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College football springs forward

The changes that occur in college football in the spring are supposed to take place underground. The roots of a team, planted by winter conditioning, begin to grab hold in the spring and, with the right amount of toil, sweat and prayer, bloom in the fall.

That's how it's supposed to work. In recent years, however, college football has done its changing in the offseason, one blockbuster news story after another: scandal, realignment, plus-one, more scandal.

This spring, however, the high tide of off-field news receded. We did find out the Conference Formerly Known as the Big East will become the American Athletic Conference, which is just as well, given the change in membership. ACC members decided to renew their wedding vows, which signaled to one and all that the heavy lifting of realignment is done.

Elsewhere, there has been more evolution than change. For instance, never have so many been so overjoyed merely by the use of the shift key. The college football playoff, the holy grail of frustrated fans across the country for a generation, is now the College Football Playoff.

With the minimalist name comes the maximalist arena. The inaugural event will be played at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Cotton Bowl, after being benched for two seasons, has been restored in good standing to the sport's postseason elite. That might be the most unlikely comeback in the sport since Bill Walsh followed his bliss back to Stanford two decades ago. All the Metroplex bowl people needed was a $1 billion stadium with a video screen the size of Rhode Island.

Two-time defending national champion Alabama went about replacing nine players taken in the NFL draft, including three of the first 11 players. Nine turnovers in the spring game -- nine! -- indicate that the Crimson Tide have work left to do.

Nick Saban didn't have the luck David Shaw did. The Stanford coach got what he described as an "NFL player" dropped into his lap in February when former Cardinal tailback Tyler Gaffney, who left the team last year to play professional baseball, asked whether he could return to the team.

By the end of spring practice, Gaffney, who will be a fifth-year senior, shared the top of the depth chart at tailback with Anthony Wilkerson. Stanford is five-deep at tailback with the best left side of the line in college football (tackle Andrus Peat, All-American guard David Yankey). The Cardinal brand of physical football is evolving.

Texas A&M, squinting in the glare of the spotlight on Johnny Football, developed a game plan for quarterback Johnny Manziel's publicity. He won't be freelancing the way he does on the field. Even with the loss of All-American left tackle Luke Joeckel, the second player selected in the NFL draft, the Aggies' greater need is replacing the core of their veteran defense.

At Oregon, new coach Mark Helfrich has brought a quieter vibe to the office once led by Chip Kelly and, if possible, a faster pace to the offense. Speaking of quiet, there has been little uproar in Eugene since the university made public the news that the NCAA hasn't found a lack of institutional control in the case involving the recruiting services of Willie Lyles. There is hope at Oregon that the NCAA's committee on infractions will follow the lead of its investigators and decide not to severely punish the Ducks.

Yes, we did circle back to NCAA violations. Auburn withstood (again) published allegations of wrongdoing on its way to the 2010 BCS championship. The Miami investigation continued to stain both the university and the NCAA as officials from each entity took potshots at the other. There is no good outcome there, except that it will come to an end, perhaps even in our lifetime.

It might not be good news for Penn State football, but it is good news for Penn State: The biggest headline this spring is that sophomore quarterback Steven Bench decided to transfer for football reasons. In State College, dog is biting man once again. In the state of college football, all anyone wants is a return to normalcy.