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Senior College Football Columnist

Inspirational TDs, coast-to-coast intrigue renew our faith in spring

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For years, spring practice has been overrated.

Those "games"? Nothing more than glorified scrimmages. Little strategically was revealed lest some rival coach in the stands happened to stay awake long enough. Invariably, some third-stringer bound for a life of selling life insurance would run for 200 yards -- and never be seen again.

It was all gloriously inconclusive.

Then Jack Hoffman happened. The 7-year-old cancer patient is the biggest reason spring mattered this year. Well, Hoffman and 8-year-old Noah Roberts. Each was allowed to run for touchdowns in spring games -- Hoffman at Nebraska, Roberts at East Carolina.

Our faith in spring -- and humanity -- was restored. Why can't this become some sort of tradition on each campus? Cancer awareness emotionally portrayed before thousands of people.

It was that kind of spring, one filled with optimism, anticipation -- and meaning. Spring has now sprung into an offseason primer on the state of the game. As of now, the game is, if not totally fit, entertaining as hell as the spring comes to some sort of unofficial close with Saturday's game at New Mexico State.

These dressed-up scrimmages continue to evolve into events, at least in some parts. The Gus Malzahn era debuted before more than 80,000 at Auburn. More than 50,000 came out for the non-basketball event at Kentucky known as Mark Stoops' first spring game. Alabama, what happened? Only 75,000 for A-Day?

Those Auburn fans rolled the trees at Toomer's Corner one last time. That act provided some closure after Harvey Updyke's act that caused those trees to die. It also at least distracted from widespread allegations of wrongdoing during Gene Chizik's watch.

As one great quarterback exited at Southern California, there wasn't automatically another to take his place. The Trojans don't have a QB in waiting, per se, for the first time in a decade. It does have a coach on the hot seat.

Speaking of LA, UCLA may be taking over the city for the first time in a long time.

Is it possible that the SEC has never been stronger? Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M in the West. Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and -- yes -- Vanderbilt in the East. That's before considering the financial impact of the SEC Network, which launches in 2014.

Meanwhile, they let students kick field goals at Illinois. They let Braxton Miller feel good about himself at Ohio State.

Texas has to swallow hard and admit it is rebuilding. And how the hell did Cal get into APR trouble?

Bob Stoops caused a stir by making complete sense on the stipend issue. Leave the guy alone. It's OK to have an opposing viewpoint on paying players.

These spring questions will last into fall:

 Is there a party/movie debut/vacation resort/sports event at which Johnny Manziel hasn't been photographed?
 Is it possible Florida's offense breaks into the top 100 in NCAA stats this year?
 How many times will the first name of hot, young Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston (12 of 15, 205 yards in the spring game) be misspelled before it is burned into our cortex?
 What conference is Boise State in now?
 Who's in the American Athletic Conference?
 Can you name the schools in the new Big Ten East and West divisions?
 Who should be favored to win the Big 12? No, really, who?
 Can Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater win the Heisman? Can Johnny Football win two?
 Based on what he has accomplished, is Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron a slam-dunk College Football Hall of Famer before he graduates?
 And finally, why did Air Force's Troy Calhoun miss the Mountain West spring meetings in Phoenix? Budget cuts for the Falcons in the form of sequestration.

Consider these five spring stunners:

 Nick Saban has had 14 players drafted in the first round in the past six years. Bear Bryant had 13 first-rounders in his 25 seasons (Thanks to al.com for that one).
 If Alabama wins another championship, McCarron will have 11 rings. Bama awards rings for BCS titles, SEC titles and BCS bowls.
 The ACC's agreement to a grant of rights basically halted conference realignment, for now.
 From July 1, 2012, to July 1, 2013, Texas A&M will have the best year, perhaps ever for a major-college program. The Aggies broke away from hated rival Texas, joined the SEC, beat Alabama and Oklahoma and won 11 games for the first time in 20 years. Manziel won the Heisman, setting the SEC single-season total offense record and -- oh yeah -- the school announced a stadium expansion in April that will eventually make Kyle Field the largest stadium in the SEC and ... wait for it ... the state of Texas. Take THAT, Horns!
 The whirlwind of conference realignment gave us this: That American Athletic Conference makes it now possible for the conference's all-league players to be All-Americans. Right?

The commissioners continued to finalize the playoff at the annual BCS meetings last month. Excuse us if we're skeptical about this four-team structure. It's going to grow. Fox Sports COO Larry Jones inadvertently spewed the truth speaking at the Football Bowl Association annual meetings two weeks ago.

"I just wanted to let you all know that when your rights come up," Jones told assembled bowl execs, "it's something we're extremely interested in talking to you about."

Call it a bit of guerilla marketing during the week of the BCS meetings in California. ESPN/ABC televises 33 of the 35 bowls. Fox Sports 1 will launch in 90 million homes on Aug. 1 making it, per Jones, "the biggest launch in sports history."

Whether the bowls depart ESPN isn't the issue. Jones' statement told us that as long as there is competition to televise them, there will always be bowls. They will not be impacted by a four-, eight- or 16-team playoff. They will be lucrative. They are content and content is king in this digital era, especially when there is competition for that content.

This would be remembered as just about the perfect spring if Jack Hoffman and Noah Roberts were around for a long, long time to view that content.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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