25 things for spring: College football has changed so much in such little time

How long as it been, a couple of months? When we last left college football, Steve Sarkisian was still at Alabama Crimson Tide . Michigan Wolverines players didn’t need passports. Baylor Bears couldn’t recruit.

And depending on your point of view, if it wasn’t for games actually lasting 60 minutes -- not 59:59 -- Alabama would still be your national champion.

Lots has changed as we head into spring practice. Sark is gone to the NFL. Baylor landed a top-40 recruiting class. The Jim Harbaugh World Tour picks up again in Rome for three spring practices .  And Clemson Tigers is now on top of the world after winning that College Football Playoff National Championship with a second to go. 

We dive into the meat of the offseason with these 25 thoughts as spring practice begins.

1. Clemson won’t repeat: If for no other reason than this -- Deshaun Watson is gone. You don’t lose the best player over the last two seasons and stay on top. There is also plenty of talent leaving with him. The Tigers take a bit of a drop this season. No worries. Clemson is a national program, probably the highest they’ve resided in the nation’s consciousness. The national championship afterglow will last a while. First order of business this spring for Dabo: replace Deshaun. This spring, junior Kelly Bryant gets first shot.

2. Next man up at Alabama: Brian Daboll became Nick Saban’s third offensive coordinator in two months. With the departure of Lane Kiffin, all the sudden there is pressure on Daboll to do Lane-type things.

We’re talking on the field, folks. It will be interesting to see how Jalen Hurts assimilates into Dabol’s offense. Bama’s last three quarterbacks had the best season of their careers and won SEC titles.

3. And for his next trick, Lane Kiffin … will attempt to prove he’s not a coaching savant/punch line who is actually mature enough to be a head coach again. At last check, he had become too much of a distraction for Nick Saban. 

The best description of Kiffin going forward was from offensive coordinator Kendal Briles. “He texted me out of the blue,” he said. Briles went on to say he will “absolutely” bring Baylor’s entire offense and call all the plays. Briles went to say Kffin wants to prove he can be a “CEO” coach.

One of the great mysteries of the universe will surface publicly, at the latest, April 22 for Florida Atlantic’s spring game.

4. CFP in Year 4: This spring kicks off the College Football Playoff’s senior season. You remember all the breakups and growing up you went through to get this close to graduation. A certain maturity and acceptance of the CFP has settled in after three years. What a yearbook it’s going to be. Ah, the memories. So far, only seven teams have played for the title, and three different teams have won it.  Hey, you gotta play the field before your senior year.

5. One man’s way-too-early 2018 CFP bracket:

Rose Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners
Sugar Bowl: No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes vs. No. 3 Florida State Seminoles

6. Most to prove this spring: Brian Kelly, Notre Dame Fighting Irish . This is not necessarily a hot seat designation. In general, coaches are allowed an off year. And boy, was that an off year for ND in 2016 (4-8). In a quarter century of head coaching, Kelly has never produced a quarterback who stuck in the NFL. Going into 2017, there was no there there for the Irish. The CFP is a pipe dream. A New Year’s Six bowl is a long shot.

7. Least to prove, non-Meyer/Saban division: Chris Petersen, Washington Huskies . The nation’s fifth-winningest coach (.826) has the Huskies  back as a national program. Spring questions: Will quarterback Jake Browning bounce back from shoulder surgery? Who will be his main target with the loss John “4.22” Ross. Everything else seems to be place for another Pac-12 run.

8. Which way with Coach O: Ed Orgeron enters his first spring practice in a decade as a head coach. Coach O is a man of the people. Coach O is a breath of fresh air. Everyone loves Coach O. And in many ways, the honeymoon already is over.

LSU Tigers post-Les Miles looked a lot like LSU with Les Miles. The Tigers head into spring drills needing more consistent quarterback play, getting more explosive and hoping to beat Alabama for the first time in seven years. Sound familiar?

9. The return of the SEC: For the first time ever in 2016, every SEC team except one (Alabama) lost at least four games. The overall quarterback play was average. For the first time in more than a decade, the SEC wasn’t the slam-dunk best conference. (That would be the ACC.)

The long road back in 2017 starts with a rebound by Auburn Tigers , developing a quarterback at Florida, and Ole Miss somehow wriggling out of further NCAA trouble.

10. Doubling down in Oxford: Hugh Freeze’s recruiting built Ole Miss into a power. Now with the program knee-deep in an NCAA scandal, there is little talk about rebuilding from a 5-7, more that merely Freeze survives . The fact that the Rebels are digging out of a last-place SEC West finish is the not the first thing that comes to mind this spring.

11. Matt Lubick’s middle name is not “Loyal:” Washington’s new co-offensive coordinator is on his fourth job in three months. On Nov. 29, Lubick got fired with everyone else at Oregon Ducks . From there, he spent all of two weeks as Ole Miss’ receivers coach before going to Baylor as co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach.

Lubick didn’t have time to get business cards printed at any of those stops before he joined Petersen on Feb. 22. Asked to explain his job hopping, well, Lubick hasn’t yet. First, we have to confirm he’s still at UW as spring practice opens.

12. Five for the Group of Five CFP Golden Ticket:

South Florida Bulls : A Heisman-worthy quarterback ( Quinton Flowers ) and a bevy of starters return from an 11-win team.

San Diego State Aztecs : Remember toughness? Rocky Long’s teams play with a lot of it. Despite the departure of Donnel Pumphrey , the Aztecs could win a third straight Mountain West title.

Boise State Broncos : Brett Rypien gives the Denver Broncos a chance.

Temple Owls : The defending American champs have a good one in Geoff Collins replacing Matt Rhule.

Appalachian State Mountaineers : The Mountaineers have won 27 of their last 32 games. The Sun Belt schedule falls just right. Scott Satterfield’s bunch could go undefeated.

13. The return of Bill Snyder: The nation’s oldest coach returns to the public view at the end of the month following treatment for throat cancer. Sources have told CBS Sports that Snyder was diagnosed the day before the Texas Longhorns Bowl. That means the 77-year-old Snyder will be back in three months when he steps in front of microphones for the opening of spring practice in late March. This text sums up the indefatigable Sndyer.

14. J.T. Barrett’s gets a another offensive coordinator: Former Indiana Hoosiers head coach Kevin Wilson is the Ohio State quarterback’s fourth OC. That after the departure of Tom Herman, Ed Warriner and Tim Beck. It’s hard to remember Barrett was the Big Ten quarterback of the year. The lasting memory is that 31-0 skunk job Clemson in the CFP Semifinals. In his final season, Barrett gets one more chance to be great. Wilson must find a way to make Barrett a better downfield passer.

15. H-Town Takeover to Texas Makeover: Don’t blink at the Moncrief-Newhaus Athletic Center where Tom Herman is changing everything from the signage to the weight room to -- maybe -- the quarterback position. Herman basically recruited over rising sophomore Shane Buechele by bringing in early enrollee Sam Ehlinger for one the spring’s best quarterback battles. 

16. The Year of the Running Back, Part II: Alabama already has three guys who could play for anyone -- not counting incoming freshman Najee Harris . Penn State Nittany Lions has Saquon Barkley and loads of confidence coming off a Big Ten title. No worries about Dalvin Cook leaving Florida State. True freshman and early enrollee  Cam Akers may win the job in camp, and Jacques Patrick is suddenly a junior (6-foot-2, 231 pounds) who is already among the top single-game ACC rushers (162 yards vs. Syracuse Orange in 2015). The nation’s leading returning rusher, by the way,  is Auburn’s Kamryn Pettway . Not bad.

17. The return of Michigan State(?): The last time Spartans football and basketball didn’t make the postseason in the same year was 1983. The comeback begins this month in the Big Ten Tournament and with Mark Dantonio’s spring practice. The football prospects don’t look good. Three separate investigations swirl around the program. Twenty-eight seniors are gone, as are six All-Big performers.

18. Josh Rosen’s new offensive coordinator: Jedd Fisch has survived a torn aortic artery and Jim Harbaugh. How hard can it be becoming UCLA’s new OC? The respected Fisch should mind meld well with the ultra-smart Rosen coming off shoulder surgery. 

19. What a Heisman Trophy campaign looks like: It starts with being a Southern California Trojans quarterback. It gains momentum by being a successful USC quarterback. It adds steam when that USC quarterback wins the Rose Bowl.  Sophomore Sam Darnold was the first Trojans QB to do in nine years. Darnold didn’t start until the fourth game yet still threw 31 touchdown passes, five of them against Penn State in the Rose Bowl. If he isn’t the Heisman favorite coming out of the spring, he is something close. USC is absolutely back and should start in the top five.

sam-darnold-usc-penn-state-rose.jpg
USC’s Sam Darnold has the college football world talking. USATSI

20. Spring games I’d most like to see: Alabama and Florida State -- if only because of the talent and lead in to their Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta. In five of the last six years, Alabama and FSU have either won the national championship or played in the title game. They are the two winningest programs of the last seven years. Those two spring games might as well be a window on the season and a possible CFP Semifinal.

A 21-coach salute: The coaching carousel didn’t stop spinning until mid-Janaury when Wisconsin Badgers defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox replaced Sonny Dykes at Cal. That completed a silly season in which 21 schools changed coaches, seven in Power Five. Eight of the 21 are becoming head coaches for the first time.

Here’s a quick ranking from best hire to worst:

  • Tom Herman, Texas
  • Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic Owls
  • P.J. Fleck, Minnesota Golden Gophers
  • Charlie Strong, USF
  • Ed Orgeron, LSU
  • Major Applewhite, Houston Cougars
  • Willie Taggart, Oregon
  • Matt Rhule, Baylor
  • Jeff Brohm, Purdue Boilermakers
  • Randy Edsall, UConn
  • Justin Wilcox, Cal
  • Tom Allen, Indiana
  • Jeff Tedford, Fresno State Bulldogs
  • Geoff Collins, Temple
  • Butch Davis, Florida International Golden Panthers
  • Mike Sanford, Jr., Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
  • Jay Norvell, Nevada Wolf Pack
  • Luke Fickell, Cincinnati Bearcats
  • Tim Lester, Western Michigan Broncos
  • Brent Brennan, San Jose State Spartans
  • Shawn Elliott, Georgia State Panthers

22. The Florida Triangle … or whatever you want to call it. There’s going to be some definite spring interest in South Florida, Central Florida, Miami, Florida Atlantic and Florida International.

Inside the area of that roughly 600-mile geographical trapezoid reside a combined eight national championship rings, two Super Bowl rings and nine SEC titles. Those are the playing and coaching accomplishments of Scott Frost (UCF), Charlie Strong (USF), Mark Richt (UM), Lane Kiffin (FAU) and Butch Davis (FIU). Total combined time in their current jobs: two years.

23. Talkin’ football at Baylor: Well, at least they hope to even it’s just a little bit. The stink of an epic scandal isn’t going away anytime soon. But coach Matt Rhule let some fresh air when he went from one commit on Dec. 27, 2016, to a top-40 class on signing class. It remains to be seen how any of this impacts the program coming off 7-6 season in 2016.   As always, the first thought must be with the victims.

24. Debuts: Sure, they’ve worked out and perhaps even practiced with their new teammates, but we’ll get a good look at these transfers this spring:

  • Ex-Baylor QB Jarrett Stidham at Auburn
  • Ex-Texas A&M QB Kyle Allen at Houston
  • Ex-Alabama QB Blake Barnett at Arizona State Sun Devils
  • Ex-Florida QB Will Grier at West Virginia Mountaineers .
  • Ex-Alabama QB Cooper Bateman as a walk-on WR at Utah Utes
  • Ex-Alabama commit, JUCO LB Gary Johnson at Texas

25. Hey, who’s that over there watching spring practice? Pay attention, it just might be Les Miles, who for the moment (this season) looks like he’ll be doing some TV in his first season off from coaching since 1979. For now, he’ll be visiting North Carolina Tar Heels and Nebraska Cornhuskers this spring. At least. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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