Grading Each Top 25 Team's Spring Game Performance
Of the 25 teams on Phil Steele's projected preseason AP rankings (ESPN Insider access required), 23 have already played their spring game, and another, Texas A&M, has completed its spring without an exhibition due to renovations on its stadium.
The only team remaining is Oregon, which started spring later than most teams—it's a West Coast thing, I guess?—and will finish up camp with its spring game on May 3.
This makes now an appropriate enough time to look back on the best teams' spring games and issue some grades, which is a difficult task for many reasons.
Primarily, it's hard for one team to play well on the whole.
If its offense looks too good, then that means the defense struggled, and vice versa. The best grades, thus, went to teams that exhibited proper balance: an offense that made plays against good defense and a defense that stopped good offensive plays.
Here's how the grading turned out.
Bobby Petrino's offense looked good—no, unstoppable—in its public return to Louisville. Quarterback Will Gardner showed he has the vertical arm to succeed in said scheme, offering hope for the start of the post-Teddy Bridgewater era with 542 yards on 32-of-37 passing.
This, however, is precisely why it's hard to gauge spring games. Louisville's defense was banged up and playing mostly backups, so it's difficult to say (a) how good the first-team offense really looked and (b) how bad Todd Grantham's defense might really be.
Elements of this grade are incomplete, but all in all, it was a happy start to the Petrino era: part deux.
The biggest goal this spring was replacing quarterback Blake Bortles, and even though none of the three candidates demanded the role with their play, sophomore Justin Holman did just enough to earn the No. 1 job before fall camp, according to Florida Today.
The bigger story from the spring game, however, was the continued emergence of running back William Stanback, who rushed for 108 yards and a touchdown on only five carries.
It won't be a Bortles-Storm Johnson backfield, but after what they saw in the spring game, the Knights have cause to be optimistic about Holman and Stanback. That makes this spring season a successful one.
23. North Carolina
Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky both played well at quarterback during the spring game, and though Williams remains a slight favorite, the Tar Heels have two more-than-capable options under center.
In theory, it's a good problem to have.
However, new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell had issues choosing a lead quarterback at Indiana, so it would be assuring to see him settle on just one. Still, having two capable passers is better than having zero, and at least both looked comfortable in the new scheme.
Whichever QB wins out of fall camp will get a great running back in T.J. Logan and a work-in-progress defense that played well at the end of last year and returns seven starters, according to Phil Steele.
What we learned felt hollow without suspended quarterback Cyler Miles, who was not charged in his assault arrest from February but was still unable to practice.
The QB competition between Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams was uninspiring without him, and although UW's roster looks sound at other places, Chris Petersen's first season with the program will likely be defined by its quarterback play.
And we still don't know what to expect.
This team is a work in progress under new head coach Charlie Strong, and it looked that way during the spring game.
Things got prettier as the afternoon went on, but the offense was out of sorts on its first few possessions—and not even in a way that was flattering of the defense. It was more just undisciplined blocking from the offensive line and shoddy play from quarterback Tyrone Swoopes.
Things did get better as the game went on, but the overall impression of Strong's first spring game was ugly. Is that anything to freak out about? No. This is to be expected when a new head coach takes over and changes a culture as deeply embedded as that of Mack Brown.
But it still wasn't pretty to watch.
20. Ole Miss
The Ole Miss spring game offered up a healthy balance of offense and defense, which saw the former edge out the latter, 15-12, in a modified scoring system.
But regardless of the outcome, both sides looked good.
That is just what the doctor (Bo) ordered in Oxford, where coaches, players and fans all expect the team to contend for the top spot in the SEC West. No one doubts the offense will be good enough to do so, but the defense had some questions to answer about its legitimacy.
It's hard to say for sure this early, but so far, so good.
19. Texas A&M
Texas A&M did not hold a spring game due to renovations at Kyle Field, so we did not get to see a public exhibition at the start of the post-Johnny Manziel era.
However, the Aggies did find themselves in the news during spring practice, as senior quarterback Matt Joeckel announced his transfer to TCU and sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill was suspended for public intoxication after passing out in a planter full of rocks and plants at a restaurant, according to Andrea Salazar of The Bryan-College Station Eagle.
That puts extra onus on early enrollee Kyle Allen, the top-ranked quarterback on the 247Sports Composite. He looks more and more like the one who will replace Johnny Football next season.
We just won't get a chance to see him play until fall.
Missouri's spring, in general, would not receive a rosy grade.
Such is life when you're forced to dismiss your best offensive player, junior receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, on the heels of his late-season breakout.
However, the Tigers gave an impressive performance in the spring game—especially sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk. After bridging the gap of James Franklin's injury last season—and looking very good in the process—he looks poised to take the next step and become one of the SEC's top passers in 2014.
Between that and the form of defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who are tasked with replacing Kony Ealy and Michael Sam from the SEC's best defensive line, Missouri fans saw exactly what they needed in the wake of DGB's dismissal.
This team will not roll over after one mid-April setback.
An offense riddled with injuries was dominated by a defense replacing lost pieces, which made Wisconsin's spring game an ugly one to watch—and not in a good way.
One lone bright spot might be the continued improvement of Tanner McEvoy, the quarterback-turned-safety-turned-quarterback who continues to push Joel Stave for his starting job.
If you listen to Badgers fans, Stave has been the one thing holding this team back the past two seasons. McEvoy is a big, athletic, dual-threat guy who can, at the very least, push Stave into improving this fall.
We'll know more once the full offense is healthy.
This one was interesting.
According to the Associated Press recap, head coach Dabo Swinney said the week of the game that there was "no separation" in the three-way battle to replace Tajh Boyd at quarterback.
Three days after the game, however, sophomore Chad Kelly had been dismissed from the team, early enrollee Deshaun Watson was still wearing sling, and senior Cole Stoudt had been named the official starter, according to Coy Wire of FoxSports.com.
This is probably for the best. Clemson is also trying to replace Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant at receiver, so it's nice to settle this issue early. Now there is one less question to answer.
Plus, Stoudt showed well in a spring game that was otherwise dominated by the other side of the ball, which gives Tigers fans the best of both worlds: a defense that can (finally) be counted on and a quarterback who is capable of playing efficiently against it.
Though depth is now an issue, I would say that is a good thing.
15. Notre Dame
Both offenses looked good in Notre Dame's spring game.
The offense guided by Malik Zaire, however, looked a little better than the offense guided by Everett Golson, and with that outcome will come a full four months of heated speculation and argument.
According to Bleacher Report's Mike Monaco, however, Zaire says nothing has changed:
My mindset doesn't change at all, whether I’m declared a starter or whether I’m the backup or whatever the situation is because in my mind I’m always looking just to get better every day. Whatever it takes for this team to win a lot of games, I’m willing to do that.
So I’m always working as if nobody’s giving me a chance, and I think that’s what’s really my backing. I feel like not enough people are giving me that chance and that opportunity, that’s my personal belief. So as long as I keep believing that and working my butt off to try to be the best I can be for this team, then that’s all I can ask for.
Golson's accuracy and touch were off during the spring game, and having Zaire breathe down his neck should impel him to improve throughout the summer—not that he needed the extra motivation.
All in all, though, the Irish looked pretty good in their showcase.
Cody Kessler looked like a viable starting quarterback at the end of last season, and he capitalized on that strong finish to play well and win the starting job over Max Browne early in spring camp.
That is great news.
Even better, though, is the current shape of the defense.
The players have taken well to new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox—which was important after beloved Clancy Pendergast (and his 5-2 system) were let go this offseason—and didn't allow a single touchdown during the spring game.
Kessler struggled a bit in the exhibition, but reports out of camp are encouraging enough to forgive that. USC, after all, does have one of the best defenses in college football.
All things considered, it was a positive start for Steve Sarkisian.
Quarterback Brandon Harris did not play like an early enrollee freshman, outperforming Anthony Jennings—both through the air and on the ground—and making a loud statement in his bid to start Week 1 against Wisconsin in Houston.
"He made some really big plays and nice passes," said head coach Les Miles, according to the Associated Press. "He threw the ball at times extremely well. But he also made some mistakes. It was certainly reviewed very positively by us."
This battle will continue throughout the fall, and although Jennings turned the ball over a couple of times, he still has a very real chance of claiming the job.
Plus, to look on the bright side, at least LSU's reloaded defense was able to force those turnovers against a (kind of) experienced QB.
No Derrick Mason? No problem.
As long as David Shaw is in town, the Stanford defense will continue to dominate. Even without his former defensive coordinator and the exodus of veteran starters who left this offseason, Shaw guided his signature unit to a strong, balanced win in the spring game.
Of course, that may just shine a negative light on the Stanford offense, which is led by suddenly plateauing quarterback Kevin Hogan. That said, the emergence of Barry Sanders Jr.—yes, he's the son of Barry Sanders—was a pleasing sign, as he could become the high-upside successor to workhorse back Tyler Gaffney.
This team should still be plenty good next season.
Georgia answered its biggest question, in part, during the spring game, as senior career backup Hutson Mason played well and with confidence and generally looked like a capable successor to Aaron Murray at quarterback.
The defense under coordinator Jeremy Pruitt remains a work in progress, but the individual pieces—pass-rush specialist Leonard Floyd in particular—looked good in their first season with the renowned coordinator. Now he just needs the total to equal the sum of the parts.
Still, the dismissal of Josh Harvey-Clemons and the arrest of Tray Matthews have made secondary depth an area of importance, and in this regard, Pruitt appeared to still have a ways to go.
The spring game was an overall good...but not an overwhelming one.
10. South Carolina
Starting quarterback Dylan Thompson—side note: how long has he waited to say that?—looked sharp in his first game without Connor Shaw on the sideline, and the Gamecocks' passing game as a whole was a bright spot on the afternoon.
Offensively, this is very good news.
Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds are back in the backfield, so this team should continue to run the ball with efficiency. If Thompson looks more like he did in 2012 than he did against Missouri in 2013, this offense should pick up right where it left off.
The defense has some red flags, however, and none of them were allayed in the spring game. It's hard to say for sure (since blitzing isn't allowed), but the pass-rush struggled to get consistent pressure, and the cornerbacks—an obvious weakness on this roster—were left out in coverage for too long.
Fortunately, the 2014 SEC does not project to pass the ball as well as the 2013 SEC, so perhaps the Gamecocks will be able to mask these deficiencies.
Or maybe that's wishful thinking.
Art Briles gave scant work to running backs Shock Linwood and Devin Chafin in the spring game, preferring to see as many reps as possible from youngsters Johnny Jefferson and Terence Williams.
"Those guys are good, and they're going to have to be good," Briles said, according to quotes released by the university, "because we've got four running backs. That's not a situation we're proud of; it's just the reality of where we're at."
It's a good problem for Baylor to have, and elsewhere, the passing game showed no ill effects after losing some weapons this offseason and defensive. Shawn Oakman looked like his normal, dominant self with a couple of sacks.
Forget Oklahoma for a second, if you will.
This looks like the real Big 12 favorite.
8. Michigan State
In each of the previous two seasons, Michigan State's defense has overwhelmed the offense in the spring game, and both units have continued down that (relative) path the entire year.
This season, however, the game featured noticeable balance, with offense and defense going back and forth and seeming, more or less, like equals.
Take that for what you will.
Perhaps this Michigan State offense has indeed turned a corner, as it appeared was the case down the stretch of last season. Perhaps, however, this defense, which loses so much talent and leadership, will not be the same dominant unit of the recent past.
The smart money says, at the current moment, that this was a little bit of both. But because Pat Narduzzi returned, and the cupboard isn't quite bare on the defensive depth chart, there is reason to believe the Spartans will (at least) still be one of the best defenses in the Big Ten.
Which makes the spring game more good news than bad.
Brett Hundley played just one series for precautionary reasons, and the rest of the quarterbacks struggled behind him. Like the next team on this list, UCLA needs to keep its star QB healthy.
Not that it didn't know that.
Still, even with the struggles at quarterback, the Bruins answered questions at receiver (where Jordan Payton and Devin Lucien both looked great), in the pass rush (which looked fine despite the loss of Anthony Barr) and in the secondary (which was the weak spot of the team last year but returns everyone of import in 2014).
There's a reason Jim Mora Jr.'s team is projected to be ranked this high—in a spot that ostensibly makes it the favorite in the Pac-12 South. It showed some of those reasons in the spring game.
6. Ohio State
The spring game proved overwhelmingly that without Kenny Guiton, the Buckeyes (a) are in serious luck that Braxton Miller returned to school and (b) cannot afford for him to get hurt.
Despite the solid play of redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, the passing game, for the most part, did not look like an Urban Meyer outfit.
That's the bad news.
The good news is that under first-year co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, a secondary specialist, a cast of mostly unproven defensive backs looked like a marked step up from last year's disappointing group.
The early enrollees all made their presence felt, and once Miller returns, this offense should be just as good as it has been the past couple of seasons.
All remains well in Columbus.
This was a little bit troubling.
One game does not a quarterback make, so it's hard to hold a poor spring exhibition from Trevor Knight against him. On the same note, however, it's hard to let his Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama speak for him throughout the offseason.
He is the most important player on this offense, and after struggling for much of last season, he finally appeared to put it all together in New Orleans. This step back felt more important than most spring developments (although still less important than it's been made out to be).
Knight's struggles were overshadowed by the success of another quarterback, Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, who can't even play in 2014. This is the horse that OU has backed.
There will be a microscope on how Knight looks this fall.
It was a perfect storm for Auburn in the spring game.
The offense looked unstoppable; not only did it cover up the losses of tackle Greg Robinson and running back Tre Mason, it saw marked improvement from quarterback Nick Marshall (as a passer) and the rosy debut of JUCO transfer D'haquille Williams at receiver.
The defense was too banged up for worry—Auburn fans can easily chalk its struggles up to attrition—but not so banged up that it devalues what the offense did. The Tigers walked out of the spring game feeling as good as they have all offseason.
Expectations are higher than ever.
Oregon answered a few much-needed questions during its spring game, leaving Marcus Mariota on the field for a few extra possessions to help him acclimate with his new receivers.
For fans freaked out about the loss of Josh Huff and Daryle Hawkins and the torn ACL of Bralon Addison, a spectacular 50-yard bomb from Mariota to Devon Allen was encouraging. As was a strong afternoon from running back Thomas Tyner, who seems poised for a breakout sophomore season.
The defense had its moments as well; all in all, this was a sound, complete performance from one of the soundest, most complete teams in the country.
Year 2 under Mark Helfrich seems promising.
Alabama's offense looked bad—like, really bad—during last week's spring game, which has sent hypochondriacal Alabama fans and eager Lane Kiffin bashers into a frenzy.
But relax. It's only a spring game. Nick Saban said so himself.
"Nobody ever has a bad spring game," said the Alabama head coach, according to the Associated Press. "Everybody needs to understand that in games like today we really limit what we do on offense, we really limit what we do on defense, and we really don't try to feature players. That may be a little bit of a disadvantage to our players."
This speaks to a larger issue. There's a reason this list gives so few As and so few Cs. The spring game is the climax of spring practice, but at the end of the day, it is not the best source of sweeping judgment.
So, yes, Alabama had an ugly spring game. Blake Sims did not look like a viable starting quarterback, which has forced even more pressure onto the shoulders of impending transfer Jacob Coker. That makes the day, overall, a bad one for the Crimson Tide.
But it was not the end of the world.
1. Florida State
Jameis Winston came out sluggish, but head coach Jimbo Fisher allowed him to work throughout and throw 56 passes in a victory. By the end, he once again looked like the Heisman winner.
Was that a sign of things to come? No, not really. Florida State just didn't have any of its top four running backs available. This will continue to be a balanced—if not run-first—offense next season, although Rashad Greene did well to remind FSU fans that their leading receiver did, in fact, return.
On defense, the talent is there for this unit to be nearly as good as last year's. The spring was more about talent evaluation than group-wide cohesions, and nothing the defense showed made it seem like the loss of Jeremy Pruitt will mean disaster.
There's a reason this team is No. 1.