Uncertainty reigns supreme in spring
Spring practice is typically a time to answer questions, not create them. But the NCAA allegations released last month against Ohio State coach Jim Tressel have removed the Buckeyes from the gravity of preseason predictions.
Really, how can anyone peer into the future and find the Buckeyes? First, the NCAA suspended quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four other players for the first five games of the season. Second, the university announced that Tressel would serve a similar suspension. Finally, the allegations that Tressel misled the NCAA and did not act honestly mean that five games is now the floor for what he will serve.
Ohio State is in limbo. So is the rest of the Big Ten Conference -- Wisconsin and Iowa are both rebuilding; Penn State must mature; Michigan State must prove it can recover from its devastating bowl loss to Alabama.
Limbo is a pretty good word to describe the rest of college football. What I learned from spring practice is that after Oklahoma, Alabama, the Pac-12 North duo of Oregon and Stanford and maybe Boise State, there are no obvious national championship contenders.
And that's OK. Auburn came out of relative nowhere to win the crystal football last year. After a tumultuous (Ohio State, Fiesta Bowl) offseason, the best thing that the 2011 season offers is unpredictability.
Oklahoma has returning players at nearly every position from the team that went 12-2 and won the Big 12 championship. The Sooners are unproven at running back and in the secondary. But the spring showed that they have talent waiting to step into the lineup -- at tailback, January enrollee Brandon Williams looked as promising as heralded -- and they have a favorable schedule. The second game of the season, at what will be a highly ranked Florida State, comes early enough (Sept. 17) that the loser of the game will remain in the national championship race.
Alabama had the most players selected in the first round of last week's NFL draft (four) and lost quarterback Greg McElroy, a seventh-round pick of the New York Jets. But the Crimson Tide have capable replacements and the motivation of a cause. Head coach Nick Saban is best known for keeping his team focused. The devastation wreaked by last week's tornadoes will throw a wild card of emotion into Saban's preparation.
The tilt of the inaugural Pac-12 season will be to the north. Oregon and Stanford finished last season in the top five and are likely to pick up where they left off. A resurgent Washington looks as though it will continue to improve. In the South, there are more questions than answers. Will USC win its NCAA appeal? Will Utah survive the schedule upgrade? Will Arizona rebound from its late-season collapse?
Florida State may return to the national championship picture, which is more than anyone else in the ACC can say at this point. But redshirt junior EJ Manuel started six games in place of an injured Christian Ponder the past two seasons. Manuel is expected to make a smooth transition into the Seminoles' offense.
Any team that emerges from the Big East into the BCS discussion will be a dark horse. Boise State moves into the Mountain West Conference as a favorite over two-time defending champion TCU, both because of the Horned Frogs' youth and because the MWC made sure the two teams would play in Boise. TCU, which is leaving for the Big East next year, got no schedule breaks. With senior Kellen Moore at quarterback, the Broncos will be in the national hunt.
Spring tidings can portend summer danger
So, your favorite school has bounced out of spring practice looking good. The team has a ton of returning starters, some young players stood out in the spring game and a big recruiting class is on the way.
What could possibly go wrong?
Before you go booking hotel rooms for January in New Orleans, consider the plethora of offseason perils that are out there just waiting to snatch your team and drag it down into disappointment and underachievement. These are the reasons that coaches get nervous from May until the start of fall camp in August:
NCAA issues: Think back to last year at this time. North Carolina was considered a prime breakthrough candidate, talented enough to win the Atlantic Coast Conference and make a dark-horse challenge for the national title. Except then Agent Armageddon stripped the team of many top-shelf players and steeped the season in turmoil. Result: The Tar Heels wobbled to an 8-5 record, losing an opportunity for one of the greatest seasons in school history.
USC's 2010 season was scuttled before it started by the June NCAA Committee on Infractions ruling that banned the Trojans from bowl games for two years. A.J. Green was headed for a four-game suspension at Georgia -- and the Bulldogs would lose three of those games without him.
Bad behavior: I don't have statistics on hand, but there tend to be plenty of player arrests throughout the summer months. Something about idle time being the devil's workshop.
These days, heavy emphasis is put on players' staying on campus to work out together -- but most of them are taking a lighter academic load. Without daily practice and a full class schedule, they have more free time on their hands. Also, with fewer students on campus, there are fewer reasons for players to spend time there -- which can increase the possibility of heading to the proverbial "wrong side of town" in search of fun.
This also can be a time for failed drug tests to pop up, leading to the telltale "violation of team rules" and subsequent suspension for a game or two or three to start the season.
Academics: For some players, summer school is catch-up time -- and some of them fail to catch up. There is usually a smattering of ineligible players by the time we get to kickoff in September.
Freak injury or other misfortune: Hopefully, nothing ever so tragic as what befell blue-chip Notre Dame offensive line recruit Matt James, who fell to his death from a hotel balcony while on a spring break trip to Florida last year.
Flunking chemistry: In August, you will hear a unanimous refrain from sea to shining sea: We had a great summer in the weight room; we're bigger and faster than we've ever been; attendance at "voluntary" workouts was great; we're closer than ever; we came together as a team. Sometimes it's true. But sometimes the opposite is true -- sometimes a team comes apart during the offseason. If a team already has shaky chemistry, locker room fissures can intensify in the summer months, when coaches are less present to smooth over any disagreements or issues that arise.
Coaching miscalculation: Every once in a while, a coaching staff will make a significant strategic change in the offseason -- and whiff. Texas 2010 comes to mind, when the Longhorns recommitted to a power running game at precisely the time they had an offensive line and running backs who couldn't handle the assignment. Despite the usual sunny prognosis that accompanies any change in offensive or defensive philosophy, not every system alteration works.
Dark-horse BCS contenders
Schlabach: Post-spring top 25
No. 1. Oklahoma: The Sooners probably have fewer areas of concern than any other team in the country, which is a big reason why they might be poised to appear in their fifth BCS Championship Game since 2000. Quarterback Landry Jones and receiver Ryan Broyles are back to lead what should be a very prolific offense, albeit under new direction after former offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson left to become Indiana's head coach. It appears OU will use a tailback-by-committee approach to replace departed leading rusher DeMarco Murray, and converted tight end Lane Johnson might have to replace right tackle Jarvis Jones, who will miss several months with a knee injury. Another big concern: All-Big 12 cornerback Jamell Fleming isn't enrolled in classes after reportedly being suspended for academic misconduct. If Fleming doesn't return this fall, it will be a big blow to a thin OU secondary.
No. 2. Alabama: The Crimson Tide didn't settle on a new starting quarterback during spring practice, as AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims will continue the battle during preseason camp. In fact, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban hasn't ruled out using both quarterbacks during games this coming season. Despite losing 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, the Tide still appear to be stacked at running back. Trent Richardson might be a leading Heisman Trophy contender in 2011, and Eddie Lacy and freshman Dee Hart provide quality depth. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Mark Barron, who battled injuries last season, will lead a very good defense.
No. 3. Florida State: Myriad injuries on the offensive line thwarted FSU's offense during the spring, but quarterback E.J. Manuel looked ready to replace departed starter Christian Ponder on a full-time basis. The Seminoles might also start reaping the rewards of back-to-back nationally ranked recruiting classes. Linebackers Telvin Smith, Christian Jones and Nigel Terrell and safety Lamarcus Joyner looked like big-time impact players on defense. FSU's conference schedule is favorable -- it doesn't play Georgia Tech, North Carolina or Virginia Tech during the regular season -- and a Sept. 17 home game against Oklahoma might determine whether it's a legitimate BCS title contender.
No. 4. Oregon: The Ducks are going to be very prolific on offense again in 2011, with quarterback Darron Thomas and tailback LaMichael James returning to the team. But Oregon will have to replace three starting offensive linemen and its top two receivers from last season. There are even more questions on defense, where the Ducks will have to replace three starting linemen and middle linebacker Casey Matthews. Ends Dion Jordan and Brandon Hanna and tackles Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi emerged as potential starters during spring practice. Kiko Alonso, who missed all of last season because of injuries and suspensions, was the top candidate to replace Matthews before he was arrested Sunday on burglary charges; Alonso has since been suspended indefinitely.
No. 5. LSU: The Tigers exited spring practice feeling pretty confident about their quarterback situation, which had been a trouble spot during the past few seasons. Returning quarterback Jordan Jefferson picked up new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe's system pretty well, and JUCO transfer Zach Mettenberger provided strong competition during the spring. Tailback Spencer Ware looked like a solid replacement for 2010 leading rusher Stevan Ridley, and Russell Shepard looked like a more polished receiver. Cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and safety Craig Loston emerged as big playmakers in the secondary, but replacing linebacker Kelvin Sheppard remains a legitimate concern heading preseason camp. The Tigers also will have a new punter and kicker this coming season.
You can find the rest of Mark Schlabach's poll here.
You can find College Football Live's preseason top 25 here.
Feldman: Breakout players
Spring football often is the first real look many of us get at the so-called "rising stars" of a program, the ones that look like the replacements for key guys from the year before. Just about every team has a player who really wasn't a factor the previous season, but now has the staff arching its collective eyebrow over a breakout spring showing. This week's top 10 list: the biggest breakout guys of the spring.
To read the rest of Bruce Feldman's story, click here.
Joyner: Spring film review
Different coaches look for different things from the spring practice period, but if there's one thing they all hope to do, it is identifying the best playmakers and difference-makers on the team.
Playmakers can create a stir during standard practices, but the best place to make an impression is during the spring game. Nothing this time of year showcases the ability to have an impact on a contest like doing so on the biggest available stage.
After reviewing the footage of multiple spring games, five players/position groups stood out as the best playmaker candidates. Although the sample size of a spring game is clearly very small, all five of the teams listed below have reason to feel very positive about these players and positions heading into the summer.
For the rest of KC Joyner's story, click here.