Top 25 teams need answers this spring

AP Photo, USA TODAY Sports

Mark Schlabach's 2016 Way-Too-Early Top 25 has Alabama and Florida State in the top two spots, but each face some big questions to answer this spring.

Using those rankings, here are other questions that need answers for each of our top 25 teams.

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

What will the defense look like without Kirby Smart? For the first time since 2008, Alabama will enter the spring with a new defensive coordinator. Under Smart, the Crimson Tide won four national championships in eight years. Now it's Jeremy Pruitt's turn. Pruitt, who came over from Georgia, coached at Alabama before, so the schemes and strategy shouldn't look all that different. Plus, Nick Saban is still there. But it might be strange not seeing Smart and Saban working alongside each other this spring. -- Greg Ostendorf

2. Florida State Seminoles

Will a receiver step up? Quarterback is the most glaring question as it's conceivable any of three players -- Sean Maguire, Deondre Francois or Malik Henry -- could start the opener. However, spring practice isn't settling that competition. More important for the offense is how much progress the offensive line and receivers make over 15 practices. It takes time for a line to build chemistry, and the Seminoles are slated to return all of their starters and contributors from the group. At receiver, there is talent but the offense has struggled to replace Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene and Nick O'Leary. Who will emerge as the go-to option? -- Jared Shanker

3. Michigan Wolverines

Who steps up at linebacker? While quarterback is a question mark, the Wolverines have some options there, including Houston transfer John O'Korn. The bigger concern this spring is at linebacker, where the team lost three senior starters and returns precious little experience. The position needs an athleticism upgrade as well. Ben Gedeon is the only lock for playing time, and Michigan likely will have to rely on some incoming freshmen, especially early enrollee Devin Bush Jr. -- Brian Bennett

4. Baylor Bears

Who fills the void on each line? The Bears' biggest questions are up front after losing Spencer Drango, Andrew Billings, Shawn Oakman and six more linemen. All those big fellas combined for 237 career starts in Waco. That's a lot of beef (and leadership) to replace. How will Art Briles and his staff rebuild both lines this spring? Who will protect QB Seth Russell when he gets back on the field? -- Max Olson

5. Clemson Tigers

Who replaces the defensive talent? It should come as no surprise that the biggest spring question surrounds the defense, which has to replace eight starters for the second straight season. Tops on the list: finding starting defensive ends who can dominate the same way Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd did a season ago. Lawson and Dodd combined for 49 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks, making them perhaps the best end duo in the country. Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin are the next men up, but they bring a significant drop off in experience compared to the way Lawson and Dodd filled in for the departed Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford in 2015. -- Adelson

6. LSU Tigers

What will the new defense look like? Les Miles has three new coaches on his staff, but all eyes will be on Dave Aranda as he implements his new defensive scheme. Aranda has already impressed those within the program with his mind for the game and willingness to listen to co-workers' ideas. But how it all will fit -- particularly in the front seven -- remains a mystery to outsiders. It will be interesting to see how LSU's defense changes under its new coordinator. -- David Ching

7. Oklahoma Sooners

Who will be the new go-to receiver? Wide receiver Sterling Shepard's clutch playmaking was a critical piece to Oklahoma's run to the playoff last season. With Shepard gone, the Sooners will have to find a new go-to option for quarterback Baker Mayfield. Dede Westbrook, tight end Mark Andrews and Penn State transfer Geno Lewis are three possibilities. -- Jake Trotter

8. Stanford Cardinal

How well will the DL be rebuilt? The Cardinal became a national power by transforming into bullies at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Heading into 2016, both lines are being rebuilt. The biggest question, however, is on the defensive line. End Solomon Thomas is a budding star in Stanford's 3-4 base scheme, but after that things are questionable. Harrison Phillips is returning from a knee injury that killed his 2015 campaign, but he's the surest thing among other starting candidates. There's hopes that converted tight ends Luke Kaumatule, a senior who redshirted last year, and Eric Cotton, will establish themselves. It's likely that a couple of youngsters, including one or two from a touted recruiting class, will contribute. Moreover, longtime D-line coach Randy Hart retired and was replaced by Diron Reynolds, so there's plenty of change going on at the position. -- Ted Miller

9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Can the defense make major improvements? The Irish lose their top three tacklers, top two linemen and best safety, leaving Notre Dame with some serious questions about how to improve the defense after a mediocre 2015. Six starters are gone, arguably the best players they had on D: Romeo Okwara, Sheldon Day, Joe Schmidt, Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate. Four are sure to be drafted. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has discussed the inconsistency that has plagued his unit since he arrived, most especially last season -- when the Irish ended the season giving up 38 points to Stanford and 44 to Ohio State in the BattleFrong Fiesta Bowl. There is no question the pressure is on VanGorder to improve the defense -- how will he do that with so much NFL talent out the door? -- Adelson

10. Ohio State Buckeyes

Who starts in the secondary? Jobs are open everywhere, but filling the cluster of them in the secondary will be Urban Meyer's top priority. The Buckeyes have arguably recruited defensive backs better than anybody over the past few years, but replacing three out of the four starters is a tall order for any program -- particularly when cornerback Eli Apple and safeties Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell all had eligibility left. The pressure is on to develop some new contributors to pair with returning cornerback Gareon Conley. -- Austin Ward

11. Houston Cougars

Can Tom Herman find playmakers on defense? With quarterback Greg Ward Jr. returning along with most of the offense, things seem to be in fine shape on that side of the ball. However, the Cougars need to fill several holes on defense -- particularly in a secondary that lost All-AAC cornerback William Jackson III and most of the other DBs in a two-deep that was loaded with seniors. Spring will offer a chance to begin finding answers on the back end. -- Ching

12. Tennessee Volunteers

Can Tennessee pull it together? This team is capable of contending for, at minimum, an SEC East title -- if not for the overall conference crown. But Butch Jones' program has been plagued by one off-the-field issue after another lately. Maybe spring practice will be the reset button the Volunteers need to prepare for a potential championship run. If they fail to operate with laser focus, a promising season might get derailed before it ever begins. -- Ching

13. Ole Miss Rebels

How do the Rebels replace their departing juniors? When Hugh Freeze signed that now famous recruiting class in 2013, there was a strong possibility that some of the signees might leave early. And some did, three to be exact -- Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and Robert Nkemdiche -- leaving enormous holes at wide receiver, left tackle and on the defensive line. This spring, the Rebels will begin searching for replacements as they try to fill those holes and prove they can compete after the 2013 class is gone. -- Ostendorf

14. Michigan State Spartans

How do you replace Connor Cook? Cook won more games (34) than any Michigan State quarterback in school history. He also was responsible for 1,153 pass attempts the past three seasons. Meanwhile, Tyler O'Connor and Damion Terry combined to throw 80 passes in that span. That's not much to go on, but the Spartans' coaching staff will have to decide whether O'Connor or Terry gives the team the best chance to defend its Big Ten title. -- Jesse Temple

15. TCU Horned Frogs

Who's the new threat at receiver? Replacing Trevone Boykin won't be easy but Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill seems poised to step in at quarterback for the Horned Frogs. Thus, replacing Josh Doctson is next on the menu. TCU has a receivers room full of young talent that could fit the bill, though only sophomore KaVontae Turpin has proven to be a consistent big play threat. -- Brandon Chatmon

16. USC Trojans

Can USC find DL help? While USC's quarterback competition to replace Cody Kessler between Max Browne and Sam Darnold will get the most headlines, the key to USC's season is its defensive line. Not only is USC replacing all of its starters from 2015, those guys -- other than NT Antwaun Woods -- were hardly dominant, certainly not up to USC standards of the past. The Trojans will need some young players, such as NT Noah Jefferson and DE Rasheem Green, to step up and for some veterans, such as Kenny Bigelow, to break through. It's likely some incoming players will get serious looks to be in the rotation. -- Miller

17. Iowa Hawkeyes

Can Iowa replace its rushing productivity? The biggest question the Hawkeyes face this spring is whether it can match the rushing productivity of last season? Departed running back Jordan Canzeri was the workhorse as Iowa built its offense around a stable of runners and the playmaking ability of QB C.J. Beathard. Beathard is coming off sports hernia surgery. Iowa needs to protect him. And the backs, led by LeShun Daniels Jr., must stay healthy to keep Iowa's balance intact. -- Mitch Sherman

18. North Carolina Tar Heels

Can Gene Chizik answer all the defensive needs? For most teams, a change at quarterback would be the dominant storyline of the spring, but not so in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels are already convinced they've got a burgeoning star in Mitch Trubisky, who pushed for the starting job two years ago and has looked sharp in reserve of Marquise Williams in recent seasons. They also have an offense bursting with talent at the skill positions. So once again, this spring's focus will be on the defense, where much of the progress Gene Chizik made in his first season as coordinator was undermined by a blowout loss to Baylor in the bowl game. Can the Tar Heels find a consistent pass rush? Are their linebackers ready to fill the voids left by Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad? Can the rushing defense become more consistent? These are the questions UNC has to answer if it wants to repeat as Coastal Division champ. -- David M. Hale

19. Georgia Bulldogs

Who takes over at QB? While the new coaching staff -- led by alum Kirby Smart -- and retooled defensive front seven will garner attention at Georgia this spring, those are secondary issues for the Bulldogs. The biggest questions will center around the passing game -- in particular, who has the upper hand in the quarterback battle. After a messy 2015 season, many Bulldogs fans hope freshman Jacob Eason can claim the starting job over returning Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey. -- Ching

20. Oregon Ducks

Can the Ducks find a QB? When Vernon Adams was healthy last year, the Ducks were an elite team. When he wasn't, they were a .500 team. That assertion is best illustrated by the bowl loss to TCU, when the Ducks were 31-0 winners with Adams behind center in the first half and 47-10 losers without him in the second half and OT. So while the Ducks welcome back solid talent throughout their roster -- even on defense -- finding a quarterback is perhaps even more a priority than it is for other teams. The wide consensus is Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop is talented enough to give the Ducks another A-list FCS transfer like Adams. If he's not ready, then things get dicey, as there's little reason to have faith that Jeff Lockie, Taylor Alie or Travis Jonsen are ready to lead an offense that can contend in the Pac-12 and nationally. -- Miller

21. UCLA Bruins

Who will start at receiver? So the Bruins get super-sophomore QB Josh Rosen back. But who's he going to throw to? That's a huge question for a team that doesn't have many obvious options, as four of the top pass catchers from last season -- 82 percent of its receiving touchdowns -- are gone, led by UCLA's all-time receptions leader, Jordan Payton. A bigger hit, in fact, might be the loss of hybrid TE/WR Thomas Duarte, who surprised more than a few folks when he opted to enter the NFL draft a year early. Junior Darren Andrews is the top returning receiver with 43 receptions for 443 yards and one TD. Are under-performing veterans such as Kenneth Walker and Eldridge Massington going to break through? Or will Rosen have to rely on youngsters in the passing game? -- Miller

22. Oklahoma State Cowboys

Will the OL improve? A subpar offensive line hampered the Cowboys' Big 12 championship hopes in 2015, so solidifying that unit is a top priority for the fall. Oklahoma State signed seven offensive linemen to help improve its offensive front, with junior college addition Larry Williams topping the list of guys who could help immediately. -- Chatmon

23. Washington Huskies

Can Jake Browning get some help? While Jake Browning improved over the second half the season as a true freshman starter that doesn't change the fact he had only 16 touchdown passes, which ranked ninth in the Pac-12. Adding to the Huskies' passing challenges in 2016 is the departure of their top two pass-catchers, receiver Jaydon Mickens and tight end Josh Perkins. While Dante Pettis and Brayden Lenius combined for 56 receptions, they also accounted for only four total TDs. The return of speedy John Ross from injury should help, but he caught only 17 passes in 2014. The Huskies have few obvious holes heading into a season of high hopes, but receiver is a notable question mark. -- Miller

24. Florida Gators

Which quarterback makes the best impression? Like a number of schools in the top 25, Florida is searching for a starting quarterback in 2016. Don't expect a starter to be named in the spring, though. The only quarterback on the roster to attempt a pass for the Gators might be moving to wide receiver. That leaves transfers Luke Del Rio (Oregon State) and Austin Appleby (Purdue), along with true freshmen Feleipe' Franks and Kyle Trask, as the top candidates. Among those, who will stand out? -- Ostendorf

25. Boise State Broncos

Can Boise State find replacements on the DL? The Broncos ranked among the nation's leaders in many defensive categories last year, yielding just 20.2 points per game and 3.2 yards per rush, and much of that was due to a strong defensive front. But all three D-line starters and two other key veteran backups are gone, as is defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, who bolted for Arizona. Seniors Sam McCaskill and Elliot Hoyte, who combined for 30 tackles and a sack last year, saw plenty of action in 2015, and junior DT Dereck Boles had 11 tackles and a sack. So there are some experienced options, but there will certainly be opportunities for youngsters and newcomers to compete for playing time or even starting jobs. -- Miller