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Complete Previews for the 1st Week of College Football Spring Games

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistApril 2, 2014

Complete Previews for the 1st Week of College Football Spring Games

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Odd-ball schools such as Duke and BYU jumped the gun on spring practice and played their spring game in March, but the offseason exhibition season begins in earnest this weekend and extends to the first Saturday of May.

    And we'll start off with a doozy.

    Right off the bat, the first Saturday of spring-game season brings the culmination of this round of quarterback battles at two of the country's biggest programs: Michigan and LSU. Who among Devin Gardner and Shane Morris (Michigan) and Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris (LSU) will take the momentum into summer workouts?

    Elsewhere, 30 percent of the Big 12 finishes up its spring workouts on Saturday, as does the reigning champion of the MAC (Bowling Green) and MWC (Fresno State).

    With #NoDisrespectTo South Alabama, Florida Atlantic and FBS newcomer Appalachian State, which will all take the field this weekend as well, we previewed the 12 most important spring games—or open practices in lieu of spring games—on the docket.

    Happy football!

Baylor

2 of 13

    Tony Gutierrez

    When: Saturday, April 5 at noon ET

    It's reloading time, not rebuilding time, for Baylor's explosive offense, which returns quarterback Bryce Petty, running back Shock Linwood and receiver Antwan Goodley to form the best offensive triplet in the Big 12 and perhaps the nation.

    Beyond them and Levi Norwood and Corey Coleman, the spring game should also feature a good look at much-hyped youngsters such as running back Johnny Jefferson and receiver Robbie Rhodes—two alliterative speedsters who are expected to fit Baylor's vertical scheme like a glove and usher in the next era of great skill players in Waco.

    Despite some questions on the offensive line, the Bears should not want for points next season. The real area of focus will come on defense, where the loss of seven starters might be problematic.

    Especially with middle linebacker Bryce Hager sidelined with a groin injury, Saturday's game will be a good time for someone in the front seven to seize the spotlight and emerge.

Boston College

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    Darren McCollester/Getty Images

    When: Saturday, April 5 at noon ET

    Steve Addazio enters his second year at Boston College on the heels of a 7-6 season and surprising bowl berth. In his second year at Temple, however, the Owls went from nine wins to four, leading Addazio to go lickety-split from Philadelphia to Chestnut Hill.

    That falling-off at Temple was facilitated in part by the loss of running back Bernard Pierce, who at the time was a 27-touchdown scorer in the MAC and now plies his trade with the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. Can Addazio fare better in replacing Andre Williams, his All-American running back from 2013? Has he learned from his mistakes?

    Also worth watching is the battle to replace Chase Rettig at quarterback—Tyler Murphy, who replaced the injured Jeff Driskel at Florida (where Addazio coached from 2005-10) last season, is in camp and favored to win the job—and how an underrated defense works to replace five starters in the front seven.

    If Addazio can lead this team to another bowl in 2014, it would have to be considered a major success.

Bowling Green

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    Duane Burleson

    When: Saturday, April 5 at noon ET

    Junior quarterback and Aaron Rodgers facial-hair doppelganger Matt Johnson showed well at the end of last season and has a chance in 2014 to replace departed NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch as the MAC's seemingly annual dark-horse Heisman candidate.

    In order to do so, he and the offense must adjust to the loss of head coach Dave Clawson, who left with coordinator Warren Ruggiero to replace Jim Grobe at Wake Forest.

    Near-1,600-yard rusher Travis Greene returns alongside Johnson and some young but talented receiving options, so if new head coach Dino Babers, who orchestrated a masterful offense with Jimmy Garoppolo at Eastern Illinois, can harness their potential without changing the scheme too drastically, that unit should be fine in 2014.

    Defensively, keep an eye on the secondary, which loses three starters from a unit that finished No. 6 in the nation with 170.9 passing yards allowed per game in 2013. That was the heart of BGSU's team last season, and it can't afford to take too big of a dip this coming year.

Cincinnati

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    When: Saturday, April 5 at noon ET

    Remember Gunner Kiel? How could you forget. The No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the class of 2012, he committed to Indiana and LSU before enrolling at Notre Dame and transferring to Cincinnati, where now, it would appear, his odyssey has come to a halt.

    He sat out last season per NCAA policy, but now, with the departure of Brendon Kay and Munchie Legaux, he stands poised to start and lead the next era of Cincinnati football. Considering the quiet success this team has had over the past few seasons—if you exclude the 4-8 year in 2010, the Bearcats have averaged 10.3 wins per season since 2007—there's no telling how good it might be should Kiel reach his potential.

    Tommy Tuberville coached admirably in his first year with the program last season, and his continuity should help this team survive modest losses on both sides of the ball. If the defense shows its usual pluck in the spring game, I will feel even better about my way-too-early prediction for the Bearcats to win the AAC in 2014.

Fresno State

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    Eugene Tanner

    When: Saturday, April 5 at 1:00 p.m. ET

    Head coach Tim DeRuyter will have to earn his paycheck in 2014, and if the offense looks like even a reasonable facsimile of last year's attack during the spring game, he will be well on his way to doing so.

    Why? Simple. The Bulldogs lose 5,000-yard, 50-touchdown passer and potential first-round quarterback Derek Carr and top weapons Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse, while the top returning playmaker, Josh Harper, is sitting out the spring with a groin injury.

    Brian Burrell, Myles Carr and Zack Greenlee will battle for the right to replace Carr, while a host of young skill players will vie for a coveted spot in the rotation of a traditionally high-scoring offense. With eight starters returning on defense, their job will not be made easy.

    (Although, after watching Fresno State's defense play in 2013, perhaps that is giving it a little bit too much credit.)

LSU

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    When: Saturday, April 5 at 2:00 p.m. ET

    The battle between sophomore Anthony Jennings and early enrollee Brandon Harris to replace quarterback Zach Mettenberger has been tight throughout camp and should come to a head—at least for the time being—on the field at Tiger Stadium on Saturday. Whereas the spring game can often feel overblown in terms of its importance, this one seems like it might actually, truly make a difference.

    Both QBs played well in the team's most recent scrimmage, and that the battle is too close to call seems to bode well for Harris' chances—or at least that's what Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee writes in a good breakdown of the competition. Keep your eyes peeled on this one.

    On the other side of the ball, another exodus of underclassmen, combined with the big plays surrendered in the scrimmage, has folks in Baton Rouge scared for another season of distinctly not John Chavis-like defensive performance.

    As much as Tigers fans would love to see the QBs go off, some three-and-outs would be encouraging as well.

Michigan

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    When: Saturday, April 5 at 2:00 p.m. ET

    All eyes will be on the quarterback competition, where sort-of-incumbent Devin Gardner appears to have a slight edge over former blue-chip recruit Shane Morris, who started the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl as a true freshman in Gardner's stead last season.

    In the video above, however, B/R's Barrett Sallee explains how he thinks Morris will be the man for the job. Especially if Morris outperforms Gardner in the spring game on Saturday, this one could take until late fall to yield a winner.

    Also vital in the spring game is how Doug Nussmeier's offense looks in its first public showing. After coming over from Alabama, he is tasked with plugging the gaps on a porous offensive line and vivifying a lifeless attempt at a running game.

    If Michigan's defense, which was a strength for most of last season despite struggling against Ohio State and Kansas State, has any trouble defending the run, it will be a comforting sign for those who are wary of Nussmeier's ability. 

Northwestern

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    M. Spencer Green

    When: Saturday, April 5 at 11 a.m. ET (open practice; no game)

    Senior quarterback Kain Colter is gone and onto bigger things at the vanguard of college labor reform, which some think might be a distraction for the current NU football players—many of whom signed his successful petition to be allowed to form a players union.

    But star running back Venric Mark, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility but has been limited in spring camp as he rehabs last year's season-ending ankle injury, thinks the team is strong and disciplined enough to focus on the task at hand.

    Mark's exact words, per Matt Fortuna of ESPN.com:

    Guys did sign cards supporting Kain and what he's trying to do and his movement, but at the end of the day, as I stated, everything outside of our locker room is outside of our locker room. And so some guys signed, some guys didn't. I don't know if people kind of knew what they were going to get into, if they thought it was going to turn out the way it did.

    But at the end of the day, now it's time to get back to work. We have a job here, and we understand that. Kain's no longer on this football team.

    Mark is right: Colter is no longer on the team. That means a full-time role for pocket passer Trevor Siemian, who platooned with Colter for much of the past two seasons and played pretty well and possesses the superior vertical arm.

    With 17 starters returning and the 10-win season of 2012 still fresh in the players' memories, Siemian's steady development could key a nice turnaround year in Evanston. The open practice is a good early glimpse at whether he's prepared to lead this team.

Oklahoma State

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    Eric Gay

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

    This team officially belongs to quarterback J.W. Walsh, who keyed last year's Week 1 win over Mississippi State but eventually lost the starting job to Clint Chelf and threw just three passes after Oct. 19.

    More adept as a runner than a passer, Walsh will need to show an improved command of the offense and his arm in the open practice on Saturday, especially with talented receiving options such as Tracy Moore, Josh Stewart and Charlie Moore all departed.

    Defensively, questions loom just as large with the losses of Thorpe Award finalist Justin Gilbert and All-Big 12 defenders such as Calvin Barnett, Shaun Lewis, Tyler Johnson, Caleb Lavey and Daytawion Lowe.

    One can only tell so much from a practice (in lieu of an actual game), but the 'Pokes' new defenders must show well—very well—if they want to allay fears of a down year in Stillwater.

Ole Miss

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    Rogelio V. Solis

    When: Saturday, April 5 at 2:00 p.m. ET

    Off-field questions loom larger over Ole Miss than the on-field ones before Saturday's spring game, as the Nkemdiche brothers, Denzel (who is currently suspended) and Robert, are dealing with serious legal issues and/or profanity-laced YouTube footage.

    As for the players who will suit up in Oxford on Saturday, most played well last season but are looking to make "the leap" and become All-SEC-type talents in 2014. Chief among that group are senior QB Bo Wallace (M.D.), sophomore receiver Laquon Treadwell and sophomore safety Tony Conner, who all possess enough talent to make this a season to remember for the 'Rebs.

    The energy about this team will be of primary importance during the scrimmage. Has the Nkemdiche situation distracted it? With so much turnover (especially at quarterback) among the other SEC powers, this group has a chance to make a Missouri-type run through the league.

    How much spirit will the players show up with on Saturday?

SMU

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    Brandon Wade

    When: Saturday, April 5 at 11:00 a.m. ET (open practice; no game)

    Neal Burcham leads a deep pack of contenders who are vying for the right to replace Garrett Gilbert as the QB of June Jones' offense—a role that has traditionally led to gaudy numbers and pseudo-superstardom.

    Burcham moved the offense well as a redshirt freshman when Gilbert was injured in 2013, but he missed too many open throws and had four interceptions to just two touchdown passes, so his lead over the rest of the pack is thin and might be altered with a poor open practice.

    Defensively, this team must find a way to defend the pass. Six starters return in the front seven, but a secondary that already ranked No. 115 nationally in passing yards allowed per game loses three starters.

    Is there a chance that was addition by subtraction? Can Shakiel Randolph become a star in the void left by Kenneth Acker and Jay Scott? The public will get its first important look at the unit on Saturday.

TCU

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    Tony Gutierrez

    When: Saturday, April 5 at noon ET (short "scrimmage"; no game)

    Offensively, this one is all about Trevone Boykin.

    According to Alex Apple of the Dallas Morning Newshead coach Gary Patterson called Boykin the current No. 1 at quarterback, even though the past few seasons have made it painfully clear that he is better suited to playing receiver.

    With a pair of potentially game-ready freshmen, Grayson Muehlstein and Foster Sawyer, enrolling this summer and joining the fray this fall, Boykin's performance on Saturday could go a long way in determining his future. With a successful performance, he'll likely remain where he is. Without one, a season at receiver might again be in the cards.

    On defense, the team returns eight starters and still has one of the best secondaries in college football, despite the losses of All-American corner Jason Verrett and underappreciated safety Elisha Olabode.

    They will not make it easy on Boykin to keep his job.

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