It surely feels like it’s been forever, but it’s only been 57 days since Alabama beat Clemson for its fourth national title in seven years and the college football season came to an end. Time does not fly when college football is on hiatus.
While real football action won’t happen until fall hits, college fans can get a small taste as spring practices kick off around the Southeastern Conference.
Can Alabama push for another title? Can running back Leonard Fournette hop back onto the Heisman pace and stay for the full ride this upcoming season? Will a real challenger emerge from the East in 2016?
By March 15, all but one team – Arkansas – will begin spring sessions and April will bring us spring games that don’t count in the record books, but mean everything to players, coaches and fans alike. Here are five story lines that will keep fans up at night over the next few weeks.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry left the college ranks for the NFL, as did fellow back Kenyan Drake. But how the Crimson Tide plan to run the football next year isn’t the biggest question out there as coach Nick Saban has never had a problem stocking his squad with ball-carrying talent.
However, the lack of experience at running back may alter Alabama’s offensive game plan. Will offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin open up the aerial assault in 2016?
— FOX Sports Radio (@FoxSportsRadio) January 13, 2016
In his last three games, Jake Coker averaged 275 yards passing per game. That’s after 12 games in which he threw for 190.4 passing yards per contest. Tight end O.J. Howard returned to school after two touchdown grabs and 208 yards in the title game and Calvin Ridley hauled in 1,045 receiving yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman.
Blake Barnett looks to be the front-runner to replace Coker, but whoever lands under center might be throwing the ball more next season.
The competition for starting quarterback will be fun to watch, and one of the more interesting battles in years in Gainesville. Not only will the attention be on replacing a less-than-stellar Treon Harris, who will move to receiver, but also how long the eventual winner keeps the gig.
While there may be no clear leader right now, transfers Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby may have the best shot. The quarterback of the future, however, is true freshman Feleipe Franks.
Franks has a huge arm and a great head on his shoulders. He also seems wise beyond his years. If that translates onto the field this spring, he could make a surprise move to the top of the Gators depth chart.
While the nation’s eyes will be on Fournette to watch the odds-on favorite make a run at a Heisman Trophy, smart fans … Tigers fans that live and breathe creole and LSU football … will wonder about their team’s quarterback situation.
As a sophomore, Brandon Harris finished seventh in the SEC with 180.4 passing yards per game, but middle of the conference pack sounds an awful lot better than anyone who watched Harris play last season. Can Harris evolve as a passer? Can LSU’s offense take a huge step forward without Harris taking a giant leap too?
Les Miles: "There's some competition, certainly," between Brandon Harris & Danny Etling, but "today's format was more to teach."
— Jerit Roser (@JeritRoser) March 8, 2016
Competition will come from Danny Etling, but how much of that is real or just a way to push Harris remains to be seen.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Neither Elijah Staley nor Nick Fitzgerald are Dak Prescott, who left Mississippi State as the greatest quarterback in Bulldogs history. But one of those guys will have to step in and fill those shoes.
That’s not an enviable task.
Staley recently dropped his hoops habit to focus on football full time. In some eyes, he’s a potential Cam Newton clone. Fitzgerald has a lot of experience – as much as garbage time behind Prescott can allow – and showed flashes in 2015 when he got to throw the ball.
Staley and Fitzgerald should also keep an eye out for Damian Williams too.
Tennessee lost four games last season by a combined 17 points and blew three 13-point-or-greater leads. Oh, and two of those losses came to College Football Playoff competitors in Oklahoma and Alabama.
The Vols have to learn to finish in 2016.
With a ton of talent returning to Knoxville and an experienced field general in quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who’s as much Albert Einstein (he’s in school studying to be a rocket scientist) as George Patton, Tennessee should enter the season as favorites in the East.
How much will off-the-field distractions work against Butch Jones and his squad as it tries to focus on football?