Ranking the 10 Must-Watch Spring Games of 2019

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyFeatured Columnist IVMarch 18, 2019

Ranking the 10 Must-Watch Spring Games of 2019

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    The 2019 spring football game season has arrived as programs around the country are turning their focus from recruiting to the upcoming year. With impact freshmen looking to prove their mettle and former backups trying to earn a starter's role, the spring game is the first on-field chance they have to achieve their dreams.

    Though spring games have the feel of a glorified practice, we're able to see how coaches plan on divvying up snaps amid positional battles. Earning first-team reps now means there's trust from the staff in the player, but they need to reward that distinction with consistent performance.

    Air Force kicked off the first spring game this past Saturday, and the slate extends until New Hampshire's May 4 contest.

    We've identified the 10 must-watch games for all college football fans, ranking them in order of intrigue relative to national storylines and the playoff race. Though not every team has the upside to make the Final Four, each team has a key coach or set of positional battles worth tracking.  

    We can't overvalue the scoreboard of spring games, but expectations for each program can be affected by the breakout of a key playmaker.

10. West Virginia Mountaineers

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Date: Saturday, April 13, 1 p.m. ET

    Key reason to watch: New head coach Neal Brown can be the breath of fresh that helps elevate the Mountaineers program. Brown produced an efficient and balanced offense at Troy as he racked up wins. His partnership with transfer acquisition Austin Kendall at QB will be a critical factor in how well the team performs in 2019.

    Other storylines: The Mountaineers lost a significant amount of talent, as Will Grier, David Sills, Yodny Cajuste and David Long all departed. Brown will need to unearth more playmakers, especially on defense. His 2018 Troy defense ranked nearly 40 spots higher in points allowed per game, and that same discipline and effectiveness will be required for West Virginia to make a leap.

9. Arizona Wildcats

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    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    Date: Saturday, April 13, 8 p.m. ET on Pac-12 Network

    Key reason to watch: The Kevin Sumlin era got off to a terrible start last year, as the offense fell flat when he forced Khalil Tate into a pass-centric role. Now a senior, Tate needs to show growth in the pocket after being limited to just 74 rushing attempts in 2018. Watch to see if Sumlin adjusts his offense to get Tate into space more often.

    Other storylines: Running back J.J. Taylor is one of the best in the nation but will be behind just one senior this season. The defense is also young, and it needs to become more opportunistic after recording just 15 takeaways last season. Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II are entering their junior seasons and must have more help around them for this team to overcome a difficult schedule down the stretch.

8. Virginia Cavaliers

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Date: Saturday, April 27, 1 p.m. ET on ACCN Extra

    Key reason to watch: Second-year starting quarterback Bryce Perkins is electric. The senior burst out last year as the Cavaliers won eight games. Bronco Mendenhall needs to fully unleash Perkins, as the offense is replacing significant talent. His top running back, receiver and three linemen are all gone.

    Other storylines: Senior cornerback Bryce Hall is an absolute star, but the rest of the unit is young. Jordan Mack and Joey Blount return as leading tacklers. The defensive line must produce more sacks than the 69th-ranked group did in 2018, and watch for senior Eli Hanback to be a potential breakout candidate.

7. Baylor Bears

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Date: Saturday, April 13, 1 p.m. ET

    Key reason to watch: The Baylor Bears, who are returning most of their starters, could take another leap after their seven-win season. Head coach Matt Rhule earned NFL interest as he instilled a much healthier culture into the program and produced a fantastic offense. But how will the defense perform after finishing 91st in points allowed per game?

    Other storylines: Quarterback Charlie Brewer could finish 2019 as an All-Big 12 player if they can replace Jalen Hurd at receiver. The defense returns stars Clay Johnston and James Lynch, so now they need to identify secondary playmakers. Watch for the cornerback battle across from Grayland Arnold.

6. Houston Cougars

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Date: Friday, April 12, 8 p.m. ET

    Key reason to watch: While Dana Holgorsen had taken West Virginia likely as far as he could, Houston was the perfect landing spot for his skill set. He's been phenomenal at changing his offense to fit his available talent, and he inherits dynamo quarterback D'Eriq King. The Cougars should be an unstoppable offense, as they've retained most of their talent and added Holgorsen.

    Other storylines: The defense needs to answer the bell early since they face Oklahoma and Washington State. They can't replace Ed Oliver on talent alone, but the unit has no excuse to be ranked 119th in points-per-game allowed like last year. They ranked 20th with 24 takeaways in 2018, so their improvement is more about discipline and consistency than playmaking. What was a young unit last year should look better based on experience alone.

5. Wisconsin Badgers

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    Andy Manis/Associated Press

    Date: Saturday, April 13, 1 p.m. ET on BTN2Go

    Key reason to watch: Losing Alex Hornibrook via transfer opened the gate for a QB battle. Junior Jack Coan and freshman Graham Mertz will battle it out to see who will have the opportunity to play off superstar back Jonathan Taylor. The Badgers have been a good quarterback away from being dangerous in the conference.

    Other storylines: The Badgers are replacing four of five starters from 2018, but they've been incredible at reloading across the trenches. Importantly, the back end of the defense is young. Playing time is up for grabs, and the Badgers need playmaking and athleticism to hang with the big dogs of the conference. They must also replace leading tacklers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly.

4. Oregon Ducks

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Date: Saturday, April 20, 5 p.m. ET on Pac-12 Network

    Key reason to watch: Coming off a tremendous recruiting cycle and retaining Justin Herbert, the Ducks are primed to make a run in the Pac-12. No. 2 overall recruit Kayvon Thibodeaux is a must-watch player on defense despite being a freshman. He has an NFL frame and dominated the all-star circuit, so expectations are justifiably high.

    Other storylines: Herbert and the Ducks offense will grow after they added talent via the transfer market. The offense must see less of 3rd-and-long situations, and a healthier passing game and upright Herbert should accomplish that. Also watch for how playing time is decided at linebacker, where the Ducks are trying to surround Troy Dye with talent.

3. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Date: Saturday, April 13, noon ET on Big Ten Network

    Key reason to watch: The Buckeyes are replacing two historic figures at the most important positions: head coach and quarterback. Head coach Ryan Day and quarterback Justin Fields should be a dynamic offensive duo based on what Day accomplished with Dwayne Haskins. How Day shapes his scheme around Fields' diverse and explosive skill set will be fascinating.

    Other storylines: Can the defense take a step forward after flushing most of the staff and losing two elite pass-rushers in Nick Bosa and Dre'Mont Jones? Defensive end Chase Young needs another star to get after quarterbacks; could it be freshman Zach Harrison? The linebacker play must also dramatically improve for the Buckeyes to challenge for another conference title.

2. Florida Gators

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Date: Saturday, April 13, 1 p.m. ET on SEC Alternative

    Key reason to watch: Coming off a terrific Peach Bowl performance against Michigan, there's playoff aspirations once again in Gainesville. But Dan Mullen must find more consistency out of his offense, starting with quarterback Feleipe Franks. The maturation of the offensive playmakers should help, notably receiver Trevon Grimes and running back Lamical Perine as high-upside talents.

    Other storylines: Replacing Jachai Polite and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson on defense is a must. Linebacker David Reese is a star in his own right, but someone else must step in. The team is replacing four offensive line starters as well, so who grabs the early reps is a good indicator of where positional battles are headed.

1. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Ric Tapia/Associated Press

    Date: Saturday, April 20, 2 p.m. ET on SEC Network

    Key reason to watch: It's undisputedly Jake Fromm's team now that Justin Fields is in Columbus, and all eyes are on his development. The Bulldogs offense needs to become more dynamic to make the playoff, and junior playmakers Jeremiah Holloman, Demetris Robertson and D'Andre Swift give Fromm plenty of ammunition to blossom into a superstar.

    Other storylines: The trench talent is young but deeply talented for Kirby Smart, and they'll need to jell quickly to survive the SEC. Watch for a primary pass-rusher to distinguish himself from the group of Brenton Cox, Nolan Smith and Malik Herring. This unit must finish 2019 with more than 24 sacks, as it ranked 84th in the country last season.

                 

    All spring game info via fbschedules.com. All stats are via cfbstats.com.