Complete Previews for College Football's Top 15 Week 3 Spring Games

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistApril 16, 2014

Complete Previews for College Football's Top 15 Week 3 Spring Games

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Week 3 of spring football games does not have the depth of last weekend, but it does feature just as many—if not more—name-brand programs at the top.

    The Iron Bowl rivals, Alabama and Auburn, will both be in action, and none of the five most recent national title games has been without one of them. If Alabama is the closest thing we have to a current dynasty, USC was the closest thing before that—and the Trojans will play their spring game this weekend as well.

    Steve Sarkisian will make his return to the home sideline at the Coliseum, which underpins a major theme of the weekend: coaching change. Besides him, two more of the five highest-profile coaching hires of the offseason—Charlie Strong at Texas and Chris Petersen at Washington—will also be making their public debuts.

    So fret not about a hangover after last week's loaded schedule. This one isn't quite as good, but there will still be plenty to watch.

Alabama

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    Butch Dill

    When: Saturday, April 19 – 2 p.m. ET

    Alabama will complete Phase 1 of its quarterback battle, with Blake Sims, Cooper Bateman and Alec Morris—the trio Nick Saban said has separated themselves during spring camp, per Michael Casagrande of AL.com—going at it before the looming arrival of Florida State transfer (and prohibitive favorite) Jacob Coker this summer.

    The quarterbacks will underscore a larger story Saturday: The first public showing of new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who was still the head coach at USC this time last year. How he acclimates to fans (and vice versa) is always worth watching, as is the dichotomy between running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry.

    On defense, all eyes will be fixed upon the cornerbacks, which was a position of need even before Eddie Jackson tore his ACL. Early enrollee 5-star Tony Brown is a name to keep an eye on, and the looming addition of fellow 5-star freshman Marlon Humphrey this summer will give the Tide a pair of young potential stars in coverage.

Arizona State

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    When: Saturday, April 19 – 2 p.m. ET

    The questions on offense are minimal.

    Even without Marion Grice, who rushed for 996 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, Arizona State returns offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and seven starters on that side of the ball—chief among them quarterback Taylor Kelly and receiver Jaelen Strong.

    The real questions exist on defense, where a solid unit loses Will Sutton, Carl Bradford, Chris Young, Alden Darby and four other starters. According to Phil Steele's experience chart, the Sun Devils return just one starter at each level of the defense (DL, LB, DB), which means every sub-unit is in flux before next season.

    Everything started up front for ASU the past two seasons, and it will be intriguing to see who replaces the production in the trenches. Names to keep an eye on include former star JUCO transfer Marcus Hardison, who underwhelmed in 2013, and early enrollee Edmond Boateng.

Auburn

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    Chris Carlson

    When: Saturday, April 19 – 3 p.m. ET

    Auburn returns plenty of talent from last year's national runner-up despite losing Greg Robinson, Tre Mason and Dee Ford—three of the best players at their respective positions in the NFL draft.

    Because of this, Gus Malzahn's younger players should be the stars of Saturday's A-Day game. Which ones can contribute off the bat?

    Former JUCO teammates D'haquille Williams and Derrick Moncrief have both fought for starting spots in their first spring on campus and appear well on their way to earning them (at receiver and safety, respectively).

    Not of immediate importance but still worth keeping an eye on is the play of Jeremy Johnson, the backup quarterback and heir apparent to Nick Marshall. Only a true sophomore, Johnson might already be the best overall QB on the roster, even though he will (rightfully?) not unseat a man who led this team to the national title game.

Ball State

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    Jeff Haynes

    When: Saturday, April 19 – 2 p.m. ET

    Pete Lembo stayed at Ball State after winning 19 games the past two seasons, which should keep the Cardinals in MAC contention all year. However, after losing quarterback Keith Wenning from those highly successful teams, the team must find a new signal-caller first.

    A battle will be waged Saturday between Ozzie Mann and Jack Milas primarily, but also watch out for Kyle Kamman and David Morrison.

    "I'm less concerned with who the starter is right now," Lembo said, according to Tom Davis of the News-Sentinel"and more concerned with 'Are they all getting better?' And I feel like they are."

    Whoever wins the job will not have the luxury of 1,500-yard receiver Willie Snead—who declared early for the NFL draft—or 900-yard receiver Jamill Smith. But 1,000-yard receiver Jordan Williams is back on campus, as are two of the conference's best running backs, Jahwan Edwards and Horactio Banks.

    If the QB position stabilizes, this team will continue being dangerous.

Colorado State

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    When: Saturday, April 19 – 1 p.m. ET

    Colorado State takes the field in public for the first time since its wild comeback win over Washington State, 48-45, in the 2013 New Mexico Bowl. Can the program snowball that momentum?

    It can if head coach Jim McElwain, a disciple of Nick Saban, stabilizes the running game after losing three starting offensive linemen and running back Kapri Bibbs. He always molded those positions well at Alabama, however, and even though Colorado State has a different class of prospect, that experience should serve McElwain well.

    With senior quarterback Garrett Grayson and his two best receivers (Rashard Higgins and Joe Hansley) back in tow, the offense should be fine either way. Defensively, the back seven remains intact, but the front four loses every starter, so finding production along the defensive line is one of the primary goals of Saturday.

Georgia Tech

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When: Friday, April 18 – 7 p.m. ET

    The ill-timed transfer of starting quarterback Vad Lee, who is off to FCS James Madison, has put Georgia Tech in an interesting spot.

    Justin Thomas was the backup last year and appears to have the upper hand, but he will be pushed in the spring game and all through the summer by Tim Byerly and Matthew Jordan.

    A top-150 recruit on the 247Sports Composite in the class of 2012, Thomas is undersized (5'11'') but originally committed to Alabama as an athlete before heading to Georgia Tech, so the pedigree is there for him to succeed in the triple-option offense.

    The QB battle will steal most headlines, and rightfully so, but also worth keeping an eye on is a defense that lost four starters in the front seven and six on the whole. The Jackets typically replace production well on that side of the ball, but complacent is the worst thing a college team can be.

Missouri

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    L.G. Patterson

    When: Saturday, April 19 – 2 p.m. ET

    Man. If only college football had a Hard Knocks...right?

    Missouri has been a media circus since the end of last season, starting with the announcement that Michael Sam—last year's SEC Defensive Player of the Year—was gay and had told his teammates before his senior season in 2013 and ending less than a week ago with the dismissal of star receiver Dorial Green-Beckham.

    The spring game is a return to normalcy. To football. To what happens on the field being as important as what happens off it.

    With sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk, who played well in relief of James Franklin last season, now taking over the position full time and replacing his three best receivers and top running back, the Tigers must get a good game from the pass offense to convince teams in the SEC that they are not, in fact, a fluky one-year wonder.

Northern Illinois

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    When: Saturday, April 19 – 4 p.m. ET

    Northern Illinois will never replace Jordan Lynch, a Heisman finalist in 2013, but it must at least find a capable successor.

    On Saturday, Drew Hare, Anthony Maddie and (hopefully) Matt McIntosh will battle for the right to start in 2014, and the race appears to be close between all of them. Hare is the prohibitive favorite, if there is one, and he could do a lot to help his stock in the scrimmage.

    Nine starters return on offense, so whoever wins the job will be set up for success. Elsewhere, a defense that struggled in spots last season loses four starters along the line, and it must find some replacements before the break of spring camp. Matthew Baltimore and Cameron Clinton-Earl are names to keep an eye on.

Syracuse

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When: Saturday, April 19 – 1 p.m. ET

    Terrel Hunt hasn't officially been named the starting quarterback, but he will be. After the way he ended last season and has performed thus far in spring, there is little to no chance head coach Scott Shafer will pull the rug out on him.

    The real questions exist at the other spot in the offensive backfield. Running back Jerome Smith declared early (for some reason) for the NFL draft, leaving Prince-Tyson Gulley, Devante McFarlane and George Morris II to battle for touches in his wake.

    According to Nate Mink of The Post-Standard'Cuse's defense has been banged up this spring, so it's unclear how much of the projected starting group we will get to see Saturday. However, with seven returning starters, that unit is expected to be a little better in 2014.

Texas

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    When: Saturday, April 19 – 2 p.m. ET

    Freshman Jerrod Heard did not enroll early and won't arrive until summer, senior David Ash broke his foot and won't return until fall and former USC quarterback Max Wittek has not declared his transfer intentions and may not play for Texas at all.

    Which is to say, decisively, that Tyrone Swoopes is in the spotlight.

    As a true freshman last season, he looked underwhelming in limited playing time. However, that hardly seems an adequate sample to judge him on. He was highly touted for a reason, and on Saturday, as the only realistic contender to start in 2014, he will get a chance to state his case loudly for new head coach Charlie Strong.

    Elsewhere, watching the new coaches might be more important than the players. There are questions on the roster, sure, but none loom as meaningful as what Strong, offensive coordinator Joe Wickline, QB coach Shawn Watson and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford are bringing to Darrell K. Royal-Texas Stadium for the first time Saturday.

    This is a new era of Texas football—the initial public offering of the post-Mack Brown era. Suck up that breath of fresh air.

Tulsa

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    Karl B DeBlaker

    When: Saturday, April 19 – 3 p.m. ET

    Bill Blankenship is not used to losing as a head coach. He parlayed a wildly successful stint at nearby Union High School into an assistant job at Tulsa, and once promoted to the head job, he won 19 games and went 14-2 in conference his first two seasons.

    The walls caved in, however, in 2013, as the Golden Hurricane went 3-9. This spring has thus been about restoring the prestige of what was hitherto one of America's scrappiest mid-majors.

    If Dane Evans can show signs of improvement at quarterback (after throwing 10 interceptions on 195 attempts last season), it is not crazy to think this team is capable. The defensive line and secondary remain intact, after all, and the precedent for success is there.

    What type of energy will Tulsa come out with Saturday?

USC

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When: Saturday, April 19 – 4 p.m. ET

    Cody Kessler's gradual improvement last season and marked development this spring took much of the intrigue out of Saturday's spring game, as he was named the team's official starting quarterback late Tuesday evening, per Gary Klein of The Los Angeles Times.

    Now attention can shift to a macro level—i.e., how the new coaching staff, led by head coach Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, will return the program to its former glory after the Lane Kiffin era.

    How Wilcox plays with the defensive formations is important. He won't run Clancy Pendergast's 5-2, but given most of these players' success in those roles last season, when USC had one of the best defenses in the nation, Wilcox would do well to learn from how his predecessor schemed.

    The state of the offensive line is also of major note.

Utah

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    When: Saturday, April 19 – 3 p.m. ET

    Travis Wilson's career was in jeopardy after last year's season-ending concussion. But he was given the OK to play in spring practice, and after throwing five touchdowns in the team's most recent scrimmage, he is back to looking like the potential breakout player I've predicted.

    Keep an eye on how he performs under center Saturday, especially with the addition of offensive coordinator Dave Christensen. A passing game/quarterbacks guru, he has a chance to bring Utah's offense to heights it hasn't seen since the Urban Meyer era.

    What's more, an improved passing game will also test the team's biggest weakness, its secondary. After finishing No. 111 nationally in yards allowed through the air, the Utes are looking for a pair of new starters in the secondary (and three on the defensive line).

    Who, if anyone, will foster an improvement?

Washington

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    Ted S. Warren

    When: Saturday, April 19 – 4 p.m. ET

    Welcome to the Chris Petersen era.

    After years of flirtation with schools outside of Boise, Idaho, Petersen finally left for Seattle this offseason. His first spring game will feel incomplete, however, as presumptive starting quarterback Cyler Miles remains suspended after being arrested for (but not charged with) assault for an incident after the Super Bowl in February.

    Without Miles, Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams will run the offense, as the Huskies also work to replace Bishop Sankey and most of their best pass-catchers. However, Petersen made do with less talented players on the outside at Boise, and with continuity along the offensive line, there is no reason to expect a long transition.

    With so much turnover in the offensive passing game, it would be disconcerting to see the secondary—even a secondary that loses all four starters—struggle in the scrimmage.

    Shaq Thompson might be the most athletic defender in the Pac-12 and is ready to lead this team at linebacker, although his time spent at running back this spring, and whether (or how much) it plays out Saturday, should be fun to watch.

Wyoming

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When: Saturday, April 19 – 4 p.m. ET

    Craig Bohl was, in all likelihood, the most underrated coaching hire of the offseason. Returning to the FBS for the first time since being Frank Solich's defensive coordinator at Nebraska (where he won 21 games his first two seasons in 2000 and 2001), he has spent the last decade building an FCS power at North Dakota State, which capped off a three-peat of national championships last season.

    Now he inherits an experienced Wyoming team that returns 16 starters—tied for 13th-most in the country, according to Phil Steele's experience chart.

    The loss of quarterback Brett Smith looms large, however, and his replacement is the biggest question mark. Two seniors are battling for the job, with Colby Kirkegaard enjoying a slight (but surmountable) lead over Sam Stratton before the scrimmage.

    Really, though, this game is less about personnel and more about how the team has changed under Bohl's command. If he has it playing like he did last year's NDSU team, which finished 29th in the AP Poll despite not being in the FBS, the Cowboys could be quite good.

     

    Note: Star rankings courtesy of 247Sports.