Spring football ushers in a fresh start

In most years, the essence of spring practice could be captured at Stanford, Baylor and Boise State, where iconic quarterbacks have moved to the NFL and fans wonder if football ever will be the same.

Here's some breaking news: Josh Nunes and Brett Nottingham will never be Andrew Luck, just as NF1 (Nick Florence) won't be RG3, just as Joe Southwick, the junior expected to replace Kellen Moore, won't win 50 games in a Broncos uniform. For those teams, the new normal just may be, well, normal. Spring football is about acknowledging that stars shine brightly, and then they are gone.

That works in reverse, too. Spring practice is about erasing the bad memories of the previous fall and building upon the good ones. It is about optimism and growth. But more than any other quality, spring football is about renewal. That is true every spring on every campus, but never more so than in 2012.

It's not just because the sport's superstars are gone. It is because the problems of last year are gone, too. College football has never wanted to put a lid on a season like it did 2011. The pain has passed, and several programs began to stretch their muscles to break through the scar tissue left behind.

The adhesions run deep at Penn State, where former coach Joe Paterno ran the program for nearly 46 seasons. The Nittany Lions have a new coach, the unheralded, untested Bill O'Brien, who had the luxury of spending the spring installing new schemes and learning the skills of his players. That's the easy part. O'Brien still must navigate replacing a legend at a university trying to come to grips with the scandal and power struggle that forced Paterno out.

If nothing else, O'Brien serves as comfort for Ohio State's Urban Meyer, who might realize there's at least one head coach with a task tougher than his. The Buckeyes are used to wearing scarlet, just not the scarlet P for probation that will symbolize the 2012 season. There will be no Big Ten championship game or bowl for Ohio State. No one, least of all Meyer, is confusing a lack of a final goal with a lack of focus. Meyer has promised to himself, his family and everyone else that he will temper his intensity. But word out of Columbus this spring is that a tempered Meyer is still far from cuddly.

North Carolina, like Ohio State, is trying to pull out of the NCAA ditch after a season with an interim head coach. The Tar Heels, like the Buckeyes, will not play in a postseason bowl. Academic fraud and other penalties laid waste to the high hopes engendered when the university hired Butch Davis as coach in 2007. North Carolina spent the spring trying to adjust to the fast-tempo offense that new coach Larry Fedora brought with him from Southern Mississippi.

You don't have to have scandal to start over. Texas A&M and Missouri are starting their lives in a new conference (SEC). So are TCU and West Virginia (Big 12). The hard work of the switch -- the coaching staffs digesting new opponents -- will begin in earnest in June, after spring recruiting is done. In College Station this spring, however, the sense of excitement, of beginning anew, felt palpable.

The same feeling, that tangible idea that change is afoot, envelops anyone who cares about the postseason. Days before spring football came to a close, the FBS conference commissioners agreed to propose a four-team playoff. The change won't be implemented for two more years. But the decision to make the change added considerable heft to the idea that the game is on the verge of breaking into the open field.

All of college football is poised in a pregame locker room, waiting to burst out of the tunnel and compete. There has been so much renewal over the last few months that the defending national champion spent its spring practice in the shadows. The focus of the sport has not been on Alabama or the teams trying to replace it at the top of the BCS.

The focus has been on starting anew. Change is a common theme in spring practice. Arkansas, the latest team to contract a bad case of scandalitis, fired Bobby Petrino and hired his mentor, John L. Smith, who had left the program only a few months before. The Razorbacks changed as little as possible. This spring, that counters every rock-ribbed principle of the game. This spring, the key is change through renewal.