25 Spring Games We Can't Wait to Watch

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2013

25 Spring Games We Can't Wait to Watch

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    With the 2013 national signing day just around the corner, we're inching ever closer to the spring thaw when college football awakens from its brief winter hibernation. Before you know it spring practices will be upon us and then we'll get our first glimpse at the 2013 college football season with the annual spring games.

    While these intra-squad scrimmages are still a few months off, we're already getting antsy to see college football back in action—even if it is in a game that doesn't count against players from the same team.

Northern Illinois

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    Northern Illinois arguably had the best season of any MAC team in history in 2012. Not only did the Huskies finish 12-2, but they became the first MAC program to earn a bid to the BCS and first non-AQ program to do so without a perfect regular season record.

    The biggest asset for NIU in 2012 was quarterback Jordan Lynch—and he'll likely reprise that role as a senior in 2013.

    Lynch has eight other returning offensive starters, but the Huskies' defense returns just five. The defense wasn't the spotlight for NIU last season (40th in the FBS, third in the MAC; 369.4 yards per game surrendered). With even less experience in 2013, it will be interesting to see if there are any position changes or bright young defensive stars that can step up to make another run at the MAC title.

Michigan

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    Even during the dark days of the Rich Rodriguez era, Michigan's spring game was a eagerly-awaited measuring stick for college football's all-time wins leader. The Wolverines bolted past 900 wins in 2012—the first program to do so, and likely only 900-win program for at least a couple of seasons—and are starting to show glimpses of what fans lovingly, and a bit boastfully refer to as “Michigan football.”

    Brady Hoke has done a fine job in his first two seasons of restoring an ounce of swagger and a pound of pride to a program that had lost both. Hoke has also put together a back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes.

    We really want to see some of these young starts step out on the spring field at Michigan Stadium. A glimpse into Michigan's future might very well be a glimpse into the future redemption of the Big Ten.

Kansas State

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    This one is pretty simple. Collin Klein has been the heart and soul of the Wildcats for much of the last two seasons' worth of success. Now that he's gone, head coach Bill Snyder will need to conjure up a new superstar to help take the team back to the BCS.

    While Snyder has eight returning starters on offense, the weakness of the K-State defense was exploited early and often in the 2013 Fiesta Bowl by Oregon. The Big 12 isn't known as a hotbed of defensive prospects, and experience goes a long way. With just three returning starters, things could get ugly in Manhattan.

    At least when Kansas State doesn't have the ball.

Wisconsin

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    Wisconsin is going to be an enigma for much of the spring, at least until we can get a first look at the Badgers during their spring game.

    You would think that with 15 returning starters, there's more than enough reason to believe the Badgers can make a run towards their third straight outright Big Ten title (and four straight counting the shared 2010 title with Michigan State).

    But the losses Wisconsin had following the 2012 season are as big as the get. First, FBS rushing touchdowns record-holder Montee Ball is off to the NFL. Gone, too, is quarterback Curt Phillips, center Travis Frederick, and a good portion of the secondary.

    Oh yeah, head coach Bret Bielema ditched the program, too.

    And we can't forget that Wisconsin really wasn't all that good in 2012. The only reason the Badgers even had a shot to find their way to the Rose Bowl this past season was because the top two teams in the Leaders Division were ineligible to participate in the Big Ten Championship Game; not only did Wisconsin back into the title game thanks to Ohio State's ineligibility, the Badgers backed their way through the back door thanks to Penn State also being ineligible.

    While Ohio State and Penn State will continue under NCAA sanction in 2013, Ohio State's bowl ban has expired.

    With a new coaching staff, at this point we just don't know what to expect from Wisconsin. One thing we do know is that head coach Gary Andersen (from Utah State) is going to have to find some new offensive muscle for 2013.

Michigan State

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    Say what you will about Michigan State, we just can't get past the fact that the Spartans lost all five of their conference losses by a combined 13 points.

    Two touchdowns' worth of points would have had MSU at 11-1 last season and a likely Big Ten Champion. Instead, offensive inexperience and an anemic passing attack constantly left Sparty just a little short.

    With 15 combined starters returning in 2013, head coach Mark Dantonio is hoping to get past some of those growing pains from a very young 2012 squad. We don't expect MSU's defense to be anything less than what we've expected out of East Lansing: suffocating.

    But what really has us counting the days until spring ball is the brewing quarterback battle between Andrew Maxwell and soon-to-be sophomore Connor Cook. Cook performed very well in relief of Maxwell in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl victory over TCU, and with Maxwell's struggles in 2012, we wonder if the senior has enough talent to keep Cook off the field for long.

    With Le'Veon Bell, the Big Ten's leading rusher in 2012 headed for the NFL, Michigan State can ill afford to go without a passing game again next season.

Southern California

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    Who doesn't want to see what happens next at USC?

    It's kind of like passing a fiery car wreck on a freeway. You cringe at what has happened, but you just can't see to take your eyes off of the mangled steel and flaming debris. To extend the metaphor, someone needs to take the keys away from Lane Kiffin.

    The Trojans just couldn't help but stumble from one media disaster to the next in 2012, all culminating with a spectacular failure—both on and off the field—at the 2012 Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.

    We won't even talk about players, although they provided us with a good deal of entertainment last season. Instead, we want to focus on Kiffin. There can be little question that after a shockingly terrible 2012 season that saw USC start at No. 1 and finish at 7-6, Kiffin is on the hot seat in 2013.

    Primary among the concerns we have about Kiffin is his unimaginative offensive play-calling. The head-scratch-inducing calls against Notre Dame were bad enough, but rather than learning from that epic failure, Kiffin tried more of the same against Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.

    Not surprisingly, USC lost that game, too.

    While spring games are often about the development and growth of players, we are eager to see if there's any development and growth by the head coach this year.

Oregon State

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    Oregon State flirted with greatness in 2012, and with FCS Eastern Washington, Hawai'i, and San Diego State starting the schedule in 2013, we might be seeing another season of a ranked Oregon State team entering conference play in late September.

    A lot of teams will have experienced players returning this season, but the Beavers have something for 2013 they haven't had in quite a few years: returning players with that not only have experience, but experience at success. The 15 returners from 2012 are spread around the field on both sides of the ball, and you can expect Oregon State to be airing it out again in 2013.

    What we really need to see from the Beavers in the spring game before we can put any faith in their ability to challenge Oregon or Stanford in the North Division is an improvement in the run game—both on offense and defense.

    Last season, power running games gave the Oregon Sate front seven fits. Similarly, the Beavers had a weak rushing attack themselves, and that just won't cut it against teams like the Ducks and Cardinal.

Nebraska

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    We get one last look at Nebraska's Taylor Martinez in 2013, and if the Cornhuskers are to have any shot of winning their first Big Ten title, he's going to have to take another step towards developing as a quarterback.

    Martinez has made great strides over his time in Lincoln, harnessing his raw athletic ability into an effective playmaker for Bo Pelini's program. But there are still some lingering questions about Martinez, particularly in the passing game.

    The good news is Martinez's favorite targets in Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa are also back in 2013, and we're eager to see how those on-field relationships continue to develop in the offseason.

Mississippi

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    Mississippi is back. You heard it here first, folks. Any doubters need only watch the 2013 Ole Miss spring football game to see what we're talking about.

    Last season, first-year head coach Hugh Freeze restored a bit of pride to the program that could extend beyond pregame tailgating. The Rebels were 3-1 in nonconference play and 4-5 in the SEC—including a win over Mississippi State—to earn a bowl berth for the first time since 2009.

    Now, take into account that Ole Miss returns 20 starters in 2013, including all 11 on defense, and you can see why we're excited about the Rebels' chances next season.

Northwestern

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    Fresh off its first bowl victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl, the Northwestern Wildcats are the darlings of the Big Ten. How long that will last is completely dependent on how well head coach Pat Fitzgerald—a former Wildcats linebacker himself—can rebuild a depleted linebacking corps in Evanston.

    The Wildcats are returning 15 starters, including at least one skill position player at every position on offense and nearly the entire defensive secondary. But if there's one thing we've learned about Northwestern over the past few decades, it's that the Wildcats have a very difficult time building on success.

    If anyone can change that mentality, it's Fitzgerald. He's guided Northwestern to five straight bowl games, more than any other NU coach in history. Now, with a long-awaited bowl win under his belt, the only step left is to chase down a Legends Division title.

    Easier said than done.

Texas

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    Texas has become one of the most difficult teams to predict over recent years. Pollsters seem to have unending belief in the Longhorns, and the preseason polling seems to be reaching Notre Dame-esque silliness.

    We are, after all, talking about a team that had four conference losses in 2012 and hasn't won a conference title since 2009. After the resulting BCS National Championship Game loss, things just never seem to go right for the Longhorns.

    Mack Brown is entering his 16th season in Austin, but is still looking for just his third conference title (Bob Stoops, by comparison has eight titles over his 14 years at Oklahoma). If ever there was a year Brown and company could finally get that third Big 12 crown, 2013 would seem to be the year to do it.

    Texas has a whopping 19 returning starters, and defense should be a strong point in 2013 for the Longhorns. If Brown can find a way to bolster the run defense that was eighth in the Big 12 last season, Texas has a better-than-even shot at retuning to the BCS.

Oklahoma

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    Gone is Landry Jones at quarterback, but that might not be such a bad thing.

    Jones never really lived up to his potential—or hype—at the position, and Oklahoma once against suffered through loss after loss in big games, including the 2013 Cotton Bowl Classic. Replacing Jones is the highly regarded Blake Bell.

    We all know how big and powerful the “Belldozer” is when holding on to the football, but we're really eager to see if he can add an equally lethal passing attack to his repertoire. If he can display some passing prowess in the spring game, we have no qualms about putting the Sooners at the top of our Big 12 predictions for 2013.

Florida State

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    On one hand, Florida State won the ACC title and Orange Bowl last season. On the other, neither victory really answered a whole lot of questions about the Seminoles.

    For each win, FSU had to beat Georgia Tech and Northern Illinois—not exactly what we'd consider top-tier opponents. If Florida State wants to return to the ranks of the truly elite programs in the nation, we're going to need to see something more from the Seminoles in 2013.

    Head coach Jimbo Fisher will need to solve some questions before we can start talking about another ACC championship. First, we need to figure out who is going to be taking the snaps for the Noles next season.

    Right now, junior Clint Trickett is the favorite. But sophomore Jacob Coker and redshirt freshman Jameis Winston are waiting in the wings, and depending on how spring practices go, they could make a case for the starting position.

    But perhaps even more important that quarterback is the defensive front. Florida State returns just one linebacker among the front seven positions, and we'll have to wait until spring to gauge how well this all-new cast will perform against the run.

Stanford

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    So much for the idea that Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck were capable of giving Stanford its best shot at a conference title or Rose Bowl victory for Stanford.

    David Shaw and his cast of post-Andrew Luck stars not only did the unthinkable by beating USC and Oregon in the same season to earn a conference title, but the Cardinal also captured their first Rose Bowl title since the 1970s.

    And there's no reason they can't do it all again next season.

    The Cardinal return 10 defensive starters, and seven players with starting experience will be back on offense. Both the offensive and defensive lines—a strength in 2012—will be largely intact, and Kevin Hogan is back under center. The only major loss for Stanford is at running back as Stepfan Logan takes his talents to the pros.

    Finding a quality replacement running back is easier said than done, but Stanford's preseason expectations will easily gin up enough excitement to make the 2013 spring game worth watching.

Clemson

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    Clemson was once again the “almost, but not quite” team in 2012. The Tigers blew through their regular-season schedule... almost. A loss to Florida State in the ACC opener way back in September took the impetus for a conference title away from Clemson, and a regular-season finale loss to archrival South Carolina all but ended any hopes of a return to the BCS.

    But Clemson isn't finished quite yet. Head coach Dabo Swinney is building on the recent successes, and Clemson should have one of, if not the best passing attack in the conference in 2013.

    The flip side of that equation is a little more troublesome. The bulk of Clemson's personnel depletion comes in the defensive secondary. While the passing game fireworks should be fun to watch at the spring game, we're more interested in seeing the pass defense come together.

Louisiana State

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    Looking at the graduation/early-to-NFL losses LSU has suffered since the end of the season, you'd think we'd be worried about the defense.

    But let's not forget we're talking about the Louisiana State Tigers here, one of the deepest programs in college football. We have every confidence in Les Miles and his staff to reload a defense that has just four returning starters.

    That being said, we want to see it for ourselves. How good LSU can be in 2013 will completely depend on how seamless the transition will be with so many new names taking the field on defense.

Florida

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    Florida had a great season—until it ended with a humiliating defeat to Louisville in the 2013 Sugar Bowl. Still, the Gators climbed as high at No. 3 in the BCS rankings, mainly on the strength of a dominating defense. But defense is where we have some major concerns heading into 2013 spring practices.

    The Gators return just three defensive starters for 2013. While we are confident head coach Will Muschamp will be able to find some Sunshine State speedsters to step into playmaking roles at corner, there's going to be a lot of inexperience floating around out there—which can be deadly for an SEC defense.

    Florida's offense, which was downright terrible last season, is a little less depleted with six returners. Still, Jeff Driskel had trouble finding open receives with experience. With Omarius Hines, Frankie Hammond and Jordan Reed all leaving, we're anxious to see how the 2013 passing game is going to be any different than in 2012.

    It's also worth mentioning that backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett is transferring, leaving Driskel as the only quarterback with any real experience.

South Carolina

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    It's safe to assume that all eyes will be on Jadeveon Clowney when it comes to anything football-related at South Carolina. With a solid secondary behind him, Clowney is good enough to compensate for a completely depleted—as in not even one returning starter—linebacking group.

    We're also eager to see where the Head Ball Coach gets his running yards from in 2013. With Kenny Miles and Marcus Lattimore gone, who will be the next big ball-carrier for the Gamecocks?

Louisville

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    Two words: Teddy Bridgewater.

    When it comes to Louisville, he's really all anyone can talk about these days. Watching Bridgewater dismantle a vaunted Florida defense was impressive enough. But when you consider he did it with a broken wrist (obviously not in his throwing arm), it's even more sensational.

    That one win launched Bridgewater's 2013 Heisman campaign, and with a defense that's returning 10 starters, he should have plenty of short fields to rack up touchdowns next season.

Ohio State

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    There's really only one thing we'll be looking for at Ohio State's spring game this year: Can Braxton Miller throw the ball effectively?

    Miller is certainly one heck of an athlete, but Ohio State finished 2012 ranked 110th in passing yards last season with just 2,178. The Buckeyes were 105th in passing yards per game, and those numbers will need a big boost in 2013 if Ohio State has any hope of replicating an undefeated season.

    We also have some questions about the Buckeyes' defensive line that returns a grand total of zero starters from 2012.

    While there's certainly a lot to be excited about in Columbus this season, Urban Meyer will need to find a way to bolster his team's passing attack if there's to be any hopes of winning a Big Ten title in 2013. Beating 6-6 teams like Michigan State and Purdue by one point or in overtime won't cut it next season.

Texas A&M

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    Johnny Football!

    Some fans of teams around the nation might be concerned about a sophomore quarterback that returns to a team with just one starting wide receiver returning. Those fans aren't fans at Texas A&M. Not only did Johnny Manziel wow the nation with his pure talent last season, he also became the first freshman in college football history to win the Heisman Trophy.

    Texas A&M will need to find some new targets for Johnny Manziel, but Manziel is good enough where even a mediocre receiving corps would still make the Aggies one of the most dangerous offensive teams in America.

    What has us eager to get to spring ball at A&M is what's happening to Manziel while he's not on the football field. Manziel's activities over the past month have been of enough concern to warrant a confab between the Aggies' athletic department and Manziel's parents.

    Even Oklahoma assistant Mike Stoops weighed in, saying, “If they can keep [Manziel] out of jail or keep him eligible, he's gonna be pretty good.”

    Manziel, of course, has already had at least one trip to jail. As far as eligibility concerns, let's just hope no one goes digging into how exactly Johnny Football keeps getting courtside seats at NBA games.

Georgia

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    Remember all that “Mark Richt is on the hot seat” talk back at the start of 2011?

    Well, 28 games and two seasons later, Georgia has won 22 games and two SEC East Division titles thanks to an offensive renaissance and some impressive defense.

    How far will the Bulldogs go next season? Keep in mind that UGA has 10 returning starters on offense. We can't wait to see Aaron Murray back on the field throwing the pigskin around, but we're giddy to another look at the backfield tandem of Merritt Hall and Todd Gurley.

Notre Dame

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    Who doesn't want to see Notre Dame's spring game?

    Whether you were gleeful in the Irish's 12-0 season or giddy after their dismantling by Alabama, Notre Dame seems to be a program on the verge of at least being in the conversation in 2013. Brian Kelly is putting together another top recruiting class, and the Irish are going to return 15 starters from last season's team that found its way to the BCS National Championship Game.

    Quarterback Everett Golson struggled early during his freshman season, but rapidly matured down the stretch. His sophomore season in 2013 should be free from many of the growing pains we saw last year, and he'll still be surrounded by more than enough talent to be very successful.

    Defensively, Notre Dame returns eight starters, and should be a very confident bunch to start the season. Obviously the loss of Manti Te'o can't be overstated, but if the Irish can shore up the defensive front even a little, they'll be in good shape for another BCS run next season.

Oregon

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    It was bound to end sooner or later.

    Chip Kelly has been named the new head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, and we can't help but feel a little concerned for the future of the Oregon Ducks football program.

    It was Kelly, after all, who took a solid foundation built by Mike Bellotti and continued the process until the Ducks had earned three consecutive conference titles and four straight trip to a BCS bowl.

    Whoever Oregon finds to replace Kelly, they'll find the cupboard far from bare. The Ducks have 16 returning starters, including nine on offense. But it was Kelly's unique style of coaching, the “take no prisoners” attitude, the two-point conversions, the fourth-down attempts, the 15-second hurry-up that all made Oregon the western powerhouse it is today.

    We won't really know how closely a new coach will follow that style until the spring game rolls around.

Alabama

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    It doesn't take Nick Saban long to put the past behind him.

    The confetti was still on the field when Nick Saban announced as his post-BCS National Championship Game press conference that he was ready to start working on next season. No time to party, next season was less eight months away.

    We could go on and on about who Alabama has coming back next season, or how the 2013 recruiting class is shaping up, or what youngsters we are anxious to see on the field this spring. But that would all pale in comparison to our excitement to simply getting our first look at a possible three-peating Crimson Tide team.