Ranking the 25 Must-Watch Spring Games of 2014

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2014

Ranking the 25 Must-Watch Spring Games of 2014

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    Nebraska's players will wrap up offseason workouts on April 12 with the annual spring game.
    Nebraska's players will wrap up offseason workouts on April 12 with the annual spring game.Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    They are the most important games of the year but also one that have absolutely no official effect on any standings, polls or postseason qualifications.

    We're talking about college football spring games, and there's really no better way to describe them.

    Held at the end of a short clumping of offseason practices, the spring game is meant to provide a brief glimpse at what teams will bring to the field the following fall. And by "glimpse," that could mean as little as one play or one person in his natural position. That all depends on how experimental the coaching staff may be during spring ball.

    Each team has its own set of areas to work on during this period, so exactly what those areas are has a great impact on how the spring game looks. Still, nearly all coaching staffs use the game as a nice way to wrap up the offseason before returning in the summer for full-scale preparations.

    Air Force, Duke, San Jose State and Tulane have already completed their spring practice slates, while BYU, South Florida and Troy have their spring games on tap for Saturday.

    Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh and Texas A&M do not have formal spring games scheduled, and the remainder of FBS schools will hold their games between April 4 and May 3.

    Here's a look at the 25 most intriguing spring games yet to be held and why you might want to check them out. 

25. Connecticut Huskies

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    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: April 12

    The Bob Diaco era has brought some excitement back to the Huskies program, but whether that will translate to on-field success remains to be seen. The former Notre Dame defensive coordinator has brought his style and approach to Connecticut, and this game will be the first chance to see how his players respond to that.

    Connecticut has a major hole to fill on defense, where Yawin Smallwood held court at linebacker last season, so his potential replacements will use this game as a chance to shine. Fans will also get to see what kind of progress quarterback Casey Cochran has made during the offseason.

24. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

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    Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: April 26

    Rutgers is making the bold move into the Big Ten Conference for 2014, an upgrade in competition that comes on the heels of a very rough season that saw it lost six of eight after a 4-1 start. Coach Kyle Flood made numerous changes to his staff during the offseason, which sends the Scarlet Knights into this critical year with a lot of uncertainty.

    Though they've only had a handful of practices to work with the players, the spring game will serve as a barometer for how well these new coaches have bonded with the roster.

23. Louisville Cardinals

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: April 11

    The ACC's newest member is in the midst of an offseason full of change. In addition to the move from the American Athletic Conference, the Cardinals have also welcomed back an old friend in Bobby Petrino. That familiarity can help ease some of the stress that comes with the stronger conference, but it also helps that Charlie Strong left some nice players behind.

    Petrino and Strong are very different types of coaches, though, so the spring game will show us just how much Louisville's approach has changed since the 2013 season ended.

22. Utah Utes

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Date: April 19

    Utah has gone 5-7 the past two years, which is a far cry from how this program used to be prior to joining the Pac-12. Kyle Whittingham has been desperately trying to change things in Salt Lake City, shuffling his coaching staff around with role changes and new faces, but whether that will lead to any improved results is uncertain.

    The Utes have some key holes to fill this offseason, and the chance to see potential replacements in action (along with how the new staff works with the roster) will be key items to pay attention to when the spring game comes around.

21. Arkansas Razorbacks

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Date: April 26

    Bret Bielema did not have a very good year following his surprising move from Wisconsin to Arkansas, and we're not just talking on the field. The Razorbacks went 3-9—their worst record since joining the SEC, and this came after a 3-0 start.

    The quarterback position was woeful in 2013, and it's wide open heading into this fall, so the spring game will give us a status report on how that's going. Meanwhile, Arkansas' defense has some new coaches who are tasked with trying to fix a porous unit.

20. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Date: April 12

    We got to see a little of what Hutson Mason could do as the heir apparent to Aaron Murray, but how will he look after a full slate of practices and dedicated training? That's just one of the storylines that will make this year's Georgia spring game intriguing.

    It will also be fun to see how coordinator Mike Bobo handles what seems to be an overabundance of talent at the skill positions. Although a spring game can't show everything, it can give an indication of how the Bulldogs will try to maximize their weapons on offense.

    Lastly, the scrimmage will provide an opportunity to see how much progress Jeremy Pruitt has made with Georgia's maligned defensive unit.

19. UCLA Bruins

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Date: April 26

    UCLA has some questions to answer before the season begins Aug. 30 at Virginia—most notably how it will look at running back, receiver and on the front half of its defense. The Bruins have good options at those positions, but who will emerge to become starters is still uncertain.

    There's also the looming specter of that other Los Angeles program, USC, which has gotten plenty of attention during the offseason with Steve Sarkisian's hiring. There's always a competition for attention between these schools, and UCLA holding its spring game two weeks after USC allows for the Bruins to have the spotlight all to themselves.

18. TCU Horned Frogs

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: April 5

    The TCU team that struggled to its worst record in 16 years last season is long gone—not so much in terms of mentality as in the fact that many players and coaches are no longer with the program. While this likely will be a good thing in the long run, for the time being, it's difficult to know what to make of the Horned Frogs right now.

    As the spring game approaches, TCU is working on filling holes all over the field while it's already breaking in new coaches including co-offensive coordinators Sonny Cumbie (from Texas Tech) and Doug Meacham (Houston). They're looking to speed things up for the Frogs, and this will be the first chance to see how that's progressing.

17. Washington Huskies

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    Date: April 19

    Spring games are meant to give fans and coaches an early look at what a team has to work with for the upcoming season. But there's no doubt a good bit of interest in Washington's game will be related to its new coach.

    Chris Petersen's move from Boise State was one of the biggest coaching transactions of the offseason, and while he has some solid pieces already in place, the Huskies will be doing a bit of rebuilding. This is especially true on offense, where Washington has to replace its quarterback, running back and top pass-catching target in tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

    We'll have a much better idea of how the Huskies will look this year when they open 2014 play in Hawaii in late August, but for now, this scrimmage will have to do.

16. Auburn Tigers

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Date: April 19

    Was it the players or the system? Did Auburn's amazing 2013 season come as a result of talented athletes finally blossoming, or did Gus Malzahn's schemes tap into those players' skill sets in just the right way?

    Tre Mason has left the offense for the NFL, and several defensive standouts are gone, too. How the replacements fare this fall will go a long way toward answering those questions, and the spring game will give us an early glimpse at how the runners-up look.

    It will also give an opportunity for Nick Marshall to show any growth and development he may have had since the national championship game.

15. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Date: April 12

    Braxton Miller's minor shoulder surgery likely will keep him from participating in the spring game, but that doesn't take away from an important scrimmage in the least. Miller's starting spot isn't an issue, while who will be the Buckeyes' main running back is.

    The battle to replace Carlos Hyde is one of many intriguing aspects to this game, along with a first chance to glimpse of some of the future OSU standouts such as 5-star linebacker Raekwon McMillan and 4-star prospects Johnnie Dixon and Curtis Samuel.

14. Arizona Wildcats

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    Date: April 12

    Arizona is coming off back-to-back 8-5 seasons, and Rich Rodriguez has a chance to cement his place in program history with another solid year. But to do so, the Wildcats will have to replace their two main weapons on offense.

    Ka'Deem Carey rushed for more than 3,700 yards over the previous two seasons, but he left early for the NFL. And B.J. Denker evolved into a pretty reliable dual-threat passer as the 2013 season went along, but he was a senior.

    Both positions are wide open with no shortage of candidates to fill each slot. The spring game will give them all a chance to shine one last time before picking the competition back up in the summer.

13. Kentucky Wildcats

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    Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

    Date: April 26

    The second year of a new coach's tenure is often when major progress is shown, or if it isn't, then that serves as the beginning of the end. Kentucky didn't look so great in Mark Stoops' first season, but with a great recruiting class on board, there are big hopes for 2014.

    The spring game will gauge how much improvement has been made since late November, especially when it comes to the quarterback position. There are numerous guys fighting for the spot, including 4-star recruit Drew Barker. They will all want to show what they can do during this competition.

12. Florida State Seminoles

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Date: April 12

    It looks like the defending champions are just going to reload at all of the positions where the Seminoles lost players to graduation or early NFL departure, but that's an assumption based on paper and recruiting ratings.

    On the field is where the real evaluation happens, and with so many high-profile recruits set to arrive in the summer, spring ball is the best chance to give returners a proper look-see. FSU did have 5-star running back Dalvin Cook on campus early, but a shoulder injury has ended his spring, so the focus is on the backups who are looking to fill many slots on defense and a few on offense.

    FSU's spring game also has the added intrigue of seeing budding two-sport star Jameis Winston attempt to balance his role as a relief pitcher with the Seminoles' baseball team with his commitments to football.

11. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Date: April 12

    One of the biggest quarterback battles in the Midwest comes out of Lincoln. After using three passers in 2013, Bo Pelini is hoping to settle on just one. The most likely candidates are Tommy Armstrong and Johnny Stanton, but the appearance of quarterback-turned-receiver Jamal Turner taking snaps at the start of spring ball has added further intrigue to the race.

    Though spring game performance won't ultimately determine who starts for the Cornhuskers on Aug. 30 against Florida Atlantic, the order of use in this contest will help set the stage for the remainder of the competition.

10. Missouri Tigers

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Date: April 19

    Maty Mauk got to have an impact on Missouri's offense earlier than expected when he had to replace James Franklin at quarterback midway through last season. The results were good, but they came in an emergency situation and won't necessarily carry over to his time now as the full-time starter.

    What he can show will highlight the offensive side of the spring game, but the defense is probably where most attention will be paid. The Tigers suffered significant losses in their front seven, particularly on the line, so it will be interesting to see how the new lineup looks in this end-of-spring workout.

9. Michigan Wolverines

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Date: April 5

    Doug Nussmeier was lured away from Alabama in the offseason to try and reinvigorate a stagnant Michigan offense, and this will be the first opportunity to see what the new coordinator has in store. He'll also get a chance to see how quarterback Devin Gardner and his healed toe hold up in a pseudo-live setting.

    Gardner's injury during the Ohio State game last year kept him out of Michigan's bowl game, allowing freshman Shane Morris to start. This led to speculation of a legitimate battle for the quarterback job, but Gardner confidently declared when spring ball began that he was the starter, per MLive.com.

    There's also the opportunity to get a look at some of the Wolverines' early enrollees, including 4-star receiver Drake Harris and 4-star defensive tackle Bryan Mone.

8. Tennessee Volunteers

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    Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

    Date: April 12

    A team that went 5-7 and hasn't had a winning season since 2009 managed to pull in the seventh-best recruiting class this offseason. And that was by a coach who is in just his second year with the program. If you're looking for a team that's poised to rise, it's Tennessee.

    The Volunteers have numerous early enrollees who are already getting their chance to shine, with standouts such as wide receiver Von Pearson impressing with amazing catches and slick moves. There are going to be playmakers aplenty for whoever ends up being the quarterback—a decision that could be influenced by performance in the spring game.

7. LSU Tigers

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Date: April 5

    LSU's spring game, in a manner of speaking, is almost like a beta test for what the Tigers will be like for the 2014 season. That's because their most significant incoming recruits, including Leonard Fournette and three other 5-star prospects, aren't scheduled to arrive until the summer.

    All of those standouts are expected to contend for playing time right away on an LSU team that yet again experienced a mass exodus of talent to the NFL draft. Most position battles won't be able to end until training camp, but the spring game will provide returners with their best chance to make a lasting impression on the coaching staff before practice goes dark for a few months.

    The exception could be at quarterback, where 4-star prospect Brandon Harris and sophomore Anthony Jennings can both use a great showing in the spring game to help their chances of getting the starting job.

6. Clemson Tigers

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    RAINIER EHRHARDT/Associated Press

    Date: April 12

    An explosive offense has been a staple of Clemson teams over the last few years, but the catalysts of that attack are gone. The Tigers lost their top two receivers and quarterback Tajh Boyd, and who end up filling all those spots will impact what happens this season.

    The spring game will be a high-visibility chance for Chad Kelly, Cole Stoudt and 4-star early enrollee Deshaun Watson to separate from the pack in the quarterback race.

5. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Joe Raymond/Associated Press

    Date: April 12

    Performance in a spring game should never carry too much weight, but when it comes to a player who's been out of action for more than a year, it's hard not to look to such a contest with extra interest.

    That's how it will be during Notre Dame's spring game, which will provide the first chance to see if Everett Golson can play the way he did in leading the Fighting Irish to an unbeaten regular season in 2012 and a trip to the BCS national title game. He missed last season because of academic issues, and his return has been greatly welcomed.

    But the spring game will also help answer other questions, particularly on defense, where Notre Dame has to replace some notable standouts on the line and also is breaking in a new coordinator after Bob Diaco left for Connecticut. The job belongs to Brian VanGorder, who will be under the microscope.

4. Penn State Nittany Lions

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    Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: April 12

    The James Franklin era at Penn State officially begins on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean when the Nittany Lions meet Central Florida in Ireland on Aug. 30, but this will be the first chance to see what he has in store for his new program.

    Penn State put together an impressive 7-5 campaign last year, and with Christian Hackenberg no longer an untested freshman, this could be a big year for the Lions. 

    There are some position battles of note, namely at wide receiver, but more than anything, this game will be a great chance to see how different PSU is under Franklin.

3. USC Trojans

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Date: April 19

    Steve Sarkisian has returned to Los Angeles, where he had been an assistant for USC before getting his first head coaching gig at Washington. His arrival coincides with the tail end of the Trojans' scholarship limitations but also comes with a potential quarterback controversy.

    Cody Kessler was USC's starter last year, but waiting in the wings is former 5-star recruit Max Browne, who redshirted in 2013. Both have seen plenty of work in spring ball, and how they fare in the spring game is one of many storylines to watch.

    USC lost several key players early to the NFL, so it will also be worth watching to see how the competition for those open slots affects performance in the spring game.

2. Florida Gators

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Date: April 12

    Let's not mince words: Florida's offense was pretty bad last year, and that was a huge factor in the Gators posting their worst season in more than 30 years. While ineffectiveness played a big role, so did injuries, not the least of which was quarterback Jeff Driskel's broken leg.

    Edgar Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel reported Tuesday that Driskel's recovery from that injury, as well as his play so far in spring ball, has caused him to distance himself from the rest of the pack to be the Gators' starter again this fall. How this translates into game performance is something fans will get to see at next month's spring game.

    They'll also get a chance to see how Driskel and others operate in Florida's new offense, which is under the guidance of coordinator Kurt Roper. He did great things at Duke, but he'll be under much more scrutiny in Gainesville.

1. Texas Longhorns

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Date: April 19

    Replacing a coach who won 158 games and a national championship is going to come with some high expectations, but Charlie Strong had to know that when he agreed to leave Louisville for Texas. The scrutiny of each and every move he and his Longhorns staff makes will be intense, and the spring game won't be immune from such attention.

    First, fans will want to see what Texas is doing at quarterback. David Ash and Tyrone Swoopes will have this game as their last chance to impress before 4-star dual-threat recruit Jerrod Heard shows up in the summer.

    Strong has a reputation for defense, so the spring game will provide an early status report on how he has affected the Longhorns' defenders, who were maligned at many times last season.

     

    Note: All recruiting ratings are courtesy of 247Sports.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.