The 10 Most Intriguing College Football Storylines Ahead of 2018 Spring Games

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMarch 28, 2018

The 10 Most Intriguing College Football Storylines Ahead of 2018 Spring Games

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    As we sit and wait for the next college football season to begin, at least spring practices give us a dollop of nourishment to whet our appetites before the long days of summer.

    With programs already beginning drills or getting ready to start them across the country, there are plenty of topics and players making headlines. While nobody is going to knock Alabama from its perch at the top of the college football world in March, teams can find answers that will help them do so.

    The Crimson Tide have their share of questions too, with a revamped secondary and a quarterback battle that saw favorite Tua Tagovailoa already break a finger on his throwing hand in a scrimmage setting, according to KHON2 in Honolulu.

    There are quests for signal-callers everywhere, including in Power Five programs and on College Football Playoff favorites. New coaches are taking the reins, and conferences are looking to regain footing after shaky seasons.

    There are a lot of reasons to pay attention to college football headlines this spring. Let's take a look at some of the top ones.

Quarterback Battles Everywhere

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    There may be a lot of focus on Alabama's quarterback battle after Tagovailoa came into the national championship game and led the Crimson Tide to an overtime win against the Georgia Bulldogs, but the tussle in Tuscaloosa is hardly the only one.

    Here's a list of some of the highest-profile quarterback derbies.

    As you can tell, there are plenty. All four College Football Playoff teams from a year ago have some sort of battle going on. At Alabama, Tagovailoa will try to unseat buddy Jalen Hurts for good, but that must wait until after his injury.

    Elite Clemson prospect Trevor Lawrence and sophomore Hunter Johnson will get a crack at beating out incumbent Kelly Bryant for the loaded Tigers. Though Georgia looks set with rising sophomore Jake Fromm, stud freshman Justin Fields is a midterm enrollee and one of the nation's most talented newcomers as the No. 1-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the nation.

    Then there's Oklahoma, who has to replace 2017 Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield. Though it would be a surprise if it was anybody but Kyler Murray, Austin Kendall is battling him for the spot.

    Plenty of other schools, including Ohio State, Louisville, USC and UCLA, are waging their own tilts. They have to replace stars such as J.T. Barrett, Lamar Jackson, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen. That's another reason why these position pileups are headline news.

    It's a quarterback free-for-all across the nation, and it'll be interesting to see who comes out on top.

Chip Kelly's College Return

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    The last time Chip Kelly was trampling grass on a college football sideline, he annually took the Oregon Ducks to bowl games, including the BCS championship, while leading one of the most prolific offenses in college football history.

    After an up-and-down NFL tenure that including stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers, he's back in the Pac-12 with the UCLA Bruins after a brief flirtation with the Florida Gators, according to Robbie Andreu of the Gainesville Sun.

    Now, Kelly will try to bring back the Bruins after the subpar final few years of Jim Mora Jr.'s tenure as head coach in which the team went 10-15. He'll also want to prove he still has what it takes to build a championship-caliber team with a high-flying offense.

    Rosen is gone, but there are plenty of quarterback options in Westwood. Though Devon Modster isn't a prototypical Kelly signal-caller, he has a lot of skills. Not only is he able to throw the deep ball with precision, but he can also use his legs and make defenders miss in the backfield. He can be an excellent college quarterback if he develops. 

    This spring is about installing Kelly's offense and trying to transition the defense to a 3-4 base in which stars such as Jaelan Phillips and Keisean Lucier-South will drop back from their defensive end spots to play linebacker.

    But the biggest story of all is Kelly, who seems rejuvenated to be back in the college game and at familiar Pac-12 stomping grounds. The conference is there for the taking, but how long will it take him to build up UCLA?

SEC Face-Lift

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    You can call it the Nick Saban effect if you want, but the SEC coaching turnover has been absurd over the past decade, and at no time has it been more rampant than this season.

    With Saban entrenched at Alabama, Auburn's Gus Malzahn doing well on the Plains and Kirby Smart looking like the league's next big star coach at Georgia, the rest of the SEC is playing catch-up. And the squads are doing it with their pocket books too.

    Six conference teams welcomed new coaches this offseason. That means new systems and philosophies, a ton of new assistant coaches and new hope brimming at an SEC campus near you.

    This is the most full-time coaches in new positions since 1946. Tennessee's wacky coaching search to replace Butch Jones ended with Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Arkansas dumped Bret Bielema for SMU's Chad Morris. 

    Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen left Starkville after nine years to return to Gainesville, Florida, where he was once an assistant for the Gators under Urban Meyer. The Bulldogs replaced him with Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.

    Ole Miss took the interim tag off coach Matt Luke, and Texas A&M shelled out huge dollars for Florida State's Jimbo Fisher to replace Kevin Sumlin (who was hired by Arizona).

    Got all that? It's going to take some time to remember. But that's life in the SEC.

Who Are the Group of Five's Top Contenders?

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    With Scott Frost off to Nebraska following a spotless season at Central Florida, the best of the "Group of Five" is up in the air.

    Don't tell that to the Knights, who return quarterback McKenzie Milton and plenty of playmakers for new head coach Josh Heupel. They have a ton of talent to repeat in the AAC.

    But look out for Houston, which would love to send out elite defensive tackle Ed Oliver with a championship. New offensive coordinator Kendal Briles left Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic for the Cougars, and head coach Major Applewhite may have made the most impactful hire of the offseason.

    It would be ridiculous to count out Kiffin in Boca Raton, even without Briles. He has plenty of talent at quarterback, including Chris Robison and De'Andre Johnson, to go along with the nation's top small-conference offensive player in running back Devin Singletary.

    Perhaps the most loaded Group of Five team is Boise State. Head coach Bryan Harsin has a couple of talented stars in quarterback Brett Rypien and running back Alexander Mattison along with a lot of defensive production.

    The Broncos get the opportunity to make some noise with an out-of-conference game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys too. Other teams such as San Diego State, Memphis, Appalachian State, Troy and Toledo have reasons for excitement too.

    Who will get the big Group of Five bowl bid? Those teams start that quest this spring, ironing out question marks.

Pac-12 Continues Conference-Wide Rebuild

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    We've already mentioned Kelly's return to the conference, but there is plenty of upheaval all around.

    A year ago, no Pac-12 team even sniffed the College Football Playoff, and a glimpse at the rosters this year shows that, other than the Washington Huskies, there are no real threats to make it in 2018. Of course, that could change if Stanford or USC catches fire, but there are more questions than answers.

    Darnold and Rosen are gone, and so is Washington State star Luke Falk. After the death of Cougars signal-caller Tyler Hilinski, there are the emotions his team must be feeling off the field. And head coach Mike Leach will have on-field concerns to address.

    There are stars like Stanford's Bryce Love, who returned for his senior season, and Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate to carry on the wow factor. And there are incumbent playmakers like Huskies quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin.

    But are there enough players elsewhere to help these teams make a national splash?

    While the SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 are shining, the Pac-12 had a down year and is trying not to have another one.

    New coaches like Kelly, Sumlin, Oregon's Mario Cristobal, Oregon State's Jonathan Smith and Arizona State's Herm Edwards will try to turn around their programs. Youngsters like Trojans quarterback JT Daniels and Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson will try to elevate the talent quotient.

    The conference needs it.

Big Ten Gets Its Frost Warning

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    The dramatic two-year turnaround of Central Florida under the tutelage of Frost makes everybody in Lincoln, Nebraska, giddy. But how quickly can Cornhuskers fans expect their once-proud program to return to prominence?

    Frost's job at his alma mater is to try to play catch-up with teams like Wisconsin, Iowa and Purdue in the West Division. That's not even counting Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State in the East.

    The third-year head coach won't cower from the challenge, and there aren't any excuses coming from the new staff either.

    Frost has returning puzzle pieces such as wide receivers Stanley Morgan Jr. and Tyjon Lindsey and running back Tre Bryant. While quarterback Tanner Lee left for the NFL, two potential starters are already on the roster: Patrick O'Brien and Tristan Gebbia. And Frost brought in the ideal signal-caller to run his offense in Adrian Martinez, who flipped from Tennessee.

    The Lincoln Journal Star's Steven M. Sipple (via the Fremont Tribune) recently rated Martinez at No. 2 on his most intriguing Huskers list.

    "Are Gebbia and O'Brien good fits for the system?" Sipple wrote. "Can the rookie adapt quickly enough? 'We're going to find out,' [Nebraska quarterbacks coach Mario] Verduzco said, his voice trailing off."

    We're also going to find out just how quickly Frost can rebuild a program in a power conference.            

Will Alabama's Revamped Secondary Mesh with New DC Tosh Lupoi?

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    Everybody wants to talk about the quarterback battle in Tuscaloosa, but perhaps the more important question is how the Crimson Tide are going to replace all that elite talent in their secondary.

    After all, Saban has won national championships with subpar quarterback play before, and nobody expects that to be the case with Tagovailoa or Hurts. 

    Alabama manufactures superstars on defense, and that is especially the case with defensive backs. Saban is known as college football's guru at that position. But the Tide also are replacing Pruitt, who left to be Tennessee's head coach.

    He was a maestro teaching the fundamentals of the secondary, and now new defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi is taking over.

    Alabama has to find a way to make up for the production of departed star safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison along with quality cornerbacks such as Levi Wallace, Anthony Averett and Tony Brown. Hootie Jones is gone too.

    There are plenty of elite prospects ready to take their places. Incumbent contributors like Trevon Diggs and Deionte Thompson will step into star roles. Saivion Smith, who announced he was transferring from LSU last May, has the talent to make an immediate impact. Alabama will also welcome top-ranked cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr. in the summer.

    The team lost a lot of talent, but there are quality pieces with which to work. Lupoi will try to start fitting those pieces together this spring.

A New Big 12 Boss?

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    Oklahoma isn't planning on going anywhere. Yes, Mayfield is gone, but the Sooners still have so much talent. That's especially true on offense with the returns of running backs Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon as well as receivers CeeDee Lamb and Marquise Brown.

    But what about the rest of the Big 12? It has talent all over the place, and the Sooners won't have an easy repeat as conference champs.

    Texas should be much-improved in its second year under Tom Herman, especially if the Longhorns can find a consistent quarterback between Sam Ehlinger and Shane Buechele (or with a freshman).

    Coordinator Todd Orlando's defense got a huge boost with the nation's No. 3 recruiting class, and the 'Horns look ready to break out.

    If senior quarterback Will Grier and receiver David Sills V can stay healthy, West Virginia Mountaineers head coach Dana Holgorsen may have his best team ever in Morgantown. 

    TCU quarterback Shawn Robinson will help the Horned Frogs stay in the thick of things, Oklahoma State is returning running back Justice Hill and Iowa State could be better in Matt Campbell's third year as its head coach.

    Even Baylor has a lot of players to be excited about. The Big 12 won't just be a one-team show in 2018.

Shea Patterson's Michigan Quest Continues

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    Michigan fans should be getting restless when it comes to head coach Jim Harbaugh's tenure considering the Wolverines can't break through and haven't contended for the Big Ten title since they made him one of college football's highest-paid coaches.

    With a dynamic defense returning and a lot of young potential stars on offense, it looks like all Harbaugh needs to contend with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State in '18 is a quarterback.

    That's why the NCAA's decision on the eligibility of Ole Miss transfer quarterback Shea Patterson is so important. The former star high school quarterback who had spurts of brilliance in two years with the Rebels has a strong case, according to CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd.

    Patterson left Oxford after Hugh Freeze resigned as coach, and if he is eligible to play in Ann Arbor this year, he could make the Wolverines not only a Big Ten title contender but also a national factor.

    If Patterson can't go, the Wolverines have a big question mark with either Dylan McCaffrey or Brandon Peters—or perhaps even Wilton Speight if he returns.

    Everybody wants to know whether Patterson will be able to suit up right away for Harbaugh, and we may find out this spring.

Brand-New Bulldogs

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    You won't recognize this year's Georgia team.

    Head coach Kirby Smart's Bulldogs shocked the college football world in 2017 by getting hot and riding an exciting rebound year all the way to the national championship game, where it had a 13-0 lead over Alabama before squandering it.

    Now, if UGA is going to repeat as the SEC champion and get to the College Football Playoff again, it will have to do so without 31 seniors who left Athens after the title game. That may sound like a huge number and a tough rebuild, but with the way Smart has been recruiting, that may not be the case.

    After Smart piled up a group of 26 recruits in 2017 that ranked third nationally, he built possibly the top class ever in the '18 cycle. Georgia has reloaded, and it seemingly got top-ranked players at every position.

    Even Jake Fromm, last year's star freshman, will have a battle on his hands with Fields.

    Yes, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are gone, but D'Andre Swift is back. And the Bulldogs have Zamir White and James Cook coming in (No. 1 RB and No. 3 APB, respectively).

    The Dawgs lost so much defensive talent, but midterm enrollees like Brenton Cox, Divaad Wilson and Devonte Wyatt already are on campus. Others such as Richard LeCounte III, Tyler Clark, Jonathan Ledbetter and Deandre Baker could make the transition easier on that side of the ball.

    Georgia has to replace a ton, but the youngsters could start becoming stars this spring.

                 

    Unless otherwise noted, stats are courtesy of Sports Reference and CFBStats.com, and recruiting data is courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings.   

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.