College football’s 2015 season doesn’t officially start until September, but the national championship race is already underway with the start of spring practice. Offseason workouts aren’t necessarily going to provide the best answers to any preseason concerns, especially as most freshmen won’t arrive on campus until the summer.
However, spring practice is the first glimpse of how teams are handling personnel or scheme changes and which players are ready to emerge in 2015. Every team in the FBS ranks has an intriguing storyline to watch in spring ball. Let’s take a look at the top 10 across the landscape, as well as a few others to keep on the radar over the next several weeks.
College Football's 10 Biggest Storylines to Watch in Spring Practice
1. Alabama’s Rebuilding Effort on Offense
Talent certainly isn’t an issue at Alabama. The Crimson Tide has claimed each of the last five recruiting championships, but there’s a lot of work ahead for coach Nick Saban this spring if Alabama wants to win the 2015 national title on the field. The defense has holes in the secondary and needs to limit the big plays allowed by opposing passing offenses. However, the biggest concern in Tuscaloosa this spring has to be what transpires on offense. Is Florida State transfer Jake Coker ready to claim the starting quarterback job? Or will a freshman – Blake Barnett or David Cornwell – earn the nod under center? Additionally, Alabama needs Kenyan Drake to return at full strength at running back, replace its top three receivers - including standout Amari Cooper - and rebuild an offensive line that returns just two starters.
2. Ohio State’s Small Offseason To-Do List
Repeating as a national champion in college football is hard. Only one team (Alabama) since the start of the BCS era has been able to go back-to-back. Ohio State enters 2015 as a clear favorite for the No. 1 ranking. Fourteen starters are back for coach Urban Meyer, and this team has only a few glaring concerns. The quarterback battle will garner most of the preseason attention, but Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett are on the mend from injuries. Cardale Jones has a chance to increase his hold on the No. 1 spot – at least until fall practice starts. Outside of the quarterback battle, Ohio State needs to bolster its options at receiver and find replacements for defensive standouts Michael Bennett (DT) and Doran Grant (CB).
3. TCU and Baylor Battle for Control of the Big 12
The debate over TCU and Baylor will continue into the 2015 season. The Horned Frogs and Bears are the front-runners for the top spot in the Big 12 next year, and both teams should be in the mix for a playoff berth. But which team is the favorite to win the Big 12? Perhaps this spring will provide some clarity to the personnel issues surrounding both teams. TCU has to rebuild its back seven after the departures of linebacker Paul Dawson and Marcus Mallet, along with defensive backs Kevin White (CB), Sam Carter (S) and Chris Hackett (S). The Bears must replace quarterback Bryce Petty and linebacker Bryce Hager. Which team can fill its personnel concerns this offseason?
4. Auburn’s Defense
Even though Auburn played for the national championship at the end of the 2013 season, defense has been a weak point for this team over the last two years. The Tigers gave up 6.4 yards per play in SEC action last season, but the addition of Will Muschamp as the new defensive signal-caller provides plenty of optimism for this unit. In addition to Muschamp’s arrival, getting defensive end Carl Lawson back in the mix is a boost to the pass rush. How much improvement can Muschamp coax out of Auburn’s defense this spring?
5. Texas A&M’s Defense Under John Chavis
Defense has been Texas A&M’s biggest weakness since joining the SEC in 2012. The Aggies have allowed over six yards per play in conference games in two out of the last three seasons. However, coach Kevin Sumlin is taking steps to fix this unit. Former LSU coordinator (and arguably one of the top defensive minds in college football) John Chavis was hired this offseason to lead the Aggies’ defense. Chavis inherits a unit that needs a lot of work, but there’s also a lot of promising talent.
6. Jim Harbaugh’s Return to Michigan
After a 20-18 record over the last three years under Brady Hoke, Michigan needed to hit a home run with its coaching hire. The Wolverines did exactly that, luring former Wolverine quarterback Jim Harbaugh from the NFL to hopefully lead the program back to national promience. Harbaugh is a proven winner on the collegiate and NFL level, and his arrival in Ann Arbor should at least help Michigan return to a bowl in 2015. Harbaugh’s first spring leading the Wolverines has plenty of intrigue and personnel concerns. Michigan needs to find a quarterback and develop its skill talent, while a young offensive line is looking to take the next step in its progression. Harbaugh won’t answer all of his personnel concerns in 2015. However, there’s no doubt this team will be better next season.
7. Question Marks at Oregon
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich has won 24 games over the last two seasons, but this spring might be the toughest period of his tenure. With quarterback Marcus Mariota, left tackle Jake Fisher, center Hroniss Grasu, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, end Arik Armstead and a couple of other key contributors from the Ducks’ national championship runner-up team, Helfrich and this coaching staff have more holes to fill on the roster than the last two offseasons. Expected starting quarterback (and Eastern Washington transfer) Vernon Adams won’t arrive until the summer, which means the battle for the No. 1 job will continue into fall practice. Only five starters return from a defense ranked last in the Pac-12 on third-down stops and 10th in the league against the run. The Ducks should be the favorite in the Pac-12 North, but this team needs a productive spring to be considered a preseason national title contender.
8. Quarterback Battles
In Athlon’s pre-spring top 25 for 2015, seven of the top 10 teams enter offseason workouts with some uncertainty at quarterback. Ohio State has three Heisman candidates vying for snaps, while Baylor should be able to plug Seth Russell into Bryce Petty’s spot and keep the offense performing at a high level. Auburn’s offense is in good hands with Jeremy Johnson, but this is his first spring as the starter. Jobs at Georgia, Florida State, Oregon, Alabama, Notre Dame, LSU, UCLA and Ole Miss are up for grabs. Will a front-runner emerge in spring practice?
9. Oklahoma and Texas Searching for Answers
It’s rare to see Oklahoma and Texas both picked outside of the top three in a Big 12 preseason poll, but it could happen in 2015. The Longhorns finished 6-7 in coach Charlie Strong’s first season, and this team may need another recruiting class (or two) before it can challenge for the league title. The quarterback position will be under the spotlight this spring, as starter Tyrone Swoopes needs to develop or redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard will get an extended look under center. At Oklahoma, Bob Stoops revamped his coaching staff after a disappointing 8-5 season. New play-caller Lincoln Riley is an Air Raid disciple, but running back Samaje Perine is still the catalyst for the offense. While Perine should push for All-American honors in 2015, big questions remain about the supporting cast. Will Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield win the quarterback job? Who steps up on the offensive line? And on defense, the Sooners allowed nearly 30 points per game in conference action. Will this unit show improvement this spring? It’s a big offseason for both Oklahoma and Texas in the quest to get back to the top of the Big 12.
10. Florida State and Clemson…Simply Reloading?
Most pre-spring rankings have the projected ACC champion outside of the four projected playoff teams in 2015. But could that change by the fall? Florida State and Clemson have combined for just six losses over the last two seasons and could factor into the playoff mix if key replacements are found for departed personnel. This spring is the first opportunity for the Seminoles to replace quarterback Jameis Winston, four starters on the offensive line and address a defense that finished ninth in the ACC in points allowed. There are some similiarities between Florida State and Clemson this spring, as the Tigers need to restock a front seven that was decimated by departures, as well as rebuild the offensive line to protect sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. The first opportunity for Florida State and Clemson to reload – and get back into contention for the playoffs – starts this spring.
Other Storylines to Watch:
Boise State: Who steps up to replace running back Jay Ajayi?
BYU: How quick can quarterback Taysom Hill get back to 100 percent?
LSU: Will the offense develop any consistency in the passing game?
Miami: The question that seems to pop up every year (at least recently in Coral Gables): Is Miami ready to win the ACC Coastal? Defensive improvement would be a good place to start.
Notre Dame: Will Malik Zaire unseat Everett Golson for the No. 1 quarterback spot? Will the defense improve in coordinator Brian VanGorder’s second season?
Penn State: How far will the offensive line progress after allowing 44 sacks in 2014?
Stanford: The Cardinal defense is in need of major repair with only four returning starters. And is this the offseason that quarterback Kevin Hogan takes the next step in his development?
Tennessee: Are the Volunteers ready to challenge Georgia and Missouri in the SEC East next year? Let’s see how far the offensive line progresses in spring ball.
UCLA: Will true freshman Josh Rosen win the starting quarterback spot?
USC: Can the Trojans find a couple of receivers to replace standout Nelson Agholor?
Virginia Tech: Can the Hokies develop their offensive line and passing attack?
Wisconsin: Can new coach Paul Chryst help quarterback Joel Stave and an unsettled receiving corps develop after struggling last season?