College football hits its spring peak over the next few weeks, with the next three Saturdays standing out as the most popular days for spring scrimmages, which are the best chance for the public to get a view of how teams are starting to shape up for the 2016 season.
Spring scrimmages never actually matter much, but they are a last chance for players to separate themselves before preseason camps open in August. It's an especially important time for quarterbacks, with many high-profile jobs still open and expected to remain open into fall camps. With many key spring games coming up, here is a snapshot of the most important ongoing quarterback battles.
1. Florida State
Spring Game: April 9
Notre Dame has the most fascinating quarterback battle, given the known names involved, but Florida State's is the most important. The Seminoles' quarterback play may decide the ACC title, and thus a College Football Playoff bid and possibly the national championship.
With Deshaun Watson and nearly the entire offense back, Clemson will enter the season as the likely favorite in the ACC. But the Tigers do have to rebuild their defense again, and Florida State is loaded at just about every position except for quarterback. It's a stark contrast from last year, when the Seminoles were young at many positions and brought in Everett Golson as a transfer quarterback, only for that move to fall apart over the course of the season. Sean Maguire, now a senior, started five games and played in eight, completing 59.3 percent for 1,520 yards with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. However, he injured his ankle in the Peach Bowl loss to Houston, and after surgery, he has sat out all of spring practice.
With Maguire sidelined and Golson gone, three players have attempted to separate themselves in battling him for the 2016 starting job: sophomore J.J. Cosentino, redshirt freshman Deondre Francois and true freshman early enrollee Malik Henry. Cosentino struggled in limited action in the Peach Bowl but has yet to get much of a chance. Henry is probably a long shot as a raw true freshman. The best challenge to Maguire is Francois, a four-star recruit in the class of 2015 who has drawn praise in the spring and will likely be the top QB in Saturday's Garnet & Gold Game, which will be played in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando instead of on campus.
Beyond QB, Florida State returns its entire starting offensive line, all of its receivers and All-America running back Dalvin Cook. It also boasts several emerging stars on defense, including Derwin James and Josh Sweat. Jimbo Fisher has recruited brilliantly, and Florida State hosts Clemson on Oct. 29. With Cook in the backfield, the Seminoles don't need another Jameis Winston at quarterback, but progress at the position could determine whether they're good enough to take back the ACC from the Tigers.
2. Notre Dame
Spring Game: April 16
Notre Dame is the winner of this year's "least problematic quarterback competition," although Ohio State can attest that having multiple great options doesn't mean that everything will go smoothly. After Golson transferred last spring, Malik Zaire became the clear starter, but he broke his ankle in Week 2 against Virginia -- his third career start -- and sat the rest of the season. In his place stepped redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer, who played well -- especially given the circumstances -- and completed 63 percent for 2,884 yards with 21 TDs and 10 INTs, while rushing for 520 yards and 10 TDs.
Kizer's transition was boosted by a phenomenal supporting cast, and Notre Dame will have to regroup a bit this year with players like Ronnie Stanley, Will Fuller, Nick Martin and C.J. Prosise gone. Still, it's quite clear that Kizer is a quarterback that Brian Kelly and coordinator Mike Sanford can build around. Of course, so is Zaire, a former four-star recruit with excellent mobility and a strong arm. Zaire played near-perfect football in the season-opening blowout of Texas, and he also allows the Fighting Irish to push the tempo and utilize the QB as a runner.
Notre Dame may even be able to build around third-stringer Brandon Wimbush, another touted recruit who became the backup last year as a true freshman but should have the luxury of redshirting this year if the other two stay healthy. This is a high-profile battle, and Kelly is attempting to avoid the drama and indecisiveness that plagued the Buckeyes a year ago. If the position is settled, the Irish have top-10 potential again.
Spring Game: April 16
Does it even matter?
Of course starting quarterback at Alabama is an important position, but the offseason quarterback competition -- the third in three years under offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin -- won't change anyone's thoughts about the Crimson Tide, the defending national champion and potential preseason No. 1. After the stability of AJ McCarron, the Tide have gone to the playoff with Blake Sims at QB, then won with Jake Coker. This time, it won't be a senior becoming a first-time starter.
It seemed like redshirt freshman Blake Barnett -- a five-star recruit in the class of 2015 -- might be the early favorite, but he has his work cut out for him. Perhaps not surprisingly, Nick Saban has shown early favoritism to the more experienced players, singling out junior Cooper Bateman and sophomore David Cornwell after a recent scrimmage. Bateman saw some time last year, even starting against Ole Miss, but he barely played the rest of the year after tossing an interception in that game. The younger players involved are Barnett, regarded as the future of the program when he signed, and true freshman Jalen Hurts, who enrolled early.
Alabama is loaded with talent at just about every position, but the backfield will look a lot different with Heisman winner Derrick Henry also gone at running back. It won't affect Alabama's status as a preseason playoff favorite.
Spring Game: April 1
The Wolverines already wrapped up a busy spring in which all of the off-the-field chatter surrounding Jim Harbaugh overshadowed whatever happened on the field. Harbaugh is looking for Michigan's second new starting quarterback in two years, and there's a good chance it will be a transfer again. Last year, Jake Rudock came in from Iowa and won the job. This year is a bit different, as John O'Korn was on the roster last season after transferring from Houston but was obligated to sit for a season.
In the spring game, O'Korn completed 6-of-14 for 93 yards, junior Shane Morris went 4-for-9 for 31 yards and a TD and junior Wilton Speight had the best day, going 5-for-6 for 46 yards and a TD. Take all spring game stats with a grain of salt, though. This competition may drag on deep into August, with O'Korn owning the most experience -- but at a different school -- and Morris and Speight joined by true freshman Brandon Peters and redshirt freshman Alex Malzone in a race in which Harbaugh has a long list of options.
Michigan has an experienced roster and an acclaimed coaching staff, making it a strong candidate to take another step forward and compete for the Big Ten championship. This will continue to be a physical team that runs the ball plenty, but Harbaugh is most known for his work with quarterbacks. It's reasonable to believe that he'll at least find a serviceable option capable of putting the Wolverines in position to win.
Spring Game: April 9
Let's all make a pact not to overhype Auburn's starting quarterback this year. Last season, Jeremy Johnson became a preseason Heisman favorite despite being Nick Marshall's backup previously, and he struggled upon stepping into the starting job. Auburn was one of the nation's biggest disappointments, with Johnson and Sean White ultimately both playing quarterback, and now Gus Malzahn enters 2016 with a significant amount of pressure on him to fix an offense that went into the tank.
Both Johnson and White return, but they're being challenged for the job by mobile Florida State transfer John Franklin III, who could bring some Marshall-like qualities to the table. Redshirt freshman Tyler Queen is also in the mix. Quarterback wasn't Auburn's only issue last year, as the receiving corps in particular lacked playmakers, but there is a lot of pressure to find a QB who can spark the offense, giving Franklin a good shot at landing the job to bring more option packages into the mix.
Spring Game: April 16
The Longhorns hope to finally develop some sort of coherent identity on offense under Charlie Strong with Tulsa offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert taking over, but there's still a matter of actually finding a consistent quarterback capable of meshing well with the new play-caller. The competition took a hit last week, when Jerrod Heard -- who started most of the 2015 season -- injured his shoulder, sidelining him for the remainder of spring ball. That leaves more opportunities for former starter Tyrone Swoopes and true freshman Shane Buechele to make an impression.
This is a huge year for the program, which has struggled to find its footing under Strong with an 11-14 record in two seasons and an inability to consistently move the ball. Heard and Swoopes have the experience, but taking a chance on Buechele can't be discounted, given the new system and given what we've seen the last two years.
7. Texas A&M
Spring Game: April 9
The Aggies could have had an enviable competition this spring between Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen. Instead, the two former five-star recruits, who split time in 2015, both transferred, casting even more doubt on the future of the Kevin Sumlin era, which has sputtered since Johnny Manziel left College Station. The favorite for the job is graduate transfer Trevor Knight, the ex-Oklahoma starter who shined in the Sugar Bowl in 2013 but struggled to re-capture that magic and lost the job to Baker Mayfield last season.
Knight brings experience to the table and should have the edge over junior Jake Hubenak, who completed 40 of 75 passes last year. The entire offense is being overhauled, with UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone stepping in to replace Jake Spavital after the contentious 2015 season. Texas A&M never expected quarterback problems this year, so at least Knight has played significant snaps of high-level college football before.
Spring Game: April 16
The Bulldogs have an incumbent starter in Greyson Lambert, but his hold on the job is by no means guaranteed, given the middling results last year and the new coaching staff under coach Kirby Smart and coordinator Jim Chaney. Lambert has the spring lead, with quarterback/punter Brice Ramsey also in the mix. However, five-star recruit Jacob Eason, who enrolled early to participate in spring ball, has a chance to compete for the job and overtake the veterans. Eason has ground to make up as the new guy, though, as Lambert and Ramsey have been receiving the first-team reps in spring ball.
Tennessee is widely viewed as the SEC East favorite this year, but Georgia will certainly be in the mix if it can get improvement at quarterback. Eason is the future of the program, and it would not be surprising to see him get a shot early.
Spring Game: April 16
At long last, it's Max Browne's turn to step into the starting quarterback job. Well ... maybe. Browne is an increasingly rare type of college player, the all-world recruit -- the No. 1 QB in the class of 2013 -- who has patiently waited his turn. After enrolling early, he redshirted, then acted as Cody Kessler's backup the last two years, throwing 19 passes in his career. He'll get his chance to win the job as a redshirt junior under new head coach/former offensive coordinator Clay Helton, although he still has to win it. This being USC, Browne not surprisingly has stiff competition from another touted recruit: Sam Darnold, a four-star prospect in the class of 2015 who redshirted last season.
Browne is still the favorite for one of the biggest jobs in the sport, one that looks quite appealing this fall with WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, RBs Ronald Jones and Justin Davis and the entire offensive line all returning. USC is now stuck in a habit of falling short of high expectations, but there are a lot of reasons to be confident about this offense heading into 2016.
Spring Game: April 9
Who gets to hand the ball off and dump the ball to Christian McCaffrey? Regardless of who becomes Kevin Hogan's replacement, the Cardinal will have a pretty clear identity: Out-muscle defenses at the line of scrimmage and create room for McCaffrey, a Heisman favorite and the nation's best all-purpose weapon. Because of that, the rebuild of the offensive line, which loses three starters (including stars Joshua Garnett and Kyle Murphy), may actually be more important than picking a quarterback.
Still, quarterback will play a crucial role in determining the Cardinal's ceiling in what should be a tough battle in the Pac-12 North with Oregon still dangerous and Washington and Washington State on the rise. Two quarterbacks are competing now, with a third to join in the summer. The current players are redshirt sophomore Keller Chryst, who attempted nine passes as Hogan's backup, and redshirt junior Ryan Burns, who has one career pass attempt. Chryst likely has the upper hand, although competition could arrive in the form of four-star recruit K.J. Costello.
11. Michigan State
Spring Game: April 23
We got a glimpse of the post-Connor Cook era in the 17-14 win over Ohio State, in which the Spartans grinded out yards on the ground and pulled off a crucial rode win in horrible weather. Tyler O'Connor completed 7 of 12 passes for 89 yards and a TD in that game, while Damion Terry completed 1 of 4 for two yards. Both ran eight times for 25 yards. O'Connor, a senior, is viewed as the favorite ahead of Terry, a junior, for the defending Big Ten champion. Cook guided the Spartans to three straight major bowl games and top-six finishes in the polls, and the offense will have a new look this year with offensive line stars Jack Conklin and Jack Allen both gone, in addition to standout receiver Aaron Burbridge.
Spring Game: April 8
Jim McElwain managed to lead the Gators to the SEC East title in his first season despite the team's inability to score late in the season after QB Will Grier was suspended. Grier is now headed to West Virginia, and starter Treon Harris was suspended this spring and expected to move to wide receiver anyway. That leaves a bunch of new faces vying for the job as the Gators attempt to jumpstart a broken offense. The group includes Oregon State/Alabama transfer Luke Del Rio, the son of Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, and Purdue transfer Austin Appleby. It also includes freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask, who enrolled early.
The Gators have a long way to go, still searching for more playmakers in addition to a sturdier offensive line. There will likely be growing pains this year regardless of who plays, and the edge likely goes to one of the transfers. Appleby has more playing time under his belt, but Del Rio was on the roster last fall and thus has spent more time in the system.
Other Key Battles
Arizona State. With Mike Bercovici gone and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell now the head coach at Memphis, Todd Graham has plenty of re-shuffling to do. He hired Chip Lindsey from Southern Miss to run the offense, and Lindsey will be picking between sophomore Manny Wilkins and freshmen Bryce Perkins and Brady White in a wide-open race.
Arkansas. Brandon Allen may be replaced by his brother, as junior is in the best position to win a battle with numerous competitors trailing him. That list includes sophomore Rafe Peavey and redshirt freshmen Ricky Town ( a touted recruit who transferred from USC) and Ty Storey.
Baylor. This is probably only a battle if Seth Russell is not 100 percent. A standout for two months last season, Russell suffered a season-ending neck injury. He has worked his way back but was bothered by a strained pectoral for the spring. His competition comes from sophomore Jarrett Stidham, a touted recruit who is coming back from a season-ending ankle injury. Baylor has two tremendous options, and it just needs to avoid the awful injury luck it had late last season.
BYU. The most similar situation to Notre Dame, BYU has a former star in Taysom Hill, who has unfortunately seen his career derailed by injuries, trying to take back the starting job from Tanner Mangum, who played well last season beyond the miracle finishes against Nebraska and Boise State. The competition spent the spring in a holding pattern, with Hill still recovering from his broken foot.
California. Whoever wins the job will undoubtedly put up big numbers, even if replacing Jared Goff, a potential top-five draft pick, is nearly impossible. Sonny Dykes stayed at California -- although coordinator Tony Franklin left, replaced by Spavital from Texas A&M -- and the Bear Raid system will now be entrusted to either Chase Forrest, Ross Bowers or Zach Kline. If Kline sounds familiar, it's because he is a former Cal quarterback who transferred to juco then Indiana State before returning to Berkeley.
Kansas State. Jesse Ertz won the job last year, only to tear his ACL on Kansas State's first drive of the season. He's back, attempting to regain the starting job in a battle with Joe Hubener and Alex Delton. Hubener became the primary starter last season, but he did nothing to assert a firm grip on it.
Mississippi State. Replacing an all-time great player is never easy, and it's certainly an uphill battle for the Bulldogs to move on from Dak Prescott. Sophomore Nick Fitzgerald is the frontrunner, but he's competing with junior Damian Williams, sophomore Elijah Staley and freshman Nick Tiano.
N.C. State. The Wolfpack have reshuffled, moving on from offensive coordinator Matt Canada and now needing to replace Jacoby Brissett with either sophomore Jalan McClendon or redshirt freshman Jakobi Meyers, who is more of a runner.
Oregon. This would be high on the list if it didn't feel like a foregone conclusion. After replacing Marcus Mariota with FCS transfer Vernon Adams, the Ducks have gone a similar rout, adding Montana State's Dakota Prukop. Unlike Adams, who didn't join the team until August, Prukop is already on campus and should be the favorite, especially after Oregon melted down in the Alamo Bowl when Adams got hurt.
Penn State. The Nittany Lions hit reset on their offense as they try to jumpstart the James Franklin era with frontrunner Trace McSorley trying to beat out redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens and true freshman Jake Zembiec to replace Christian Hackenberg in a new system under former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead. The Nittany Lions are loaded at the skill positions, including RB Saquon Barkley and WR Chris Godwin, but the new-look offense is dependent on long-awaited progress being made on the line.
South Carolina. Will Muschamp will attempt to prove doubters wrong in his second stint as a head coach after fielding troublesome offenses at Florida. For now, true freshman Brandon McIlwain, who enrolled early, and senior Perry Orth lead the way. They'll be unexpectedly joined in the summer by four-star recruit Jake Bentley, a class of 2017 recruit who is reclassifying and enrolling this summer.
TCU. The Horned Frogs' spring scrimmage already came and went, and there likely won't be a decision on the starter until the preseason. There is a familiar name expected to be in the lead, though: Texas A&M transfer and brief 2014 sensation Kenny Hill, who is trying to rebuild his college career and hold off sophomore Foster Sawyer for the job. Hill is the favorite, and if it's his job, he'll be one of the most fascinating players to follow this fall.
Utah. Former Washington QB Troy Williams was expected to be the frontrunner, but an injury has limited him in spring practice, creating more opportunities for junior Brandon Cox and freshman Tyler Huntley. It might be a bigger concern for Utah to replace the production of do-everything running back Devontae Booker.
Virginia Tech. The Hokies couldn't dig themselves out of a hole on offense in the last few years under Frank Beamer, but they made the right hire to fix the quarterback problem. New coach Justin Fuente was offensive coordinator at TCU for Andy Dalton and head coach for Paxton Lynch at Memphis. Now, he has a long list of options as the Hokies try to become contenders in the ACC again, led by Brenden Motley, who has the most experience, and touted juco transfer Jerod Evans.
Wisconsin. With Joel Stave gone, most signs have pointed to senior Bart Houston as the next man up for Paul Chryst in his second season back in Madison, although redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook is pressuring him.