Top College Football Storylines to Watch During 2021 Spring Practices
March is here, and while, to some, that means Major League Baseball spring training, PGA Tour warm-ups for the Masters and the weather changing enough for us to get outside, it means one thing in college football: Spring practice is about to heat up.
Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 15-practice session for the majority of programs, but drills are tentatively on for 2021. And the FCS teams are actually playing their seasons now.
With FBS football gearing up, it's time to turn your attention toward several of the hot headlines out there.
Yes, there is a debate about allowing NCAA players to make money off their likenesses, and there is the discussion about Notre Dame perhaps (someday) joining a conference. But we'll keep this strictly on-field.
From the new names you need to know to the new faces in new places to yet another Alabama Crimson Tide title defense, here are the top topics of conversation heading into spring drills.
Beginnings of a Tide Title Defense (Again)
Coming off an undefeated campaign and a national title with a remarkable team that may have been one of his favorites, Saban has work to do in 2021.
Gone are Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and fellow wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, Heisman finalist quarterback Mac Jones and star running back Najee Harris. Patrick Surtain II, Alex Leatherwood, Dylan Moses and Christian Barmore are gone too.
But the Tide are returning 13 starters from last year's championship team, and they are bringing in the top-rated recruiting class ever, according to Hank South of 247Sports.
They're loaded at every position, and the defense should be much better with the majority of its impact players returning, led by star freshman Will Anderson Jr. Offensively, John Metchie III could be one of the top playmakers in the SEC, and the quarterback race will be between Bryce Young and Paul Tyson.
Remarkably, Saban added two former NFL coaches to his staff in Bill O'Brien (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach) and Doug Marrone (offensive line coach). It seems everybody wants to be a part of what Saban has built at 'Bama. The title defense starts in earnest this spring.
All 4 College Football Playoff Teams Replacing Starting Signal-Callers
With Mac Jones gone, Alabama has a major void to fill after the QB emerged from Tua Tagovailoa's shadow in his one season as the team's starter.
Last season's three other College Football Playoff teams feel the Tide's pain.
Clemson is in the best situation with D.J. Uiagalelei. The strong-armed, 6'4", 250-pound sophomore from California looked like an emerging star last year when Trevor Lawrence was out because of COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Now, Lawrence is off to the NFL and will likely be the No. 1 overall pick in April.
Replacing Ian Book's leadership won't be easy at Notre Dame, but Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan could thrive in coordinator Tommy Rees' offense. He is the favorite to win the job over underclassmen Drew Pyne and mid-year enrollee Tyler Buchner.
At Ohio State, things are dicey. Barring a last-minute add from the transfer portal, head coach Ryan Day will replace Justin Fields with either C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller III or incoming freshman Kyle McCord.
"Any time you are playing with quarterbacks who haven't played, your comfort level is not real high," Day said in December, according to the Journal-News' Marcus Hartman. "I can promise you that."
Everybody is excited about Bryce Young's potential at Alabama, but don't sleep on Paul Tyson, who has a big arm and is a dropback passer like Jones.
Does the situation make these teams more vulnerable? Sure. But the newcomers have plenty of talent.
Fringe Contenders to Watch
It's impossible to follow every minor storyline, but there are a handful of fringe programs that could contend.
Most have Alabama and Clemson fatigue (unless they're fans of the Tide or Tigers), and people are sick of hearing about Notre Dame and Ohio State. But it's no easy task to overtake those teams considering they recruit quality classes every year.
Oklahoma is a perennial playoff contender, but the Sooners' two losses put them out of contention in 2020. They will be right back in the mix this season, and this spring is about building depth on defense and introducing quarterback Spencer Rattler to new playmakers (more on that later).
In the SEC, Texas A&M had a case for the playoff last year but lost out to Notre Dame. The Aggies must replace quarterback Kellen Mond but have a lot of talent on both sides. With JT Daniels returning, Georgia could make plenty of noise too.
Oklahoma's primary competition in the Big 12 is Iowa State, and the Cyclones are built to last nationally. Oregon and North Carolina have holes but plenty of young, capable talent. Cincinnati will be stout if the playoff committee ever gives a Group of Five program an extended look.
It's worth keeping an eye on the spring programs of the fringe teams, as they are among those that may have the best shot at knocking off a giant.
Sark Attack in Austin
No new hire received more publicity than Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian.
It's a pressure cooker in Austin, and it was a bit of a surprise the team parted ways with Tom Herman after a decent 7-3 season despite the rumors. After calling plays for the national champion Crimson Tide, Sark was a hot commodity, though.
The Longhorns have a lot of exciting players, led by running backs Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson, as well as quarterback Casey Thompson, who had a breakout performance in the second half of an Alamo Bowl win over Colorado.
Cade Brewer, Joshua Moore, Jake Smith and others leave plenty of meat on the bone for Sark to work with offensively.
Yes, the team lost star quarterback Sam Ehlinger, along with producers like Tarik Black, Brennan Eagles and Keaontay Ingram. But the Longhorns recruited well under Herman, and Sark has a propensity to squeeze production out of the players he has.
It's going to be exciting to watch how he tailors his offense to Thompson (or another quarterback), who doesn't quite fit his resume of producing dropback passers.
Other Eras Begin
On Rocky Top, the Tennessee Volunteers are rebuilding for the fifth time since firing Phil Fulmer in 2008, and it's not going to be a quick fix for new coach Josh Heupel amid an internal investigation for alleged recruiting violations and more transfers than a Swiss bank.
But the Vols have four solid quarterback prospects in Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker, Harrison Bailey, Brian Maurer and incoming freshman Kaidon Salter. Heupel is a known QB whisperer, but Tennessee will need to find help at other positions.
Bryan Harsin is stepping into a tough situation at Auburn, where Gus Malzahn left him quarterback Bo Nix, running back Tank Bigsby and not much else.
Speaking of Malzahn, he is replacing Heupel at UCF and inheriting Dillon Gabriel and a team ready to compete in the AAC.
Shane Beamer got his first head coaching gig at South Carolina, while former Oregon defensive coordinator Andy Avalos and former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea are heading back to alma maters Boise State and Vanderbilt, respectively.
Jedd Fisch is inheriting a mess at Arizona, but he has the chops to rebuild the program. Meanwhile, Bret Bielema is back in the Big Ten at Illinois after failing at Arkansas and spending time as an NFL assistant. He was excellent at Wisconsin, so it's time to see if he can return to form in the Midwest.
Can Anybody Shoot Down the Ducks?
Think about this: In 2020, Oregon played seven games and lost three. Starting quarterback Tyler Shough wound up transferring, and a loss to rival Oregon State was the lowlight of an uneven year.
The Ducks still won the Pac-12.
But if '20 showed us anything, it's that there are several emerging programs out West.
USC was the best regular-season team but sputtered in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Trojans lost stars like Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown, but with quarterback Kedon Slovis among the returning playmakers on both sides of the ball, head coach Clay Helton's team is one to watch. The top-10 recruiting class will help too, and those guys should start rotating on the field this spring.
Another team on the verge of taking the next step is Arizona State, which features the conference's best offensive backfield. Quarterback Jayden Daniels is talented and experienced, and the Sun Devils can go three-deep at running back with the best teams in the nation.
Washington would have represented the North Division in the conference championship instead of Oregon if not for COVID-19 issues last year, and Colorado and UCLA have shown improvement. Though California disappointed at 1-3, head coach Justin Wilcox has an experienced roster returning.
This could be the wild, wild West in 2021, and the Pac-12 may not just be fun again but also be pretty good.
Can LSU Rebound After Rebuild?
It's anybody's guess how the LSU Tigers are going to respond in 2021.
Two years ago, they were the toast of college football after completing an undefeated, dominant season on the way to the national title. Last year, they struggled with a gutted roster and coaching staff and limped to a 5-5 record.
Head coach Ed Orgeron has some potential stars, though, and while the expectations should fall somewhere in the middle of the '19 and '20 results, the Bayou Bengals could be a fun team to watch again this year.
It starts with a quarterback battle between incumbent Myles Brennan and Max Johnson and TJ Finley, who took Brennan's place when he went down with a season-ending injury. Garrett Nussmeier, a 4-star signal-caller, is on campus too.
While tight end Arik Gilbert transferred, the Tigers still have Kayshon Boutte, Jaray Jenkins and Tyrion Davis-Price. On defense, Derek Stingley Jr., Eli Ricks and BJ Ojulari are back.
It's also worth watching top-70 recruits like 5-star defensive tackle Maason Smith, safety Derrick Davis Jr. and receiver Deion Smith, who will go through spring drills.
Orgeron just needs some dependable playmakers. You can't replenish a roster that lost Joe Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase and others overnight, but LSU will look a lot more like the Tigers we know in 2021.
Big-Time Transfers with New Homes
Entering a pivotal year of the Jim Harbaugh era, Michigan was facing serious quarterback-depth issues with Cade McNamara and incoming freshman J.J. McCarthy.
That situation got much better after Alan Bowman came over from Texas Tech, and he's just one of the big-name transfers you should remember this spring.
The Sooners are the beneficiary of Tennessee crumbling, adding star running back Eric Gray, left tackle Wanya Morris and safety Keyshawn Lawrence. Gray is the biggest name to watch and could bust out under head coach Lincoln Riley.
At Florida State, quarterback McKenzie Milton's return to football from a nasty injury at UCF in 2018 could be the best feel-good story of the year, and the Seminoles have a slew of talented transfers.
As previously mentioned, Jack Coan is now at Notre Dame.
With Florida head coach Dan Mullen probably leaning more heavily on the run this year, look for Clemson transfer Demarkcus Bowman to grow into a star quickly, and Zach Charbonnet gives head coach Chip Kelly an every-down back at UCLA.
Miami defensive back Tyrique Stevenson, Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, Kentucky receiver Wan'Dale Robinson, Northwestern's Ryan Hilinski, Texas Tech's Tyler Shough, LSU's Mike Jones Jr., North Carolina's Ty Chandler and USC's Keaontay Ingram could make noise too.
The 2021 recruiting class was loaded with potential stars, and some of those guys will be on the field this spring.
Out West, USC running back Brandon Campbell will try to break into the rotation along with Texas transfer Keaontay Ingram.
All eyes will be on quarterbacks Sam Huard (Washington) and Ty Thompson (Oregon) as they vie for starting gigs. The Ducks will also get their first look at left tackle Kingsley Suamataia and speedy receiver Troy Franklin.
The nation's top two classes, Alabama and Ohio State, are loaded with talent who could make an instant impact. For the Crimson Tide, there's JC Latham, cornerback Ga'Quincy McKinstry and smooth receiver Jacorey Brooks. Ohio State will see Kyle McCord enter the quarterback race, and 5-stars Emeka Egbuka, Jack Sawyer and TreVeyon Henderson should get important reps.
In Miami, with D'Eriq King rehabbing an injury, Jake Garcia could see meaningful time.
Jim Harbaugh will rep J.J. McCarthy, and Donovan Edwards could be an every-down back for Michigan, while brothers Kobe and Kalen King could be factors to start on defense at Penn State. Tight end Thomas Fidone gives Nebraska a much-needed weapon.
In the SEC, LSU defensive tackle Maason Smith is one of the top players in the class, and Georgia will get to see if Amarius Mims can lock down the left tackle spot.
At Oklahoma, defensive end Clayton Smith and athlete Billy Bowman could see quick playing time. JD Coffey has some potential to earn a starting safety spot at Texas.
Which Players Start Getting Heisman Buzz?
The 2021 Heisman Trophy race is wide-open.
With all four 2020 finalists—Alabama's DeVonta Smith and Mac Jones, Clemson's Trevor Lawrence and Florida's Kyle Trask—off to the NFL and other stars such as Najee Harris, Justin Fields and Zach Wilson gone, it's anybody's guess who'll take home college football's top individual honor.
A safe bet is the trophy will return to a quarterback's shelf after Smith won it last season.
Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler should be a trendy pick. North Carolina's Sam Howell lost weapons, but the Tar Heels may lean heavy on the pass this year, which could mean big numbers. USC's Kedon Slovis has a lot of playmakers around him but needs to be more consistent.
Don't forget about Georgia's JT Daniels and Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei, who is entering his first full year as the starter but has the talent to win the award.
Perhaps the top two running back candidates are Iowa State's Breece Hall, who will shoulder a heavy load, and Texas breakout star Bijan Robinson, who should thrive in Steve Sarkisian's offense.
Alabama's Bryce Young has to win the quarterback battle first, but he has potential, as does top target John Metchie III.
Arizona State's Jayden Daniels, Miami's D'Eriq King (if healthy), Coastal Carolina's Grayson McCall and UCF's Dillon Gabriel are in the mix too. It's going to be fun to see who will emerge.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.