10 Most Intriguing Storylines for 2017 Spring Games

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMarch 28, 2017

10 Most Intriguing Storylines for 2017 Spring Games

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    After a dreadfully long two-plus months relatively removed from the headlines, college football is returning to the forefront with spring practice.

    While a few programs have already taken the field, most teams have recently or are about to begin on-field preparation for 2017.

    But what should you be looking out for? In the midst of most offenses being less predictable and more aggressive and defenses thinking less and attacking more, there are important updates. The trick is deciphering between stock quotes and real changes.

    From new coaches to new quarterbacks to teams looking for a bounce-back year or reaching another level of performance, the spring is a critical time of progression. Don't take every update at face value, but be on the lookout for these storylines.

Lane Kiffin Is at FAU; What's Next?

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    Since arriving at Florida Atlantic, Lane Kiffin has garnered headlines by being fired from a job he already quit and making a comical recruiting video that was supposedly bad on purpose.

    But there's something to be said for "no press is bad press." Although getting sued isn't ideal, that hasn't lingered in the news cycle.

    The overarching point is the program has never been more nationally discussed. Take, for example, a portion of the lede by team writer Chuck King on the school's athletics site: "With music blaring, coaches bouncing and significantly more cameras than normal for an FAU spring practice."

    Kiffin brought attention to Boca Raton. Now, what will he do with it?

Michigan's Road Trip

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    There's an intriguing dilemma with Michigan taking spring practice trips. On one hand, it's more evidence that some schools have the money to compensate players. Conversely, if the players aren't getting paid, it's pretty cool to travel to Rome anyway!

    As former tight end Jake Butt said last year, per ESPN.com's Andrea Adelson, he supported the idea and pointed out that no one asked the players how they felt about the football trip.

    Yes, the 2016 jaunt to IMG Academy in Florida very clearly benefited the Wolverines on the recruiting trail—and that's OK. It was legal, and perhaps coaches were just annoyed they didn't do it first.

    But college football programs aren't plucking talent from Europe. The criticism of this trip in late April will be limited to the time constraint on players, who gave positive responses last year.

    Until players are fairly compensated for their work, traveling for spring practice is a decent consolation.

Eyeing the Obvious, Yet New Starters

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    Several teams are breaking in new quarterbacks—and fortunate programs like Notre Dame and Ole Miss really don't have a competition.

    In South Bend, the Fighting Irish lost early NFL draft entrant DeShone Kizer and transfer Malik Zaire. Brandon Wimbush, who has five career pass attempts, will lead the offense.

    For the Rebels, Shea Patterson gained a little bit of experience after Chad Kelly tore the ACL in his right knee. But 2017 will be Patterson's first year as the unquestioned starter.

    Both programs are looking to bounce back from lackluster campaigns. Notre Dame went 4-8, and Ole Miss was 5-7. The biggest story in both locations is whether the young quarterback can lead the resurgence, and—fair or not—every single throw will be analyzed externally.

Uncertain Quarterback Battles

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    Would you rather have a clear-cut quarterback for the next season or a team coming off a successful year? There's no perfect answer, but Auburn and Clemson are among the programs happy to face the latter dilemma.

    On the Plains, a battle is brewing. Sean White has started most of the last two campaigns, but Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham seems poised to snatch the job. Traveling eastward to Clemson, you'll find Kelly Bryant, Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson vying to replace Deshaun Watson, a two-time ACC and 2016 national champion.

    And those two schools aren't alone.

    Florida, Miami, Tennessee, Texas and Texas A&M are each well-regarded teams facing quarterback competitions. The battles may continue into the fall, but spring practice is the time for older players to show their experience or for young talents to shrink the gap.

Ohio State's Offensive Revamp

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    First: J.T. Barrett is Ohio State's quarterback. Joe Burrow was awesome in the 2016 spring game. Tate Martell is probably the future. Dwayne Haskins will be challenging all of them. But barring injury, Barrett will be under center for the Buckeyes.

    So that's settled.

    Now, Barrett must correct accuracy and timing issues. Those were massive problems late in 2016, and Clemson exposed them badly after Ohio State survived Michigan State and Michigan.

    While the arrival of new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson should help, the Buckeyes also have a promising yet young group of receivers. Still, last season's pass-catching corps already struggled to separate, and top target Curtis Samuel is gone.

    The Buckeyes will probably be the most common preseason choice to win the Big Ten, but their offense—from Barrett to interior questions on the offensive to inexperience at wide receiverhas major questions to answer during the spring.

Finding the Group of 5 Favorite

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    Western Michigan was safely on the national radar heading into 2016, but Houston and San Diego State received most of the attention for Group of Five conferences.

    This season, following major coaching and personnel changes in Kalamazoo, the race for the New Year's Six berths is wide-open.

    Although South Florida is the early favorite, the transition from Taggart to Charlie Strong presents a great unknown. In the meantime, Appalachian State, Memphis, San Diego State, Toledo, Troy and Western Kentucky all deserve attention.

    Once the spring ends, those programs won't take the field until after preseason projections have kicked into overdrive. What happens over the next few weeks will influence those judgments.

Organizing the Jumbled Pac-12

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    Washington is the defending Pac-12 champion, and USC excelled shortly after Sam Darnold took control of the offense. For good reason, those two schools sit atop the conference hierarchy.

    The ever-consistent Stanford Cardinal and the Luke Falk-led Washington State Cougars won 10 and eight games last season, respectively. It's fair to expect similar years from the programs.

    But which teams will join the North Division programs on that tier?

    Although Colorado wrote a stellar surprise story last year, the departure of Sefo Liufau and several standout defenders should weaken the roster. While Oregon (Willie Taggart) and UCLA (Jedd Fisch) hired great offensive minds, will they pay dividends so quickly that both schools bounce back from missing a bowl game?

    The Pac-12 is packed with potential, but the spring will offer an initial picture of whether those teams are prepared to keep up with Washington and USC in 2017.

Changing of the Guard in the ACC?

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    Florida State regularly deals with high expectations, but the pressure is elevated this year because of the changes at Clemson.

    Deondre Francois showed great potential as a redshirt freshman, and Derwin James will return after missing a majority of the season due to a knee injury. Dalvin Cook's early draft entrance was no surprise, though he still leaves a major void in the backfield.

    Louisville is also in the conversation thanks to Lamar Jackson, who rumor has it is pretty good at football. The defending Heisman Trophy winner will have a rebuilt surrounding cast, but his presence alone makes the Cardinals a respected opponent.

    Through three years of the College Football Playoff, no team that lacked a true standout college quarterback—sure, you can argue Alabama, but it's Alabama—has earned a place in the national semifinals.

    Florida State and Louisville have one. Does Clemson? If they don't, a new team may represent the ACC in the CFP.

Tom Herman's 1st Spring at Texas

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    In a very unsurprising development, Tom Herman only lasted two years at Houston. While that's a letdown for the players he recruited, it was a likely move for the rising coaching star.

    Entering his debut season with Texas, the discussion point isn't whether his philosophy will work. From Sam Houston State to Rice to Ohio State to Houston, Herman's offenses have excelled. Rather, the unknown is how quickly it does.

    Herman will entertain a competition between incumbent Shane Buechele and freshman Sam Ehlinger. The Longhorns have respectable talent at the skill positions and a cornerstone in left tackle Connor Williams, so it's all about the 2017 starter smoothly adapting to what should be a quarterback-friendly system.

    Texas also needs to overcome its defensive struggles, but a heavily experienced roster in a truly more aggressive system gives the program legitimate hope for this season.

    That adjustment process starts now.

First Look at 2017's Hyped Teams

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    Herman is widely expected to lead an immediate turnaround at Texas—no pressure, right—while Auburn, LSU and Oklahoma State aren't far behind. But the programs with the largest outside expectations are Georgia, Penn State and USC.

    Georgia has mustered just two SEC East Division crowns in 11 years. However, Jacob Eason and Nick Chubb highlight a team with championship-contending potential.

    Penn State took advantage of a fortuitous Michigan loss at Iowa to steal the Big Ten East last season. Much of that roster returns, headlined by future first-round pick Saquon Barkley.

    USC edged that Penn State team in a thrilling Rose Bowl finish. Darnold shined after replacing Max Browne, and Trojans fans might get caught dreaming about the encore performance.

    But are unexpected weaknesses going to flare up? Is there a positional unit of chief concern? Will depth be a problem? Spring practice will start to provide the answers.