We're still nearly six long months away from the opening of the 2014 college football season, but as spring practices begin across America -- and end already, in some cases -- we will start to get some early signs about where the upcoming season is heading.
Over the next two months, quarterback battles will begin, new offensive and defensive schemes will be installed, parts of the 2014 recruiting class will introduce themselves and daily bits of practice minutiae will fill the college football-starved news cycle, two months removed from Florida State's win over Auburn for the national championship. While spring practice rarely presents many conclusive answers, it's a time for renewed hope among fan bases with so much time still left until the actual season deals reality checks. As we get set for the football fix that spring games provide, here are the biggest storylines to follow around the country.
1. Florida State enters life as college football's top dog.
Though Alabama has lost a game in its last two national championship seasons, the program has still projected a feeling of invincibility since 2009's undefeated title run. Nick Saban is the best recruiter and coach in the country, making Alabama into an absolute juggernaut as the top team in the most respected conference. And the Crimson Tide certainly isn't going anywhere, as it may have just landed one of the best recruiting classes of the 21st century and will surely be back in the preseason top five.
The finish to the Iron Bowl, while spectacular, was rather flukish, but Alabama certainly showed cracks during the 2013 season, ones that came to a head in the shocking Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma. Meanwhile, it finally may have found an equal. Florida State marched through 2013 unblemished, eviscerating everyone in its path before edging Auburn in a memorable BCS National Championship Game. The Seminoles, under former Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher, are the closest thing we've seen lately to those unstoppable Alabama teams, impossibly deep and athletic at every position. Alabama may be the most stable team in college football, but Florida State, for now, has reached that level, and it has at least another year of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, who is again splitting his time in the spring with baseball. Yes, the Seminoles must deal with losing many of their most important pieces -- defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, defensive back Lamarcus Joyner, defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and multiple star receivers, running backs and linebackers -- but Fisher's staff has become a force on the recruiting trail, and the team was so deep that there is ample talent to replenish the depth chart, along with key players like left tackle Cameron Erving choosing to return.
With a much tougher 2014 schedule that includes Oklahoma State, Clemson, Notre Dame, Louisville, Miami and Florida, a second consecutive undefeated season will be a steep, improbable challenge. Assuming everything continues to go right between now and August, however, the Seminoles will be the favorites to do it again anyway.
2. The Blame Lane Kiffin Era begins at Alabama.
From the moment Alabama begins practice on March 15 to the moment Lane Kiffin is no longer the team's offensive coordinator at some point in the future, is there any doubt that Kiffin will be blamed for everything that goes wrong? Player misses a class? Kiffin's fault. Cornerback blows coverage? Wasn't tested in practice against Kiffin's offense. Quarterback throws an interception? Bad play call. Auburn returns a missed field goal for a touchdown? Kiffin's presence distracted everyone. More than anything, it's sure to be a gold mine for the Paul Finebaum radio program, because never before in the Saban era have Alabama fans had someone to complain about so easily.
Alabama does actually appear to be a perfect landing spot for Kiffin: Power has been stripped away from him under Saban, as he can solely focus on offense and recruiting now instead of having to act as some sort of leader and public face of the program, which has proven to be a problem. Of course, Kiffin's December consulting has probably already been blamed for the Sugar Bowl loss by thousands of fans, and now he walks into a situation in which Alabama has its biggest quarterback question of Saban's tenure, with AJ McCarron gone and senior Blake Sims, redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman and early enrollee David Cornwell in the mix in the spring, soon to be met by Florida State transfer and likely favorite Jacob Coker after the semester. Advice to Kiffin: No matter who wins the quarterback job, just give the ball to sophomore running back Derrick Henry. No one will blame him for doing that 30 times a game.
3. Meet a new avalanche of early enrollees.
Just as the number of early entrants into the NFL draft continues to rise, the impact players graduating high school early to get a jump on their college careers seem to become more prominent every year too. Nowhere is that truer than Tennessee, where, as part of Butch Jones' outsized and acclaimed recruiting class, an astonishing 14 recruits enrolled early to participate in spring practice. Most notably, 6-foot-3, 227-pound running back Jalen Hurd -- arguably the prize of the class -- is poised to immediately insert himself in the backfield rotation with Rajion Neal gone, right alongside senior Marlin Lane. After a decade of troubles, Tennessee certainly needed an infusion of young talent, so it wouldn't be surprising to see several freshman get on the field early.
Quarterbacks always get top billing, though, and while it's still difficult for a true freshman to win a starting job, it's hardly a surprise anymore when it does happen. Of the nation's top quarterback recruits in for the spring, Clemson's Deshaun Watson, Texas A&M's Kyle Allen and Kentucky's Drew Barker are probably the most likely to make a name for themselves early, although Watson and Allen certainly have stiff competition for starting jobs. Florida's Will Grier, Alabama's Cornwell and LSU's Brandon Harris can't be discounted either. Elsewhere, look for Florida cornerback Jalen Tabor and Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan to establish themselves as threats for playing time right away.
4. The SEC says goodbye to an esteemed class of quarterbacks.
Last year marked the explosion of offense in the SEC. Next year could see the trend partially reverse, or at least slow itself down. The conference was loaded with experienced quarterback talent last year, helping to swing the balance of power from defense to offense, but seven of the top eight passers in the league are gone, including Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, AJ McCarron, James Franklin and Connor Shaw. Many of these teams have capable replacements, but at this point it appears the preseason all-conference quarterbacks could be a combination of Nick Marshall, Bo Wallace and Dak Prescott, which is, needless to say, a drastic change from the wealth of stars last year.
Missouri (Maty Mauk) and South Carolina (Dylan Thompson) both have established replacements who have started several games, while Georgia's Hutson Mason and LSU's Anthony Jennings got head starts as injury replacements at the end of last season. While Jennings' claim to the job is especially far from a lock, the biggest races are clearly at Alabama, which has a four-man battle between Coker, Sims, Bateman and Cornwell, and Texas A&M, which will see the true freshman Allen battle sophomore Kenny Hill and senior Matt Joeckel, who started last year's opener against Rice when Manziel was suspended for a half. Breakout stars are sure to emerge, with Coker as the most obvious candidate, but there's little doubt that 2014 will see quarterback play dip in quality in the SEC.
5. Old faces in new places.
What looked like a quiet coaching carousel immediately after the regular season in early December changed in a hurry when Mack Brown and Texas parted ways and Bill O'Brien left Penn State. That led to two of the sport's most coveted head coaches changing jobs in January, as Charlie Strong left Louisville for Texas and James Franklin left Vanderbilt for Penn State. That, in turn, brought Bobby Petrino back to Louisville and Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason to Vanderbilt, while USC (Steve Sarkisian), Washington (Chris Petersen), Boise State (Bryan Harsin) and Wake Forest (Dave Clawson) all move forward with new leaders as well, among others.
Franklin's recruiting prowess at a Penn State program that is successfully weathering NCAA sanctions will be important to watch over the next few years, and Petrino's return to Louisville as it moves to the ACC will draw plenty of attention, but the coaches immediately under the microscope are Strong, Sarkisian and Petersen.
Strong is tasked with turning around the richest program in college football after it fell into a stagnant period of mediocrity in Brown's final four seasons following the national title game appearance in 2009. The Longhorns are loaded with every possible resource at their disposal, and Strong is a detail-oriented builder who can capitalize on all Texas has to offer. Despite the team's problems of late, the roster is hardly devoid of talent, so Strong has a chance to reshape them into contenders rather quickly. Most importantly, the Longhorns must figure out the future at quarterback, where David Ash has been cleared to return from concussion issues that cost him most of the 2013 and must hold off Tyrone Swoopes to secure the job.
Sarkisian, meanwhile, takes over another college football glamor job, replacing Lane Kiffin in USC's second attempt to hire a former Pete Carroll offensive coordinator with the goal of recapturing the magic of the 2000s. Sarkisian's hiring elicited yawns across most of the college football world after Washington plateaued as a second-tier team in a division dominated by Oregon and Stanford under his guidance, but like Strong at Texas, Sarkisian walks into a job that has everything in place for a turnaround. Yes, the Trojans are still dealing with the aftereffects of NCAA punishment, but they've seen the light at the end of the tunnel, and for all Kiffin's problems, recruiting was never really his problem. Also like Texas, Sarkisian must figure out where the team's quarterback position is headed, with junior Cody Kessler attempting to hold off touted redshirt freshman Max Browne in a more up-tempo approach to the Trojans offense.
And then there's Petersen, who's such a perfect fit for Washington that the Huskies somehow managed to lose their head coach to a premier program and find an upgrade anyway. Speculation about Petersen has rambled on for years ever since Boise State's improbable Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma, and the reserved coach finally jumped for a potential sleeping giant that remains relatively out of the spotlight, at least compared to teams like USC and Texas. While Petersen is already faced with the suspensions of two key players, likely starting quarterback Cyler Miles and talented young receiver Damore'ea Stringfellow, Washington is in win-now mode, especially on defense, where it could challenge for the Pac-12 title with the right breaks.
6. What's next for Auburn?
The rapid re-ascent of Auburn over the course of the 2013 season was one of the more remarkable runs in recent memory. While the Tigers needed every break they could get to avoid going 9-3 or worse, the fact remains that by the end of the season Gus Malzahn's running game was the most challenging offense to defend in college football. Just look back to the SEC title game: Missouri, with the best defensive line in the SEC, hadn't allowed more than 184 rushing yards in a game; Auburn ran 74 times for 545 yards and seven touchdowns with one of the most dominant ground performances in years. Auburn ended up leading the nation in rushing yards per game and ranking fourth in yards per carry, and it gets many of its pieces that fueled that success back.
Heisman finalist running back Tre Mason will be missed, of course, as will potential top draft pick tackle Greg Robinson, but otherwise the Tigers are loaded with the improving Nick Marshall at quarterback, and a handful of running backs ready to step up, including seniors Corey Grant (9.8 yards per carry) and Cameron Artis-Payne (6.7 yards per carry), plus five-star recruit Racean Thomas. Malzahn is obviously one of the brightest minds in the sport, and the 2013 near-national title after Gene Chizik went 3-9 in 2012 makes it clear that he deserves much of the credit as offensive coordinator for the championship with Cam Newton in 2010. In an effort to maintain his control, he's taking the reins on the development of Marshall, not allowing him to work with quarterback guru George Whitfield in the offseason, according to AL.com. Somehow, Marshall, who began his career as a defensive back at Georgia, may be the SEC's best returning quarterback, with or without outside help.
7. The tempo debate won't go away.
While the rules committee's controversial proposal to ban offenses from snapping the ball in the first 10 seconds of the play clock may be struck down by an official vote on Thursday, the debate about the subject isn't going anywhere, no matter what the Playing Rules Oversight Panel decides. Bret Bielema will keep callously trying to promote his own interests, and Nick Saban will do the same in a more thoughtful manner, while the sport's offensive innovators will of course defend themselves and their playing styles, as they should.
With realignment calm for now, and no more Johnny Manziel hysteria at the college level, something has to occupy the quiet part of the offseason. Debates about how football should be played will surely provide plenty of spring and summer fodder.
8. The Pac-12 keeps its stars.
While the SEC lost many of its key players early to the draft in January -- from Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans at Texas A&M to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Adrian Hubbard at Alabama to Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles at South Carolina to half of LSU's roster -- the Pac-12 got several pieces of good news that ensure it has contenders for the first year of the College Football Playoff. Most notably, redshirt sophomore quarterbacks Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Brett Hundley of UCLA opted to return for their junior seasons, despite the possibility that each could have been the top overall pick in the draft. With Mariota and Hundley joined by Oregon State's Sean Mannion, Stanford's Kevin Hogan and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, among others, the Pac-12 will boast an impressive crop of signal callers, with only one of the league's top nine passers gone in a situation that's the opposite what the SEC faces.
UCLA has its sights set on a preseason top-10 ranking, while Oregon is sure to be in the top five after center Hroniss Grasu and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu chose to return to Eugene too. The SEC is still king, but Pac-12 has amassed a staggering amount of head-coaching talent to lead its push for national respect. Getting players like Mariota and Hundley back ensures it will get it.
9. Everett Golson returns from his 2013 exile.
Last Memorial Day weekend Notre Dame's terrible 2013, from the Alabama debacle to Manti Te'o, hit another enormous rough patch, as quarterback Everett Golson -- who led the Fighting Irish to an undefeated regular season as a redshirt freshman -- was suspended for the fall semester because of an academic violation. That opened the door for the embattled Tommy Rees to move back into the starting role, leading a solid but unspectacular season in which the Irish beat Michigan State, Arizona State and USC but still finished 9-4.
Golson's ability as a dual threat was supposed to open the door for a more up-tempo, spread-oriented offense that Brian Kelly prefers. Instead, his absence forced Kelly to put those plans on hold, because Rees, while solid and capable of making big plays downfield, was immobile and prone to bad turnovers. With Rees gone, Golson is back on the practice field after spending his down time training with George Whitfield, and while Kelly will make him work to retake the starting job, he's the obvious favorite despite the presence of former star recruit Malik Zaire.
The Irish have some retooling to do on offense after the promotion of Mike Denbrock to coordinator to replace new Miami (Ohio) head coach Chuck Martin (wideout T.J. Jones, tight end Troy Niklas and left tackle Zack Martin are also gone), and they won't be at full strength in the spring with DaVaris Daniels now suspended for the semester because of an academic issue. But the return of Golson finally clears up the uncertainty and allows the unit to move forward, though it will still be difficult for Notre Dame to recapture its 2012 magic, especially with a nightmare schedule in the first year as a partial ACC member.
10. Can Doug Nussmeier stabilize Michigan's broken offense?
The 2013 season was supposed to finally be the time Brady Hoke got the pro-style offense he wanted, but little went according to plan: Devin Gardner was incredibly turnover-prone, and glaring weaknesses on the interior of the offensive line prevented the running game from developing any sort of consistent production. And despite these problems, Hoke and coordinator Al Borges pressed on, stubbornly refusing to adapt to the talent they had, resulting in infamous debacles like Fitz Toussaint's 27 carries for 27 yards in the loss to Penn State. Hoke waited to make a switch until Jan. 8, when he pushed Borges out and immediately lured Doug Nussmeier from Alabama, with the goal of doing what the offense failed to do in 2013.
Hoke's unflinching philosophy isn't going to change; Nussmeier is charged with getting the most out of Gardner, who threw 11 interceptions and struggled with fumbles. Of course, Hoke actually opened the starting quarterback job up, with Gardner technically needing to hold off Shane Morris, who started a disastrous Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Kansas State after Gardner broke his foot in a heartbreaking loss to Ohio State. Morris, a four-star recruit in last year's class, certainly fits the mold of what a Hoke/Nussmeier quarterback is perceived to be and may be the future of the position in Ann Arbor, and he has an opportunity to further assert himself with Gardner still coming back from the foot injury (although Gardner is participating in practice). Still, it's hard to imagine Gardner giving up the job as a senior. What he most needs is for the issues around him, particularly in pass protection and the run game, to be corrected. We've seen flashes of brilliance from Gardner, and he's going to need some help to make those a more regular occurrence. If that doesn't happen, Hoke will be under a lot of pressure in a hurry.
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