By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
It wasn't that long ago that Alabama celebrated its national title victory over LSU in New Orleans. And now it's already time to turn the page to 2012. Spring practice is underway across the nation and will continue into late April for several college football teams.
Here's a look at some of the key storylines to watch over the next couple of months.
1. Change is in the air as 124 FBS teams get ready to open up spring practice. Conference realignment has shifted the landscape of several conferences and you might need a scorecard to keep up with the changes. The SEC expanded to 14 teams, bringing Texas A&M and Missouri in from the Big 12. West Virginia bolted the Big East and TCU left the Mountain West to get the Big 12 back to 10 teams. Thanks to the Mountaineers’ departure from the Big East, the conference is trying desperately to add Boise State for 2012. Without the Broncos, the Big East will play this upcoming season with just seven teams. The changes weren’t limited to BCS conferences, as Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii are joining the Mountain West. And finally, Texas State (WAC), UTSA (WAC), UMass (MAC) and South Alabama (Sun Belt) are making the jump from the FCS to the FBS ranks. However, conference realignment isn’t finished by any means and there could be more shock waves throughout college football during the 2012 season.
2. The SEC has claimed the last six national titles and there’s certainly no shortage of options to claim No. 7 in 2012. However, each of the four likely contenders – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and LSU – has significant question marks. For LSU, how will new quarterback Zach Mettenberger perform? Alabama will have several new faces on defense and must replace running back Trent Richardson and center William Vlachos. Georgia got off to a slow start last year, but rallied to finish with 10 wins and the SEC East title. For the Bulldogs to contend in 2012, they have to rebuild an offensive line that loses three key players. Arkansas has inched closer to the top of the SEC West, but its defense must make strides in order to challenge for the national title.
3. If the SEC West is going to be the most competitive division in college football, the Big Ten Legends can’t be too far behind. Deciding the pecking order between Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska isn’t going to be easy and there’s not a ton of separation between these three teams. The Wolverines need to utilize the spring to rebuild the defensive line and develop weapons in the receiving corps for quarterback Denard Robinson. The Spartans need to get quarterback Andrew Maxwell comfortable, while improving a rushing attack that ranked 11th in the Big Ten last year. The Cornhuskers enter spring workouts with more question marks than Michigan and Michigan State, but should be more acclimated to Big Ten play in 2012. With Ohio State ineligible for the Big Ten title, the winner of this division should be a heavy favorite to win the conference title game and play in a BCS game.
4. The Pac-12 is usually one of the most entertaining conferences to watch on a week-to-week basis, but this league gained even more intrigue with four coaching changes this offseason. Arizona State replaced Dennis Erickson with Todd Graham, while Arizona canned Mike Stoops and hired former West Virginia and Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez. UCLA made a run at Boise State’s Chris Petersen, but ended up with former NFL head coach Jim Mora, and Washington State hit a home run with the hire of former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. And the intrigue doesn’t stop there. How about Washington plucking defensive line coach and ace recruiter Tosh Lupoi away from California? And there’s also Oregon coach Chip Kelly’s brief flirtation with the NFL. Spring practice is only the start of what is shaping up to be a season full of intrigue in the Pac-12.
5. The college football coaching carousel was busy this offseason, as 27 teams changed head coaches. While that group of new coaches should have job security going into 2012, there are a handful of coaches entering a potentially program-defining season. Boston College’s Frank Spaziani, UCF’s George O’Leary, California’s Jeff Tedford, Kentucky’s Joker Phillips, Tennessee’s Derek Dooley and Rice’s David Bailiff top the early hot seat watch for 2012 and all need a big spring (and season) to stick around for 2013.
6. Once again, it’s time to dust off the seemingly annual question about Florida State: Are the Seminoles back and ready to contend for a national title? On paper, the Seminoles are poised to challenge for a finish among the top 10 teams. There's plenty of proven depth with 16 starters returning and coach Jimbo Fisher is bringing in another elite recruiting class. The defense is among the best in college football, especially up front where end Brandon Jenkins should be a preseason All-American. But whether or not the Seminoles are ready to win the ACC and play in a BCS bowl rests solely on an offensive line that will be very young in 2012. Center Bryan Stork and guard Jacob Fahrenkrug will provide the veteran leadership, but the Seminoles need sophomores Bobby Hart, Austin Barron, Josue Matias, Sterling Lovelady and junior Garrett Faircloth to step up. If this group holds up, the Seminoles should be able to get back into the BCS for the first time since 2006.
7. Difficult doesn’t even begin to describe how the last few months have gone at Penn State. From the Jerry Sandusky scandal to the passing of legendary coach Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions have had to deal with enough bad news to last several years. Spring football kicks off in Happy Valley on March 26, and new coach Bill O’Brien will have his hands full with this team in 2012. O’Brien wants Penn State to throw more, but quarterback play was not been the strength of this team in recent years. The Nittany Lions also lose leading receiver Derek Moye and four starters are gone on the offensive line. Following a legend like Paterno won’t be easy, but O’Brien also has to deal with significant question marks on offense and there will be an adjustment period to the new coaching staff for the players. Unless O’Brien can find the right answer at quarterback, the offense figures to keep Penn State from challenging for the Big Ten Leaders Division title in 2012.
8. Thanks to a 5-7 2010 campaign, Texas was off the national radar going into last season. However, the Longhorns rebounded with an 8-5 record and a victory over California in the Holiday Bowl. If Mack Brown’s team wants to challenge Oklahoma in the Big 12 title race, it has to start with getting better quarterback play. David Ash seemed to wrestle the No. 1 spot on the depth chart after finishing with 142 passing yards and one touchdown in the bowl game. Ash isn’t guaranteed to finish spring as the top passer, as Case McCoy and incoming freshman Connor Brewer will get every opportunity to knock him off the No. 1 position. If Texas can generate more offense in 2012, it’s not out of the question this team can compete for the Big 12 title.
9. There have been a lot of changes at Ohio State over the last year, and it may be a while before the Buckeyes go 6-7 once again. New coach Urban Meyer is off to a terrific start on the recruiting trail and should continue to reel in top talent to Columbus. Meyer is well-rested after a year away from coaching, and the health issues that bothered him at Florida seem to be under control. The future certainly looks bright for the Buckeyes, but there’s also a sense of disappointment before the 2012 season kicks off. Due to NCAA violations, Ohio State is ineligible to play for the Big Ten title and is also banned from postseason play. Although the Buckeyes can’t play for a championship, Meyer and his staff should keep this team motivated all year, and the schedule is favorable enough to expect 10 wins in 2012. There’s certainly a learning curve for the offense as it adapts to Meyer’s spread attack and some holes to fill on the offensive line, but Ohio State is poised to make a lot of noise once the bowl ban is lifted going into 2013.
10. And of course, we can’t close a spring practice preview article without mentioning the quarterback battles.
Athlon will have a more in-depth look at some of the battles over the next few weeks, but here’s a quick snapshot of some of the top quarterback competitions to watch:
Auburn: New coordinator Scot Loeffler will have his hands full this spring, as the Tigers finished 100th nationally in total offense last year and have no clear No. 1 quarterback. Barrett Trotter gave up his final year of eligibility, leaving sophomore Kiehl Frazier, true freshman Zeke Pike and junior Clint Moseley to battle for the starting spot under center. The Tigers don’t need to have an elite passing attack, but it has to be better than it was last year.
Boise State: Replacing Kellen Moore is no easy task for head coach Chris Petersen and new coordinator Robert Prince. Sophomore Grant Hedrick, redshirt freshman Jimmy Laughrea, junior Joe Southwick and true freshman Nick Patti will compete this spring.
Florida: The Gators are searching for a spark on offense this spring, along with adjusting to new coordinator Brent Pease. Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel combined to throw for 354 yards in relief of Jeff Brantley last year, but nether completed more than 48 percent of their throws.
Miami: Stephen Morris has started five games at Miami, but will be pushed by Memphis transfer Ryan Williams and incoming freshmen Preston Dewey and Gary Grow.
Stanford: It will be impossible to replace Andrew Luck’s production in 2012, but the Cardinal has plenty of candidates, and an offense that’s built around the rushing attack to take the pressure off a young quarterback. Brett Nottingham will open spring workouts as the No. 1 passer, but Robbie Picazo, Josh Nunes, Evan Crower and Kevin Hogan will all get a shot.
Oklahoma State: The Pokes will miss quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon, but don’t expect this offense to fall too far in 2012. Clint Chelf completed 20 of 30 throws for 307 yards and three scores last year and opens as the frontrunner to replace Weeden. However J.W. Walsh and true freshman Wes Lunt will get an opportunity to unseat him in spring practice.
Oregon: Bryan Bennett was impressive while filling in for Darron Thomas last year and opens spring workouts as the favorite to start the opener in 2012. However, redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota and incoming freshmen Jake Rodrigues will have an opportunity to push him this spring.
Texas A&M: As if joining the SEC wasn’t tough enough, the Aggies have to break in a new quarterback. Jameill Showers has the most experience (five passes), but Matt Joeckel, Johnny Manziel and incoming freshman Matt Davis will have every opportunity to earn playing time.