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Ranking the 10 Must-Watch Spring Games of 2017

Brad ShepardFeatured ColumnistMarch 19, 2017

Ranking the 10 Must-Watch Spring Games of 2017

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    Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert gives Willie Taggart some experience behind center for the Oregon Ducks.
    Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert gives Willie Taggart some experience behind center for the Oregon Ducks.Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

    Big-name coaches at brand-new destinations. Major programs facing win-or-else propositions. A national champion experiencing life after a generational quarterback.

    The storylines are bountiful as we approach the spring football season.

    How is national champion Clemson going to move on from quarterback Deshaun Watson? What are Texas, Oregon and others going to look like with new skippers on the sideline? There are so many reasons to watch spring ball this year.

    Even those spring-ending games that will be nearly impossible to find to view—looking at you, Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic—have plenty of intrigue.

    It may just be glorified practice, but the next couple of months could tell us a lot about the 2017 season. March Madness is on, the Masters is right around the (Amen) corner and baseball season is cranking up too, but when football is on, everything else takes a back seat, right?

    So using the most compelling criteria we can find, let's take a look at some of college football's proudest programs and the reasons why we've just got to see their spring games. It's time to rank the spring practice finales across the country.

10. Minnesota Golden Gophers

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    Minnesota is the new boat-rowing home of P.J. Fleck.
    Minnesota is the new boat-rowing home of P.J. Fleck.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Can a Golden Gopher row a boat? 

    We are about to find out.

    For the first time in many years (ever?), there is a reason for folks around the country to tune in or at least keep tabs on the spring game for Minnesota. One of the hottest young coaches in the country in P.J. Fleck left Western Michigan after taking the Broncos to the Cotton Bowl, where they took Wisconsin to the brink.

    He turned up in the North Star State to lead a program that has had a rocky past few years.

    First, former successful coach Jerry Kill was forced to retire after dealing with epilepsy. Then, the university fired Tracy Claeys in the offseason after he supported players who threatened to boycott a bowl appearance over a sexual-assault investigation involving several Golden Gophers.

    "I determined that the football program must move in a new direction to address challenges in recruiting, ticket sales and the culture of the program," athletic director Mark Coyle said in a statement, per the Daily Gopher. "We need strong leadership to take Gopher football to the next level and address these challenges."

    The Gophers made a slam-dunk hire in Fleck, who could land at a huge gig if he excels in the Big Ten. Minnesota has been on the cusp of breaking out the past few years with a solid team. Fleck's presence may put it over the top.

9. Baylor Bears

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    He's already had to dismiss two staff members at Baylor; can Matt Rhule turn around a broken image in Waco?
    He's already had to dismiss two staff members at Baylor; can Matt Rhule turn around a broken image in Waco?Rob Carr/Getty Images

    It's hard to watch the rape scandal unfold at Baylor, see all the fallout from the Art Briles regime and then see that new head coach Matt Rhule has been forced to dismiss two assistants and address domestic-violence allegations against defensive back Travon Blanchard in the past couple of months.

    Rhule told ESPN.com's Max Olson:

    Personally, I'm disappointed that all these wonderful coaches and staff who are doing things the right way, that this has kind of overshadowed what they're doing, that it reflected poorly on the men that work for us. But at the end of the day, we all know there's a standard we're setting and if you don't meet that standard, action will be taken.

    Everybody around Waco, Texas, has to just want the team to get back to playing football. That's what the Bears will try to do this spring.

    The Bears did make a strong hire in the former Temple head coach, who brings a pedigree of success. He needs time to put his own mark on the program after Briles, but patience is something the Bears must have in the wake of the public-relations nightmare.

    At quarterback, sophomore Zach Smith had a strong close to his first year with a great bowl performance, but Arizona transfer Anu Solomon will make things interesting in the battle at BU.

    Freshmen will play all over the place for an inexperienced Bears program that is essentially starting over. It's going to be interesting to see how Rhule's stamp is imprinted on the program. One thing is certain: Everybody will be watching through a microscope.

8. Tennessee Volunteers

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    Butch Jones enters an important year in Knoxville.
    Butch Jones enters an important year in Knoxville.Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

    Last season was supposed to be the year Tennessee broke through and won the SEC East.

    Instead, injuries and late-season flops against South Carolina and Vanderbilt led to another 9-4 season and the temperature being turned up to medium on head coach Butch Jones. Now, there has been a huge makeover in Knoxville.

    Not only are the Vols going to have to deal without star quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running back Alvin Kamara, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, defensive end Derek Barnett, receiver Josh Malone and cornerback Cameron Sutton, among others, there has been a wholesale coaching turnover.

    Tennessee parted ways with two-year offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, replacing him with UT tight ends coach Larry Scott, who has never called plays on a Division I level.

    Former North Texas head coach Mike Canales is the new quarterbacks coach, and Jones fired O-line coach Don Mahoney, who was replaced internally with Walt Wells. The Vols upgraded their recruiting staff again, with young receivers coach Kevin Beard replacing Zach Azzanni, who left for the NFL.

    Former Michigan head coach and Oregon defensive coordinator Brady Hoke is over the defensive front, and the Vols replaced Willie Martinez with new secondary coach Charlton Warren.

    On the surface, the hires look strong. But that's a lot of turnover for such a critical season. Oh, and the quarterback battle is going to be hot between junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano.

    There are tons of reasons to watch things get juicy in Knoxville.

7. UCLA Bruins

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    Josh Rosen's return couldn't come at a better time for embattled coach Jim Mora Jr.
    Josh Rosen's return couldn't come at a better time for embattled coach Jim Mora Jr.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    UCLA would love to just forget 2016 ever happened.

    Instead, it may be a tough one for head coach Jim Mora Jr. to overcome. 

    Though he's 41-24 over his first five seasons in Westwood, California, a 25-20 Pac-12 record has him on shaky ground, especially following a 4-8 campaign last year. That debacle, on the heels of an 8-5 season in 2015, has him firmly on the hot seat.

    But there is a monstrous excuse for the downfall of last year. Sure, the Bruins did open the season with a loss to Texas A&M despite being healthy. It didn't take long for the injury bug to hit in a major way, however, with the biggest loss star quarterback Josh Rosen.

    With Rosen back, everybody wants to see how UCLA's offense looks. That has been the Bruins' weak link in the past couple of seasons, and with all the clout the strong-armed junior brings, the wins need to follow.

    New coordinator Jedd Fisch arrives from his assistant job at Michigan, where he'll try to adapt to Rosen's leadership. How those two mesh may have a bearing on Mora's future.

    Also, the Bruins must replace sure NFL draft first-rounder Takkarist McKinley. Star recruit Jaelan Phillips is already on campus to try to do that. He leads a talented young group of defenders, and if Fisch rejuvenates UCLA's offense, the Bruins could be a dark horse in the conference.

6. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Brian Kelly enters a very important year in South Bend.
    Brian Kelly enters a very important year in South Bend.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The crowd that barks that Notre Dame is always overrated is deafening in the wake of a 4-8 season that has head coach Brian Kelly on the cusp of the chopping block if there isn't a considerable turnaround in 2017.

    If that is to occur, the Fighting Irish must find a capable replacement for NFL draft first-round talent DeShone Kizer, who leaves a large hole at the quarterback position.

    Coming off a redshirt season, when he preserved a year of eligibility, Brandon Wimbush will take over under center, and there is a lot of excitement surrounding his pending tenure. 

    There is a lot more newness in South Bend, Indiana, as well. Kelly replaced both coordinators in what could be a major improvement or concern in such a pivotal season.

    Wimbush will run Chip Long's wide-open brand of offense in the coordinator's first year with the Irish.

    Long comes from Memphis, where he continued his success calling plays. The 2016 Tigers were the seventh team in 11 years Long led to a top-20 offensive ranking.

    On the defensive side of the ball, Mike Elko must find some playmakers, especially in the secondary. It's a good thing Elko has some expertise coaching that position, and he'll need to help a complete transformation on that side of the line of scrimmage.

    There are a lot of reasons to watch things unfurl in South Bend.

5. Michigan Wolverines

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    Ron Elkman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

    When it comes to swiping the slate clean, nobody must do that to the extent of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh in 2017. 

    After turning around the fortunes of his alma mater in Ann Arbor the past two years, Harbaugh must deal with a complete overhaul of the roster. While former coach Brady Hoke struggled on the sideline, he didn't on the recruiting trail, loading the Wolverines' pantry with players.

    Now, many of those are gone. Harbaugh has to deal with the departure of 17 starters. 

    The bad news is that screams transitional year. The good news is Harbaugh has also made quite a splash on the recruiting trail, and the players he has brought in are more tailored to run the schemes he wants.

    Last year, the Wolverines were oh-so-close to a memorable season, losing three of their final four games by a total of five points. It was gut-wrenching, but the progress shown breathed even more promise in Harbaugh's regime.

    "But the vast number of question marks facing this football team is a challenge for any coach, and it will arguably be the biggest test he has faced so far in Ann Arbor," the Detroit Free PressNick Bodanyi wrote. "Michigan fans will be very curious to see which young players step up to fill in leadership roles heading into summer."

    Senior quarterback Wilton Speight, a Davey O'Brien Award semifinalist, returns to lead a group of youngsters on offense, which must find some able offensive linemen. If they do, the Wolverines could minimize the rebuilding vibe.

4. Auburn Tigers

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    Jarrett Stidham at quarterback makes Auburn's A-Day Game must-see TV.
    Jarrett Stidham at quarterback makes Auburn's A-Day Game must-see TV.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    It's always time to talk football in the state of Alabama, and quite frankly, the Auburn Tigers are probably sick of hearing about Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide.

    The only way to do that is go out and beat them on the field.

    That quest starts this spring, as the Tigers introduce new quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who transferred from the mess in Baylor and has three years on the Plains with head coach Gus Malzahn and new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. That duo will try to bring some balance to AU's offense.

    Other quarterbacks will be in the mix with Stidham come fall, such as last year's starter, Sean White. But this spring has been full of gushing about the newcomer.

    "I'm really impressed with how he's preparing each day," Lindsay told AU Now's Josh Vitale.

    That's huge news considering all the talent the Tigers have stockpiled at running back with Kamryn Pettway, Kerryon Johnson and others, a stable of young, talented receivers and a defense full of potential playmakers.

    If AU is truly going to battle Bama in the rugged SEC West, the Tigers must get better quarterback play. So all eyes will be on Stidham throwing darts around Jordan-Hare Stadium at the spring game. It may not be able to tell us everything, but his talent will be on full display.

    Malzahn hopes it's the offense's missing link.

3. Oregon Ducks

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    Willie Taggart taking over in Oregon has explosive potential.
    Willie Taggart taking over in Oregon has explosive potential.Chris Pietsch/Associated Press

    Where did Oregon go?

    After Chip Kelly built the Duck dynasty and nearly took them all the way to the top of college football's pinnacle, Mark Helfrich did the same with Kelly's leftover talent, which included one of the sport's all-time quarterbacks in Marcus Mariota.

    But, oh, how hard it all crashed down. After going 24-4 over his first two years, he went 9-4 in 2015 before falling to 4-8 last year. That didn't sit well with Oregon's administrators, who fired Helfrich and hired South Florida coach Willie Taggart.

    Taggart brings with him an impressive offensive resume from his time with the Bulls and Western Kentucky before that. He learned at the side of Harbaugh at Stanford, and he's back in the Pac-12 to attempt to bring the Ducks back to glory.

    Though things got off to a rocky start after multiple players were hospitalized after grueling workouts upon Taggart's arrival, the new coach has avoided the spotlight recently. That's good news for a program that has the opportunity to make a big rebound.

    Star running back Royce Freeman is healthy and returned to help Taggart rebuild the program. Dual-threat quarterback Justin Herbert is a budding player who appears to be another nice puzzle piece around which Taggart can mold his offense.

    There are many defensive question marks for Jim Leavitt to address, but the duo can make Oregon a destination again. It's going to be interesting to see just how quickly Taggart can put his stamp on the program.

2. Texas Longhorns

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    One of college football's longest-running storylines over the course of the 2016 season was the Tom Herman sweepstakes.

    The hottest young coaching commodity in the sport was virtually a free agent the entire season despite trying to lead the Houston Cougars to a second consecutive Cinderella season. However, all the drama led to a derailment of those dreams.

    Rumors ran rampant that Herman was going to LSU and Texas, among others. The Longhorns won the battle, getting their man to replace embattled coach Charlie Strong, whose tenure in Austin was forgettable for more reasons than just the win-loss column.

    Now, everybody wants to see just what Texas got in Herman.

    Sure, he was a dynamic offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Ohio State. Then he shocked college football by taking Houston to Texas-sized expectations in the first year as a head coach. Last year, Herman came back down to earth, and he inherits a dysfunctional mess at Texas.

    There is plenty of talent, though, even without running back D'Onta Foreman. There will be a group effort to reproduce his production, but the most intriguing story of camp so far is the quarterback battle between sophomore Shane Buechele and true freshman Sam Ehlinger.

    Buechele was a stud as a freshman, but an injury set him back, and Ehlinger is an impressive rookie, according to 247Sports' Garrett Callahan. That battle will be waged into fall drills, but whoever wins it will start to give shape to how Herman's offense will look in burnt orange.

1. Clemson Tigers

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    How do you replace a generational talent like Clemson's Deshaun Watson? We're all about to find out.
    How do you replace a generational talent like Clemson's Deshaun Watson? We're all about to find out.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Perhaps the biggest question in college football is, "who will replace Deshaun Watson at Clemson?" After all, coming off head coach Dabo Swinney's first national championship with the Tigers, there are a lot of pieces in place for a long, successful run.

    But you don't replace a star like Watson overnight.

    The best thing for Swinney and Co. is they have tons of talent at the position, such as incoming freshman Hunter Johnson. However, in the early going, junior Kelly Bryant is the front-runner, co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott told GoUpstate.com's Eric Boynton:

    We're really pleased with Kelly and he's gotten off to a really good start. Not surprising because of the leadership that we’ve seen. Deshaun was such a huge presence that sometimes it takes that kind of presence to leave for a guy to be able to step up and kind of take some leadership responsibility. We’re really pleased with where Kelly is, but there’s not a huge gap. 

    There's a long way to go until anything is finalized, and there are countless other questions for the Tigers beside that one. They've got to replace star offensive playmakers like running back Wayne Gallman, tight end Jordan Leggett and receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott.

    Other key players like Ben Boulware and Carlos Watkins are gone too. So it's difficult to envision a scenario where Clemson doesn't have a bit of a dropoff in 2017. Leaders must emerge for the Tigers to repeat. All of that will start in the spring, and everybody will want to watch the defending champions.

      

    All stats gathered on CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted. Recruit rankings and information courtesy of Scout unless otherwise noted. 

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. 

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