Fifteen practices. Eight of them in pads.
That makes coaches drool this time of year. Spring practices are beginning to open around the country reminding us once again there is no offseason.
What to watch for: 22 coaching changes … quarterback battles for both teams that played for the national championship … record coaching turnover in the SEC … Arizona State's bold new look … a key season for Jim Harbaugh … the absolutely tough-as-nails Big Ten East.
Bring a lawn chair and a cooler or a blanket and a seat back. Welcome to the high point of the offseason.
Here's 25 things to watch this spring.
1. Tuscaloosa two-step: The most anticipated, intriguing, delicate quarterback battle in years kicks off March 21. That's when the battle begins. Jalen Hurts seemingly lost the job at halftime of the College Football Playoff National Championship, but Tua Tagovailoa has to follow through after the second-half comeback against Georgia. Will Hurts transfer? Will Tua flourish? Will both play? The only thing at stake is the continuation of Alabama's dynasty.
2. Speaking of quarterback battles … Georgia might have an even more interesting situation. Jake Fromm led the Dawgs to the brink of a championship. But here comes the No. 1 prospect in the country, Justin Fields, another Georgia native son with better all-around tools. Think Deshaun Watson with a better arm. Either way, it doesn't seem like Kirby Smart can lose.
3. SEC makeover: The six full-time coaches in new positions this year the most in the league since 1946. This time, nearly half the conference is turning over with Dan Mullen (Mississippi State to Florida), Joe Moorhead (Penn State offensive coordinator to Mississippi State), Jimbo Fisher (Florida State to Texas A&M), Chad Morris (SMU to Arkansas) and Jeremy Pruitt (Alabama defensive coordinator to Tennessee) getting new jobs. One clarification: Ole Miss' Matt Luke got the full-time gig after serving as interim in 2017.
4. Chip comes to Westwood: UCLA did one thing good last year in throwing the ball with Josh Rosen. But that fact led to the firing of Jim Mora Jr and the hiring of Chip Kelly, who has a bit of rebuilding to do with a program that needs to win the city (beat USC), then win the Pac-12. Kelly did that three times with Oregon. Chip is the perfect coach at the perfect time for the imperfect team. There is much work to be done until anticipated quarterback recruit Dorian Thompson-Robinson arrives this summer.
5. Frosty Nebraska: The Cornhuskers' spring game was sold out quicker than you can say, "Hometown boy!" Scott has completely rejuvenated a tired program that needed direction. Nebraska's former championship quarterback (and UCF coach) has done just that. The happy vibe in Lincoln should raise chilly temps at least 10 degrees.
6. Who's got it tougher than Michigan? Jim Harbaugh faces a key campaign (his fourth) after his worst season -- 8-5 in 2017. The Wolverines need a quarterback (see below), more team speed and some hope to beat Ohio State and Penn State. In a Big Ten East that will be absolutely loaded, Harbaugh and Michigan can't afford to stumble.
7. The Decision, Shea Patterson-style: We should learn soon if Michigan has that quarterback. Patterson is seeking a waiver to be eligible right away after transferring from Ole Miss. And he seemingly has a good case for that appeal. It's safe to say Michigan's season hinges on whether that waiver goes through. It's becoming more than a talking point that Harbaugh hasn't been able to produce a difference-making quarterback yet in Ann Arbor.
8. Houston's once-in-a-generation star: Ed Oliver Jr. cleared his life of clutter by declaring for the draft this week. Why not? The rising junior defensive lineman has played only two years of college football, collecting 39.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks and five forced fumbles. He has already won the Outland Trophy, become an All-American and made himself the No. 1 player in the country, according to one publication. Oliver also is the No. 1 defensive Heisman Trophy candidate for 2018. Just ask him.
9. Clemson is locked and loaded: A bit of Alabama Jr. here. There is a lot of speculation about Kelly Bryant's job security now that No. 1 recruit Trevor Lawrence is in the fold. Bryant's backup Hunter Johnson is also in the mix. To be clear, Bryant goes into spring as the starter. For pure viewing pleasure, I would recommend attending any Clemson spring practice. The best defensive line in ball will be on display. All four starters return.
10. Michigan State turmoil: The Spartans are as loaded as any Big Ten team. Twenty returning starters including quarterback Brian Lewerke and tailback LJ Scott. Michigan and Ohio State come to East Lansing. But Mark Dantonio has had to deny an ESPN report that sexual assaults by his players were shielded.
11. Remember the Buckeyes: For the second consecutive year, the Big Ten champions got left out of the CFP. This time, it was Ohio State which must now rebound from (a) that slight and (b) the loss nine starters from a 12-2 team. Two 1,000-yard rushers return (Mike Weber, J.K. Dobbins), but the real question is at quarterback. All-time Buckeye great J.T. Barrett is gone leaving the quarterback fight to junior Joe Burrow, sophomore Dwayne Haskins and freshman Tate Martell. Haskins (565 passing yards in eight games) is the favorite.
12. Top five assistants starting new jobs:
- Kendal Briles, offensive coordinator, Houston
- Charlie Weis Jr., offensive coordinator, FAU
- John Chavis, defensive coordinator, Arkansas
- Craig Kuligowski, defensive line, Alabama
- Mike Elko, defensive coordinator, Texas A&M
13. Which way, Notre Dame? Brian Kelly must keep the momentum going from his third season of at least 10 wins in South Bend. He loses two All-Americans along the offensive line (Quenton Nelson, Mike McGlinchey) and must get Brandon Wimbush to be a more effective thrower. But the Irish won't improve unless a defense that returns 10 starters keeps rolling with the loss of Mike Elko, this will be another playoff-less season.
14. Didn't you used to be Oregon? Mario Cristobal is the Ducks' third coach in as many seasons. The last guy (Willie Taggart) stayed one year. It's hard to believe only four years ago, Oregon was playing for a national championship. Now, Taggart's former offensive coordinator takes over. This is the second chance Cristobal never thought he'd get after being fired at FIU in 2012. The mandate is to get Oregon back to being a national program.
15. Jimbo takes over A&M: We learned a lot about Jimbo Fisher on National Signing Day. He'll be installing a new offense and choosing between Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond for quarterback. A&M has the best everything -- stadium, money, recruiting base and now possibly coach. The Aggies are running out of excuses.
16. LSU has everything but a quarterback: Where have you heard that before? The pressure ramps up in full-time year No. 2 for Coach O. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is being paid more than 80 FBS head coaches ($2.5 million per year). Derrius Guice is gone. Oh yeah, sophomore Myles Brennan (24 career passes) is that quarterback who has to come through. He is the heir apparent to Danny Etling. Ed Orgeron needs to deliver in 2018.
17. Ray Anderson's Grand Experiment: Arizona State's new football coach recently spent a half four on Kansas City radio breaking down the Marcus Peters trade. Huh? You'd think Herm Edwards had better things to do with his time. That's just one oddity of hiring a 63-year-old TV analyst who last coached in the NFL 10 years ago and in college 29 years ago. Anderson, Arizona State's athletic director, says coaches always know how to coach. We'll find out.
18. Pac-12 comeback: If there is a subdivision among the Power Five, it starts with the Pac-12 at the bottom. The revenue difference continues to grow. The conference network has never gotten wide distribution. Nothing can be done about late-starting games. It's starting to be a Power Four with Pac-12 slippage on the national landscape. Five new coaches debuting this spring may help resuscitate the worst of the Power Five leagues.
19. Derek Dooley, lightning rod: Tennessee's former coach, who has never called an offensive play or coached a quarterback, was not only was hired as Missouri's offensive coordinator but inherits the projected No. 1 quarterback prospect in 2019 (Drew Lock). What could go wrong?
20. Post-Sam Darnold at USC: While sophomore Matt Fink and freshman Jack Seats battle it out in the spring, it's possible USC's next quarterback may still be in high school. Blue-chip prospect J.T. Daniels is attempting to reclassify at Orange County power Mater Dei. That means jamming a bunch of classes into this semester so Daniels can enroll in time for the fall. There is reason for optimism. Mater Dei has produced two Heisman winners (John Huarte, Matt Leinart) as well as USC's all-time passing leader, Matt Barkley.
21. Pressure, thy name is Josh Heupel: Missouri's offensive coordinator had one heck of a second half of the season. The Tigers won their final six regular-season games while Lock lit it up. Still, Heupel was a bit of a surprise at UCF where he inherits a "national championship" and the nation's longest winning streak. Like Frost before him, Heupel has never been a head coach. Can UCF hit on an inexperienced pick twice in a row?
22. Year 2 at Texas: The turnaround wasn't immediate. Strangely, in Year 1 under Tom Herman, the Horns were a defense-first squad. That means Herman still has to find, identify and establish a quarterback. He hasn't yet. Another 7-6 finish and the always-patient Texas administration (sarcasm added) will want a word with him.
23. Florida gets back to being offensive: Dan Mullen returns to Florida after nine years at Mississippi State for basically one reason: to make Florida football exciting again. The offensive malaise lasted through Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain. Mullen has technically coached two Heisman winners (Tim Tebow, Cam Newton for one season) and the Cowboys' starting quarterback (Dak Prescott). Feleipe Franks and Emory Jones, you're up.
24. Still looking for jobs: These guys have tried, but unless something develops soon, Hugh Freeze, Butch Jones and Bret Bielema will be out of coaching in 2018. In their careers, the three have combined to average eight wins a season and go to 19 bowls. Jones, only 50, is the oldest -- and also looks to be the closest to landing a gig as he's in conversations to join Alabama as an off-field offensive analyst.
25. A final farewell in Pullman: Washington State is searching for another quarterback this spring because of the most tragic of reasons. Tyler Hilinski committed suicide in January. His family took out a half-page ad in the Seattle Times to thank everyone who reached out.