If pitchers and catchers reporting breeds optimism in even the most cynical of baseball fans, spring college football practice breeds boundless enthusiasm for the third-string tight end who miraculously scores three touchdowns in a scrimmage and is never heard from again. Every little detail becomes a story.
But football season is still six long months away, so we'll take what we can get.
Spring football has its value, though. It isn't just about open-to-the-public scrimmages that provide an excuse to tailgate in April. For coaches and players, it means a month of adjustments, repetitions, replacing departures, open competitions and getting early-enrollment freshmen involved.
Army started way back on Feb. 12, many SEC teams are getting underway and some teams don't start until the first week of April. As expectations build in the long run-up to kickoff, let's take a look at the biggest storylines of the spring, a time of hope for all.
1. Ohio State is eligible to lose to an SEC team in January
Last spring, 81,112 Buckeyes fans showed up at the Horseshoe to watch the scrimmage debut of the program's savior. Seven months later, Urban Meyer had rewarded them by coaching Ohio State to a 12-0 record. The problem, of course, was that Ohio State was banned from the postseason, thus saving us from a possible alternate universe in which Ohio State and Notre Dame played for the national title and Alabama went to the Sugar Bowl. But what-ifs mean nothing, and now Ohio State enters its first post-sanctions spring with gargantuan expectations. Everyone is focused on the offense, given that Meyer's spread took off under Heisman candidate Braxton Miller last year. As long as Miller stays healthy, the Buckeyes should roll over everyone on that side of the ball in the second year of the system. The questions are on defense, which is decimated by losses in the front seven, including the entire line. The only returning starter up front is star linebacker Ryan Shazier, who along with All-American cornerback Bradley Roby will serve as cornerstones of the unit.
There's no reason to panic, of course. Ohio State almost always reloads, and the Buckeyes continue to steamroll most of the Big Ten in recruiting. Their lead division rivals are Wisconsin, which is breaking in a new coach, and Penn State, which is ineligible for bowl games for another three years. However, before we anoint Ohio State as the team that can end the SEC's national championship reign, let's remember that the Buckeyes had several near misses last season, with six games decided by one score or less. By record, they were perfect, but there's plenty of room for improvement in addition to the holes to fill on defense.
2. Johnny Manziel reminds us that he's a good football player, not just a celebrity
All Johnny Manziel did last season was have one of the best years a freshman has ever had. Herschel Walker might dispute the claim, but given that he became the first freshman Heisman Trophy winner, it can easily be argued that Manziel was the greatest freshman ever. Under new coach Kevin Sumlin, he dazzled everyone most of the season, breaking out as a Heisman frontrunner in leading Texas A&M to a shocking upset win at Alabama in November.
So he won the Heisman, and after a season of silence we finally heard him speak, and then he went to the Cotton Bowl and baffled Bob Stoops with one of the greatest bowl performances we've ever seen. He did everything short of win a championship.
How does someone possibly follow that up? Manziel is the biggest star in the sport and under the microscope with everything he does. As spring practice begins, we can at least temporarily stop with the endless "IS THAT AN NCAA VIOLATION?" garbage and move our attention back to the field, where Manziel will have to adapt to the loss of potential No. 1 overall pick Luke Joeckel at left tackle, as well as offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, who took the head coaching job at Texas Tech and will be replaced by Jake Spavital, Dana Holgorsen's QB coach at West Virginia. Like Urban Meyer, Manziel is burdened with impossibly high expectations, and winning a second Heisman in a row will be extremely difficult as he tries to surpass his gaudy freshman numbers. He's a marked man now, but so be it. With LSU suffering massive NFL losses, the SEC West looks like a two-horse race between Manziel's Aggies and Alabama, the kings of the sport. Circle Sept. 14 on your calendar now for when the Crimson Tide rolls into College Station in an early candidate for game of the year.
3. New SEC coaches take aim at fourth place in their division
The tiers in each SEC division appear obvious already. Just like last year, it's Georgia, Florida and South Carolina in the East, and Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU in the West. Everyone else is playing to avoid the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Since 2007, Arkansas (Houston Nutt, Bobby Petrino, John L. Smith and Bret Bielema), Tennessee (Phil Fulmer, Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley and Butch Jones) and Auburn (Tommy Tuberville, Gene Chizik and Gus Malzahn) have all been at the forefront of the sport's fervent desire for coaching changes. Stability is rare, but it's even rarer when you hire people like Bobby Petrino and Lane Kiffin. Arkansas is at least prepared for its coaching change this time around, while Auburn and Tennessee are desperate for fresh blood after disastrous 2012 seasons.
Auburn, of course, is only a couple years removed from a national championship, but it wisely jettisoned the underwhelming Chizik for the real star of the 2010 coaching staff, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who coached Cam Newton to glory, puts up numbers everywhere and went 10-3 with a bowl win in his only year as head coach at Arkansas State.
Tennessee has struggled to be a consistent power since it won the national championship in 1998, but the last five years have been unacceptably mediocre: 5-7 under Fulmer, 7-6 under Kiffin and 6-7, 5-7 and 5-7 under Dooley. Jones wasn't the first choice of Vols fans, but he has followed the commendable Brian Kelly path by going 50-27 in six seasons at Central Michigan and Cincinnati (Kelly went 52-24 in six seasons).
Bielema is the oddity of the bunch. Things were humming along just fine for the Razorbacks, with top-10 expectations, until Bobby Petrino crashed his motorcycle and things went to hell. Anxious to take on the best division in football, Bielema ditched the stability of a Wisconsin program he took to three straight Rose Bowls, thus delivering another blow to the Big Ten by leaving the three-time champions for a middle-of-the-road SEC team coming off a disastrous season.
And let's not forget about Kentucky. As a mediocre (by Lexington standards) basketball season winds down, Kentucky fans are actually excited about football thanks to the efforts of former Florida State defensive coordinator (and brother of Bob) Mark Stoops, who landed a surprisingly good recruiting class. After a 2-10 season in which the Wildcats scored 17.9 points per game and lost 40-0 to Vanderbilt, this certainly isn't a one-year rebuilding job. But Stoops hired talented young offensive coordinator Neal Brown from Texas Tech to breathe some life into the offense, and he was the architect of Florida State's massive defensive turnaround over the last few years, taking the Seminoles from 108th in total yards allowed in 2009, the year before he arrived, to the top five each of the last two seasons. Fresh blood is good, and Stoops was clearly ready to make the jump to a head-coaching job.
4. Lane Kiffin's last get-out-of-jail free card
Rick Neuheisel declared Los Angeles' football monopoly over when he was hired in 2008. He was wrong. It took Neuheisel getting fired for the monopoly to end. UCLA wasn't exactly heaped with praise for hiring Jim Mora to replace Neuheisel, but it certainly worked out in year one. The Bruins finished poorly with three straight losses (two in a row to Stanford, as Pac-12 South champions, and the Holiday Bowl to Baylor), but overall they won nine games for the first time since 2005, beat USC for the first time since 2006 and won the division despite USC's eligibility being restored. The loss of RB Johnathan Franklin is a big one, but the explosive Bruins' offense is in good hands with sophomore QB Brett Hundley, a dual-threat who threw for 3,740 yards and ran for nine touchdowns.
Which brings us to USC … every person who does "hot seat rankings" in the preseason will include America's Coach, Lane Kiffin. Last year's narrative was supposed to be Kiffin's maturation coinciding with a dream season for the Trojans, who became bowl-eligible again and got Matt Barkley back for his senior season. Instead, USC went 7-6, lost to UCLA and lost to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, and Kiffin had to get rid of his dad, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. So, we enter the fourth year of the Kiffin era, and no coach is under more pressure, even with the reduced-scholarship cloud hanging over the program. Sure, he went 10-2 in 2011, but for all the talk, there's nothing like opening the season No. 1 -- and lying about voting for yourself -- and ending the season with six losses. If history is any indication, this will surely end with him replacing Rex Ryan as head coach of the Jets next January.
5. Skipping prom to win a starting job
Five freshman early enrollees to watch:
Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida. It's still kind of shocking that Florida managed to win 11 games and come dangerously close to the national championship game last year. The Gators' only regular-season loss was an ugly Cocktail Party against Georgia, but once again they struggled with the concept of the forward pass, ranking 114th. QB Jeff Driskel isn't going to revolutionize this offense, which means an adequate replacement must be found for workhorse RB Mike Gillislee. Sophomore Matt Jones (275 yards) is the leading returning rusher and appears ready to step into the starting role, but Taylor -- Rivals.com's 38th best player overall -- will get every opportunity to push for carries after rushing 237 times for 2,423 yards and 41 TDs in his senior season at Glades Day (Fla.) High School. Oh, and if the name sounds familiar in Gainesville, yes, he is the son of Fred Taylor. And now you all feel old.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama. The 2011 New England Patriots exemplified the advantages of having a big and athletic tight end to create mismatches, and Howard could be the perfect way for the Crimson Tide to follow the trend. A five-star recruit, Howard may need time to develop into an effective blocker, but he has the athleticism and pass-catching ability to get on the field early as a target for QB A.J. McCarron in a passing game that will rely heavily on star sophomore WR Amari Cooper.
Su'a Cravens, S, USC. The Trojans' secondary struggled for much of the 2012 season, and now the defense will transition from Monte Kiffin to another coach with an NFL background, Clancy Pendergast. Rated one of the best defenders in the class of 2013, Cravens joins a USC secondary that loses three of its top four safeties, putting him in a position to win a starting job as a freshman in Pendergast's new 5-2-4 scheme.
Ja'Quay Williams, WR, Texas A&M. Congratulations, you get to play wide receiver for Johnny Manziel in a Kevin Sumlin-coached offense. In other words, it's a dream scenario to compete for a job, and the Aggies have a big opening after the departure of senior Ryan Swope (plus No. 3 WR Uzoma Nwachukwu). Sophomore Mike Evans is the unquestioned star of Manziel's receiving corps, but the Aggies need new contributors, and Williams, a 6-foot-3 four-star recruit who actually signed with Auburn in 2012 but failed to qualify, is in good position to fight for a role.
Tray Matthews, S, Georgia. Georgia welcomes a staggering 13 early enrollees to campus, and maybe we should just pull a name out of a hat for the purposes of this list. To pick one, let's go with Matthews, a hard-hitting prospect who will compete for one of the jobs vacated by starters Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams in a defense that's decimated by losses across the board but at least retained coordinator Todd Grantham after he flirted with the NFL.
6. Programs in which the head coach will get sick of talking about the QB race by the third media availability
The five most intriguing spring QB battles:
Florida State: With E.J. Manuel gone, the most familiar name left in Tallahassee is Clint Trickett, the son of assistant head coach Rick Trickett and the only QB on the roster with meaningful experience -- including a 336-yard performance against Clemson's awful defense in 2011. But he played sparingly last season and may not be the long-term answer. He'll be pushed by sophomore Jacob Coker, and especially by former blue-chip recruit Jameis Winston, a multi-talented redshirt freshman who apparently likes throwing footballs over fraternity houses. Winston's issue? His attention is divided between the football field and the baseball diamond, where he's taking the field for the Seminoles as a pitcher and outfielder.
TCU: The Horned Frogs experienced a wild ride in their first season in the Big 12, as star QB Casey Pachall was forced to leave the team in October to enter a drug and alcohol treatment program. Pachall, who threw for 2,761 yards and 25 TDs in 2011, is back on the team and will try to retake his starting job from sophomore Trevone Boykin, who showed promise but was inconsistent after surprisingly getting thrown into the starting lineup in October.
Wisconsin: What makes Wisconsin's run of three straight Rose Bowls even more remarkable is that the Badgers did it with different QBs. In 2010, Scott Tolzien threw all but 10 of the team's passes. In 2011, Russell Wilson transferred from N.C. State and set the NCAA single-season record for passing efficiency. In 2012, Danny O'Brien transferred from Maryland, and, well, the whole stability thing ended. O'Brien (523 yards), Joel Stave (1,104 yards) and Curt Phillips (540 yards) all played, and all three return to battle for the starting job -- including Phillips, who has torn his ACL three times and received a sixth year from the NCAA. That's not at all: Redshirt freshman Bart Houston will also take a run at the job, and come summer, junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy (who originally went to South Carolina) will be in the mix too. Good luck, Gary Andersen. It may take six weeks to learn the names of all his potential starting quarterbacks.
Oklahoma: Blake Bell enters spring as the clear favorite, but he's not going to be handed the job. We've seen what he can do as a runner in the "Belldozer" package, rushing for 24 touchdowns behind Landry Jones over the last two seasons. Now we find out if he can throw. Context-free, his numbers would make Woody Hayes proud, as he's had four more rushing touchdowns than pass attempts (20) in his Oklahoma career. He'll be pushed by Trevor Knight, a four-star recruit in the class of 2012 who's smaller than Bell but can also run, and sophomore Kendal Thompson.
USC: Max Wittek is the obvious favorite after replacing the injured Matt Barkley late last season, although he threw five interceptions in losses to Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. He was a highly touted recruit, but there's never a shortage of them on the Trojans' roster. Max Browne, the nation's top QB recruit, is in for spring practice and is labeled by some to be USC's QB of the future. They're joined by Wittek's redshirt sophomore classmate, Cody Kessler, another highly rated prospect.
Other unsettled QB situations to monitor: Arizona, Arkansas, Auburn, Baylor, California, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas State, Maryland, Michigan State, Minnesota, N.C. State, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Purdue, South Florida, Syracuse, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Virginia, West Virginia
7. Oregon tries not to blink
After taking the Eagles job, Chip Kelly hands control over to Mark Helfrich, the 39-year-old who has been Kelly's offensive coordinator the last four years, and Oregon is in position to keep rolling along just like division rival Stanford did when it transitioned from Jim Harbaugh to David Shaw. (Amazingly, Oregon hasn't hired anyone outside the program since Rich Brooks in 1977: Brooks, Mike Bellotti, Kelly, Helfrich.) So, the Ducks lose Kelly, and RB Kenjon Barner and star DE Dion Jordan, but otherwise, the framework is still there for Helfrich to make another national title push. Mainly, the offense should be fine in the hands of sophomore QB Marcus Mariota, a Heisman contender who ran for 752 yards and led the Pac-12 in passing efficiency, and speedy do-everything tailback De'Anthony Thomas, who averaged 7.6 yards per carry. The loss of Barner as the featured runner is big, but between sophomore Byron Marshall (447 rushing yards) and stud true freshman Thomas Tyner (who won't be seen until the summer), the Ducks' rushing offense shouldn't fall too far.
8. Jadeveon Clowney will practice for the wrong league
The torn ACL suffered by Kentucky freshman basketball star Nerlens Noel, the potential No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, immediately turned everyone's attention toward Clowney, the assumed No. 1 overall pick in next year's NFL draft. Scouts are drooling over Clowney, but only two seasons removed from high school, he's ineligible for the NFL draft, thus causing people to wonder if he should just sit out this year to avoid risking injury -- a notion that South Caroline coach Steve Spurrier, of course, laughed off. The freakishly athletic Clowney finished second nationally in tackles for loss (23.5) and third in sacks (13), and he's going to be hyped to do what Manti Te'o couldn't and win the Heisman as a defensive player. You will see the video of his hit on Michigan RB Vincent Smith nearly 1,000 times before the season begins:
9. Notre Dame continues playing football despite an embarrassing January
The happiest people this spring might be Notre Dame beat writers. The national championship debacle is in the rearview mirror, and, mercifully, so is the Manti Te'o fiasco -- meaning the focus in South Bend is back on the game of football. It's hard to predict how Notre Dame will rebound after that painful performance against Alabama, but the roster is still talented enough for Notre Dame to make another push for a BCS bowl. Brian Kelly has a QB to build around in sophomore Everett Golson, and while Te'o is gone, Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt return to anchor a defensive line that was immovable prior to meeting Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon in Miami.
10. Nick Saban laughs at your team's spring optimism
If Nick Saban could laugh, that is. It's easier to assume he's the Rex Banner of college football. You all know what laughter sounds like, but he doesn't have time for such shenanigans. Alabama loses RB Eddie Lacy, C Barrett Jones, G Chance Warmack, CB Dee Milliner, OT D.J. Fluker, NT Jesse Williams, LB Nico Johnson and on and on and on, and it doesn't matter. Five of the first 35 picks in the 2012 draft were from Alabama, but Saban's club reloaded, as expected, and won its third national championship in four years. At some point, this dynasty will end, but there's too much talent for it to happen now. The defense will be great behind LB C.J. Mosley, and so will the offense behind the trio of QB A.J. McCarron, RB T.J. Yeldon and WR Amari Cooper, even if the nation's best O-line is decimated by losses. Alabama is the preseason No. 1, and there is no other option.