Seven college football teams with the most to prove in spring practices

3:53 | College Football
Spring camp preview: Clemson, Texas and Big Ten
Tuesday February 21st, 2017

The 15 practices that make up spring football represent an exceptionally short window. With roughly six months until the 2017 college football season kicks off, how much are teams really expected to accomplish in a few weeks of drills and scrimmages?

However, for teams facing serious questions in the off-season (and that applies to nearly every team to some extent), spring practices offer the first insight into how those questions might get answered. For coaches on the hot seat, it’s their chance to ease some concerns so they don’t face quite so many tough questions when the preseason begins. For new coaches, there’s nothing like a good first impression. And for teams facing significant roster turnover, it marks the turning of the page, the time to put last season’s successes behind them and find new paths to victory.

As college football teams prepare for their spring practices, here are seven, listed alphabetically, with the most to prove.

What do the defending national champions have to prove? That they’re built to win another one—and this time they’ll have to do it without one of the greatest players in program history, quarterback Deshaun Watson. After two years of questions about whether the Tigers’ defense could overcome its many departures to the NFL (it could), the inquiries now turn to the offense. It’s not just Watson who’s gone, but running back Wayne Gallman, wide receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott and tight end Jordan Leggett too. Still with Tavien Feaster ready to take over at running back and Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow and Ray-Ray McCloud back at receiver, the biggest question for the spring is obviously under center. Dabo Swinney said junior Kelly Bryant will enter spring practice as the starter, but don’t be surprised if redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper or true freshman Hunter Johnson leaves the race unsettled entering the summer. Both Cooper and Johnson have higher ceilings, particularly Johnson, an early enrollee who was the No. 5 quarterback in this year’s recruiting class, according to Scout.com.

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The Owls took a chance on Lane Kiffin. The move could work out wonderfully both parties (boosting FAU’s on-field success and dramatically increasing the program’s visibility while adding a key component to Kiffin’s image rehabilitation) or it could end in calamity. Spring alone won’t be enough to tell us which outcome to expect, but it could offer the first clues. The best-case scenario here is no news. Kiffin was at his best for Alabama when he was simply calling the plays and (due to Nick Saban’s one voice philosophy) not talking. Everyone in Boca Raton should be hoping there’s no reason for the national media to even remember Kiffin is there until the season starts.

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Despite nine wins, it was a rough fall for Cougars fans as they watched the Big 12 opt against expansion and coach Tom Herman leave for Texas. Now Herman’s offensive coordinator Major Applewhite must prove he can build on what Herman started while overcoming the loss of dynamic quarterback Greg Ward Jr., one of the top players in the Group of Five. All eyes this spring will be on former Texas A&M quarterback Kyle Allen, the five-star recruit who sat out last year after leaving the Aggies for the Cougars. Which loss will be more noticeable? Ohio State’s offense hasn’t looked quite the same since Herman left, while Ward will go down as one of the top players in Houston history.

The Row the Boat mantra worked at the Group of Five level, as P.J. Fleck and Western Michigan went undefeated in the 2016 regular season. Whether it can be as effective at the Power 5 level was always going to be the key question for Fleck. While most coaches rising from Group of the Five to the power conferences do so with a distinct offensive or defensive scheme, Fleck is doing it with a distinct philosophic scheme. That could certainly work, but it’s a less proven path. Whether Fleck can recruit at a high enough level to make Minnesota a consistent winner in the Big Ten won’t be clear for some time, but the buy-in he gets from his current players in spring practice could be illustrative. This is the same program whose players staged a boycott over 10 players who were suspended after a university investigation into an alleged sexual assault, so unity and trust may require some work.

 

The list of what’s settled is a lot shorter than what’s in question for the Fighting Irish this spring. The coaching staff under head coach Brian Kelly is mostly new as is the starting quarterback and much of the defense. After a 4–8 season, change is probably a good thing, but Notre Dame fans will be eager to learn some answers to indicate Kelly has the Irish back on track. Redshirt sophomore Brandon Wimbush steps in to replace DeShone Kizer under center and learn new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Wimbush has plenty of hype after Scout.com ranked him the No. 6 quarterback in the 2015 recruiting class, but remains unproven. The defense will have to adapt to new coordinator Mike Elko’s 4-2-5 scheme, which helped Wake Forest finish No. 22 in defensive S&P+ ratings last season. In short, expect the Irish to look a lot different when they open spring practice, but they’ll need to adjust quickly.

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For a coach who won nine games last year, Butch Jones has a lot at stake in 2017. He can’t win the division title fans so desperately crave in spring practices, but he’ll need to show the Volunteers are transitioning smoothly in an off-season when they’ll need to replace some key pieces. Longtime starting quarterback Joshua Dobbs is gone (possibly to be replaced by a redshirt freshman, Jarrett Guarantano), as are running backs Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd, top receiver Josh Malone, and defensive stars Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton. On paper, this might look like a rebuilding year; Jones needs to demonstrate this spring that the Volunteers have other ideas. Oh, and avoid anymore clichés about “champions of life” and “five-star hearts.”

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West Virginia

For a team featured in many way-too-early top 25 rankings, including SI’s, the Mountaineers sure have a lot of questions. For example: Who’s going to replace all of the key losses this off-season? On offense, quarterback Skyler Howard is gone as is All-America center Tyler Orlosky. On defense, the unit whose success guided West Virginia’s breakthrough last season, the Mountaineers lose their entire starting defensive line, a linebacker and four starters in the secondary. It’s also worth remembering Dana Holgorsen is just over five months removed from being on the hot seat. The Mountaineers’ 10–3 season definitely bought him some breathing room, but he and defensive coordinator Tony Gibson have a lot of work to accomplish this spring to build their success.

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