s Eve.

The Sun Bowl association announced on Wednesday that the game would be moved back to December 31st for the 85th edition of the annual postseason outing, with a 12 p.m. Mountain Time kickoff on CBS.

“We are happy to announce that we are returning to our traditional New Year’s Eve slot,” Executive Director Bernie Olivas said in a release. “Many of our local fans had expressed to us that the New Year’s Eve date had become a family tradition and we are excited to have the game back on that day.”

The El Paso, Texas institution will once again pit an ACC (or Notre Dame) team against a Pac-12 school in what has developed into a fun game the past few years. Last year, N.C. State beat Arizona State 52-31 in a high-scoring affair while the season prior saw Stanford squeak out a win over North Carolina 25-23 thanks to a goal line stand on a two-point conversion.

The Sun Bowl last took place on New Year’s Eve back in 2013 but was on a different day in the last week of December the past four years. The 31st is the traditional home for the game dating back to the early 1990’s. With the date, time and TV network now in place for the game, the entire 2018-19 bowl picture is set following the release of the bulk of the schedule last week.