Wasn't it just yesterday that LSU was laying the wood to Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship? Actually, it was less than two months ago, but you get where we're headed. It's just another reminder that college football is a year-round sport. If spring practice hasn't kicked off at your favorite school, it's about to any day now.
Tons of early signees will find out what the real world is like. Meanwhile, we get to relish the last year of the likes of Trevor Lawrence. The early Heisman Trophy race kicks off with Clemson's star quarterback and Ohio State's sensational signal caller (Justin Fields) at the top of the list.
The game is changing before our eyes. By the time spring drills end in late April, transfer free agency may be a reality. The legislation would take effect later this year, but you better believe the transfer portal will start to look like Joe Burrow's stat sheet: full.
Spring practice more than fills the football calendar. There is a genuine interest in both Alabama and LSU rebuilding. It also gives those honks who track third-string tailbacks reason to live. The next month and a half are for you, guys and girls.
April 18 is your date. That's when 32 programs -- a quarter of the FBS -- will play some sort of spring game or scrimmage. Get ready for that sneak peek at Trevor and Justin. Also get ready to watch a lot third-string tailbacks run for 100 yards.
Here are 20 things to watch this spring.
1. Replacing Tua Tagovailoa: That's another way of suggesting Nick Saban's first order of business in "rebuilding" Alabama is to find a quarterback. By Bama's standards, last season was lacking. Eleven wins marked the fewest in seven years. Yes, there were injuries, but in the end it was the defense that was lacking. Still, the Crimson Tide will be favored to win the SEC. With offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian still in place, there are more than enough weapons (Jaylen Waddle, Najee Harris, Devonta Smith). But it starts with a quarterback battle to replace Tagovailoa. Redshirt junior Mac Jones has the inside track (14 touchdowns, only three interceptions in 2019). But don't dismiss five-star early enrollee Bryce Young. Tua's brother, Taulia, shouldn't be forgotten if for nothing else than his bloodlines. Saban has shown he won't hesitate to wait until the week of the opener -- or beyond -- to name a starter.
2. Another year, same ol' Clemson: Winners of two of the last four national championships, the Tigers are the likely preseason No. 1. In Year 3 of Lawrence, Clemson is loaded as it has ever been with the surprise return of tailback Travis Etienne. Expect a fifth straight ACC title, another College Football Playoff berth and a familiar shot at a third title in five years.
3. Kirby Smart is all in … on overtaking Bama: Pick one: Georgia's coach lured/stole/kidnapped Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran with an on-field coaching position. Whatever verb you chose, a bite was taken out of the Bama mystique by one of Saban's former top lieutenants. It's doubtful that Cochran will have much of a tangible immediate impact as a special teams coach. The move was more an indicator of where Smart's head is at entering 2020. He's going for it. The addition of Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman at quarterback (already the No. 3 Heisman favorite in Las Vegas) and the emergence of receiver George Pickens indicates the offense will open up.
4. Didn't you used to be LSU? It's OK to go ahead and say it. The national champions face a significant rebuild. There are questions all over the field as Ed Orgeron loses the Heisman winner (Joe Burrow), Thorpe Award winner (safety Grant Delpit) and the nation's best assistant in passing game coordinator Joe Brady (Broyles Award) as well as defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. With only 12 returning starters, it's going to be a fascinating spring. The Myles Brennan era begins at quarterback. Just a guess, but Brennan probably won't throw for 5,000 yards and 60 touchdowns. Before Burrow, no one else in history had done so.
5. Ryan Day, Year 2: Heisman-contending quarterback? Check. Defense that produces NFL first-round picks? Check. Defending Big Ten champions? Check. Beat Michigan (again)? Check. It's like Urban Meyer never left. In fact, the Buckeyes might be better under Day. An Ohio State-record 13 early enrollees will be leaned on heavily. Fields might be the best player in the country following a record season (51 touchdown passes, three picks). The defense loses its coordinator (Jeff Hafley), three quarters of the secondary, its best linebacker (Malik Harrison) and the nation's best defender (Chase Young). There is quite a chore ahead for new defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs. The expectations won't change after a playoff appearance in Day's rookie season as head coach.
6. Don't get comfortable, coaches: It was a long, agonizing, even painful silly season this time around. Almost five months (148 days) passed between the first firing (Chris Ash, Rutgers) and the last hiring (Karl Dorrell, Colorado). Twenty-four schools changed coaches, including 11 in the Power Five. Twelve of them are first-time head coaches. That makes 73 total coaching changes at 70 schools in the last three years. The Mountain West led the way with half its schools (six) changing coaches.
7. The state football in Mississippi: College football in the Magnolia State has never been more intriguing. It all started with Elijah Moore's "dog pee" stunt in the Egg Bowl that may have started a cascading series of events that led to Ole Miss and Mississippi State changing coaches. Lane Kiffin got back into the big time at Ole Miss. In what can only be interpreted as a corresponding move, Mississippi State answered with its own splash hire, Mike Leach. Whatever happens, it's going to be damn fun. Both guys can coach and don't have much of a filter. One way or another, both are almost guaranteed to shake things up in the SEC West. Get your bourbon, bow ties and braggin' ready for The Grove. The Egg Bowl is Nov. 26 in Oxford.
8. The SEC has never been more competitive: The Strength Everywhere Conference sports the defending national champion for the 10th time in 14 years. Nine of the league's 14 coaches have either won a national championship or been on a staff that did. Florida is reaching championship level. Alabama, Georgia and LSU are already there. Lane and Leach join a group of SEC West coaches who have won seven of the last seven of the last 11 national titles. A special welcome to the league's four new coaches. In addition to Leach and Kiffin, there is Missouri's Eli Drinkwitz and Arkansas' Sam Pittman. Their teams were a combined 18-31 last season. Pull up a lawn chair for spring practice, it's going to be fun.
9. Feel free to step up any time now, ACC: Can anyone even challenge Clemson in its own conference? For now, it's doubtful. The Tigers have played in five of the six College Football Playoffs. They are recruiting on a national scale. That said, these ACC programs are the closest:
- Virginia: Bronco Mendenhall has turned it around with an Orange Bowl berth in his fourth season. Never mind giving up 62 to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. That happens to everybody.
- North Carolina: Freshman sensation Sam Howell made the Tar Heels the only ACC team to play Clemson close in the last two seasons.
- Louisville: Scott Satterfield was the ACC Coach of the Year when the over/under for Cardinal wins was 3.5. Satterfield won seven in his first season.
- Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons would be ranked higher had not Newman gone to Georgia.
- Virginia Tech: After flirting with Baylor, Justin Fuente stayed. Hendon Hooker is the future.
10. The Pac-12 has never been worse: There are money problems. There are recruiting problems. There are competitive problems. David Shaw is coming off his worst season at Stanford (4-8). USC's issues are detailed below. Washington lost a top-five coach in Chris Petersen. UCLA seems miles from mattering again. Utah will have to retool after winning the Pac-12 South. The league needs an 11- or 12-game winner to remind everyone it exists.
11. Clay's Complicated (Last?) Stand: At a time when USC -- as a school -- must burnish its brand, this season is key. Athletic director Mike Bohn did not dismiss the possibility, however unlikely, that his school could leave the league. On the field, the situation has almost become untenable. No matter what you think of the man, Helton has been attacked with open hostility by fans after being retained in November for a second straight season. Juxtapose that against the possibility of the Trojans winning the Pac-12 South. They're that good. Kedon Slovis threw 30 touchdowns as a freshman quarterback. The defensive staff has been remade.
12. There's still a best in the West: Mario Cristobal is building a powerhouse at Oregon. The defending Pac-12 and Rose Bowl winners have to find a replacement for QB Justin Herbert, but the foundation is solid. Joe Moorhead was fired at Mississippi State and quickly showed in Eugene, Oregon, to become offensive coordinator. Look for redshirt Tyler Slough to be the favorite to replace Herbert. Four new offensive linemen will have to be replaced to go with superstar left tackle Penei Sewell. Cristobal has built a program that could compete favorably in the SEC because of its toughness.
13. Rutgers throwback: Greg Schiano has been through enough. Little did he know that, almost 15 years later, his career achievement remains that 11-2 season with Rutgers in 2006. Things have never been the same again for Schiano or Rutgers. Circumstances led them back to each other after the Knights cratered under Ash. Schiano endured the unfortunate Tennessee ordeal. He also coached in the NFL and coordinated defenses that won three Big Ten titles. Reviving Rutgers in the tough-as-nails Big Ten East is a tough ask but the program may have landed the only coach who can do it.
14. Bearing Down: There wasn't any question Matt Rhule could coach. In three seasons, the Carolina Panthers' new head man led Baylor from 1-11 to the brink of a CFP berth, losing to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game. Aranda tries to keep the momentum going. The first-time head coach chose Baylor as much as the other way around. As a national champion defensive coordinator at LSU, he was a hot property. Aranda is an California native but has experience coaching at Texas Tech and Houston. Offensive coordinator and native Texan Larry Fedora is reborn in league that suits his skills.
15. Lincoln Riley finally has to develop a QB recruit: That's another way of getting into five significant quarterback battles beyond Alabama, which was mentioned above.
- Florida: Kyle Trask played great in place of injured Feleipe Franks (now at Arkansas), but talented dual-threat redshirt sophomore Emory Jones is waiting in the wings as the heir apparent. Will Dan Mullen make a change?
- Oklahoma: For the first time, Riley doesn't get a ready-make transfer for his offense. Redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler has the upper hand over redshirt sophomore Tanner Mordecai and freshman Chandler Morris.
- Oregon: Slough, a redshirt sophomore, is the only quarterback with experience ahead of three freshmen after the loss of Herbert.
- Tennessee: Jarrett Guarantano has been too inconsistent. If Maryland transfer Kasim Hill can get healthy, he might have the most promise.
UCF: Dillon Gabriel had a surprisingly effective freshman season beating out Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush and Darriel Mack. The battle now is between Mack and Gabriel. McKenzie Milton will try to make it back from a serious leg injury.
16. Will Mike Norvell revive Florida State? The former Memphis coach may not be the super sexy name many Seminoles hoped to get (hint: Urban Meyer), but let's put it this way: He was the best name available on the board. Norvell developed players at Memphis. That's where FSU must start because Taggart did not leave the program in a good place. First task in that development? Find a quarterback between veteran James Blackman, redshirt sophomore Jordan Travis and early enrollee Tate Rodemaker.
17. The best team no one is talking about: Boise State. If not for Memphis sealing the Group of Five deal, the Broncos would have played in their fourth BCS/New Year's Six bowl since 2007. Coach Bryan Harsin's name keeps coming up for jobs, but he keeps staying at Boise. That spells continuity. Hars gets 15 starters back, including QB Hank Bachmeier. Amaze your friends with this stat: Boise State is currently the all-time winningest program (.7305 winning percentage).
18. Notre Dame actually under the radar: What, you forgot? The Irish have won at least 10 games in three consecutive seasons for second time in school history and first time since 1993. Brian Kelly is about to sign an extension that would make him longest-tenured Irish coach behind Knute Rockne. New facilities are going up. Ian Book -- 20-3 as a starter -- returns at quarterback. The biggest Irish spring thing to watch is 27-year-old former QB Tommy Rees settling in as offensive coordinator.
19. King of Miami: Call me an optimist, but I think the addition of Houston transfer D'Eriq King at Miami could have a similar impact to the one Burrow made at LSU. No, the Hurricanes aren't going to win the national championship. They'd like to challenge in the ACC Coastal for starters. But King, the Houston transfer, is a ready-made Heisman contender. A true dual-threat quarterback, King averages a touchdown every 8.5 carries. He already has 55 career touchdown passes. Think of a shorter Deshaun Watson. Will King be enough to take the heat off Manny Diaz (6-7 in first season)? Put it this way: The offense will definitely be more exciting with King behind center and Rhett Lashlee calling the plays.
20: Tanking in Houston: There might not be another way to describe it. King was one of three Cougars players to have their senior seasons stopped after four games last season. Coach Dana Holgorsen had the idea to take advantage of a new NCAA rule that allows players an extra year of eligibility if they play less than five games in a season. With the Cougs off to a 1-3 start, King, wide receiver Keith Corbin and running back Patrick Carr sat down. King transferred. Corbin and Carr are back, expected to be centerpieces of the offense. What was achieved here? With King, Houston might be a New Year's Six challenger. Without him, not so much.
Contributing: Tom Fornelli, Chip Patterson, Ben Kercheval