Can Johnny Manziel pick up where he left off last season?
The battle to win college football’s 2013 national championship is officially underway. Spring practice kicked off for a handful of teams in February and will begin for most of the remaining FBS teams in March. While it’s often difficult to glean much from spring practice, it’s a time of new beginning for a1l 125 teams. Quarterback battles, coaching staff transitions and breakout players are always a preseason tradition in March and April.
With spring practice underway, it’s time to examine some of the biggest storylines around college football. All 125 teams have question marks or some uncertainty they want to sort out this preseason. For some teams, the depth chart is mostly set, while others are dealing with just a few returning starters.
Alabama is a heavy favorite to win the 2013 national championship, but this spring is the first chance for Oregon and Ohio State to find the right answers to push the Crimson Tide in January. Outside of Oregon and Ohio State, Stanford, Georgia and Texas A&M are top-10 title contenders but need to fill a few key voids.
College Football's Top 10 Spring Storylines to Watch for 2013
1. Reloading Alabama’s offensive line
Perhaps the only obstacle standing in the way of a third consecutive title for Alabama is an offensive line that loses three All-American performers. Center Barrett Jones was one of college football’s most versatile linemen in his career, while guard Chance Warmack and tackle D.J. Fluker were a big reason why Alabama averaged 5.6 yards per carry in 2012. And as if the personnel losses weren’t enough, line coach Jeff Stoutland left for the NFL, with former FIU coach Mario Cristobal hired as his replacement. While Jones, Warmack and Fluker are huge losses, the Crimson Tide does return two starters. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio is a future first-round pick in the NFL Draft, while guard Anthony Steen has 25 career starts. Ryan Kelly will have the first crack at replacing Jones at center, and he earned SEC All-Freshman honors for his performance in a relief role last season. Junior college recruit Leon Brown and early enrollee Brandon Hill, along with last season’s backups in Chad Lindsay, Alphonse Taylor, Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd will likely be fighting to fill the voids at left guard and right tackle. Don’t expect Alabama to have a huge drop in offensive line play. However, it’s also unrealistic this fall to expect this unit to produce at a level similar to 2012.
2. Ohio State’s rebuilding project on defense
After a perfect 12-0 mark last season, the Buckeyes have their sights set higher in 2013. The one-year bowl ban is over, and Ohio State is a legitimate national title contender. Quarterback Braxton Miller should take the next step in his development under Urban Meyer, and the offense also has an emerging cast of weapons ready to take the pressure off of Miller’s shoulders. However, the defense should have Meyer and his staff feeling a little nervous. Only four starters are back from last season’s unit, which ranked sixth in the Big Ten in total and scoring defense. While the Buckeyes played better defense in the second half of the season, there are some holes to fill with the departure of end John Simon, tackle Johnathan Hankins, linebacker Zach Boren and cornerback Travis Howard. Talent is never an issue for Ohio State but how quickly will young players like Noah Spence, Doran Grant and Adolphus Washington perform at a high level? If the defense comes together quickly, the Buckeyes could be Alabama’s biggest threat to a national championship.
3. Transitioning from Chip Kelly to Mark Helfrich at Oregon
Chip Kelly’s decision to go to the NFL came as no surprise to the folks in Eugene. And the Ducks were prepared for the transition, as Mark Helfrich makes the move from offensive coordinator to head coach. Promoting from within has worked well for Oregon in the past, but there’s always a transition period whenever a new coach takes over. Helfrich has no head coaching experience and didn’t call the plays under Kelly’s watch. However, he’s familiar with the players and doesn’t plan on making many drastic changes to Oregon’s up-tempo attack. The Ducks don’t have many holes to fill, but Helfrich needs to find a No. 1 back to replace Kenjon Barner, along with rebuilding a front seven on defense that loses Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay. Most expect an easy transition from Kelly to Helfrich. But this spring is the first test and should provide more clues on whether or not Oregon is a national title contender.
4. Quarterback battles in the Big 12
Take a look at the early predictions for the 2013 season, and you will see a lot of variety in the projected pecking order for the Big 12. Why the uncertainty? Quarterback play. All 10 teams head into spring practice with some type of quarterback question mark. For TCU, can Casey Pachall regain his confidence and find the form that allowed him to throw for 2,921 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2011? At Oklahoma State, three quarterbacks were forced to start last season. And all three are capable of winning games. Who does Mike Gundy turn to? If the Cowboys settle on a No. 1 quarterback, they could be the pick to win the Big 12. Landry Jones has exhausted his eligibility, which means Blake Bell steps into the full-time role. The junior has shown impressive rushing ability in limited action but is still an unknown as a passer. Kansas State must replace Collin Klein, West Virginia will likely turn to redshirt freshman Ford Childress to replace Geno Smith, and Texas is turning the offense over to David Ash once again. So much uncertainty, so little time for the 10 Big 12 coaches to sort out the quarterback position.
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5. Encore for Kevin Sumlin and Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M?
The Aggies took the SEC by storm last season, winning 11 games – including a road upset against Alabama – and produced Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. What will Texas A&M do for an encore? How about contend for the national title? Reaching college football’s championship game is certainly within reach for Sumlin’s team, but the Aggies do have a handful of question marks facing this team. The defense ranked ninth in the SEC in yards allowed and 12th in pass defense. Improving on those totals will be difficult, especially with the departure of end Damontre Moore, linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart and safety Steven Terrell. Manziel will be just as dangerous in 2013, but Texas A&M must replace standout left tackle Luke Joeckel and receiver Ryan Swope. The Aggies host Alabama early in the year, and a victory over the Crimson Tide would put Sumlin and Manziel in control of the SEC West.
6. Make or break year for Lane Kiffin at USC?
After opening spring practice in 2012 with national title aspirations, there’s a different feeling hanging over the program in 2013. The Trojans were one of the most disappointing teams in college football last season, and coach Lane Kiffin could be entering a make-or-break season. Unfortunately for Kiffin, there’s a host of question marks surrounding his team this spring. There’s a rebuilt coaching staff, starting with defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, and it’s still uncertain whether or not Kiffin will call plays this year. The Trojans also have a quarterback battle on their hands, with Max Wittek and Max Browne set to square off for the No. 1 job. While seven starters are back on defense, All-Pac-12 cornerback Nickell Robey and safety T.J. McDonald must be replaced. The good news for USC is the 2013 schedule isn't all that daunting. The Trojans miss Oregon in crossover play with the North division, and swing games against Arizona and UCLA will be in the Coliseum. Getting to eight wins likely means Kiffin is back for 2014. Anything less than that mark will likely mean a coaching change is coming to USC.
7. How quickly can Todd Grantham rebuild Georgia’s defense?
The race between South Carolina, Georgia and Florida to win the SEC East should be one of the closest battles in college football next season. Each team has question marks, but if they can find answers, all three programs will be in the mix to compete for a national title. Georgia is the early favorite to win the SEC East, but the Bulldogs return only three starters. Coordinator Todd Grantham was courted by the NFL, and his return is key for the Bulldogs’ hopes of a quick reload on defense. Each level of the defense was hit hard by departures, as linemen John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers depart, while the linebacking corps must replace standouts Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, and the secondary lost Sanders Commings, Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams. Talent isn’t an issue in Athens, as sophomores Jordan Jenkins (LB) and Sheldon Dawson (CB) are potential stars. However, Georgia needs to find a tackle capable of occupying blockers at the line of scrimmage, as well as find someone to generate a consistent pass rush.
8. Can Stanford find a spark in the passing game and replace Stepfan Taylor at RB?
With 14 returning starters and promising young talent waiting in the wings, Stanford is in position to make a run at an appearance in the national title game. The Cardinal didn’t suffer a ton of personnel losses, but tight ends Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz will be missed, while Stepfan Taylor departs after three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. There’s no clear replacement for the tight ends at Stanford, but the picture at running back has a little more clarity. Anthony Wilkerson, Remound Wright and redshirt freshman Barry Sanders will compete for time this spring, while Tyler Gaffney will rejoin the team later this offseason after a one-year absence. Gaffney rushed for 449 yards in 2011 and is a key addition to the backfield. Stanford may not replace Taylor’s production with one player, but there’s enough talent returning that a committee approach would work. In fact, the rushing attack is the least of coach David Shaw's concerns on offense. Quarterback Kevin Hogan garnered honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors last season but lacks weapons at receiver. The Cardinal will be strong in the trenches and on defense once again. However, if the passing game doesn’t find a spark, beating Oregon for the Pac-12 title could be difficult.
9. Everett Golson’s development at Notre Dame
Even though the Fighting Irish were handled by Alabama in the national championship, finishing 12-1 and making a BCS bowl were a sign the program is headed in the right direction. Notre Dame loses some key pieces from last season, including linebacker Manti Te’o, tight end Tyler Eifert and running backs Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick. While those losses are significant, returning to 10 wins and a BCS game in 2013 will hinge prominently on the development of quarterback Everett Golson. As a redshirt freshman last season, he threw for 2,405 yards and 12 scores and rushed for 298 yards and six touchdowns. Golson played better in the second half of the season, and Notre Dame needs the sophomore to take the next step in 2013. Golson doesn’t have to be Johnny Manziel, but if he can cut down on the mistakes, he should spark the Fighting Irish’s passing attack and soften the blow from the departure of two key running backs and Eifert.
10. Conference realignment
It seems to be an ongoing and evolving animal, but college football’s conference landscape will change once again in 2013. Pittsburgh and Syracuse will move from the Big East to the ACC, while UCF, Memphis, Houston and SMU leave Conference USA to join the Big East. The conference realignment shifts didn't impact just the BCS conferences either, as Conference USA expanded to 14 teams, the Mountain West gains Utah State and San Jose State from the WAC, while the Sun Belt added Texas State and Georgia State. Moving conferences doesn’t have much impact on the play on the field, but there’s a lot of new faces in different places in 2013 and spring practice is the first opportunity for these teams to start preparing for life in their respective new leagues.
Other key storylines to watch
Are the Tigers ready to take the next step? Improving the defense is a priority for coach Dabo Swinney, along with finding a replacement for running back Andre Ellington.
Will the Gators find playmakers at running back and receiver?
Will highly touted redshirt freshman Jameis Winston win the quarterback job?
Running back and offensive line will be the areas of focus for coach Charlie Strong.
Can the defense find some answers after a miserable 2012 season?
Can the Wolverines find some help at receiver and running back for Devin Gardner?
Can the Cornhuskers rebuild a defense that allowed 115 points in their final two games?
How will the new coaches at Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee mesh with their rosters this spring?
Is David Ash ready to take the next step at quarterback?
Can quarterback Logan Thomas get back on track under new coordinator Scot Loeffler?
Will quarterback Keith Price regain his 2011 form?
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