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The pros and cons of a spring game

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It has been an annual rite of passage in college football for decades: the spring football game.

It’s an opportunity for fans to get a sneak preview of what to expect of their team for the coming season and a festive way to close out spring practice for teams that worked hard the previous 14 practices. But from a coach’s perspective, is it the best way to utilize the 15th and final practice of spring drills?

Depending on whom you ask, not necessarily.

Two SEC programs didn’t host a spring game this month -- Kentucky and Texas A&M -- primarily because both teams’ football stadiums are undergoing construction and aren't available for use. Thus, the choice to pass on the spring game made sense.

“It's easier for us just to have a scrimmage and be more efficient and not have to worry about putting on a game,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “We get an awful lot of work done in a typical day.”

Texas A&M hasn’t had a spring game the last two years -- Kyle Field renovation occupied both offseasons -- and Kevin Sumlin was happy to simply have a scrimmage on A&M’s practice field on April 11 without having to worry about injuries that could crop up from a traditional spring game setting. Typically, the second half of spring games under Sumlin go quickly, with a running clock and his top priority being escaping the game healthy.

“Well you know me, we only had 50 plays [in our scrimmage],” Sumlin said. “In a spring game, the second half [goes fast]. Though I think now, people will appreciate even a watered-down spring game.”

Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, whose team did host a traditional spring game last week, doesn’t like the idea of the traditional method with a team splitting up into two separate teams. With depth limited in the spring -- teams lost outgoing seniors from the previous year and don’t have their full recruiting class they signed in February on campus and available for spring ball, except for a small handful of players in some cases -- it can put a strain on the quality of the two individual teams that are created.

“I'm just not a fan of the public spring game that we're currently doing,” Freeze said, according to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. “The kids want you to divide up. The fans want you to divide up. Really, I'm not sure how much we get out of it. I know we don't get as much out of it if we just had another practice against each other. That's not really what everyone wants to see. So I kind of give into that.”

Freeze noted that coaches can't do as much as they want schematically, either, because of the games being televised.

"You're forced to be very vanilla," Freeze said. "Everyone can see it. It's one of the things I'm not crazy about having that day."

Freeze, in a radio interview with A to Z Sports in Nashville this week, floated a compelling idea that he said he plans to bring up at the SEC spring meetings: playing another team, perhaps an FCS team.

"I would love to see us be able to scrimmage another team,” he said. “That way you can go ones on ones, twos on twos, threes on threes -- really get something out of it. Maybe even adopt a charity. Maybe it's [an FCS] opponent that you don't play in the regular season. I think there would be a lot of interest in something like that. I wish we could do something like that.”

While Stoops and Sumlin said they were able to accomplish a lot with their individual scrimmages, both cited positives from the traditional spring game, namely exposure. Kentucky drew quality-sized crowds -- including more than 50,000 for Stoops’ first spring game -- to Commonwealth Stadium and were able to make it a recruiting event for prospects.

“The cons [to not having a spring game] are for the fans and a certain piece of recruiting, because my first two spring games here, it's been electric,” Stoops said. “We've had great crowds, very energetic and it was a nice way to break the end of spring ball and gear up for the fall and just to get out and spend some time with the fans, plus the recruiting piece.”

Sumlin’s second spring practice at Texas A&M, which included famed quarterback Johnny Manziel coming off a Heisman Trophy, drew an estimated 45,000 fans to Kyle Field.

“We had 45,000 people and ESPN; the exposure is a big deal,” Sumlin said. “I think our guys, from an energy standpoint, enjoy the spring game.”

Clearly it’s still a draw for fans, with Ohio State providing a clear example when it drew a school spring game record 99,391 to Ohio Stadium. That’s something coaches don’t overlook and it’s one big reason why both Stoops and Sumlin will return to having a spring game once stadium construction is complete at their respective venues.

"We'll be excited to go back to a typical spring game,” Stoops said of Kentucky. “I think it's very good to have because people are excited and we have an awful lot of good things going on in our winter sports and people are enjoying basketball season and then once that's over and we get into spring, there's a little bit of a lull there and I think people are anxious to take a look at your football team and what to expect in the fall ... so we'll be excited to get back out there and have a typical spring game.”