For my money, spring football is the best time of the year. Don't get me wrong, I love games, I love game week practice and fall camp is nice. But spring ball is a special passion for this guy. It's like fall camp, but without the heat or the two-a-days. It is uniquely scrappy and punchy and has so much competition as guys try to prove themselves.
As schools are in various stages of spring ball, or getting ready for spring ball, we step back and take a look at the landscape as a whole. Here's a look at the five most interesting story lines on the national scale as we get into spring football.
First up, Heisman Hype.
We have to lead off with this. After all, the cover of last week's Sports Illustrated was all about hyping the 2013 Heisman race, and rightfully so. Braxton Miller and Jadeveon Clowney are two of the nation's favorites entering the year. Throw in the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel, and you have three guys that the eyes of the nation will be upon.
Along with those three, look for the likes of Marcus Mariota, Aaron Murray and Tajh Boyd to start ringing the Heisman bell as their spring ball opens up.
While the Heisman hype is about returning stars, our next theme is about replacing key players.
At Georgia that means Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Shawn Williams, John Jenkins and Bacarri Rambo, among others on defense. For Alabama, the most notable replacement job will be Chance Warmack and Barrett Jones up front, and Robert Lester and Dee Milliner in the secondary. Texas A&M will have to replace Luke Joeckel; USC will have to move past Matt Barkley; Ohio State will need to fill in the gaps left by Johnathan Hankins and John Simon.
The list is long, as every team has lost players that played a key role in their cause just a season ago. Replacing a Manti Te'o or a Matt Elam is not an easy task, and this spring, our eyes will be on watching how the young guys step up to the challenge.
Do those spots get filled by backups who were on the roster playing special teams and mop-up duty? Or, are they grabbed by redshirt freshmen and early enrollees who take advantage of the opportunity? Competitions will be fierce at key spots as older players battle youth for playing time.
The next big story line entering spring is building on year one. In the BCS era, we've seen guys like Urban Meyer, Jim Tressel and Gene Chizik push for a title in their second season. Other coaches, like Nick Saban, have seen high-level success in year two. This year, coaches all over the nation are looking to continue their growth in their jobs, and the 2013 campaign starts with spring.
In the case of Urban Meyer and Kevin Sumlin, that means national title-type aspirations. Meyer's Buckeyes went 12-0, and with the way the Big Ten looks next season, people are expecting big things. Sumlin's Aggies were 11-2, including beating the eventual national champion Alabama. They also return Heisman-Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Saying expectations are high is an understatement.
For guys like Jim Mora and Larry Fedora, getting a conference championship is the goal for the 2013 season. UCLA was mighty close with their three-point loss to Stanford in 2012's Pac-12 Championship Game. North Carolina, thanks to probation, was not allowed to play in the ACC Championship Game in 2012.
Others, like Rich Rodriguez, Paul Chryst, Bill O'Brien and Todd Graham, will be looking to get closer to a conference title in year two. They started out nice, and if they can build on the small successes they had in their systems, improvements will undoubtedly come. Granted, as long as Penn State's sanctions hold, the closest Bill O'Brien can get is the mythical Leaders Title, a la UNC in 2012.
Between guys who have stepped up to bigger gigs, coaches looking to restart their success and first-time head coaches, there are plenty of coaches who started the march a year ago. 2013 will be about gaining ground on their hopeful ascent to the mountain top.
From building on year one to the dawn of several new eras on the landscape.
We'll get to find out if Mark Helfrich can fill the shoes of Chip Kelly, who has passed on to the NFL; we'll see how fast Gus Malzahn can turn last year's Auburn team into something worth watching; we'll see if Butch Jones and Bret Bielema can come from the Midwest and find success in the SEC.
However, it's not just the big-time schools here that make the dawning of new eras intriguing. There is a new crop of coaches, guys with success at the non-BCS level like Dave Doeren at NC State, Mike MacIntyre at Colorado, Sonny Dykes at Cal, Darrell Hazell at Purdue and Willie Taggart at USF. These guys have an opportunity to be the next big thing and this spring is our first shot to watch them work their magic.
It will be fun to watch, and this early window into how the new coaches work is going to be one of the big stories of the spring.
And last but not least, we hit you with the last hurrahs.
Thirty-four schools replaced their head coaches following the 2012 season, and most of them got fired. 2013 will no different, and that means there are coaches out there making their last stand in an effort to save their job. As the season wears on, we will see coaches underperform and land on the hot seat, so goes the way of the world.
However, nowhere is the spring more about a last hurrah than in Austin, Texas and Los Angeles, California. Mack Brown and Lane Kiffin do not need to wait until the season for the fire to heat up, they have to start pushing now in an effort to work towards returning in 2014.
For Mack Brown, that means the uptempo offense. For Lane Kiffin, it is about finding a quarterback and hoping Clancy Pendergast can fix the defense. Both guys have holes to fill and schemes to work into the game plan this spring.
The landscape is packed with teams putting in work for spring football. Each team has its own story lines, and plenty of them. These are our top five things to watch as spring ball goes full force.
What are yours?