20 Bold Predictions for 2016 Spring Football

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistFebruary 18, 2016

20 Bold Predictions for 2016 Spring Football

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    Spring football is the oasis between two scorching deserts of offseason.

    It's not as exciting as fall practice, when the games are soon and everything is magnified, but meaningful developments occur every season, especially as underclassmen learn the system.

    The same might be said of new coaches and transfers, who joined or became eligible for the first time this offseason. Now is their chance to leave a memorable first impression and decide how they fit into the program. It may not count toward the standings, but that's important.

    So here are 20 bold predictions for the months ahead. "Bold" is obviously subjective, but we tried not to get too extreme. These things are all uncertain but plausible; we're not saying "Leonard Fournette will play well," which is obvious, or "Leonard Fournette will struggle," which, why would he? We tried to find predictions in the middle.

    Sound off below and let us know what you think!

Nick Saban Seems...Relaxed?

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    Even Nick Saban's fans understand his personality. He's serious at all times, austere, maybe even robotic. He's basically the anti-Steve Spurrier.

    But even the anti-Spurrier couldn't scowl his way through this offseason. Not when so many things have come up Crimson. After two years without a national title—amazingly his longest drought since 2008—Saban led the Tide to another on-field championship, followed with his sixth straight recruiting national championship, and now enters spring ball with two of his highest-rated quarterbacks at Bama, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett, competing with Cooper Bateman to start under center.

    The loss of long-time assistant Kirby Smart hurts, but Saban will never worry about his defense. As long as he retains offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, a constant source of levity and the perfect imperfect friend for Saban's temperament, things in Tuscaloosa will be jolly.

    They might even warrant a smile!

Good Vibes for Jeremy Johnson

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    America learned its lesson and will not tout Jeremy Johnson as a Heisman candidate, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to get excited about. He still possesses raw tools—size (6'5", 240 lbs), arm strength, mobility—worth building around and has shown the ability to play well in small flashes.

    JUCO transfer John Franklin and sophomore Sean White will make Johnson an underdog to start for the Auburn Tigers, but Johnson has played his best outside the spotlight and should thrive competing from behind. Don't sleep on him playing well this spring and parlaying that into another crack under center.

    Just don't expect the world from him if it happens.

Clemson Tigers Defense Struggles…But in a Good Way

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    For the second straight season, Clemson loses just about everyone on defense. It's slightly less dramatic this year, but Brent Venables' group will have to learn fast and rely on underclassmen.

    That won't bode well in practice against an offense that returns quarterback Deshaun Watson, running back Wayne Gallman, tight end Jordan Leggett and wide receivers Artavis Scott, Mike Williams and Hunter Renfrow. Clemson's defense will get its butt kicked all spring.

    The bold part of this prediction is the belief that that's a good thing. There's no harm in getting torched—at least in practice—by All-Americans. Clemson's underclassmen are young but uber-talented, especially up front, where No. 2 overall recruit Dexter Lawrence joins the fold. He and the rest of the youngsters will be better off for getting drilled this offseason.

    Once they play a normal team, and even another good one, it will seem like slow motion compared to their own offense.

Former Purdue Boilermakers Quarterbacks Impress

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    If you can't win the starting job at Purdue, the worst team in the Big Ten, you shouldn't win the starting job at LSU or Florida, two projected SEC title contenders.

    Or at least that's the case on paper.

    But former Purdue quarterbacks Austin Appleby (Florida) and Danny Etling (LSU) are more talented than they seem. QB was never the Boilermakers' problem, and the guy who took their jobs, rising sophomore David Blough, happens to be pretty darn good.

    Journeyman Luke Del Rio and true freshman Feleipe Franks are the main competition at Florida. Brandon Harris will probably start at LSU, but even he has a short leash. If Appleby and Etling impress during spring ball—which they should—it's reasonable to think they could both start games next season. Appleby might even start the opener!

Deondre Francois "Wins" the Starting Job

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    Florida State Seminoles head coach Jimbo Fisher won't name Deondre Francois the starter; even Jameis Winston had to battle well into fall camp. But by the end of spring practice in Tallahassee, it will be clear which quarterback "won" the starting job, and it won't be Sean Maguire.

    That's not to say Maguire isn't qualified. The senior has proved he's a quality FBS spot starter. He just doesn't have the upside or "it" factor that Florida State will need to get past Clemson. He doesn't have the talent to push this offense over the top.

    Francois has the talent and then some, and now he's spent close to a year learning Fisher's offense. His confidence sometimes borders on cocky, but as long as he harnesses that power for good—think Winston, Johnny Manziel (at Texas A&M) or Cam Newton—that should help more than it hurts.

Houston Cougars' Playoff Bid Becomes a Big Story

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    A "Group of Five" team making the College Football Playoff sounds absurd, but so does a defensive player winning the Heisman Trophy, and that hasn't stopped us from hyping Jadeveon Clowney, Myles Jack, etc. as Heisman contenders the past few offseasons (nor will it stop us from doing the same with Adoree' Jackson).

    To that end, expect a ton of buzz from Houston's spring practice session, where the Cougars, fresh off beating Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl and retaining head coach Tom Herman, will be viewed as legitimate playoff contenders. If not for a loss against UConn when quarterback Greg Ward Jr. was injured, they would have run the table in 2015. Ward and plenty of others return for another shot at it.

    They also start next season with a home game against Oklahoma. Unlike most supposed Group of Five sleepers, they are primed for a signature win. Beating the Sooners and then running the table, combined with getting help from other conferences, would earn Herman's team a long look from the playoff committee.

    This story will gain steam—and fast.

Bill Snyder Announces 2016 Is His Final Season

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    Even supposed immortals have to hang up the whistle at some point. Retirement is coming for Bill Snyder, the Wizard of Big 12 football, and there's no sense in stringing it out for another nine months.

    The earlier he announces his final season, the earlier the Kansas State Wildcats can name a successor and adjust their recruiting pitch. Snyder, to his credit, wants to stay as long as possible, but if any coach in major college football cares more about his program than his ego, it's the one whose name adorns the field he plays on.

    To be clear: This is a hunch, not a report. There is no concrete information saying Snyder will announce his retirement. But when you have to release a statement saying you're coming back after a bowl game, that usually means the end is imminent.

Good Press for the ACC's Second Tier

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    The ACC is touted as a two-team conference. Clemson and Florida State have combined to win five consecutive titles, and they just combined to sign 14 top-100 recruits. Know how many the rest of the ACC signed? One.

    One top-100 recruit combined.

    But two of the Noles' and Tigers' most logical competitors, Virginia Tech and Miami, are moving into new eras. The Hokies hired Justin Fuente from Memphis and signed star JUCO quarterback Jerod Evans; Miami hired former Georgia head coach Mark Richt and return star quarterback Brad Kaaya. Each is feeling good after a period of inevitable coaching removal, which should lead to a productive spring session.

    Those good vibes will emanate around the country and become hard to ignore. The ACC Coastal might be worth something next year! That's good for neutral fans on every coast.

Jim Harbaugh Gets Down to Business

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    Jim Harbaugh's first year with the Michigan Wolverines was loud, especially toward the end of the recruiting cycle. He popped up in the headlines for his statements and his hijinks and his spectacles; his coaching became almost secondary to his persona.

    But now that the cycle is over, expect that to change. Michigan enters next year with serious hype, ranking No. 5 in the media's composite poll (h/t SB Nation), and Harbaugh knows it's time to get serious. His schtick won't be so cute if the Wolverines again finish third in the division. He needs to find a quarterback who can lead his team over the hump.

    Expect (by his standards) a quiet session.

Loads of Disrespect for the Michigan State Spartans

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    The "disrespect" poured on Michigan State before the Cotton Bowl—which happened to be justified—was only the tip of the iceberg. Following a 38-0 loss to Alabama, and with Michigan poised to rejoin the national elite, a major story this spring will be the potential regression of Mark Dantonio's team, which always seemed to punch out of its weight class and now might fall back to eight or nine wins per season from 10 or 11.

    Does that mean it will happen? No. But people will be justified to talk about it. Quarterback Connor Cook, left tackle Jack Conklin, wide receiver Aaron Burbridge and defensive end Shilique Calhoun all depart from a team that made (but stood no chance in) the national semifinal. How could there not be a small step back next season?

    Dantonio is too good to let that step back be any bigger. This team will still be fine. But get ready for an offseason of Ohio State and Michigan hype, with MSU getting left in the dust.

Mitch Trubisky Looks Like an Upgrade

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    Marquise Williams was a three-year starter who led the North Carolina Tar Heels to an 11-2 record and one of the best seasons in program history. Now he's gone, and the Tar Heels have an…upgrade under center?

    Maybe. Mitch Trubisky has spent the past two years neck-and-neck with Williams, even if he's never broken through. Last year, albeit playing in garbage time, he completed 40 of 47 passes for 555 yards and six touchdowns. That may not be of consequence, but it's nice to pair something tangible with three years of glowing practice reports.

    Trubisky has the tools to be special. This spring is his best chance to show it. Expect him to deliver on the promise.

Addition by Subtraction in Columbus

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    On paper, Ohio State has gotten worse. A lot worse. The Buckeyes rank last in the country with six returning starters, per college football analyst Phil Steele. They will have to build a whole new foundation.

    But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Last year's team was as uninspired as it was talented, seeming to coast after winning a national title. That's the problem when you win one year earlier than expected; underclassmen return with one foot out the door.

    Head coach Urban Meyer did his best, but his team, despite finishing 12-1, never really had the eye of the tiger. Expect this year's group to look different—to play hard from the start of spring practice, like it really wants to be there, and compete to reach the heights of two years ago.

    The Buckeyes are always better when they cast themselves as underdogs, and it helps that almost all of their returning starters—quarterback J.T. Barrett, offensive guard Pat Elflein, defensive end Tyquan Lewis, inside linebacker Raekwon McMillan and cornerback Gareon Conely—will likely make the All-Big Ten preseason first team.

Penn State Nittany Lions Offense (Finally) Comes Together

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    It's hard to disappoint more than James Franklin's first two Penn State offenses. Despite having blue-chip quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who played well as a freshman, the Nittany Lions lacked imagination, couldn't block a phone call and wasted two years of phenomenal defensive coaching by now-former coordinator Bob Shoop.

    With Hackenberg gone, things should theoretically get worse. But the opposite might also happen. New offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, formerly the head coach at Fordham, brings innovation to a staff that badly needed it, and running back Saquon Barkley deserves more credit as one of the best skill players in America.

    Throw in a one-year-older offensive line, a decent group of pass-catchers and the looming arrival of 5-star running back Miles Sanders, and it's easy to find reasons for optimism. Whoever starts at QB—either Trace McSorley or Tommy Stevens—will be a downgrade from Hackenberg, but this offense as a whole should be an upgrade.

Kenny Hill Heisman Hype

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    Remember Kenny Hill? If not, you're about to be reminded. The one-time Heisman front-runner, who replaced Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M but lost his job after regressing to the mean, has resurfaced after leaving for the TCU Horned Frogs and spending one year on the scout team. He'll compete with last year's backups to replace Trevone Boykin, and the smart money (and the talent) says he'll win.

    If and when that happens—which shouldn't take more than this spring—Hill will emerge, once again, as a Heisman dark horse. He's electric and experienced, and he's leading an offense that retained co-coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham.

    As long as he keeps his head on straight—a concern after off-field issues plagued his time at A&M—Hill is in a good place to succeed. And according to head coach Gary Patterson, it's been so far, so good.

    "Kenny’s done an unbelievable job," he told Carlos Mendez of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "As far as any of those kind of things, there’s no concern. Everything he’s done — which has been great, because he was our scout-team quarterback — is not even worth a conversation because he’s been awesome."

    Even with the loss of star receivers Josh Doctson and Kolby Listenbee, the Horned Frogs return KaVontae Turpin, get Deante' Gray back from injury and just lured John Diarse from LSU. Hill will have the playmakers to run Cumbie and Meacham's system efficiently.

    That all starts with a positive spring.

Tennessee Volunteers Right the Ship

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    It's been a long week for Tennessee, one of next year's supposed darlings, as numerous off-field stories have blemished the program. We'll wait for due process before condemning any of the players or coaches, but the off-field stuff is undeniably distracting and will cast a pall over the Vols' spring session.

    But head coach Butch Jones has a special core of upperclassmen, many of whom forewent the NFL draft, in place to keep this train on the rails. The Vols are loaded with talent and play in the SEC East, so anything less than reaching the conference title game will be deemed a disappointment. They can't afford an unproductive spring practice session.

    Even amid distractions—which, let's be clear, are warranted—Tennessee will have an optimistic offseason. By the time preseason previews land in bookstores, it will remain a trendy pick to make the playoff.

Charlie Strong's Hot Seat Cools (Temporarily)

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    After winning on national signing day, Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong bought his job some insurance. He no longer enters the offseason on a molten seat, but after losing seven games in each of his first two seasons at the second-richest program in the country, that seat is still pretty warm.

    But expect that chair to cool even more in spring practice. Strong's energy and the hire of Sterlin Gilbert, a spread offensive coordinator who learned from Art Briles' proteges, have infused the Longhorns program with optimism. Plus, last year's non-bowl team played a herd of underclassmen and returns most of the two-deep intact.

    Things might get testy if the quarterbacks struggle, but for now—for once—Strong's locker room emits good vibes. He's too good of a coach to stay down like this, so expect him to ride the momentum. With Notre Dame looming in Week 1, this could all go down the sewer in a heartbeat. But for now, Strong and his staff can feel good.

Jake Hubenak Pushes Trevor Knight

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    The image we all remember of Trevor Knight, the former Oklahoma quarterback who transferred to the Texas A&M Aggies, is that of tossing four touchdowns and throwing for 348 yards in a Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama.

    What it seems we remember less, despite being more recent, is how he platooned with Blake Bell the following season and lost his job to Baker Mayfield in 2015. We forgive that because Mayfield is incredible, but Knight didn't exactly push him. The truth is he's never resembled the guy who torched Alabama in New Orleans.

    That doesn't mean he won't ever get there, but it's foolish to think he'll run away with this job. Jake Hubenak is a downgrade from Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, the pair of 5-star quarterbacks who transferred out this winter, but he's familiar with Kevin Sumlin's concepts and has a working rapport with Texas A&M's loaded wide receiver group.

    Knight won't blow Hubenak out of the water in spring ball. He'll be lucky to even pass him before fall camp.

Josh Rosen Becomes the Face of College Football

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    UCLA Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen is an easy player to market. He's tall and good-looking and charming and smart and talented. He plays in a big market and has the benefit of being a rare Jewish quarterback prospect. A lot of people out there are rooting for him.

    On that note, expect his presence to grow substantially. He will become the new face of college football—the guy that every preseason magazine wants on the cover. His production last year, while impressive, might not warrant that, but the College Football Complex knows a superstar when it sees one.

    Rosen has the makings of a gargantuan player and figure. He won't be like Johnny Manziel…but you'll hear his name.

Sam Darnold Hangs Close with Max Browne

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    There's a reason Ricky Town became expendable with the USC Trojans—and only part of it had to do with Max Browne.

    The other part concerned his classmate, Sam Darnold, who, despite ranking slightly lower in the 2015 recruiting class, impressed coaches right from the get-go. He trended the opposite direction of Town during the cycle, peaking late after a strong senior season, and brings dual-threat skills along with a solid frame (6'4", 215 lbs).

    That might not be enough for him to pass Browne, last year's backup and this year's presumed starter, but it will be enough to hang close with him. Browne was the No. 1 quarterback in the 2013 recruiting class, ranking one spot ahead of Christian Hackenberg, but he never seriously threatened Cody Kessler, and he lacks Darnold's mobility.

    This battle will come down to the wire, and the winner will have earned his job. That is not an affront on Browne, who deserves some of the hype he'll receive this offseason, but rather an endorsement of Darnold, who's been slept on for way too long.

Washington Huskies Hype Kicks into Overdrive

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    Looking for the team of this year's offseason? Look no further. Despite starting true freshmen at quarterback and running back—Jake Browning and Miles Gaskin, respectively—the Huskies ranked No. 12 in S&P+ last year. Those same numbers project them No. 10 in 2016, ahead of every Pac-12 team except USC.

    But more than just Browning and Gaskin, the Huskies return head coach Chris Petersen. The former Boise State boss, now in his third season with Washington, will see his first recruits become upperclassmen. That will not be lost on sportswriters (guilty), who will raise the noise on Washington as a College Football Playoff sleeper.

    In that way, it will become this year's Tennessee.

    (The only difference is, in this case, the hype is warranted.)

    Note: All recruiting info refers to 247Sports' composite ratings. All advanced stats, unless otherwise cited, via Football Outsiders and Football Study Hall.