Spring football is here, meaning the slow offseason months are already melting away before our very eyes. Don’t you worry, the 2017 season will soon follow before you know it.
For now, it’s time to look ahead to those all-so-pivotal practices that will set the tone for the upcoming season. Teams won’t have their full rosters for spring practices, but those drills do provide an inside look into key position battles and stars in the making.
Spring is an important time for coaches, too. Some are holding their first practices at a new gig while others could be coaching for their jobs. From new faces to emerging names and NCAA scandals, here are all the things to watch for over the next couple of months before the dog days of summer set in.
17. “Rowing the Boat” in the land of 10,000 lakes: The P.J. Fleck era at Minnesota has begun. One of coaching’s biggest personalities takes over a team that nearly boycotted a bowl appearance over a sexual assault investigation involving a number of its players. Fleck’s high-energy shtick, highlighted by his “Row the Boat” mantra, worked wonders at Western Michigan. Can it work at a Power Five program? If it does, Fleck will become the hottest name in the coaching carousel.
16. Who emerges at wide receiver for Ohio State? The Buckeyes need a passing attack -- badly. There were myriad reasons why Ohio State struggled through the air last season, but the glaring focal point moving forward is the need for a playmaker at pass catcher. Sophomores K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor and Austin Mack showed some flashes last season, and there’s some young talent on the way, too. If the Buckeyes are going to make a national title run, this position needs to improve.
15. Smoothing over a rough start at Oregon: Coach Willie Taggart did a remarkable job building up Western Kentucky and South Florida on his way to taking the Oregon job. But 2017 got off to a rocky start for the Jim Harbaugh disciple. A report from the Oregonian that during offseason workouts led to the suspension of the team’s new strength coach. Afterward, Taggart publicly shunned the story’s author, Andrew Greif, before the two eventually made up. Additionally, assistant coach David Reaves resigned following a DUI arrest. That’s a lot of drama for a coach who has been on the job but a few months.
14. Penn State begins its move toward another Big Ten East title: Few outside Happy Valley predicted the Nittany Lions would win the Big Ten East last season -- even then, the number of supporters had to have been small. Yet there weren’t many teams at season’s end playing better football than Penn State. Coach James Franklin appears to have his pieces in place to truly take ownership of the program. Running back Saquon Barkley is the undeniable truth. With Ohio State once again the heavy favorite, can Penn State shock the college football world again and re-emerge as one of college football’s blue bloods? The journey starts this spring.
13. A new-look Tennessee: There are coaching changes everywhere in college football, but at Tennessee, the Vols underwent several coaching swaps at the assistant level following an underwhelming 9-4 campaign that featured much loftier goals. In all, the Vols have five new assistants and two more have been promoted. Coach Butch Jones knows it’s now or never time in Knoxville. Without at least a SEC East title, his own future might be looking grim.
12. Lane Kiffin takes over Florida Atlantic: You’re not going to find many times when FAU is a focal point, but that changes with Kiffin’s arrival. (Related: That’s probably what FAU wants.) He’s one of college football’s most polarizing figures, and this is his first head coaching gig since being fired at an airport while he was leading Southern California. Oh, and he didn’t exactly leave Alabama as the team’s offensive coordinator under glowing circumstances. It’s always something with Kiffin, which gives him high entertainment value and keeps our attention.
11. Finding this year’s Western Michigan: Every year, there’s a Group of Five team that makes some noise in the offseason. It was Houston in 2016, but Western Michigan landed the major bowl bid after an undefeated regular season. Which team will become the underdog to watch? The likes of Boise State will always be mentioned first, but Appalachian State and Troy are intriguing under-the-radar teams if you’re down with some #FunBelt action. Tulsa was this close to winning 12 games last season and returns a number of experienced players.
10. Getting an initial glimpse of Kirby Smart’s second year at Georgia: UGA is the textbook definition of a sleeping giant. The state produces plenty of blue-chip talent each year, and the SEC East remains a division ripe for the taking. The Bulldogs’ offense has two star running backs returning in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, and quarterback Jacob Eason has a year of experience under his belt. For all the hype East division foe Tennessee has received lately, Georgia is the program that feels like it’s on the verge of exploding.
9. Starting over at Michigan: Not to be hyperbolic, but the Wolverines lose e-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y. You could say defensive coordinator Don Brown is the best returning starter on either side of the ball. With so many big names gone, spring practice will be about finding new names to step up. Good thing Jim Harbaugh has landed top-five-ish recruiting classes in each of the past two seasons. Now in Year 3, Michigan’s roster will look far more like Harbaugh’s than the one recruited by Brady Hoke.
8. The vibe around Ole Miss: The Rebels were handed a from the NCAA late last month with 21 total charges, including lack of institutional control and failure to monitor. Seven of the charges are of the dreaded Level I variety. The severe nature of the NOA comes back to coach Hugh Freeze, from here on out. Forget position battles, Freeze is going to be asked about what the potential NCAA penalties will mean for his program ad nauseam.
7. Baylor enters the post-Art Briles era on a bad note: Briles might be gone, but the fallout from a sexual assault scandal that rocked the school hasn’t gone away. Within the past six weeks alone, Baylor was hit with a Title IX lawsuit alleging 31 players committed 52 acts of rape from 2011-14; the team’s new strength coach was ; the women’s basketball coach, Kim Mulkey, defended the school so vehemently that she encouraged a swift ” to anyone questioning whether to send their daughter to Baylor; and defensive back Travon Blanchard was against a woman with whom he was involved. While 2016 was technically the first year without Briles at the helm, the rest of his staff remained. This is a legitimate fresh start under new coach Matt Rhule.
6. Where have all the quarterbacks (in the ACC Coastal) gone? There’s quarterback attrition, and then there’s a quarterback exodus. And lord have mercy, the ACC Coastal loses itself some quarterbacks -- Mitch Trubisky (North Carolina), Brad Kaaya (Miami), Jerod Evans (Virginia Tech) and Nathan Peterman (Pitt). Even Georgia Tech’s triple-option master, Justin Thomas, has left the building. The ACC Coastal isn’t just losing any old quarterbacks, either. It loses quality ones, including a few who will be drafted. Can they be replaced? Perhaps, but the Coastal is on its way to some spectacular 4-4 conference records from top to bottom.
5. Jarrett Stidham arrives at Auburn: Stidham is quickly earning the “missing piece” moniker for an Auburn team that feels as close as anyone to catching Alabama in the SEC West. But are we getting ahead of ourselves? He performed well as a freshman backup at Baylor in a quarterback-friendly offense but was still (understandably) freshman-y. He didn’t play at the junior college level, but will get plenty of snaps because of Sean White’s broken arm.
4. Tom Herman’s first quarterback competition at Texas: Shane Buechele is the incumbent after starting as a freshman and there’s a lot of excitement about early enrollee Sam Ehlinger. Buechele will be the No. 1 guy entering spring drills, but it will be interesting to see how much Ehlinger pushes him as practice continues. It’s a new year with a new coach, meaning jobs are on the line. For as disappointing as the past several years have been for the Longhorns, the raw skill is there thanks to Herman’s predecessor, Charlie Strong, and this team feels close to turning a corner. One of the positions that can help make it happen: quarterback.
3. A critical spring for Notre Dame: Going 4-8 isn’t acceptable at a place like Notre Dame. Ever. Especially with the schedule the Irish had last season. Quarterback DeShone Kizer, a real bright spot in an otherwise forgettable effort, is gone to the NFL and two new coordinators are taking over. Brandon Wimbush has some mojo at quarterback and there are some young skill guys to be excited about. Another key area to watch: defensive line.
2. USC -- ‘nuff said: If the Trojans are to pick up where they left off in 2016 -- as the hot team entering 2017 -- they need to keep up the big-play offense. Quarterback Sam Darnold is a stone-cold assassin, and running back Ronald Jones II is the real deal in the backfield. There’s plenty of talent across the board even with the losses of Juju Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson. The perception of the program has changed 180 degrees from this time last year. Now the question is whether USC can make good on it.
1. Replacing quarterback Deshaun Watson at Clemson: To put it simply, Clemson probably doesn’t win a national championship, let alone compete for two, without Watson. Between him and Tajh Boyd, Clemson has been gifted with top level quarterbacks over the past several years. Replacing him is a major priority. Zerrick Cooper, Hunter Johnson, Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel will all get their shot, but . Teams don’t necessarily need an experienced quarterback to win a national title, but a talented one goes a long way to making that goal achivable. The journey to find the next great quarterback begins in earnest.