What Each Top-25 College Football Team Is Hoping for Between Now and Fall Camp
As the old saying goes, idle hands are the devil's playground. This is why the dead period between the end of spring practice and the start of preseason training camp can be one of the most stressful times for college football coaches.
For some, it's the fear that off-the-field incidents will affect roster depth. For others, it's a worry that a rehabbing player isn't coming along as quickly as expected. And while no official practices can occur until late July or early August, many players try to take advantage of this down time to improve through informal workouts, with coaches hoping this will have them better prepared for the preseason.
There's so much that could go right—or wrong—during the remainder of the offseason that coaches are just hoping to make it through without incident. That doesn't usually happen, but it's good to dream, isn't it?
With that in mind, here's a look at what each team in Bleacher Report's preseason top 25 is hoping will happen between now and the start of fall camp.
25. Clemson Tigers
New offensive weapons continue to develop
Clemson has been one of the nation's most explosive teams on offense the past few years, and in 2013 the Tigers averaged more than 500 yards and 40 points en route to an 11-2 record and a win over Ohio State in the Orange Bowl.
But three of the biggest parts to that high-octane scoring machine—quarterback Tajh Boyd and receivers Martavis Bryant and Sammy Watkins—were all taken in the 2014 NFL draft, along with solid offensive tackle Brandon Thomas. With all of those holes to fill, there's a good chance Clemson's offense could backslide a bit in 2014.
But offensive coordinator Chad Morris isn't among the nation's highest-paid assistants for nothing. His system has received credit for Clemson's scoring prowess as much as the players operating within it, and the hope is the progress shown by dual-threat early-enrollee quarterback Deshaun Watson and other offensive newcomers will keep the engine running at peak performance.
24. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Webb lives in a bubble
Since Texas Tech blasted Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl behind the breakout performance of true freshman quarterback Davis Webb, the stars have been aligning to all but guarantee that he would be the Red Raiders' starting quarterback at the outset of the 2014 season.
Not all of that star movement was of a positive nature, particular the ones related to numerous quarterbacks who have left the program since 2013 ended. A total of five passers departed Tech during the offseason, leaving Webb as the only quarterback on the roster heading into the summer.
The Red Raiders' recruiting class does include one quarterback, 3-star pro-style passer Patrick Mahomes, but he won't arrive until preseason camp begins. Until then, Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury will do whatever he can to keep Webb away from all tricky stairs, crack-pocked sidewalks and any other areas in and around Lubbock, Texas, where the young quarterback could become susceptible to injury.
23. Mississippi Rebels
Swinney leads to a commitment upswing
Ole Miss has been among the quieter teams on the 2015 class recruiting trail, with only five commitments as of Thursday, according to 247Sports. But the most recent pledge, 4-star running back Eric Swinney, could be the start of a significant haul.
The 5'10", 188-pound Swinney, who is considered the No. 97 overall prospect in 2015, picked Ole Miss over Auburn, Florida State, Georgia and Tennessee, according to Fansided's Patrick Schmidt.
Swinney's commitment gives the Rebels a strong and fast running back to help keep their backfield stocked with rushers, but many other needs for 2015 need to be addressed. While he can't address every need, his pledge can serve as a spark for other top targets to commit.
22. Texas A&M Aggies
No more off-the-field incidents
The main storylines of Texas A&M's offseason were supposed to revolve around finding a replacement for Johnny Manziel and shoring up a very porous defense. Those issues are still at the top of the list, but it seems like an Aggies player gets in trouble with the law every week.
As Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee chronicled, players were arrested for things ranging from noise violations to assault. The most notable alleged offender was quarterback Kenny Hill, whose public intoxication citation caused him to be suspended for most of spring practice, giving true freshman Kyle Allen a leg up in the competition for Manziel's old job.
It's hard enough for coaches to keep tabs on players during the school year, but in the summer it can be even more difficult. It's the hope of coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff that the Aggies manage to stay out of trouble during the extended break.
21. Kansas State Wildcats
A replacement for Sams emerges
Kansas State looked at itself as having a luxury with two viable quarterbacks who could be used heading into the 2014 season, and with Jake Waters in line to be the starter, the plan was to find any way possible to get Daniel Sams and his athleticism onto the field.
A move to wide receiver was tinkered with during spring ball, but in the end Sams decided transferring to another program was his best option.
The loss of Sams, a 6'2", 207-pound junior, means K-State loses its second-leading rusher from last season with 807 yards and a team-best 11 rushing touchdowns. Leading rusher John Hubert has graduated, and without Sams the Wildcats will need to find someone else who can be a do-everything guy as a complement to the great duo of Waters and senior wideout Tyler Lockett.
20. Missouri Tigers
The Border War gets scheduled
With the SEC mandating that all of its teams play a nonconference game against an opponent from the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten or Pac-12 (in lieu of a ninth league contest) starting in 2016, the prospect of Missouri renewing its rivalry with Kansas has come up once again.
The schools haven't met since Mizzou left the Big 12 for the SEC after the 2011 season, but before that they collided every year but once dating back to 1891. Dubbed the "Border War," the series is one of the most closely contested of all the major rivalry games, with the Tigers leading Kansas 56-55 with nine ties.
According to Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel, who spoke about the renewal of the rivalry during a Google Hangout session in early May, there's been an open invitation to Kansas but that "there's some pouting going on still" from the Jayhawks in the wake of Mizzou's exit from the Big 12.
Fans on both sides of the rivalry want to see the game played, and getting something set up for 2016 or beyond would delight all of them.
19. Nebraska Cornhuskers
No more quirky distractions
Nebraska's spring practice season ended with a doozy of a scrimmage, thanks mostly to coach Bo Pelini bringing his cat out onto the field prior to play. The move was a nod to Pelini's Twitter alter ego, a parody account called @FauxPelini with whom he's interacted.
Those events served as an epilogue to an up-and-down season that ended up being a mostly successful one, with nine wins and a bowl victory but one that started off with an incident involving a leaked audio tape of Pelini using profanity while criticizing Nebraska's fanbase.
The coach appears to have settled on Tommy Armstrong as his quarterback for 2014, according to Bleacher Report's Patrick Runge, and most other starting spots are locked up. Preseason camp will answer any remaining questions, so in the meantime the hope is nothing out of the ordinary involving things like felines, faux Pelinis or tape recorders happens during the offseason.
18. Georgia Bulldogs
No more roster attrition
Georgia's defense was quite unimpressive in 2013, and along with injuries to skill players, it served as a key reason the Bulldogs didn't seriously contend for the SEC East title or a BCS bowl spot. But the hiring of Jeremy Pruitt to be the new defensive coordinator was supposed to help right that ship.
However, since Pruitt's arrival Georgia has lost two starters from its secondary, with safety Josh Harvey-Clemons getting dismissed in February for team rules violations and then cornerback Shaq Wiggins transferring in early May. Both players, ironically, will continue their FBS careers at Louisville, with Wiggins making his decision public on Thursday, per Jeremy Fowler of CBS Sports.
Georgia's defense looked better during spring ball under Pruitt, and with more healthy bodies on offense, that side of the ball should be among the best in the country. If the roster can stay intact until freshman recruits (including a trio of 5-star prospects in defensive end Lorenzo Carter and running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel) show up in late summer, the Bulldogs should be back in the mix for division, conference and national titles.
17. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Golson and Zaire keep the battle going
The quarterback job at Notre Dame remains up for the taking, with Brian Kelly taking the spring performance of Everett Golson and Malik Zaire under advisement. A starter likely won't be named until sometime during fall training camp, a move that should keep both passers fighting hard to win the gig.
What the Fighting Irish would love to see, more than anything else, is for Golson and Zaire to treat the offseason not as a break but as a chance to keep getting better. That way, when the competition resumes in training champ, it will be that much more spirited.
Zaire had a great spring game and has declared publicly that he'll start Notre Dame's opener against Navy, while Golson has the history of being the Irish's starter during its run to the national title game in 2012. Each has his good points, but neither can rely on what's happened so far to win the job.
16. North Carolina Tar Heels
No rest for the weary
The 2013 season was like two campaigns for North Carolina, with a 1-5 start followed by a 6-1 finish and a resounding victory over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. Injuries and ineffectiveness led to the slow start, but once everyone got on the same page and healthy, it was mostly smooth sailing.
But coach Larry Fedora tried to avoid complacency during spring practice, opening up every position to competition. The hope would be that everyone would quickly realize that nothing was guaranteed, and it seemed to work.
What Fedora and his coaches must hope for during the offseason is that the players use the time off not to sit back but rather find ways to keep working and preparing for further competition in the fall.
15. Arizona State Sun Devils
Defensive replacements continue to train
Arizona State had a very good offense in 2013, but it was the ability of the Sun Devils to make big plays on defense that ultimately led to winning the Pac-12 South. Ironically, that same defense was responsible for losses to Stanford in the Pac-12 title game and to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl, though as a whole the unit was strong.
But nine starters from that group are gone, most notably defensive tackle Will Sutton and linebacker Carl Bradford. It will basically be a whole new unit for the Sun Devils on defense, with tackle Jaxon Hood and safety Damarious Randall among the few key holdovers.
ASU's spring depth chart was very fluid on defense, with many players getting looked at as replacements. Final decisions on starters will come during training camp, but in the interim Todd Graham and his staff have to hope those in contention will use the summer to improve and perfect their craft.
14. LSU Tigers
Fournette stays patient
It's been nearly five months since Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2014 class, committed to LSU during the Under Armour All-America Game. He signed with the Tigers a month later but will not enroll in school until the fall semester.
That's a lot of waiting for LSU fans, who have anxiously awaited his arrival ever since he got onto the school's recruiting radar long ago. The 6'1", 224-pound running back has assigned himself lofty goals, telling Sports Illustrated's Ben Glicksman he intends to be a Heisman candidate, an All-American and a national title winner with LSU. Those echo the hopes of Tigers fans as well as the predictions of many experts.
But with Fournette not able to take advantage of early enrollment, something many high-profile recruits have done in recent years, he'll have to keep himself driven and focused throughout the summer before joining LSU. Running backs coach Frank Wilson has a "mapped out path" for Fournette when he arrives, according to The Times-Picayune's Jim Kleinpeter, and the hope is the freshman will be able to follow that path in whatever direction it leads him.
13. South Carolina Gamecocks
Star replacements seek out motivation
Though South Carolina only had two players taken in the 2014 NFL draft, they were No. 1 overall pick defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and wide receiver Bruce Ellington, a fourth-round selection. The Gamecocks also saw five player sign rookie free-agent deals, leaving the team with a lot of holes to fill.
Replacements appear in line for most of those holes, with veteran Dylan Thompson taking over for Connor Shaw at quarterback and the duo of Darius English and J.T. Surratt looking to step in for Clowney and Kelcy Quarles on the defensive line.
As a group, these successors should use the results from the 2014 draft (both good and bad) as a source of motivation for their own upcoming season. If they play well enough, they could be high draft picks. If they struggle, the path to pro football could be harder.
12. USC Trojans
Browne stays driven; Kessler remains humble
One of the most high-profile quarterback battles during spring practice occurred at USC, where Cody Kessler eventually held off redshirt freshman Max Browne to retain the job he held for nearly all of the 2013 season. With Kessler locked in as starter, the Trojans and coach Steve Sarkisian can move forward with a game plan that suits his skills.
But just because Kessler has the job doesn't mean he can sit back and be complacent; furthermore, Browne should not let the loss bring him down. So much can happen when games actually start, and before Browne knows, it he could be on the field and leading the offense.
More than anything, what USC wants to see during the offseason is both quarterbacks continuing to work. For Kessler, it will be to prepare for his job, and for Browne it will be to keep sharp.
11. Baylor Bears
No construction delays
Hot off the heels of a Big 12 title and a BCS bowl berth, Baylor is set to move into swanky, new McLane Stadium for the 2014 season. The 45,000-seat, $250 million complex replaces the old Floyd Casey Stadium that was way past its prime, especially for a program that has produced a Heisman winner and moved up the Texas college football hierarchy in the past three years.
According to Paula Ann Solis of the Baylor Lariat, as of May 1 the stadium's construction was about 80 percent complete. That puts the facility on schedule to be ready for the Bears' 2014 opener Aug. 31 against SMU.
Nothing indicates this will happen, but if a major delay were to occur—possibly due to weather or an accident—and the Bears had to play elsewhere, that could be a problem. While the old stadium still exists, the turf was recently torn out and placed in the tailgating area outside McLane Stadium.
10. Wisconsin Badgers
Stave gets ready to fight for his job
A shoulder injury that lingered from Wisconsin's loss to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl forced quarterback Joel Stave out of practice toward the end of the Badgers' spring workouts, causing him to miss the end-of-session scrimmage. That provided Tanner McEvoy a chance to show his stuff, and he did well enough to keep the competition for the starting spot open until fall practice.
Stave, a 6'5", 227-pound junior-to-be, started all 13 games for Wisconsin in 2013. He finished with just less than 2,500 passing yards and 22 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. McEvoy, a junior college transfer, was converted to safety last year but has been moved back to his natural quarterback position to push Stave.
Just before the spring game, Stave told Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel he'd be ready to go for summer passing and training camp. The Badgers hope that happens, because they'd rather have their quarterback determined by performance rather than by default.
9. Ohio State Buckeyes
Miller mends well but also studies hard
A knee injury knocked Braxton Miller out of a few games early in 2013, and then his right shoulder was hurt in Ohio State's Orange Bowl loss to Clemson. The knee didn't seem to have a major effect on his running during the season, but the shoulder was bad enough to require surgery, knocking Miller out of most of spring practice.
He should be recovered in time for the season opener Aug. 31 against Navy. But while getting his shoulder properly rehabbed is one thing, Miller also needs to use the offseason to study how other quarterbacks who use mobility as a weapon can succeed without getting hurt.
That's the plan Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman shared with ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg, who noted that he wants Miller to study Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota as a way to improve his own game. If Miller proves to be a quick learner, his improvement in reading defenses and avoiding bad situations could be the key to OSU remaining in contention for the Big Ten title and the College Football Playoff.
8. UCLA Bruins
Vanderdoes gets back on his foot
UCLA's preparations for what's expected to be a Pac-12 title-contending season were interrupted during spring ball by the loss of defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes, who broke his foot in late March. The 6'4", 310-pounder is expected back for summer workouts, but foot injuries can always be tricky for big men, and without him fully healthy, the Bruins' front seven will be thin.
He made a strong impact as a true freshman last year, starting seven games and registering 39 tackles. His beef and brawn on the edge are critical for UCLA's chances of taking the Pac-12 South and contending for a College Football Playoff spot, so expect the team's training staff to work extra hard to get Vanderdoes back to 100 percent.
7. Stanford Cardinal
Get going on the recruiting trail
The quest to bring in the next great batch of players never stops in college football, with coaches already putting together short lists of recruits they want for the 2016 season. That means recruiting for 2015 is in full swing, with the summer being a great time to gain some early momentum.
For Stanford, it could be a chance to actually get its 2015 prospect acquisition in gear. The Cardinal currently only have three commitments in that class, two of which have been pledged since last year. Only 14 players are listed by 247Sports as being a "high target" or "top choice" for the Cardinal.
There are still more than eight months until signing day, but Stanford's coaches have to hope they can pick up a few commitments before heading back onto the practice field for 2014.
6. Oklahoma Sooners
Bell's knee doesn't act up
Trevor Knight's amazing performance in the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama helped him lock up Oklahoma's quarterback job, prompting offensive coaches to move fellow passer Blake Bell to tight end during the spring. The move looked like a good one, based on early returns from practice, but then in early April Bell got "dinged" and suffered a knee sprain, effectively ending his spring ball.
Coach Bob Stoops said the injury wouldn't require surgery, and the expectation was that the 6'6", 252-pounder would be ready for preseason practice.
Bell's knee will no doubt be monitored closely by training staff, who will keep him on a rehab program that will ensure his availability in August in advance of the 2014 season.
5. Oregon Ducks
No more quarterback departures
It's been a foregone conclusion that Marcus Mariota would be Oregon's quarterback in 2014 ever since he announced his return to school for his redshirt junior season. But the backup situation keeps getting thrown into chaos.
In the past two weeks both Damion Hobbs and Jake Rodrigues reportedly announced their intentions to transfer. That leaves the Ducks with just three passers on the roster before the fall, when 4-star dual-threat quarterback Morgan Mahalak arrives on campus.
With Mariota's knee issues last season, quarterback depth is essential for Oregon this season. The Ducks also need to start planning for his likely departure after 2014, but with fewer replacements to choose from, the talent pool is thin. For the Ducks' sake, no more quarterbacks can leave if they want to be properly prepared for injuries.
4. Alabama Crimson Tide
Coker proves worth the wait
One of the most noteworthy offseason transfers involved Florida State quarterback Jacob Coker announcing his intention to graduate early and move to Alabama for the 2014 season, a move that happened back in late January. He finally arrived in Tuscaloosa in early May after completing his undergraduate work, and now the official battle between him and Blake Sims for the starting job can begin.
For all the hype surrounding Coker's move, it seems almost a forgotten aspect that he hardly played at Florida State. He attempted five passes in 2012 as E.J. Manuel's backup and then threw 36 times last season in relief of Jameis Winston before going down with a knee injury in October. All told he has 295 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Coker is fighting with Sims to replace A.J. McCarron, who helped the Crimson Tide to a pair of national titles as a three-year starter. Those are big shoes to fill, and Alabama can only hope Coker is capable of doing it despite being mostly inactive the past three years (including a redshirt season in 2011).
3. Michigan State Spartans
McDowell shows up in East Lansing
It seems that every year a few wild and crazy stories come out of national signing day in February, and this year the topper centered on Michigan State and 5-star defensive end Malik McDowell, who committed to the Spartans on signing day. But that was just the start of what ended up being nearly a two-month saga to get him officially signed to a national letter of intent.
According to Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press, McDowell's letter didn't arrive at MSU until 15 minutes before the April 1 deadline. The delay centered on McDowell's mother, whose signature was required on the letter and didn't approve of her son's college choice, though that eventually got worked out.
As the No. 32 overall prospect in the 2014 class, the 6'7", 290-pound McDowell is the jewel of an MSU recruiting haul that should help keep the program at the level it reached last season in winning the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl. MSU coach Mark Dantonio just hopes no other family drama prevents McDowell from arriving on campus when preseason practice begins.
2. Auburn Tigers
Spring's minor medical issues don't become major
Auburn's offseason following the magical 2013 campaign has focused on trying to find those few little tweaks that could have led to the Tigers winning it all instead of losing to Florida State in the BCS title game in the final moments. As Gus Malzahn told Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee, Auburn has "to be 13 seconds better" in 2014.
Finding those improved seconds on the defensive side of the ball, Auburn's biggest weakness, proved difficult during spring ball, as countless players expected to contribute this season missed various amounts of time due to injuries. According to Bleacher Report's Justin Ferguson, 11 players were injured during spring ball, including defensive ends Carl Lawson and LaDarius Owens.
While all of the players are expected to be ready for training camp, the loss of spring practice time could lead to delayed progress in defensive improvement. For Auburn, all it can do about that now is hope none of the ailments lingers into the preseason.
1. Florida State Seminoles
Winston stays out of the spotlight
After taking the nation by storm in 2013 with arguably the best season ever by a redshirt freshman quarterback, winning the Heisman Trophy and leading Florida State to the national title, it was inevitable that Jameis Winston would find himself under intense scrutiny and constantly followed by the bright lights of fame.
It meant any and every thing he did during the offseason would get observed and analyzed. At first things seemed fine, as Winston showed off his ability to multitask by serving as a solid closer for FSU's baseball team while still meeting his commitments to the Seminoles' football program during spring ball. Then came the "crab legs incident."
Winston was cited for shoplifting seafood from a local grocery store, which resulted in him getting briefly suspended from the baseball team while completing a diversion program that included community service. He served his sentence, so to speak, by working as a janitor at a Tallahassee Boys and Girls Club.
It's been mostly quiet on the Winston front since then, and that's how FSU wants it to stay the rest of the offseason.
All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.
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