Winners and Losers of Saturday's College Football Spring Games
The birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming, and yes, there's college football in the air. Who cares if the scoring was modified and the stats don't count?
Saturday marked the first sizable batch of college football spring games—various forms of scrimmages meant to put a bow on offseason practice with an open-to-the-public workout. Intended to serve more as confidence-building events than true talent evaluations, these games aren't likely to have much bearing on how teams will look in the fall.
However, the performance of some players, position groups and teams did manage to stand out in either a good or bad way. We have your rundown of the biggest winners and losers from Saturday's spring action.
Winner: South Carolina QB Brandon McIlwain
South Carolina's quarterback competition wasn't going to end during the spring, especially after senior Perry Orth went down with a broken collarbone in late March. But Orth's absence from the spring game left even more opportunities for true freshman Brandon McIlwain to assert himself as a contender, and he didn't disappoint.
The early enrollee tallied three total touchdowns in the Garnet and Black game, rushing for a score in the first quarter and throwing two first-half TD passes to freshman Bryan Edwards. For the day McIlwain was 19-of-26 for 169 yards.
Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee tweeted that McIlwain "is going to be a problem...especially if he can get a good OL," noting South Carolina's need to replace three starters up front from last season.
McIlwain showed all of the throws Saturday, displaying particular zip on out routes. He split first-team snaps with junior Connor Mitch, who was 9-of-16 for 139 yards and a TD.
Loser: Midwestern Football Fans
The calendar may say spring, but those who live in parts of the Midwest know winter can come back whenever it wants. As a result, several "spring" college football games and practices were either canceled or altered because of wintry weather.
Northwestern's final practice of the spring had to be moved indoors (and thus be closed to the public) because of poor weather in Evanston, Illinois, though SB Nation provided fans with a glimpse of what went down through its Facebook page. Among the highlights was a dizzy bat race, which shows you just how meaningful spring practice ends up being.
A Friday night snowstorm forced Toledo to cancel its first spring game under new coach Jason Candle, who was Matt Campbell's offensive coordinator in 2015.
Other schools dealt with poor weather but still played, such as Ohio and Eastern Michigan. EMU coach Chris Creighton assured the show would go on via Twitter, possibly throwing shade at Mid-American Conference rival Toledo's decision to postpone.
Winner: Clemson's Weapons
With numerous star players from the defensive side now preparing for the NFL draft, Clemson figures to rely on its offense in 2016 in the quest to return to the College Football Playoff. That doesn't look like it's going to be a problem based on the way the Tigers' first unit moved the ball during the Orange and White Game.
Deshaun Watson was 7-of-11 for 141 yards and two touchdowns, going 5-of-6 for 140 yards and both scores with the Orange Team. He hooked up with Hunter Renfrow for a score on his first series with Orange, and then he connected on a long TD pass to Ray-Ray McCloud on his second Orange drive.
Adding to the Tigers' scoring punch were some big returns by Artavis Scott, who averaged 24.7 yards on kickoffs in 2015 but just 4.2 on punts. Clemson's last punt return TD came in 2014, and it hasn't scored on a kickoff return since 2011.
Loser: Florida State's Offensive Mistakes
A crowd of nearly 50,000 watched Florida State's first off-campus spring game, held at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, and saw plenty of offensive production. However, if not for some late clock manipulation and liberal rulings by coach Jimbo Fisher, there wouldn't have been much scoring due to numerous offensive miscues.
The Garnet and Gold game ended in a 24-24 tie thanks to 24 points scored in the final 2:18 of the fourth quarter. All told, the game had 606 yards of total offense but also three turnovers, including one that Fisher wiped out in order to allow for drives to continue.
Freshmen quarterbacks Deondre Francois and Malik Henry got the bulk of the snaps while presumptive starter Sean Maguire recovers from ankle surgery. Francois threw for 246 yards on 20-of-33 passing, while Henry went 15-of-22 for 205 yards. Each had two TD passes, but Francois also threw two interceptions. Francois fumbled with less than two minutes left, but Fisher called the play dead so the Gold team was allowed to keep the ball.
That let Francois connect with Auden Tate—who had six catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns—for a score with 13 seconds left...but then the clock was “adjusted” to 1:30 left to give the Garnet team another drive behind Henry. He promptly threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Travis Rudolph, and the game ended in a tie after Ricky Aguayo hit a 46-yard field goal with four seconds to go.
Winner: Oklahoma Wide Receivers
Baker Mayfield is back at quarterback, as is the bruising rushing duo of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. But in order for Oklahoma's Air Raid offense to run smoothly—and help the Sooners get back to the playoff—it needs some new playmakers to emerge from the receiving corps.
Top target Sterling Shepard and No. 3 option Durron Neal have graduated, leaving senior Dede Westbrook as the only returning wideout who had more than 20 catches in 2015.
Michiah Quick threw his name up for consideration with a strong spring game Saturday, highlighted by the game-winning 53-yard touchdown catch with 4:54 left to help the Red team to a 17-16 win. Quick came across the middle for a short swing pass from Kyler Murray but then juked several defenders as he cut upfield and raced along the sideline for the score.
Quick, a 5'11”, 183-pound junior, had only nine catches for 103 yards last season after catching 25 passes with a touchdown as a freshman in 2014. He finished with four catches for 66 yards; Westbrook had four catches for 76 yards, and Jordan Smallwood had two catches for 43 yards and a score.
Loser: Auburn's Quarterback Competition
Despite coach Gus Malzahn's explanation that Auburn was "pretty vanilla offensively" by design, per Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee, that doesn't take away from what was a rather uninspiring performance by the Tigers' three starting quarterback candidates.
Jeremy Johnson, Sean White and junior college transfer John Franklin III combined to complete 21 of 38 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns. Johnson and Franklin threw the TD passes, one to Roc Thomas and another to Marcus Davis.
Take away two long catches by Davis, which went for 50 and 40 yards, and those three passers averaged fewer than seven yards per completion and just 3.64 yards per attempt.
White was the best of the trio, going 8-of-14 for 125 yards, while Franklin was 7-of-11 for 61 yards, and Johnson was 6-of-13 for 35 yards. The quarterbacks were off-limits for contact, thus negating any assessment of their rushing numbers, but a telling stat was their efficiency (or lack thereof) on third down: 1-of-22, per Sallee.
Winner: Texas A&M's Offensive Newcomers
Lackluster offensive numbers have derailed Texas A&M in the second half of the last two seasons, the result of inconsistent quarterback play, the lack of a run game and uninspiring play-calling. The Aggies have tried to address all three of those areas in the offseason, and the spring game provided the first glimpse of what A&M's offense could look like in 2016.
So far, so good.
Oklahoma graduate transfer quarterback Trevor Knight, true freshman running back Trayveon Williams and first-year coordinator Noel Mazzone were the offensive stars for A&M in the Maroon team's 42-38 win over the White (defense).
Mazzone, whom the Aggies hired away from UCLA in the winter, oversaw an offense that scored six touchdowns, including two on the ground. Knight accounted for three TDs, one of which was a rushing score, and in the first half alone he was 20-of-27 for 193 yards. The 5'9”, 190-pound Williams showed off his moves both as a runner and a receiver (including on a 31-yard catch and run on a screen).
Loser: Spring Game Scoring Systems
Among the many reasons these spring games don't count for anything is the way some are scored. While most will go with the traditional numbers for touchdowns, field goals, etc., others award points for strong defensive plays and other scenarios. As a result, there are always some odd “scores” from the spring games.
For instance, Ohio's defense won its spring game, 62-18, per Andrew Gillis of the Athens Post. That unit was leading 52-17 entering the fourth quarter, so somehow the offense managed to score a single point.
Texas State's spring game saw the Maroon team rally for a 71-70 (!!!) win over the Gold team, while North Carolina State's Red team posted a rare spring shutout, winning 47-0 over the White team.
Winner: Running Clocks
As much as college football coaches want to see how their players perform in the pseudo-real atmosphere that spring games provide, more than anything they want to make it through without injuries. As a result, most spring games on Saturday didn't play a full slate of 15-minute quarters, and several kept the clocks running when normally they would stop.
Minnesota's spring game actually included 80 minutes of game action broken into 40-minute halves, though the clock kept ticking regardless of what was going on. Not surprisingly, this resulted in a relatively low-scoring 19-7 result.
No major injuries were reported from Saturday's spring games, which is the best news we could share.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.