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Senior College Football Columnist

Top 10: Most compelling story lines of spring ball

Bryce Petty is in line to be the next great quarterback at Baylor. (USATSI)

Spring football is full swing at many programs around the country. Here are the 10 most compelling story lines in college football to keep an eye on.

1. Johnny 2.0: Texas A&M went from underachieving afterthought program to becoming the hottest property in college football in just a few months. The Aggies' success starts with Kevin Sumlin, who walked into the toughest division in college football and promptly led the Aggies to their first top-five AP finish in 56 seasons and handed eventual BCS champs Alabama its only loss of the season -- in Tuscaloosa, no less. Obviously, a big reason behind the Aggies' rise also was the play-making wizardry of first-year starting QB Johnny Manziel, who set an SEC record for total yards in a season with 5,116. Since winning the Heisman, Manziel has described his life as "pure chaos" due to all of the attention that he's getting. The 20-year-old has morphed into college sport's resident rock star. There have been other celebrated players, but none got as big as fast or have gone out and embraced the level of celebrity quite the way that Manziel has.

The 6-foot, 190-pound QB thrives off people doubting him. Going into last year, it was a tasty mix of skepticism surrounding his size, his style and the Aggies' history going into the Big Boy SEC that helped fuel him. And that all worked great for the quarterback and for A&M.

The new challenge: Well, the Aggies didn't even win their division, so start with that. Oh, and there's also the skepticism that Manziel will become his own worst enemy. Heck, he only needs to look at his @ mentions on Twitter to find a fresh batch of doubters. Or go back and look at the comments from a rival Big 12 coach after Manziel and the Aggies lit the guy's team up. For now, Manziel is adapting to a new play-caller, Clarence McKinney, and a new QB coach, Jake Spavital, Geno Smith's old coach. The Heisman winner's short-term goal is honing his pocket awareness while improving his timing with his young receivers.

"We're really working on his footwork and figuring out the timing of each route concept," said Spavital, adding that he's mindful of a keen balance there needs to be between the quarterback becoming more comfortable in the pocket while still not hindering the wondrous improvisational ability that he has reacting to pressure. "Johnny really wants to become a better passer, and you saw him make a lot of strides last season. That's going to continue to improve as he gets better with the timing of his routes."

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2. Life After Chip: Chip Kelly's mercurial run at Oregon is over. In four seasons, he led the Ducks to 46 wins and four BCS games. But after a year of flirting with the NFL, Kelly finally pulled the trigger. Now Mark Helfrich takes over. Helfrich played a big role in helping develop the Ducks' high-powered, frenetic system. And he should be fine running the show. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he still has star QB Marcus Mariota and RB/WR/KR De'Anthony Thomas to spark the attack. Word is the Ducks might become a bit more of an aerial threat under Helfrich, but only time will tell for a program that has blossomed into a full-fledged powerhouse.

3. A Bama 3-Peat? Everything seems to be rolling along in Tuscaloosa. Nick Saban can lose top assistants? No problem. He can lose numerous first-rounders? No problem. Complacency? Doesn't seem to be a threat to what he has built there. A.J. McCarron, a proven big-game QB, is back as are young studs T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper. That, along with Saban and his track record, is plenty of reason for them to begin the season at No. 1. Still, it's worth watching to see how the Tide rebuilds an O-line that has to replace three starters.

4. Can the Buckeyes' rebuilt D be good enough to break the SEC's BCS stranglehold? Well, that is askin' a lot. Urban Meyer took a lackluster OSU team and transformed it into a 12-0 squad fast. Meyer's prized triggerman, QB Braxton Miller, will continue to refine his fundamentals while working on his touch and accuracy, but it's the D where the eyes should be focused. Ohio State has to replace seven starters, including the entire D-line. And it wasn't like the Buckeyes were great on D in 2012. They ranked in the middle of the pack in a very suspect conference when it came to offense. The good news: the four top tacklers are back, led by LB Ryan Shazier. The names to remember: Adolphus Washington, an explosive 290-pounder who looks like he can be a difference-maker and former blue-chip recruit Curtis Grant, who needs to finally blossom in Columbus.

5. Introducing Bryce Petty: Never heard of the sturdy 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior QB before? That's OK. I wouldn't have been able to recognize his headshot either. But if you play fantasy college football, he'd be a good name to keep in mind. See, Petty is in line to be Art Briles' next QB at Baylor, and that means Bryce Petty is probably going to be showing up on a lot of highlights this fall. In each of the last two seasons, the Bears have finished No. 2 in the nation in total offense and did so with two different QBs -- Robert Griffin III in 2011 and Nick Florence in 2012.

“[Bryce] has everything you're looking for -- size, strength, passion, energy, a great arm and great intelligence,” Briles told the Waco Tribune-Herald. “We'll check his instincts and decision-making. We'll see how Bryce handles it. He's going to be given the chance, and we certainly have a lot of confidence in him.”

Two years ago, RGIII established a BU record for passing yards with 4,293. Last season, Florence broke it. And given Petty's skills and the skill talent around him, he might just break that one, too -- though the Bears might be too busy piling up yards on the ground with Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin returning. Then again, Tevin Reese and Levi Norwood and some promising young WRs led by super talented incoming FR Robbie Rhodes, a guy some college coaches say was the top wideout in the entire 2013 recruiting class, will give Petty plenty of options. Either way, the Bears look ready to roll up a lot of yards and points in 2013.

6. Can Lane Kiffin have a bounce-back 2013? No program had a more disappointing season than USC, the preseason No. 1 team that went 7-6 and lost to a middling Georgia Tech team in the Sun Bowl. Matt Barkley, a four-year starter at QB and the guy who was actually the backbone of a Trojan program since his freshman year in the wake of hefty NCAA sanctions, is moving on to the NFL. Strong-armed Max Wittek was underwhelming in the two games that he started at the end of the season when Barkley was sidelined with a shoulder injury. Wittek, Cody Kessler and just-arrived freshman Max Browne will battle for the QB job. Whoever gets it will have the best WR in the country to rely on in Marqise Lee. Another big concern for USC is how the Trojans handle the shift to new DC Clancy Pendergast's 3-4 scheme. The D-line, led by budding star Leonard Williams, should be up to the challenge. The back seven, where USC has to rebuild the secondary, is where it looks dicey.

Pendergast is one of four new assistants as the heat rises around Kiffin, who enters 2013 firmly on the hot seat with Trojan faithful having lost all patience. A year ago at this time, Kiffin was coming off a 10-win season during which he led his team to a win over Oregon in Autzen and the Trojans also bullied arch-rivals Notre Dame and UCLA. But 2011 seems like it was 10 years ago. Can Kiffin get this team, with its pretty suspect crop of rising seniors, to nine or 10 wins and get off the hot seat?

7. The new Noles: FSU was the trendy pick by some experts to get to the BCS title game. Instead, FSU lost and then got beat at home by arch-rival Florida. At the combine a few weeks ago, one of the big questions asked by many NFL people was, '"My God, the Noles seem to have a lot of talent here. Why couldn't they do anything beyond just winning the ACC title?'' It's a valid question and one that several FSU products in Indy really didn't have much of an answer for, other than just saying, ''Well, it always seemed to be a few little things tripping'' them up. Going forward, the Noles not only have to replace starting QB E.J. Manuel but also a host of stud D-linemen as well as six assistant coaches, including Mark Stoops, a gem of a DC who left to become the new Kentucky head coach. A hunch: the Noles' D-line should be just fine with Giorgio Newberry and rising stars Chris Casher and Mario Edwards ready to flourish. First real order of business is figuring out the QB situation where Fisher has options in Clint Trickett, Manuel's old understudy, plus Jacob Coker and Jameis Winston, a pair of very promising young quarterbacks with skills that have insiders raving.

8. Is Casey Pachall ready to lead TCU? The Horned Frogs return 15 starters, including nine from last year's top defense in the Big 12, and they also have some good pieces on offense (standout RB Waymon James is back from a season-ending injury), but it's the TCU QB spot where lots of eyes will be focused. Last season, the Horned Frogs got off to a 4-0 start before Pachall was suspended from the team after he was arrested for DWI. The QB (who even a year earlier coach Gary Patterson was openly concerned about Pachall's leadership skills and commitment) left school to enter a treatment program for substance abuse. Freshman Trevone Boykin took over and had some nice moments filling in, but the Horned Frogs still struggled, losing six of their final nine games.

No one has ever questioned the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Pachall's physical tools. He has had a 35-8 TD-INT ratio while completing more than 66 percent of his passes the past two seasons, but what about his focus and maturity? When I spoke to Patterson last month, the coach was very encouraged by the things that he had seen from the QB, saying Pachall looked and talked like the young man who first came to TCU out of high school.

"I'm a hoping this is going to be a Cinderella story," Patterson said. "We helped him change his life. He came back, and he'll go on to be a better human being and have his degree and move forward in his life. If that happens, it'll be great for Casey and also a great thing for TCU."

9. The Logan Thomas Project: Heading into last season, Virginia Tech's towering QB Logan Thomas was hyped by some NFL draft analysts as a potential top overall pick. But 2012 quickly deteriorated for the agile 6-foot-6, 260-pounder so much so that it seemed every nationally televised game the Hokies played, Thomas would end up trending and it wasn't for anything positive. The Hokies' supporting cast was already suspect, perhaps forcing Thomas to try to do too much. Thomas' accuracy, already a question mark with some folks, looked even shakier in 2012. He went from completing 60 percent of his passes in 2011 to just 51 percent while throwing six more INTs. He also completed just 45 of his passes in Tech's final three games in a dud of a season for the program. Frank Beamer shook up his offensive staff and hired Scot Loeffler, who has Tom Brady's seal of approval from their days at Michigan even though the Auburn faithful won't miss him after his Tiger QBs were dreadful in 2012, to fix the offense and polish up Thomas.

10. Petrino is back: A year ago at this time, Bobby Petrino was head coach of an Arkansas team that some thought had a shot to win the SEC. Then, he took his ill-fated motorcycle ride and all hell broke loose, turning the Hogs program -- and Petrino's life, along with many others, upside down. Petrino landed a job at Western Kentucky, and it'll be fascinating to see what he can do from here. For all the talk about Petrino's character (it has been a scorching level of negativity and skepticism that existed way before that bike ride), no one disputes how good of a football coach that he is. Petrino's rep for developing offenses is excellent, but he takes over a Western Kentucky program trying to find a new QB with three-year starter Kawaun Jakes having run out of eligibility. A few names to remember: freshmen James Mauro and Damarcus Smith, a former highly touted recruit, and sophomore Brandon Doughty. Plus incoming freshman Todd Porter. One of them figures to put up big numbers next year for the new WKU coach.

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