Biggest College Football Stories You Likely Missed During March Madness

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistApril 8, 2021

Biggest College Football Stories You Likely Missed During March Madness

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    Sean Rayford/Associated Press

    If you've been following Gonzaga's flirtation with perfection or watching the Baylor Bears men's basketball team erase those hopes on their mad march to glory, you've missed a few headlines on the college gridiron.

    Not all of them have been good, either.

    From frustrating injuries to enhanced attention on the FCS spring season, it's been pretty newsy since March Madness began around March 10. There are also wheels turning on important decisions being made that will impact amateur athletes and their ability to move unimpeded from program to program.

    If you want some bright spots, there have been some good recruiting stories, as well as a future star showing out for the national champions this spring.

    Basketball is over. We're here to catch you up on what you've missed with spring football about to kick into full swing.   

NCAA Embroiled in Decisions That Impact All Sports Moving Forward

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    Susan Walsh/Associated Press

    This isn't exactly college football news, but the NCAA is in the midst of two pivotal conversations that will affect all amateur athletes in some form, including, most importantly, whether they remain amateur athletes.

    On March 31, the NCAA went before the Supreme Court. The nation's highest court heard an appeal in the NCAA v. Alston case, where the association's leaders gave arguments regarding its ability to regulate education-based benefits.

    The far-reaching ramifications of the June case could determine whether college athletes get paid for making their universities millions of dollars. "Why does the NCAA get to define what 'pay' is?" asked Justice Amy Coney Barrett, according to CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd.

    Dodd provides plenty of details on what's at stake, but the NCAA has a lot of explaining to do about a level of "amateurism" that simply doesn't exist.

    In more athlete-friendly news, the NCAA is on the brink of allowing a one-time transfer for all college athletes without penalty, according to SI.com's Ross Dellenger.

    Obviously, if this occurs, the ever-prevalent transfer portal that has changed the landscape of college football and other sports will intensify and become even more of a free-for-all.

    You may have been caught up in the hardwood action, but these two battles waged in courtrooms and boardrooms may be worth watching through the spring and summer months.      

Focus on FCS in a Wide-Open Race

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    Some exciting storylines have occurred this spring as the FCS is playing football on a bigger-than-normal stage.

    Deion Sanders' first season as Jackson State's head coach has taken a downward turn recently, but the Tigers are having a better season than many expected and are obviously improved from a season ago.

    The national stage is being good to other programs, too. While North Dakota State has won the past three national championships and an incredible eight of the past nine, they aren't invincible this spring.

    Sure, the Bison are still 5-1 and ranked third nationally. They should not be discounted in the race for another title, but they've got obvious passing issues, and there are plenty of teams looking like contenders.

    The top-ranked James Madison Dukes have talent all over the place, and Weber State is the second-ranked team and looking strong, too. NDSU rivals South Dakota State and North Dakota are unbeaten and ranked in the Top Six.

    If you care about college football and don't mind the stage being a little smaller, you should watch the remainder of the season unfold. Think about how good Alabama and Clemson are in the FBS and then multiply that by 100 and you have the Bison. Everybody wants to knock them off.

    There are plenty of teams that have that ability this spring, and NDSU is used to the "us against the world" mentality. You may have missed the first part of the season with your focus on basketball, but buckle up for the rest of the season and a real 16-team playoff.

    There's plenty of football left to be played.   

Georgia Loses a Star but Gains Several for the Future

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Positivity abounds in Athens, Georgia, with quarterback JT Daniels and a loaded defense returning to a Bulldogs team that looks like it has the chops to compete for its first national championship in 41 years.

    However, those hopes took a major hit this spring when star receiver George Pickens went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament that could put his 2021 season in peril.

    The 20-year-old led the team with six touchdown receptions last season and finished the year catching 36 passes for 513 yards. Once Daniels emerged, Pickens began to realize the potential he showed as a freshman All-American in 2019.

    Perhaps with the way players are recovering these days, Pickens can be ready at some point during the season, but it's far from a guarantee. If he leaves early (which he's talented enough to do), it's possible he's played his last down for the Dawgs.

    Several prospects won't play for UGA until 2022, but coach Kirby Smart is doing as well as anybody loading up on stars for the future. The Bulldogs haven't caught top-ranked Ohio State yet, but they've surged to second in the 247Sports composite rankings with a huge spring.

    The biggest get of the spring was 5-star athlete Malaki Starks, who elected to stay home and play for the in-state Dawgs. Three days later, another top-50 recruit nationally joined him. Linebacker Jalon Walker of North Carolina committed. Georgia wasn't finished in March, adding 4-star Tennessee running back Jordan James and punter Brett Thorson, too.

    Smart also got a big boost for now by adding former West Virginia starting defensive back Tykee Smith as a transfer, according to ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach. The Pickens news hurts, but the way Smart is recruiting, reinforcements abound.   

Young Gun

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    There may not be a bigger story in spring football practice than how the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide are going to replace all that production.

    Talent is never an issue when coach Nick Saban is bringing in the prospects, but they've got to plug in huge gaps left by guys like DeVonta Smith, Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris, offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood, cornerback Patrick Surtain II and more.

    Quarterback doesn't look like it's going to be a problem, at least not with the start Bryce Young is off to this spring.

    The former elite prospect wasn't ready a season ago, but he didn't have to be. He learned the system, got to knock off some rust and gain his sea legs in garbage time, and this seems to be "his" team this spring as a quarterback battle wages.

    According to AL.com's Matt Zenitz, Young slung four touchdown passes in UA's first scrimmage, including two against the first team.

    "I thought Bryce did a pretty good job of managing the game and was accurate with the ball and did a nice job," Alabama head coach Nick Saban told Zenitz. "Made a few explosive plays. But I thought really did a good job of managing the whole situation on offense when he was in there."

    There's no question about Young's ability. He isn't the biggest quarterback, but he has ample athleticism to get the job done, and he has as much upside as anybody in the country. If he meshes well with new offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, watch out.

    Repeat is far from out of the question for the young Crimson Tide.   

Clemson Quarterback Depth Chart Gets Thinner

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    Richard Shiro/Associated Press

    Unlike the case at fellow 2020 College Football Playoff participants Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame, there's no question who the starting signal-caller is going to be at Clemson.

    Who's going to back up D.J. Uiagalelei is another question altogether, especially following a disappointing injury in the spring game.

    The Tigers lost backup Taisun Phommachanh to a torn Achilles on the final drive of coach Dabo Swinney's team's spring finale, leaving them with a gut-punch heading into the offseason.

    "It looks like he has probably torn his Achilles," Swinney said, according to SI.com's JP Priester. "To be honest with you, the majority of the ACLs and Achilles injuries that I have been around in my career have mostly been non-contact, and that was the case with this one."

    Right now, the perennial powerhouse has walk-on Hunter Helms manning the backup duties, but freshmen Bubba Chandler and Will Taylor are coming in to try to help out this summer. Neither were highly rated coming out of high school, so Swinney is going to have to hope Uiagalelei goes the distance.

    Chandler was the nation's No. 18 pro-style quarterback, according to the 247Sports composite, and Taylor is a 5'10" 3-star athlete.

    Phommachanh—a rising redshirt sophomore with a ton of potential—had been 14-of-25 for 163 yards, a touchdown and an interception in the spring game before getting hurt.   

Kansas Plodding Through Coaching Search at an Odd Time

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    Barry Reeger/Associated Press

    Nobody ever wants to be searching for a head football coach with spring practice going on. While it's not unprecedented, it's certainly not something you see every year.

    Yet, after the Kansas Jayhawks endured a messy parting of ways with coach Les Miles following some off-the-field transgressions, they are wiping the slate clean and looking for their next direction. The good news for the Jayhawks is, after a winless season, there's nowhere to go but up on the gridiron.

    Interim coach Emmett Jones is leading Kansas through spring practice, and the players are behind him, according to 247Sports' Scott Chasen. "Coach Jones still has got high intensity," senior wideout Kwamie Lassiter told Chasen.

    Still, a full-fledged search is ongoing. FootballScoop's John Brice is reporting the Jayhawks' search is focused on Army coach Jeff Monken and Tulane's Willie Fritz, who have both enjoyed success in the Group of Five. 

    Buffalo's Lance Leipold is also in the mix for the job, according to Brice.

    With Kansas hiring Northwestern administrator Travis Goff as the new athletic director, the head football coach is next on the docket. It's going to be interesting to see which direction the Jayhawks go, but as of now, it's worth paying attention to seeing what kind of interest they draw during an odd time of the year.

    Remember, other programs are going through their spring practices, too, so any coach who leaves will probably do so with a bitter taste in the mouth of their previous employer.   

Legal Issues at Two SEC Blue Bloods

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    Caitie McMekin/Associated Press

    The Tennessee Vols have butchered yet another coaching situation and had to fire Jeremy Pruitt, also parting ways with athletic director Phil Fulmer. But none of that happened during March Madness.

    UT has continued its forgettable offseason during March, though. None of this is new coach Josh Heupel's fault, as he stepped into an already-tough situation that has been exacerbated by an up-in-the-air internal investigation, transfers and now some embarrassing off-field issues.

    According to the Knoxville News-Sentinel, freshmen Martavius French, Isaac Washington and Aaron Willis were suspended from the team after they were arrested on preliminary charges related to misdemeanor drug possession. It got worse for the Vols when star quarterback prospect Kaidon Salter was suspended from team activities in conjunction with the situation, too.

    It gets worse, too. Linebacker Aaron Beasley has been suspended after allegations he abused a kitten, according to ESPN.com's Chris Low. 

    LSU is dealing with off-field issues, too. Coach Ed Orgeron submitted a written statement on former running back Derrius Guice's alleged sexual harassment of Gloria Scott after a request from the Louisiana Senate Select Committee on Women & Children to respond to the allegations made by Scott.

    According to ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough, "The committee began its hearings in the wake of the Husch Blackwell report, which was released in March and detailed LSU's handling of sexual assault allegations and Title IX-related incidents."

    It's been a troublesome offseason for both programs.   

5-Star Maryland Freshman Linebacker Misses Spring with an Injury, Too

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    Credit: 247Sports

    The most high-profile injury setback that's occurred this spring is George Pickens', and the Clemson signal-caller situation is razor-thin. But an up-and-coming program is dealing with some disappointment this spring, too.

    Maryland had recruited a handful of exceptional defensive prospects in the 2021 class, led by linebacker Branden Jennings and weak-side defensive end Demeioun Robinson. 

    But the best of the bunch was a 5-star mid-term enrollee who had the potential to make an impact right away. Longtime Tennessee commit Terrence Lewis flipped to the Terrapins but had surgery in January to repair a torn ACL.

    Now, like Pickens, the nation's No. 20-ranked player in the 2021 class is uncertain about his season. Though, as early as his surgery was, it's possible he could recover in time. The news was only made public this March by coach Mike Locksley.

    With official visits unable to occur due to COVID-19, Lewis' injury wasn't discovered until he got on campus, Locksley said. "It just goes to show you the type of kid he is that he played a whole season up and through his state championship run on a torn ACL," Locksley told the Washington Post's Emily Giambalvo. "We got it fixed. It's unfortunate, but it gives us a chance to get him healthy."

    Hopefully, Lewis will get the opportunity to show his sideline-to-sideline speed in the Big Ten in '21, but it's yet another reason it's so vital visits get back to normal.      

The Death of One Legend...

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    Joe Sebo/Associated Press

    We had to say goodbye to one college football legend this spring, and another one stepped away from the game and the program that made him one of the most well-known coaches of yesteryear.

    Howard Schnellenberger, who led Miami to a 1983 national title and helped make "The U" the powerhouse it was throughout the '80s and '90s, died on March 27 at the age of 87. He also helped revitalize his hometown Louisville Cardinals and helped start the Florida Atlantic football program.

    He was a trailblazer who was a giant in the sport for two decades.

    "His baritone voice, bushy mustache and ever-present pipe made him look more businessman than football coach," ESPN.com's Andrea Adelson wrote, "but they became as synonymous with Schnellenberger as his penchant for embracing reclamation projects."

    Schnellenberger hadn't been in the college football spotlight in recent years, but he is an icon who carved a space in the annals of the sport's lore as a builder and a champion. 

    A handful of programs wouldn't be where they are today without him.

...And the Retirement of Another

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Another Hall of Famer, Barry Alvarez, announced this week he is retiring as Wisconsin's athletic director on June 30. The 74-year-old has served in his capacity as AD since 2004 and was the Badgers' head football coach from 1990 to 2005.

    Alvarez finished his career with three Big Ten titles and three Rose Bowl victories, but he also oversaw a sturdy athletic department that thrived in other sports besides football, too.

    His hard-nosed Wisconsin brand has continued through the tenures of Bret Bielema and Paul Chryst, and Alvarez is going to be difficult to replace at the helm of the athletic department. 

    When you watch the Badgers play and see that smashmouth football, running at will and building around elite defenses and big, strong offensive lines that are developed throughout their time at Wisconsin, Chryst deserves credit, but so does Alvarez.

    The old-school Big Ten style was perpetuated throughout Alvarez's career, and he is going to ride off into the sunset as perhaps the biggest sports figure ever at Camp Randall.

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