2014 Spring Game Previews for College Football's Projected Top 25

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistMarch 25, 2014

2014 Spring Game Previews for College Football's Projected Top 25

0 of 25

    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Spring college football games have started in spurts at some schools across the country, but we are roughly two weeks away from the real heart of spring scrimmage season.

    Starting on Saturday, April 5, some of the biggest programs in America—e.g., Baylor, Oklahoma State, Michigan, Ole Miss and LSU—will play their spring game, and from there each weekend through the first of May is seemingly loaded with compelling national exhibitions.

    To prepare you for the season before the season to come, we've taken stock of where the projected top 25 teams stand heading into their spring scrimmage and what you should keep an eye on in each one.

    Even if spring games might be mostly overblown by local media, a good performance was, after all, what helped launch Jameis Winston toward a starting position at Florida State, a Heisman Trophy and an eventual national championship in 2013.

    There is meaning to be found at every one.

     

    Note: This list reflects what I project to be the preseason top 25—not how I, myself, would rank the teams.

25. Florida

1 of 25

    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: Saturday, April 12

     

    Offensive Storyline

    Which version of Jeff Driskel has returned in 2014? Is it the turnover machine who choked away the Miami game before breaking his leg last season? Or can Kurt Roper's system help coax the former 5-star recruit back onto the field? Some of this may depend on the progress of the receivers, but most will be on the quarterback's own two shoulders.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Might the secondary be just as good as last season? That seems absurd given the losses of Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs, but Vernon Hargreaves III is one year older, and the addition of 5-star early enrollee Jalen Tabor, who has been running with the starters this spring, makes it entirely possible. Will the defensive backs dominate the receivers in the spring game?

     

    Coaching Storyline

    How much freedom will head coach Will Muschamp give to Roper? Muschamp prefers to control tempo and win with defense. In the past few seasons, that strategy has turned ugly on more than one occasion. Can Muschamp let Roper push the pace a little bit? Will the Gators stop playing such big, dumb, ugly football? 

24. Texas

2 of 25

    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Date: Saturday, April 19, at 2 p.m. ET (LHN)

     

    Offensive Storyline

    What's the deal at quarterback? Can David Ash be trusted to retake the reins of the position? At one point, his career seemed doomed to end early due to concussions. Can Tyrone Swoopes make strides as a passer after showing poorly in a small sample size last season? One or both of those guys must step up if they want to keep freshman Jerrod Heard, who will enroll this summer, at bay during fall camp.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Will there be improvement in the secondary? Run defense was the issue in 2013, but with better coaching and five returning starters in the front seven, that is expected to be a non-issue next year. The question is whether young secondary pieces such as Duke Thomas and Mykkele Thomas, who started last season, can improve enough to hold off the competition behind them. A new staff means new loyalty, so whomever performs better this spring will have the upper hand.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    Where do we begin? New head coach Charlie Strong is trying to change the culture—to make the Longhorns a "tougher" type of team. Then there's the play-calling dichotomy between Joe Wickline and Shawn Watson. Who's really running the show? And we know Vance Bedford is an improvement over Manny Diaz and Greg Robinson at defensive coordinator, but the question of magnitude remains. Seeing the new-look Texas staff in the spring game is almost as, if not more, intriguing as seeing the players.

23. Arizona State

3 of 25

    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Date: Saturday, April 19, at 2 p.m. ET (P-12 Network)

     

    Offensive Storyline

    Can Taylor Kelly take the next step? That might seem like a trivial question, but enough Sun Devils return on offense that it matters. He's been very good but not great the past couple of seasons, but given the losses on defense, Kelly must become even better to keep ASU in the Pac-12 South race next season. This team will need to score a ton of points to survive.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Everything. Literally everything. ASU loses eight defensive starters from last year's division champion, chief among them tackle Will Sutton, linebackers Carl Bradford and Chris Young, and defensive back Alan Darby. The spring game will shed light on which players stand poised to replace them on the depth chart. More importantly, it will also reveal some new team leaders.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    Co-defensive coordinators Chris Ball and Paul Randolph have a ton of work to do this spring. With the former focused on the secondary and the latter on the front seven, each must earn their paycheck and find a way to make the defense (at the very least) competitive. Getting to play against Mike Norvell's offense every day in practice should help these guys get ready for the spring game.

22. Michigan

4 of 25

    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Date: Saturday, April 5, at 2 p.m. ET (BTN)

     

    Offensive Storyline

    Does this team belong to Devin Gardner? Or is Shane Morris more than just a competitive measure and backup plan? Gardner was awful on the road last season but earned respect for playing through injuries—especially against Ohio State in "The Game," where he helped UM fans forget about his earlier failings. But Morris is a former blue-chip recruit who flashed some potential in the bowl loss to Kansas State. Who performs better in the spring game and takes momentum into the summer? Which QB can be trusted?

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Is the secondary depth a mirage? Michigan has always had talent at the top of its secondary these past few seasons, but injuries have revealed a troubling lack of depth behind them. This year, however, that appears not to be the case. If the two-deep can hold up and look good in the spring game, a unit that then adds Jabrill Peppers in the fall might be one of the Big Ten's best.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    It's all about new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who comes over from Alabama and finds a running game in tatters. The offensive line doesn't block, and the running backs don't show any burst. Can he improve that? In terms of pedigree, most of these players aren't too far off from what Nussmeier coached in Tuscaloosa. Can he make the running game at least semi-functional by the end of the spring? The middle of the fall? The end of the winter? The answer might determine the season.

21. Oklahoma State

5 of 25

    Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: Saturday, April 5, at 2:30 p.m. ET (open practice; no game)

     

    Offensive Storyline

    Is J.W. Walsh ready for his close-up? Oklahoma State once had the best quarterback depth in the country, but now Clint Chelf has graduated and Wes Lunt is playing at Illinois. The position rests squarely on Walsh's shoulders. The speedy QB showed flashes at the start of last season but eventually regressed and ceded the job back to Chelf. With no safety net behind him (and far less talent at receiver), can he step up and become the leader of this team by early April?

     

    Defensive Storyline

    How will this team defend the pass? Coming of a historically good defensive season, Oklahoma State loses seven starters including five in the back seven. The loss of dismissed safety Lyndell Johnson did not help matters and made the Cowboys dangerously thin in the secondary. Under head coach Mike Gundy, the offense should always be able to score points. If the defense can't prevent them, however, 2014 might be a rebuilding year in Stillwater.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    Can offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich handle the brunt of play-calling duties? There are questions surrounding how much control he had last season; the presence of since-departed offensive line coach Joe Wickline (Texas) helped ease Yurcich into his first year with the 'Pokes. But now the show is his, and the unit has lost some very important pieces. Like his QB, Yurcich must be ready for his close-up.

20. Missouri

6 of 25

    Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: Saturday, April 19

     

    Offensive Storyline

    Can Maty Mauk make "the leap"? He filled in more than admirably when James Franklin got hurt last season, but Mauk's accuracy did at times leave something to be desired. His dual-threat skills should serve as nice protection, but we'll see exactly how much Mauk has improved his mechanics come the spring game on April 19. He didn't have far to go—he was decent with his arm last season—so any improvement would put him toward the top group of SEC quarterbacks in 2014.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Is the next man ready to step up? The losses of Andrew Wilson, Michael Sam, Kony Ealy and E.J. Gaines next season will leave a massive leadership void on defense. The talent is there—especially with guys like Markus Golden and Shane Ray along the defensive line—for that void to be filled by mid-April, but filling it won't be easy. Until imploding against Auburn in the conference title game, the Tigers defense was one of the most underrated in the country last season. It must perform at a similar level in 2014.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    There's not much movement here, but the ability of head coach Gary Pinkel and defensive coordinator Dave Steckel to rebuild the defense is worth watching. Historically, Pinkel's teams have always been solid on offense. The measuring stick of each season is the worth of the defense that supports it. This year will be one of his toughest tasks.

19. North Carolina

7 of 25

    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: Saturday, April 12, at 3 p.m. ET (ESPN3)

     

    Offensive Storyline

    Can the offensive line jell? All-ACC tackle James Hurst is gone, as is center Russell Bodine. Caleb Peterson started 12 games last season but is out for the spring after shoulder surgery. With Marquise Williams under center and a deep group of skill-position players, UNC has a chance to be one of the best, most explosive offenses in college football. But it all starts up front. We'll see if this group can come together and keep Williams upright in the spring game.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    How comfortable are the players in the 4-2-5 defense? At the start of last season, when UNC stumbled off the blocks to a 1-5 record, the defense looked scattered and confused. Toward the end of last season, when the team started turning things around, the defense looked organized and confident. With seven starters returning, the defense should, theoretically, hit the ground running. But this is a group of traditionally slow starters, so it's worth keeping an eye on.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    How does Seth Littrell fit into the offense? Head coach Larry Fedora had to deal with an offensive coordinator change for the first time in five years, losing longtime assistant Blake Anderson to the head coaching position at Arkansas State. Littrell did well at Indiana these past few seasons, but it's always scary to merge a foreign system with a familiar one. How will he and Fedora come together?

18. USC

8 of 25

    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: Saturday, April 19, at 4 p.m. ET (P-12 Network)

     

    Offensive Storyline

    Are we sure Cody Kessler is the quarterback? He earned that right down the stretch last season, but his struggles in the early part of the schedule have not been forgotten. With former 5-star recruit Max Browne ready to compete for the job, all eyes in Los Angeles will be fixed on the signal-callers come April 19.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    How will the defense adjust to a new formation? Young Trojans such as Leonard Williams and Su'a Cravens emerged in the 5-2 scheme of Clancy Pendergast, but now new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox brings over his trademark 3-4 Under. There exists enough talent to survive such a change, but it's worth keeping an eye on nonetheless. The players loved playing for Pendergast, and Wilcox must foster the same type of enthusiasm.

     

    Coaching Storyline 

    What is the pace of the offense? Last year, USC mitigated its own weapons with a slow, boring scheme—especially at the start of the season. New head coach Steve Sarkisian likes to push the tempo. Elsewhere, beyond what's already been discussed regarding Wilcox, the addition of former San Francisco 49ers offensive line coach Tim Drevno could be a game-changer. How fast can he upgrade the leaky play in the trenches?

17. Wisconsin

9 of 25

    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    Date: Saturday, April 12, at 4 p.m. ET (BTN)

     

    Offensive Storyline

    Can Joel Stave stave off the competition at quarterback? He was merely decent in his first year running Gary Andersen's offense, and with the loss of James White and Jared Abbrederis in 2014, even more responsibility will be heaped on the quarterback's shoulders. Might a dual-threat guy like Tanner McEvoy or early enrollee D.J. Gillins be better suited to the system? If either or both play well in the spring game, there will be noise about a fall competition.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Who is the leader of the defense? It's hard to overstate what Chris Borland meant to the Badgers: He wasn't just their best player but by far their most important. He was the gas that you pour in the engine. With zero (!!) starters returning in the front seven, Badgers fans will be watching the first-team defense closely to see who steps up and takes command. (My money is on senior nose guard Warren Herring.)

     

    Coaching Storyline

    It didn't feel like Andersen put much of his mark on the program last year. With so much talent returning from the Bret Bielema era, he was content—and wisely so—to run a similar system. Now things have changed. The roster is foreign, comprised of younger pieces instead of familiar veterans. How, then, will Andersen adjust? How will the scheme start to change? Will he try to overcompensate and over-coach? The spring game will point us toward the answers.

16. Texas A&M

10 of 25

    Date: N/A

     

    Texas A&M will not have a spring game due to renovations to Kyle Field, according to Sean Lester of The Dallas Morning News.

    The quarterback battle between Matt Joeckel, Kyle Allen and Kenny Hill, the debut of wide receiver Speedy Noil and the rebuilding of the defense will all take place behind closed doors.

15. Notre Dame

11 of 25

    Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: Saturday, April 12, at 12:30 p.m. ET

     

    Offensive Storyline

    The return of Everett Golson. How could it be anything else? After a season spent away from the program, Golson returns to the Irish with a perfect regular-season record and, supposedly, having improved with his tutelage from George Whitfield. The job should be his to lose, although redshirt freshman Malik Zaire is a fan favorite and ready to push him this offseason. How each QB looks in the spring game will go a long way in determining the amount of drama there is this fall.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Line play, line play, line play. Defensive tackle Louis Nix and end Stephon Tuitt both underachieved last season, relative to their own expectations, but were still two of the best defenders on the team. The time is now for someone like Sheldon Day to step up and become a star in the defensive trenches. Which side of the ball will get the best of the other during the spring game? Without a good defensive front, this cannot be a typical Brian Kelly unit.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    Former offensive coordinator Chuck Martin (Miami, OH) and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco (Connecticut) are both gone from last season, but Kelly is no stranger to replacing his assistants. Mike Denbrock was promoted from within to run the offense and, with Kelly helping call the plays, shouldn't be discernibly different from Martin. The real question concerns new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who is a veteran of the trade but last led a 2012 Auburn defense to a historically bad 3-9 season. He's a good coach, but are we sure he's the right man for the job?

14. Clemson

12 of 25

    Date: Saturday, April 12, at 4 p.m. ET (ESPNU)

     

    Offensive Storyline

    Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant are gone on the outside, but no one is focused on the receivers. Everyone wants to see Cole Stoudt, Chad Kelly and early enrollee Deshaun Watson battle for the right to replace Tajh Boyd at quarterback. Each is equally capable but slightly different, and fair or not the spring game might go a long way in determining who heads into fall with the momentum to start.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Is this finally the year the defense makes the leap? Clemson was good in its second season under Brent Venables but still far from being great. However, with the return of seniors Vic Beasley (an All-American) and Stephone Anthony, there is reason to believe Year 3 will be the best of Venables' tenure. Having lost so much talent from 2013, there is no reason the offense should dominate the spring game. For once, this should be the defense's year to shine.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    Chad Morris is the highest-paid assistant in college football. He has earned (at least a large portion of) that money during his first three years at Clemson, but this year will be a different beast. There is talent on the roster but also a dearth of experience. This is where the highest-paid assistant in college football should really prove his worth. How quickly can Morris meld the offense together?

13. LSU

13 of 25

    Date: Saturday, April 5

     

    Offensive Storyline

    Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris? There are questions at wide receiver, but the battle to replace Zach Mettenberger has rightfully demanded the most attention. Jennings led a comeback win over Arkansas last year but struggled (to put it kindly) against Iowa in the Outback Bowl. Harris has a real chance to start as a true freshman, and a good spring game would go a long way toward helping that cause.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Same story, different year. LSU hemorrhaged underclassmen into the NFL draft and must now replace nearly everyone in the front seven. The good news is that the Tigers have been here before. The bad news is that last year, for the first time, the product on the field wasn't dominant. Can defensive coordinator John Chavis work his magic again this spring? Will he do something different after fielding a porous defense (by comparison to recent years) in 2013? Wait and see.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    How will offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's scheme fit the new personnel? Mettenberger, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry fit Cameron's style like a glove in his first year in Death Valley. Jennings and Harris have their own skills, but neither has the vertical arm of Mettenberger or the options so capable of stretching the field. Will Cameron alter the scheme to fit his players? Or will he play obstinate, altering the players to fit the scheme?

12. South Carolina

14 of 25

    Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: Saturday, April 12, at 12 p.m. ET (ESPNU)

     

    Offensive Storyline

    Is QB Dylan Thompson ready to lead this offense? He'd better be. With no good options behind him and eight returning starters around him, Thompson is the key to making the Gamecocks go in 2014. He's also the sole and rightful scapegoat if they don't. He has experience (both good and bad), so fans have an inkling of what to expect. Still, a good performance in the spring game will allay some fears in Columbia and stoke some legitimate excitement for next year's offense.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Will the defense be able to generate pressure with four? Last season, Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton gave the Gamecocks the most fearsome defensive line in college football. This season, rotation players such as Gerald Dixon, Darius English and Mason Harris are being counted on to play at a reasonable fraction of that level. Going up against a veteran offensive line should make those players better in practice, but it could also lead to struggles in the spring game and by extension a summer filled with panic concerning the position.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    There is stability on the Gamecocks' staff, which is one of the many reasons they will flirt with a top-10 ranking before the season. If there is anything to watch, it might be how defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward—one of the best in the business—adapts his pressure schemes if the front four doesn't develop. There are spring injuries in the linebacking corps, but it should be interesting nonetheless to see how often Ward plans on dialing up the blitz. 

11. Stanford

15 of 25

    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Date: Saturday, April 12, at 4 p.m. ET (P-12 Network)

     

    Offensive Storyline

    What is the state of the running game? Stanford recruits and develops offensive linemen at a historically efficient rate, so the loss of four starters isn't as bad as it sounds. The loss of running backs Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson, however, might be. Might Barry Sanders Jr. be a legitimate option to start? If so, how will he look?

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Can the front seven simply reload? Stanford should once again have one of the best secondaries in college football, but the loss of Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Josh Mauro, Ben Gardner, A.J. Tarpley, et al. near the line of scrimmage leaves a massive void—both in production and leadership—on a unit that has carried the team for years. And now Derek Mason isn't even around to help patch the gaps. Who is the best front-seven player—the one whom the other six look to before each snap? These are things we must find out in spring.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    Outside linebackers coach Lance Anderson was promoted to defensive coordinator when Mason left for the head coaching job at Vanderbilt. This might be complicated, as a team losing so much at linebacker could use more detailed attention. How will Anderson budget his time? Can he trust players such as James Vaughters to govern their own improvement while he focuses on the defense at large? 

10. Baylor

16 of 25

    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Date: Saturday, April 5

     

    Offensive Storyline

    Can the offensive line retool and perform at last year's level? Skill players get most of the attention in an uptempo offense such as Baylor's, but the blockers are the unsung heroes who make everything go. Baylor loses three starters, including Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year Cyril Richardson; if things look out of sync in the spring game, it will likely have more to do with that than with new faces at running back and receiver.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Is this doomed to be another classic Baylor defense? The questions at cornerback are profound, which could lead the Bears into a number of 2012 West Virginia-style shootouts next season. Unless of course the young players replacing Demetri Goodson and K.J. Morton follow an expedient learning curve. Baylor fans love seeing their team score points, but the more passing yards there are in the spring game, the scarier the fate of next season.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    Phil Bennett has done a swell job since taking over the defense in 2011, but now he faces a new threat in Waco: expectations. The defense had long been assumed to be a human sieve, but its plucky performance in 2013 has changed that assumption. He and returning linebacker Bryce Hager must convince this team it will succeed. It's a subjective takeaway, sure, but I'll be looking to see what type of confidence the Bears defense plays with on April 5.

9. Georgia

17 of 25

    Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: Saturday, April 12, at 1 p.m. ET (CSS/ESPN3)

     

    Offensive Storyline

    What does the leash on Huston Mason look like? So much talent returns at the skill positions—even though Todd Gurley is limited and Keith Marshall is out this spring—that the only thing holding the Bulldogs back might be playing too conservatively. Will Mason be scared to make mistakes and try to manage the offense a la the Alabama quarterbacks of the Nick Saban era? Or will he try to play a little more like Aaron Murray? Here is our first, best look.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Can the whole equal the sum of the parts? Even after the dismissal of safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, Georgia is stacked at nearly every level on defense. In terms of draftable talent, it is one of the five best units in the country. However, under Todd Grantham these past few seasons, talent didn't always equal success. Jeremy Pruitt is an upgrade, in my opinion, but how quickly can he be expected to mold this defense as he did at Florida State?

     

    Coaching Storyline

    The main ones have already been touched upon. How will Bobo open up the offensive playbook, and how quickly can Pruitt harness the talent on defense? As for head coach Mark Richt, there is always—as this is Georgia—the matter of how he handles offseason misconduct. Tray Matthews was arrested this month but is supposed to compete for a starting job at safety. These reps would be meaningful for his development. Will we see him take the field on April 12?

8. UCLA

18 of 25

    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Date: Saturday, April 26, at 8 p.m. ET (P-12 Network)

     

    Offensive Storyline

    Who emerges as Brett Hundley's favorite receiving target? Shaquelle Evans is gone, and while the Bruins are well-equipped to replace him, the trio of Devin Fuller, Jordan Payton and Devin Lucien have been more or less equal since arriving in Westwood. There is something to be said for depth, especially on a team that utilizes frequent three-receiver sets, but it also never hurts to have a true No. 1 option on the outside (but I guess this is a good biggest problem to have).

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Can this now-veteran group of defensive backs take the next step? Losses along the defensive line and at linebacker are mitigated by the star power returning at those positions; even without, say, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Myles Jack give UCLA two of the best linebackers in the country. If the sometimes suspect group of defensive backs can jell into a more cohesive unit this spring, it will go a long way toward putting UCLA in the Pac-12 title picture. Against a veteran offense in the spring game, it will be given a good, stiff test.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    It's all about new defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, who is one of the hottest young names in the profession. Promoted from linebackers coach this season, the 37-year-old former NFL veteran takes over a defense for the first time in his life—doing so on a team with realistic hopes of winning the conference and making the College Football Playoff, no less. How will he handle himself? The spring game can only tell so much, but it will tell something. And as Ulbrich might be the key to UCLA's season, something, for now, is more than enough to go on.

7. Michigan State

19 of 25

    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: Saturday, April 26, at 2 p.m. ET (BTN)

     

    Offensive Storyline

    Can Connor Cook carry this offense? Is he merely a productive game-manager who plays well on the big stage, or can he become the next in the line of uber-productive Michigan State quarterbacks such as Kirk Cousins, Brian Hoyer and Drew Stanton? He has been working with George Whitfield this winter and owns all of the physical tools of a dark-horse Heisman candidate. Let's see if the extra tutelage pays off.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Can the "No-Fly Zone" still exist? Pat Narduzzi's return has quelled fears that the front seven might soften; even with massive personnel losses, the coordinator's presence ensures they will be mean, nasty and organized enough to succeed. The real questions are in the secondary, where Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis are gone. Is Trae Waynes ready to be the new No. 1 cornerback? Is Darian Hicks the right guy to replace him in the starting lineup? Might MSU have to stop leaving its secondary on a man-to-man island so frequently? Here's our first good look.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    Will Michigan State open up the offense a bit? It won't revert back to the John L. Smith years, but this is the best equipped MSU has been to do some stuff in the passing game since Cousins left in 2011. Dave Warner has done a good job developing quarterbacks, but fellow co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman is always a wild card. Let's see if the Spartans do something—anything!—creative in the spring game.

6. Oklahoma

20 of 25

    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

    Date: Saturday, April 12, at 3 p.m. ET

     

    Offensive Storyline

    Quarterback Trevor Knight takes the field in a competitive setting for the first time since helping—perhaps more than any other player—the Sooners upset Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Can he repeat that game this season? Or was that performance an outlier? His play in the spring game won't provide a full-fledged answer, but given his physical tools, Knight could add some momentum to his sleeper Heisman train with a good showing on April 12.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Just the secondary. That is the only question. Oklahoma brings back almost every key piece along the defensive line and at linebacker, making the holes left by Gabe Lynn and Aaron Colvin the only ones to fill on the entire unit. Who among Stanvon Taylor, Cortez Johnson and Dakota Austin will take Colvin's spot, and can he perform well enough to not become a target of opposing offenses? If the answer to that second question is yes, where on this defense are opponents supposed to attack?

     

    Coaching Storyline

    There's not much to report on this front. The work tight ends coach Jay Boulware does with converted quarterback Blake Bell should be interesting, but that has more to do with spring practice than the spring game itself. Oklahoma will be what Oklahoma is; the only question is how good the Sooners are at executing it.

5. Ohio State

21 of 25

    Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: Saturday, April 12, at 1:30 p.m. ET

     

    Offensive Storyline

    Who are the skill-position players? We know Ohio State has them, and Urban Meyer knows how to use them, but it's unclear at this juncture where and how each one will be deployed. The pieces revolving around quarterback Braxton Miller will begin to fit in this spring. Take extra-careful note of Dontre Wilson, Ezekiel Elliott and early enrollee Johnnie Dixon. All have the tools—i.e., speed in open space—to thrive in Meyer's variation of the spread.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Is there addition by subtraction in the secondary? Bradley Roby led a group of underachievers last season, especially as the Buckeyes defense collapsed in the final three games. Doran Grant is the only full-time starter returning (which may not be a good thing), and the rest of the positions are tentatively up for grabs. OSU just landed a great haul of freshmen defensive backs, but the best won't arrive on campus until the summer. Now is a chance for others to show well and gain an edge; if they can't, this unit could be very young in 2014.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    New co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash was brought in from Arkansas with a fairly express purpose: fix the pass defense. The pedigree is there for Ohio State to have one of the best secondaries in the Big Ten; in 2013, the coaching was not. We'll see the fruit of Ash's labor for the first time during the spring game. With the offense replacing its best wide receivers, a big passing day would be an ugly early sign. 

4. Auburn

22 of 25

    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Date: Saturday, April 19, at 3 p.m. ET (ESPN)

     

    Offensive Storyline

    How is Nick Marshall's accuracy? This isn't exactly a pressing concern—Marshall was good enough to help win the SEC championship last season—but the converted defensive back did miss a couple of easy throws in the loss to Florida State in Pasadena. Especially after he was disallowed to work out with George Whitfield, Auburn better hope he's improved under Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee this spring. With so much continuity elsewhere, that appears to be the only thing holding back this passing game.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Has the secondary made strides since last season? Losses in the front six (especially that of Dee Ford) will hurt, but the Tigers are deeper at those positions and are right to feel good about what they have. The secondary, however, was the weakness of this team in 2013 and just lost Chris Davis and Ryan Smith. There is still talent to speak of, but even the returning players must improve if Auburn wants to give up fewer yards and points than it did during most of last season. Especially against what should be an improved passing offense, the spring game will be a good litmus test for how far this group has come.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    I guess it would just be focus. There are no huge changes to the staff or personnel, so the onus lands on Malzahn to keep his players hungry. Do they come out with anger or torpor after coming so close to a national title? Are they entitled or energized by winning the SEC? Let's watch the urgency of this spring game and see what kind of mindset this team is dealing with. Something tells me the Tigers will be ready to go.

3. Oregon

23 of 25

    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Date: Saturday, May 3, at 2 p.m. ET (P-12 Network)

     

    Offensive Storyline

    To be honest, there's not really much to look for. The Ducks return nine starters on offense including all five offensive linemen and Heisman candidate Marcus Mariota at quarterback. It should be more of the same bullet-train pace. Anything else would be a cause for minor panic.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Can three-fourths of this secondary be trusted? Oregon will be fine with perhaps the best cornerback in the nation, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, blanketing one side of the field on each play. Around him, however, 2013 reserves such as Erick Dargan, Troy Hill and Dior Mathis are being counted on to compete for three starting jobs—and to do so with a new defensive coordinator, no less. Can any of these guys hold their own against the explosive, veteran offense in the spring game? If not, they should at least learn from the experience.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    Nick Aliotti retired after running the Oregon defense for 17 years, bequeathing the role to former linebackers coach Don Pellum. An in-house promotion was wise—the Ducks defense has been wildly underrated during Aliotti's tenure—but Pellum inherits a tricky situation. His offense will be among the best in the country, so Pellum's cobbling together of a defense is the only thing standing between Oregon and a Pac-12 title. Is that too much to ask in Year 1? We'll see what kind of shape he's in come early May.

2. Alabama

24 of 25

    Credit: 247Sports

    Date: Saturday, April 19, at 2 p.m. ET (ESPNU)

     

    Offensive Storyline

    It has to be the quarterback battle. Even without Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, who will join the fray in the fall, five QBs are competing to run an offense with two Heisman candidates at running back, a good offensive line and one of the deepest receiving groups in America. Practice will go further toward determining a coaches' favorite than the spring game, but the spring game might determine which guy the fans start to back. And don't pretend that doesn't matter.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Who is the next generation of superstars? This is the Kirby Smart-era Alabama defense we're talking about, after all: "Who" is the proper question. C.J. Mosley, Ed Stinson, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri, Jeoffrey Pagan and Deion Belue are gone, but the players battling to replace them are almost universally 4- and 5-star recruits. This is the first big stage for some of the younger guys who have a realistic shot at competing. Let's watch the cream rise toward the top.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    For one season and one season only, Nick Saban is not the most talked-about coach in Tuscaloosa. That would be new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who returns to the SEC after one contentious season with Tennessee in 2009. Will the offense be bland and insipid like USC's under Kiffin in the first part of last season? Or will it be ruthless and efficient like USC's the last time Kiffin was an assistant and not a head coach? Here is our first good glimpse.

1. Florida State

25 of 25

    Colin Hackley/Associated Press

    Date: Saturday, April 12, at 3 p.m. ET (ESPN)

     

    Offensive Storyline

    What does the depth chart look like at wide receiver? And, perhaps more importantly, which pass-catchers appear to have the best rapport with quarterback Jameis Winston? Having lost Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin from last year's team, that is the only true question on this deeply stocked offense. If no one wants to step up across from Rashad Greene this spring, perhaps blue-chip freshmen Ermon Lane and Travis Rudolph will assume those roles come the fall.

     

    Defensive Storyline

    Here there are far more questions. All-ACC players such as LaMarcus Joyner, Timmy Jernigan, Telvin Smith, Christian Jones and Terrence Brooks are gone, and while the depth chart has enough talent to survive those losses (and then some), it no longer has defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt at the command. Continuity is important in college football, and the Seminoles are trying to integrate new pieces with a new coordinator. We'll see on April 12 if it still looks like roughly the same unit...or if bigger changes must occur.

     

    Coaching Storyline

    Same as the defensive storyline. With Pruitt gone to Georgia, can former linebackers coach Charles Kelly assume the role of defensive coordinator with a seamless transition? There is enough talent to field another top-five defense, but it's unclear where and how each player will be deployed. It's a fluid situation, a jumbled assortment of puzzle pieces for a first-year coordinator to inherit. This is still the No. 1 team in the country, but that might change if the defense looks out of sorts in the spring game.

     

    Note: Spring game dates, times and TV information via FBSchedules.com.