Back to normal? We're getting there. A year ago in this space, it was all about college football just days before the shutdown. Now, we'd give anything just to see 120 guys stretch before a March offseason practice.
The 152nd season of college football is six months away, but the second spring dealing with COVID-19 is here. There's light at the end of the scrimmage. Teams are planning on spring practice without interruptions. The NCAA has not intervened. Sure, there might be a stoppage or two, but with the coronavirus vaccines increasing production, we can turn our attention to position battles, new players, new coaches and transfers.
Last year actually proved college football can get by without spring practice. (Really, did you notice a drop the quality of play?) But there is a sense of renewal each year at this time. For that, we should be thankful.
We have something resembling normal. Grab a lawn chair, bring your cooler, wear a mask. Spring practice is back. Here's 21 things to look forward to in spring 2021.
1. Starting over: There may not be room at the top, but at least there's hope of new blood. The nation's three most dominant programs all face some degree of rebuild. Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State will use the spring trying to replace a combined nine CBS Sports All-Americans. The Big Three have lost the projected No. 1 overall NFL Draft choice (Clemson's Trevor Lawrence), the Heisman Trophy winner (Alabama's DeVonta Smith), the Davey O'Brien winner (Alabama's Mac Jones), Outland the Trophy winner (Alabama's Alex Leatherwood), the Rimington Trophy winner (Alabama's Landon Dickerson) and the Doak Walker winner (Alabama's Najee Harris). All that said, it will be an upset if the Big Three doesn't all start 2021 in the top five and all make the College Football Playoff. Again. They have combined to win 11 consecutive conference titles.
2. No. 1: The Tigers started the offseason No. 1, at least in this corner of the world. If not for the transfer of linebacker Mike Jones Jr., all 11 defenders would return. I've already said it: Sophomore quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei might eventually be better than Lawrence. A bunch of receivers return. If you attend one spring practice (socially distanced, of course), Clemson should be it. This spring kicks off Dabo Swinney's pursuit of a third national title in the last six years.
3. Nick Saban at 70: He's not quite there yet (Oct. 31), but Alabama's coach is in his 70th year and 29th as a head coach. You already know about the talent losses (see above). This figures to be Saban's most daunting reboot in his 15 years at Alabama. You don't lose all that talent and get better ... or do you? The Bryce Young era begins with Brian Robinson as the primary ball carrier. The defense that was the third-worst ever to win a national championship? Loaded. Don't be surprised. For those scoring at home, Saban will turn 69 ½ just two weeks after the April 17 A-Day game. The man continues to be amazing.
4. Which way, SEC? Because of those Alabama losses, there is reason to believe Georgia should be the SEC favorite. JT Daniels has Heisman potential in what would be the second full season of his career, which is now in Year 4. The Bulldogs defense is always strong. To overtake the Alabama, the offense must be more consistent in big games. It will be interesting. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken was considered heavily by UCF before it went with Gus Malzahn. Biggest spring project for the Dawgs: With the loss of Tyrique Stevenson (transfer to Miami) and reliable veteran Richard LeCounte, the secondary needs to be addressed.
5. There is spring practice and a spring season: Ninety-one Division I teams, most of them FCS, elected to play their 2020 seasons in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the likes of powerhouse North Dakota State, that could mean playing up to 28 games this calendar year (including FCS playoffs). Actually, all those games would be within a 10.5-month period. And we're worried about expansion of the College Football Playoff? Let's talk student-athlete welfare: The average Bison lineman could average 5.92 full-go snaps per day from now until the FCS title game in the second week of January 2022.
6. Year of the super senior: Technically, no players ran out of eligibility in 2020. When COVID-19 hit, the NCAA awarded every player got an extra year of eligibility. That means in 2021 there will be fifth-, sixth- and maybe even seventh-year seniors. That presented a delicate situation for some coaches. While some of those seniors may have preferred to return, coaches may not have wanted them to return. That extra year is only for eligibility. It doesn't guarantee a scholarship. You can bet two of the best super seniors will have scholarships waiting for them: Clemson linebacker James Skalski and Miami quarterback D'Eriq King both enter their sixth years.
7. The LSU mess: Less than 14 months after winning a national championship, LSU is wrapped in controversy. There is an ongoing investigation into alleged sexual assault that may have happened on the watch of both Ed Orgeron and Les Miles. USA Today sued the school attempting to gain access to documents. There was a report this week that Miles was investigated for harassment in 2013. The biggest football question of LSU's spring -- Myles Brennan or Max Johnson at quarterback? -- kind of pales in comparison.
8. New coaches: There are 15 of them, a somewhat surprising total given expectations that 2020 was going to be a mulligan season for a lot of coaches due to COVID-19. Not at South Carolina, Auburn and Texas where they ponied up $50 million in combined buyout money to make changes. You know what you can buy with $50 million? Your own private island. Eight Power Five schools made a change. Seven of the 15 are first-time head coaches. Sadly, only two are minorities. Here's the hiring grades.
9. Three new coaches we'd pay Bitcoin to watch their first season of spring practice:
- Gus Malzahn, UCF: After getting out from under the strictures at Auburn (available on request), he has the chance to go back to his roots as a play-callin' ball coach savant with the Knights.
- Steve Sarkisian, Texas: The best offensive player caller in the sport was the best name available on the board for Longhorns. Next goals: Win 10 games for the first time in his career, beat Oklahoma, win the Big 12.
- Bryan Harsin, Auburn: Harsin is not flashy but his chin can cut glass. There's nothing wrong with a solid hire who knows how to develop quarterbacks. That sort of thing has worked with LSU and Alabama the last two seasons.
10. Best in the West: Oregon has won back-to-back Pac-12 titles. Up next? Become a College Football Playoff factor. The Pac-12 desperately needs someone in the league to step up. Oregon's transition to 2021 began in the Fiesta Bowl when Boston College transfer quarterback Anthony Brown split time with incumbent Tyler Shough who quickly transferred to Texas Tech. Among the options are incoming freshman Ty Thompson and Jay Butterfield from the 2020 class.
11. Next in the West: By the time spring practice ends, roughly at the end of April, there's a good chance the Pac-12 will have hired its new commissioner. Larry Scott parted ways with league in January. Under his watch, there were impressive gains, but mostly a loss of competitive equity. As of now, the league is Power Five only because of the worth of its western markets to TV. The new commissioner must boost football on the field. That might mean folding the Pac-12 Network and getting the league a unique broadcast network deal. Anything to fill league coffers so when the next Urban Meyer is available, a Pac-12 school has the will and resources to hire him. Watch these athletic directors as candidates: Villanova's Mark Jackson and Washington's Jen Cohen.
12. Jim Harbaugh 7.0: The bombastic Michigan coach who loudly announced himself back into the college game six years ago has been quiet. Headed into his seventh season, flamboyance has been replaced by humility. That was obvious after Harbs suffered his first losing season since 2008. Assistant coaches left. Players transferred. Once the NFL showed no interest in Harbaugh, AD Warde Manuel had the leverage to offer an extension laden with incentives. These days, Harbaugh's springs are devoid of globe-trotting camps. In six years, he hasn't been able to solve the simple math of today's game: If you've got a quarterback, you've got a chance. After the transfer of Joe Milton, junior Cade McNamara will be the favorite in the spring.
13. Transfer portal: The end of spring practice promises to ramp up the first unofficial free agency period in college football history. All because of the expectation that one-time transfers will be allowed later this year. The portal already had become the one-stop shop for teams searching for immediate help. Now, it has exploded with approximately 1,500 names in it as of last week. The losers of spring position battles will no doubt glut the system further. That tells you there is more player supply than school demand.
NCAA legislation is expected to pass by August allowing players to transfer once in their career without sitting out a year-in-residence. If not, players will have to apply for waivers, but that's why we're here in the first place. That sit-out rule is unfair as it only applies to five sports -- football, men's and women's basketball, hockey and baseball. Coaches have decried the one-time transfer exemption, but not a single one will refuse to use it to plug and play if they're short at a position.
14. Transfer studs: Let's get right to it. Watch these players make big impacts with their new teams this spring.
- McKenzie Milton, QB, Florida State: UCF's former Heisman candidate is fully healed from a horrendous leg injury. Can a much-dis(cussed) FSU offensive line step up to protect him?
- Demarkcus Bowman, RB, Florida: Clemson's stud five-star prospect only took nine carries before deciding to leave the Tigers. With the Gators expected to be a run-heavy team following the losses of QB Kyle Trask and much of his arsenal, Bowman has a shot to be a stud in 2021.
- Eric Gray, RB, Oklahoma: OU benefits from the Tennessee cleansing in the wake of Jeremy Pruitt's firing/ongoing NCAA investigation. On an average Vols team, Gray averaged 8.5 yards per carry.
- Jack Coan, QB, Notre Dame: The team should remain in national contention slotting Coan in behind Ian Book. A solid starter at Wisconsin before being injured, Coan should benefit from the increasingly impressive Tommy Rees at offensive coordinator.
- Alan Bowman, QB, Michigan: Suddenly, the Wolverines have depth in the quarterback room. Bowman brings 33 career touchdown passes and 4,200 yards as a sometimes starter at Texas Tech.
- Dylan Brooks, DT, Auburn: Not a traditional transfer, per se. Brooks was released from his scholarship by Tennessee after Pruitt's firing. Still, a huge get within the SEC.
- Wanya Morris, OL, Oklahoma: Another Tennessee refugee, Morris had an outstanding freshman All-America season in 2019. In 2020, he was struck by COVID-19.
- Wan'Dale Robinson, WR, Kentucky: The loss of arguably Nebraska's best offensive player is as devastating in Lincoln as it is refreshing in Lexington.
- Mike Jones Jr., LB, LSU: Jones wanted to "move inside the box," according to Swinney. LSU gets a starting linebacker from the Clemson dynasty with three years' eligibility left.
- Tyrique Stevenson, DB, Miami: The speedy prospect was the No. 3 corner in the Class of 2019. He had 43 tackles in two seasons at Georgia.
- Zach Charbonnet, RB, UCLA: A sneaky good get for Chip Kelly. Charbonnet rushed for 726 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2019.
15. Coastal Carolina's encore: Jamey Chadwell established the Chanticleers as a national program capturing the college football world's attention in an epic 11-1 season. Somehow, Chadwell is still in with the team despite his name coming up at South Carolina and Tennessee (for starters). The Sun Belt might be as strong as it has been thanks to Coastal.
16. Hot seat coaches: My comprehensive list will come out this summer, but for now, these coaches better start taking some important steps in the spring:
- Les Miles, Kansas: 3-18 in two seasons and possible off-field issues at LSU rearing their heads.
- Jeff Brohm, Purdue: 8-16 since 2018 upset of Ohio State.
- Dino Babers, Syracuse: 6-17 since a 10-win season in 2018 (1-10 in 2020).
- Dana Holgorsen, Houston: The D'Eriq King experiment failed miserably. Cincinnati rules the AAC.
- Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech: The buyout was too big after last season's 5-6 finish. The Hokies are 1-4 in their last five and 5-8 in their last 13.
17. The Heisman Trophy frontrunner: Spencer Rattler is Lincoln Riley's first homegrown quarterback at OU. The five-star enters his third season at Oklahoma as SportsLine's 2021 Heisman favorite. In his first four seasons, Riley produced Heisman winners out of transfers Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. In the second half of the season, Rattler shook off a rough start throwing only two interceptions in his last seven games. Oh yeah, OU should start the season in the top five tied for the nation's second-longest winning streak (eight games). You've got to like Rattler's chances of capturing OU's third Heisman in five years.
18. The best team no one is talking about -- Kent State: Coach Sean Lewis has developed into a bright offensive mind at the tender of 34. Super senior QB Dustin Crum is back to lead the nation's highest-scoring offense (49.8 points in only four games). Watching the Golden Flashes over a full season will be a study in shootouts. After what we went through good, old-fashioned fun never hurt anybody.
19. Name, image and likeness: Schools are busy this spring blowing out budgets convincing recruits to come to their place with gobs of money. That isn't a glimpse of a shady program; that's the state of college athletics right now. By the end of the spring, we'll be a couple of months closer to what promises to be an Aug. 1 debut of name, image and likeness rights. College sports will essentially become professionalized. Think of the starting quarterback with his own weekly YouTube show or the trash-talking safety with his own line of shoes. Schools are preparing for the explosion of NIL rights by partnering with marketing firms to entice those recruits with slick videos that hint at income that could reach the high six figures.
20. Another run by Cincinnati: There's no doubt the Bearcats deserved a playoff berth last season. The problems: There are only four spots and none of the 13 members of the CFP Selection Committee could count higher than eight when it came to the Bearcats. (Their final ranking was No. 8.) QB Desmond Ridder is back to face a schedule that includes back-to-back trips to Indiana and Notre Dame.
21. Football might not be the biggest topic of Notre Dame spring practice: The Fighting Irish look like an annual CFP competitor. Coach Brian Kelly has built a physical program from inside out in both lines with just enough contribution from skill players. Coan takes over an offense that will rely heavily on tailback Kyren Williams. The next question for the Irish is how long are they going to stay independent after the ACC experiment. "While we love our independence, that was a fun experiment," AD Jack Swarbrick told "The Paul Finebaum Show" last week. "It's great to have that information as we go forwarD. ... College football is gonna change dramatically in the next five years. And while we love the way we approach it today, we recognize change is coming." Notre Dame to the ACC?