Complete Previews for Top College Football Spring Games This Weekend

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterApril 15, 2015

Complete Previews for Top College Football Spring Games This Weekend

0 of 13

    Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

    Last weekend marked the first full slate of college football spring games, and it was a drop of water in the ocean compared to what's on hand this weekend (April 17-18). 

    Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State will all wrap up their collective springs—and that's just the SEC West. The defending national champs, Ohio State, and a Big Ten foe, Penn State, have scrimmages as well. 

    Many of those blue-blood programs, plus Notre Dame and Texas, will have quarterback battles galore. It's a fascinating time in the sport, to be sure. 

    And since there's a lot going on, we're here to help sift through the major games, storylines and more. In the following slides are the top 12 spring games this weekend to keep an eye on, plus dates and times for dozens more.  

    After all, it'll be over before you know it. 

Full Weekend Schedule

1 of 13

    Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

    Note: Games in bold received full previews.

    Friday, April 17

    TeamTime (ET)TV Info
    Arkansas State7 p.m.n/a
    FIU7 p.m.n/a
    Georgia Tech7 p.m.ESPN3
    Louisville7 p.m.ESPN3
    UMass7 p.m.n/a

    Saturday, April 18

    TeamTime (ET)TV Info

    Mississippi State

    Noon

    SEC Network Alt.

    Notre Dame

    12:30 p.m.NBCSN
    Akron1 p.m.n/a
    Army1 p.m.n/a
    Georgia Southern1 p.m.n/a
    Pitt1 p.m.n/a
    Purdue1 p.m.n/a
    Southern Miss1 p.m.n/a
    Western Michigan1 p.m.n/a
    Colorado State1:30 p.m.n/a
    Ohio State1:30 p.m.Big Ten Network
    Auburn2 p.m.SEC Network Plus
    Buffalo2 p.m.n/a
    Cal2 p.m.Pac-12 Networks
    Central Florida2 p.m.n/a
    Indiana2 p.m.n/a
    Louisiana Tech2 p.m.n/a
    LSU2 p.m.SEC Network Plus
    Middle Tennessee2 p.m.n/a
    North Texas2 p.m.CSLive
    Oklahoma State2 p.m.n/a
    SMU2 p.m.n/a 
    Texas2 p.m.Longhorn Network
    Tulsa2 p.m.n/a
    UT-San Antonio2 p.m.n/a
    Western Kentucky2 p.m.n/a
    East Carolina2:30 p.m.n/a
    Alabama3 p.m. SEC Network Plus
    Ball State3 p.m.n/a
    Houston3 p.m.n/a
    UNLV3 p.m.n/a
    Penn State4 p.m.Big Ten Network 
    Oregon State4 p.m.Pac-12 Networks
    Missouri5 p.m.SEC Network Alt.
    Illinois6 p.m.Big Ten Network
    UNC-Charlotte6 p.m.n/a
    Virginia6 p.m.n/a

Georgia Tech

2 of 13

    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    When: Friday, April 177 p.m. ET

    Key Storyline: Surrounding QB Justin Thomas with Playmakers

    Last year's Georgia Tech offense was the most talented, not to mention successful, since the 2009 Orange Bowl team. But man oh man, the turnover is borderline oppressive. A lot of teams use the terms "rebuild" and "reload," but this is taking it to a new level. The Yellow Jackets have lost their entire starting lineup at running back and wide receiver, and then some. Quarterback Justin Thomas is a stud—more on him later—but for Tech to replicate last year's success, the supporting cast has to be rebuilt. 

    Key Position Battle: Running Back 

    Georgia Tech has a lot to replace its top two wide receivers. But let's face it, this is a running team and basically the entire two-deep at running back is gone. The Yellow Jackets, of course, play multiple backs at a time. Broderick Snoddy is the leading returning rusher but is coming off of a leg injury. Qua Searcy, Clinton Lynch and Isaiah Willis have all been highlighted by head coach Paul Johnson in practice, as Stan Awtrey of The Telegraph (Macon) reported.

    Star Watch: QB Justin Thomas

    The ACC quarterbacks that immediately come to mind are probably Clemson's Deshaun Watson and Miami's Brad Kaaya, right? Throw Thomas in the mix of that conversation as well. He's the perfect athlete for Tech's offense and just so happens to be arguably the best passer Johnson has had since he arrived in Atlanta. Last season, Thomas led the Yellow Jackets with 2,805 total yards and 26 touchdowns.

Louisville

3 of 13

    Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

    When: Friday, April 177 p.m. ET

    Key Storyline: Rebuilding a Team 

    Louisville performed well in its inaugural season in the ACC, finishing the year with a 9-3 regular-season record. And that was with three different starting quarterbacks thanks to injury. Say what you will about head coach Bobby Petrino, but the guy knows how to coach up players and win games. He also inherited a good situation left by Charlie Strong before he went to Texas. With Florida State possibly headed for a down year (by the Seminoles' standards) and Clemson forced to rebuild its defense, can the Cardinals take advantage while reloading?

    Key Position Battle: Quarterback 

    Will Gardner is the exact type of quarterback Petrino likes: big, strong-armed and can make all the throws. While Gardner wasn't ultraflashy last season, he was very efficient in eight games. However, he sustained a season-ending knee injury and is still recovering. Reggie Bonnafon, Kyle Bolin and Tyler Ferguson have been battling it out ever since. According to Steve Jones of The Courier-Journal, Petrino is in no rush to name a starter. 

    Star Watch: DT Sheldon Rankins

    For a defensive end in a base 3-4 defense, Rankins is a stat monster. He finished fourth on the team with 53 tackles and led the team with eight sacks. He opted to return for his senior season instead of going to the NFL. It's a huge boost for the Cardinals, which lose most of their defensive starters off of last year's team. When breaking in new starters, it helps to have a solid pass rush. Rankins is a big part of that. 

Mississippi State

4 of 13

    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, April 18—noon ET

    Key Storyline: Reconstructing the Defense 

    Mississippi State loses several upperclassmen from last year's front seven—five, to be exact—most notably linebacker Benardrick McKinney. The Bulldogs weren't particularly stout on defense in 2014, ranking eighth in the SEC in points per game, seventh in yards per rush allowed and 10th in yards per pass attempt allowed. However, they buckled down on third downs and in the red zone. It was the textbook definition of a bend-but-don't-break defense. With new (old) defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, can Mississippi State stay on par with its defensive stats from a year ago?

    Key Position Battle: Center

    The reality of Mississippi State's 2015 season is that it rests less on star quarterback Dak Prescott and more on what happens in the trenches. That's true for the offense and the defense. Center Dillon Day is one of three starters gone from the O-line. Since that's the anchor of the offensive line, and the offense, it takes center stage this spring. Jamaal Clayborn and Jocquell Johnson have been competing for Day's old job.

    Star Watch: RB Ashton Shumpert

    Pickings are slim here. Not because Mississippi State lacks talent, but because of the injuries and turnover. With Josh Robinson gone from the running back spot, the Bulldogs could be facing a responsibility-by-committee approach. One of the names that's been generating buzz is Ashton Shumpert. According to David Murray of DawgsBite.com, "Shumpert has been just plain efficient in camp, rarely flashy but always reliable."

Notre Dame

5 of 13

    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, April 1812:30 p.m. ET

    Key Storyline: Can Notre Stop Shooting Itself in the Foot?

    On Nov. 1, Notre Dame was 7-1 and one play away against Florida State from being undefeated. Then, the wheels fell off. The Fighting Irish lost their final four regular-season games before bouncing back with a Music City Bowl win against LSU. A huge reason for the decline was turnovers. Notre Dame gave the ball away 26 times last season, which was tied for 101st in the country. Easily the worst offender was quarterback Everett Golson, who, according to JJ Stankevitz of CSNChicago.com, committed 22 of those turnovers. 

    Key Position Battle: Quarterback 

    Because of the aforementioned ball-security issues, Golson has been in a heated quarterback battle with Malik Zaire, who started the Music City Bowl. Zaire has never been short on confidence, but Golson does have two years of starting experience under his belt. According to head coach Brian Kelly, the competition will go into preseason camp regardless of what happens in the spring game. And though Golson has been the subject of transfer rumors, Kelly insists he has no reason to believe his quarterback will leave. 

    Star Watch: WR William Fuller 

    Fuller was Notre Dame's best receiver last season by a landslide with 76 catches for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns. He's criminally underrated nationally and part of a super deep receiving corp that features four returning receivers—Fuller, Chris Brown, Corey Robinson and C.J. Prosise. 

Ohio State

6 of 13

    LM Otero/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, April 181:30 ET

    Key Storyline: Making Back-to-Back Championship Runs

    The Big Ten has taken its fair share of lumps over the years, and some of that criticism has been rightly deserved. However, Ohio State put the beleaguered conference back on the map with a magical national championship run with three different quarterbacks. All three of those quarterbacks return—for now—and the Buckeyes are primed to make another championship run. Will they be successful? 

    Key Position Battle: Wide Receiver

    Come on now. The quarterback battle would be too easy to select here. Besides, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller are both still nursing injuries and won't be 100 percent until preseason camp. So, for now, it's still the Cardale Jones show. To whom Jones is throwing, though, is interesting. Evan Spencer and deep threat Devin Smith are gone, as is tight end Jeff Heuerman. Ohio State's version of a wide receiver competition includes moving players around, like Noah Brown, H-back Jalin Marshall and running back Curtis Samuel. 

    Star Watch: RB Ezekiel Elliott

    Elliott spent almost all of last season overshadowed by other Big Ten running backs, such as Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah. However, Elliott finished the year with at least 200 yards rushing in each of the final three games. He returns as the Big Ten's best running back, with some Heisman consideration to boot. 

Auburn

7 of 13

    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, April 182 p.m. ET

    Key Storyline: The Arrival of Defensive Coordinator Will Muschamp

    Auburn's defense ranked ninth or worst in the SEC in just about every major statistical category last season. So, it was out with defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and in with former Florida head coach Will Muschamp. Muschamp served as Auburn's defensive coordinator before in 2006 and '07, and he's been successful as a defensive play-caller. Don't worry so much about defensive stats—coaches often use random point systems in spring games and the ultimate goal is to keep everyone healthy—but pay close attention to pass defense. 

    Key Position Battle: Secondary

    Speaking of the defense, Auburn loses some seniors out of the secondary. What's more is that group could be thin during Saturday's spring game. According to Joel A. Erickson of AL.com, cornerbacks Jonathan Jones and Joshua Holsey and safety Tray Matthews have been banged up lately and could be limited at best during the game. That will provide backups a chance to make a strong impression, but we may not see what the final two-deep of the secondary looks like until preseason camp. 

    Star Watch: Defensive End Carl Lawson

    After missing last season with an ACL injury, Lawson returns on the edge of the defensive line. As a freshman, Lawson had four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss, appearing in all 14 games. The Tigers' presence in the backfield was lacking in 2014, as the defense finished with just 21 sacks. To be sure, Lawson's return should boost Auburn's pass rush, hopefully improving other areas, like pass defense, as well. 

LSU

8 of 13

    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, April 182 p.m. ET

    Key Storyline: Life Without 'The Chief'

    Former defensive coordinator John Chavis, affectionately referred to as "The Chief," was a huge part of LSU's success. Over the past few years, there's a case—a legitimate one, at that—to be made that Chavis was the biggest reason the Tigers won so many games. He's since taken the same position with SEC foe Texas A&M. Head coach Les Miles has hired Alabama linebackers coach Kevin Steele as Chavis' replacement. Will the defense be stout again under Steele? 

    Key Position Battle: Quarterback

    This will be the case until either Brandon Harris or incumbent starter Anthony Jennings separate from the other. By all public accounts, that hasn't happened. According to Miles, Jennings and Harris will split the first-team reps evenly in the spring game, as Ross Dellenger of The Advocate reported. Jennings was basically the go-to guy last year, but he didn't exactly inspire a ton of confidence by leading an offense that finished 116th in passing. While Harris is a more gifted athlete running the ball, he hasn't been able to take command of the offense as quickly as coaches would like. 

    Star Watch: RB Leonard Fournette

    Fournette set lofty expectations for himself as a freshman last season, noting that a Heisman and national championship were on the horizon. Things didn't quite work out that well, and Fournette began the year with just 18 yards on eight carries against Wisconsin in Week 1. In fact, Fournette didn't have a breakout game against a team not named New Mexico State until Oct. 11, when he rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns against Florida. Fournette had an up-and-down freshman season, but he finished with at least 100 yards rushing in three of his final five games. He's expected to be the centerpiece of the offense again this year. 

Oklahoma State

9 of 13

    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, April 182 p.m. ET

    Key Storyline: More Experience, More Wins?

    Oklahoma State was one of the most inexperienced teams in the country last year. And it showed. The Cowboys started 5-1 before losing their next five. A stunning overtime victory over Oklahoma in the Bedlam game got the Pokes to the postseason, and they took advantage with a Cactus Bowl win over Washington. With most of the starting 22 returning and a promising quarterback, can Oklahoma State become the Big 12's dark-horse contender?

    Key Position Battle: Defensive Tackle

    The Cowboys don't lose much, but the interior of the D-line will have a new look this season. James Castleman, a 37-game starter, and Ofa Hautau are gone. Sophomores Vili Leveni and Vincent Taylor, both of whom contributed as backups, are the front-runners. Junior college transfer Motekiai Maile, Ben Hughes and Eric Davis will get reps as well. 

    Star Watch: QB Mason Rudolph

    Not since 2011 has Oklahoma State's quarterback situation looked this good. Sophomore Mason Rudolph wasn't able to preserve his redshirt status last year because of injuries to Daxx Garman and J.W. Walsh, but it may have been for the better. Rudolph got his first career start in November against Baylor and went 2-1 as a starter. Gundy has already declared Rudolph as the guy heading into next season, which is a big confidence boost for him and provides some stability at the position. Rudolph is a talented kid with a big arm and a high ceiling. With a full spring under his belt, Rudolph should thrive in Saturday's game. 

Texas

10 of 13

    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, April 182 p.m. ET

    Key Storyline: What Will the New Offense Look Like?

    On national signing day in February, head coach Charlie Strong noted that Texas was moving toward a more wide-open attack that mirrored the high school programs of the state. What, exactly, will that offense look like? For one, there's still public confusion about who calls the plays: quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson or offensive line coach Joe Wickline. The root of that confusion stems from a lawsuit between Wickline and his former employer, Oklahoma State. If nothing else, though, the offense has to have a better showing after mustering a miserable 59 yards in the Texas Bowl loss to Arkansas. 

    Key Position Battle: Quarterback

    To pin all of Texas' offensive woes on quarterback Tyrone Swoopes would be unfair. However, there's no denying that Swoopes hasn't progressed as quickly as others expected. At best, he showed flashes of greatness; at worst, he was lucky Texas wasn't willing to burn Jerrod Heard's redshirt. Swoopes and Heard have been battling hard this spring. Word from the Longhorn players is that Swoopes has grown as a leader and become more consistent, as Wescott Eberts of Burnt Orange Nation reported. While Heard is pushing Swoopes for that No. 1 job, fans will want to see whether all the praise toward Swoopes is legit or not. 

    Star Watch: LB Malik Jefferson

    Texas' 2015 recruiting class was filled with more of the blue-chip recruits fans have come to expect. The crown jewel of that class was Jefferson, a 5-star early enrollee and the No. 1 high school player in the state. According to Jeff Howe of 247Sports, Jefferson has been working at outside and inside linebacker. His physical gifts make him a versatile weapon, and spring has been a good time for Strong to experiment with what Jefferson can do. 

Alabama

11 of 13

    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, April 183 p.m. ET

    Key Storyline: Reloading on Offense

    Easily one of the best coaching moves of the last year was head coach Nick Saban's decision to hire Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator. Say what you will about Kiffin as a head coach, or even as a human being, but that man can straight-up call plays. The Tide's offense was as explosive as it's looked in a long time last year because of that. However, gone are quarterback Blake Sims, receiver Amari Cooper, running back T.J. Yeldon and three-fifths of the offensive line. Can Kiffin work some magic again?

    Key Position Battle: Quarterback

    It can be easy to key in on quarterback battles by default, but Alabama truly does have a compelling situation. Any one of five players—Jake Coker, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett—can technically still win the starting job. Coker, a Florida State transfer, didn't win the starting job last year but, according to Saban, has been "more comfortable in the system" this time around, per Matt Zenitz of AL.com. It would seem that confidence and leadership, two things that separated Sims from Coker last year, are beginning to set in for the FSU transfer. 

    Star Watch: DE Jonathan Allen

    Alabama has talent everywhere and every which way, but the Tide are especially formidable along the defensive line. Seriously, this group is L-O-A-D-E-D. Jonathan Allen is the returning team leader in sacks (five) and tackles for loss (11). While the entire group is excellent, Allen has all-conference potential written all over him. 

Penn State

12 of 13

    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, April 184 p.m. ET

    Key Storyline: Improving the Offense

    Penn State's offense in 2014 was..well..it was something, all right. And probably not a work-appropriate adjective, either. The Nittany Lions were terribly thin at offensive line and stud quarterback Christian Hackenberg regressed a lot. That's what happens when you give up almost 3.5 sacks per game. There have been rumors that Hackenberg may transfer, that he's not a fit with Penn State's offensive philosophy. Fans should want to see some signs that the O won't be so dreadful this year. 

    Key Position Battle: Defensive End

    Defense, on the other hand, was a strength of Penn State's in 2014. However, the Nittany Lions' pass-rushing productivity has taken a hit thanks to the departures of defensive ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan. Together, they combined for nine of Penn State's 31 sacks last season. Carl Nassib and Garrett Sickels, backups from last year, are names to watch. 

    Star Watch: WR DaeSean Hamilton

    For as bad as Penn State's offense was, Hamilton was a major bright spot. He was one of the Big Ten's best pass-catchers as a freshman, leading the conference with 82 receptions. He also had 899 yards...but only two touchdowns. Provided he becomes more of a red-zone threat, Hamilton could emerge as the Big Ten's top receiver.

Missouri

13 of 13

    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, April 185 p.m. ET

    Key Storyline: An SEC East Three-Peat?

    Of all the conference realignment moves over the past five years, Missouri's has undoubtedly been the most successful in football. And, thus, the most surprising. The Tigers have won back-to-back SEC East championships under head coach Gary Pinkel, who is showing just how much of a genius he really is. In the Big 12, the Tigers won with high-powered offenses. In the SEC, Mizzou has become known for its defense, especially at the defensive end position. 

    Key Position Battle: Wide Receiver

    Defensive end would be a good option here since Markus Golden and Shane Ray are gone. However, let's turn our attention to offense and wide receiver. The team's top three pass-catchers from a year ago are gone. J’Mon Moore, DeSean Blair and Eric Laurent, among others, will likely make up the new-look receiving corps. 

    Star Watch: QB Maty Mauk

    Mauk has always had loads of potential. His ability to run and pass could make him one of the most dangerous weapons in the SEC. However, his willingness to force passes and decision-making has always held him back a peg or two from where he really could be. It'll be interesting to see just how much he's grown as a quarterback this spring. Besides running back Russell Hansbrough, the Tigers are breaking in a lot of new skill guys. Mauk is the veteran guy now. Can he elevate his play and the play of others? That's what he's going to be asked to do, not to mention he has to hold off competitors like backup Eddie Printz. 

    Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com