We have a hard enough time predicting what's going to happen in the games in the fall -- you've seen our picks records, right? So trying to forecast what's going to happen in spring practice -- not a game, we're talking 'bout practice -- seems especially futile.

But let's be bold. Here are 10 predictions for spring practice in the Big Ten:

1. Cardale Jones takes command: You might remember Jones from such previous performances as "Whipping Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game," "Mauling Alabama in the Sugar Bowl" and "Beating Oregon for the national championship." Now he'll be the headliner in Ohio State's star-studded quarterback battle as the only one of the three who will be healthy enough to participate fully in drills. Expect Jones to have a big spring and take the lead in the race, though J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller will have their say this summer.

2. Tommy Armstrong Jr. leads in Lincoln: Nebraska's starting quarterback will have to prove himself all over again to a new coaching staff. But while Johnny Stanton and, to a lesser extent, Ryker Fyfe have their supporters among the Big Red fan base, Armstrong's superior leadership skills and experience will ensure that he's the man for Mike Riley this spring.

3. Penn State finds some answers on the offensive line: The Nittany Lions can't possibly be as bad up front as they were last year, and now they have a lot more options. Junior college transfer Paris Palmer will win the right tackle job and Andrew Nelson will take a step forward in a move to left tackle. Throw in some promising youngsters, and QB Christian Hackenberg will be feeling more secure heading into this fall.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback C.J. Beathard enters spring as the starting quarterback at Iowa.
4. C.J. Beathard wins Iowa's quarterback competition: Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz wouldn't abandon a two-year starter like Jake Rudock lightly. But Beathard seemed to give the entire offense a spark when he entered games last season, and the Hawkeyes could sure use some energy on that side of the ball. Ferentz surprisingly listed Beathard as the No. 1 quarterback on a rare January depth chart, so he's obviously serious about a possible change.

5. Joel Stave faces serious heat for his job at Wisconsin: Stave has a 20-6 career record as a starter, something few Big Ten quarterbacks can match. Yet, like Iowa, the Badgers need a jolt in their passing game. Either redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins or true freshman Austin Kafentzis will make this a real competition this spring, leaving the starting job up for grabs in fall camp.

6. Minnesota's receivers provide optimism: The passing games at Wisconsin and Iowa are prolific compared to the Gophers, largely because Minnesota has lacked playmaking wideouts the past few years. But Minnesota will emerge from the spring feeling much better about its options at the position as some redshirt freshmen make plays. Two names to watch: Isaiah Gentry and Jerry Gibson.

7. Hayden Rettig has a big spring for Rutgers: Chris Laviano has an edge in experience in the Scarlet Knights' quarterback competition, but Rettig has the pedigree. A former four-star recruit who transferred from LSU, Rettig's big arm will make a large impression this spring.

8. Indiana doesn't miss Tevin Coleman ... too much: Coleman put up the best rushing season in the Hoosiers' history, but his absence won't create a crater this spring. That's because UAB transfer Jordan Howard will step in and immediately replace most of that production. He might not match Coleman's pure explosiveness, but the offense won't suffer too much.

9. New defensive stars emerge at Michigan State: This happens every spring. Even with Pat Narduzzi gone, the Spartan Dawgs will remain strong behind new co-defensive coordinators Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett. And they've always got a wave of players ready to step in for departed leaders. Some names to watch include Demetrious Cox, Malik McDowell, Riley Bullough, Montae Nicholson and Darian Hicks.

10. A couple of quarterbacks transfer: This has become a trend in college football -- a quarterback can be quick to bolt when he finds out he won't be the starter. Keep an eye on places where there are a lot of candidates bunched together, such as Purdue (Austin Appleby, Danny Etling, David Blough) or where the two-man competition is heated, such as Iowa. And, of course, Ohio State remains on high alert. But it's almost inevitable that there will be some quarterback transfers in the summer.
Below are 10 bold predictions for the Big 12 this spring:

1. QB battles linger into the fall: Tight quarterback competitions in Austin, Manhattan, Morgantown, Norman, Waco and even Lubbock and Lawrence emerge as dominant storylines. Baylor's Seth Russell, Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes and Kansas State's Joe Hubener eventually are named starters before the summer. But the spring fails to bring resolution to the other battles, which all carry over into the fall.

[+] EnlargePatrick Mahomes
John Weast/Getty ImagesPatrick Mahomes will most likely have to compete for his role as the Red Raiders' starting quarterback.
2. TCU's defense struggles for a change: Coach Gary Patterson's defenses perennially have been stout dating to his days as a coordinator in Fort Worth. But this spring, with several new starters in the secondary and at linebacker, a pair of new coordinators and facing off against one of the nation's most explosive passing offenses, the TCU defense takes its lumps. Ultimately, this makes the unit better prepared for the fall. But at times this spring, it's not pretty.

3. Joe Mixon steals the show in Norman: Coach Bob Stoops has already said Mixon won't play in the Sooners' spring game -- the final punishment in his season-long suspension for punching a female student last year. But behind the scenes leading up to the open scrimmage, Mixon flashes the game-breaking ability that made him one of the top running back recruits in the country in 2014. After rushing for more than 1,700 yards as a true freshman last season, Samaje Perine remains the featured running back. But Mixon's talent prompts new coordinator Lincoln Riley to get creative about how to get Mixon on the field, including using him extensively in the slot.

4. Texas seeks grad transfer QB: The spring delivers no great revelation to the quarterback position in Austin, prompting the Longhorns to heavily pursue a graduate transfer quarterback, la Everett Golson or Braxton Miller. Tyrone Swoopes had his moments last season and redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard was highly recruited. But the Texas brass exits spring wondering if the long-term answer at quarterback has yet to step on campus. In the meantime, landing a difference-maker there in the short term becomes priority No. 1.

5. Baylor's LaQuan McGowan keeps scoring TDs: In light of his nifty touchdown grab against Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, Baylor is experimenting with using the 6-foot-7, 410-pound McGowan at tight end and H-back this spring. The experiment turns into a permanent position for McGowan, who caps the spring with another head-turning touchdown reception in Baylor's Friday Night Lights scrimmage.

6. Oklahoma State newcomer Todd Mays steps into the Tyreek Hill role: Mays doesn't possess Hill's world-class speed. But having excelled playing running back, receiver and even quarterback last year for East Mississippi Community College, Mays' versatility proves to be a natural fit in the role Hill manned for the Cowboys in 2014 as a change-of-pace back, dangerous slot receiver and big-play returner.

7. Texas Tech's QB race is tighter than predicted: Mahomes was spectacular for the Red Raiders down the stretch last season, intimating a two-man QB derby with Davis Webb would be a mere formality before Mahomes would be named the starter by spring's end. It's easy to forget, though, that Webb was terrific himself in Tech's 2013 bowl game before a turnover- and injury-plagued season sullied a potential encore campaign. Still, the Red Raiders were pumped about Webb this time last spring for a reason. And with Mahomes splitting time playing baseball -- he's missing Saturday's football workout to travel with the baseball team for a series at Cal State Fullerton -- Webb makes coach Kliff Kingsbury's decision much tougher than anyone anticipated.

8. Iowa State finds its featured back in Mike Warren: Rising senior DeVondrick Nealy was set to become the Cyclones' starting running back in 2015, until he and coach Paul Rhoads stunningly parted ways in early February. After the spring, no one will be left lamenting Nealy's departure. Warren, who redshirted last season in Ames after rushing for more than 2,500 yards and averaging better than 9 yards per carry during his senior season at Lawton (Oklahoma) High School, emerges as the Cyclones' every-down back by the end of the spring, answering the biggest question for an offense that quietly has a chance to be very dangerous this season.

9. Kansas State, West Virginia exit spring with WR concerns: No teams in college football were more decimated by graduation at receiver than K-State and West Virginia. The Wildcats and the Mountaineers between them graduated 359 receptions and 4,966 receiving yards in the forms of Tyler Lockett, Curry Sexton, Kevin White and Mario Alford. With quarterbacks Jake Waters and Clint Trickett gone, too, and without established go-to receivers, the passing games at both schools suffer this spring, leaving the receiver spot a huge question mark.

10. Baylor, TCU come out still on top: Going into the offseason, TCU and Baylor looked like the clear-cut, top-two teams in the Big 12. Even with both teams carrying uncertainties -- Baylor at quarterback, TCU on defense -- the defending conference co-champs exit spring looking like the class of the league and are voted overwhelmingly to finish first and second in the Big 12 preseason polls in the summer.
It's never too early to break out the Magic 8-Ball and make some predictions for the spring. We'll see how much egg I have on my face when the season starts!

1. Florida State will not have an answer at quarterback. The last time Florida State had a quarterback competition, the spring ended without an announced decision in the race between Jameis Winston, Clint Trickett and Jacob Coker. Even after Trickett announced his decision to transfer, coach Jimbo Fisher maintained Winston and Coker would go into the fall competing for the starting job -- though it was generally assumed Winston would win it. So why should anything be different this spring, with Sean Maguire, J.J. Cosentino and De'Andre Johnson? Add freshman Deondre Francois into the mix in the summer and there’s little upside in Fisher making an announcement when spring practice ends in April.

[+] EnlargeSean Maguire
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesSean Maguire will try to take the reins in Tallahassee as Florida State's starting quarterback.
2. Same story in Louisville. The Cards go into the spring with an open competition between Reggie Bonnafon, Tyler Ferguson and Kyle Bolin. That does not even take into consideration Will Gardner, who is rehabbing his third major knee injury. Bonnafon has the experience edge, but Ferguson just sat out the 2014 season because of NCAA transfer rules. Coach Bobby Petrino may want to give him more than 15 spring practices to truly compete and win the starting job. If Gardner is healthy in the fall, perhaps he gets a chance to rejoin the mix as well after starting seven games last season. There is no slam dunk decision here given the ups and downs we saw from Gardner, Bonnafon and Bolin a year ago and the inexperience Ferguson has headed into 2015.

3. The Miami defensive line will be better. The Hurricanes have had no significant pass rush since Al Golden arrived in Miami, but that will change this year. Miami has made big strides toward upgrading its tackle and end positions, and coaches feel good about the depth they have been able to develop because they were able to redshirt players last year for the first time under Golden. Miami is noticeably much bigger up front, which cannot be understated. Coaches are high on guys like Michael Wyche, Ufomba Kamalu, Trent Harris and Chad Thomas. Quan Muhammad is back at rush end and has had a good camp. The expectation is for this group to bump up the sack totals compared to the past several years.

4. Watch for Andrew Brown. The highly touted defensive tackle enrolled early last year at Virginia, but injuries cut his spring and freshman season short. Now, coach Mike London says Brown is in better shape and ready to take on a starting role. If he can make an impact the way Quin Blanding did last year, the Virginia defense should be in good shape.

5. The Clemson defense will remain elite. Despite losing the bulk of their defense, the Tigers should remain one of the best groups in the ACC and a top-10 defense nationally for a few reasons. First, the new players stepping into starting roles have game experience. Guys like Shaq Lawson, D.J. Reader and Carlos Watkins have played in big games before. Linebacker Ben Boulware has terrific upside. And the secondary is on track to be one of the strongest groups in the league behind potential All-American Mackensie Alexander.

6. Don’t be surprised if Marshawn Williams redshirts. The Virginia Tech running back was having an outstanding freshman season before a torn ACL sidelined him in mid-November. He is out for spring, and his status for the start of fall practice remains up in the air. Each player recovers differently from ACL injuries, so there’s no telling how Williams will come back. But if J.C. Coleman, Trey Edmunds and Joel Caleb can handle the back duties adequately, there’s no sense rushing Williams back.

7. Florida State will win 10 games, but it will be a “down” year. It’s all about perspective. The Seminoles will keep their streak of 10-win seasons going despite breaking in new starters at virtually every position. The schedule is forgiving enough for another double-digit victory total, though. But they won’t be in the national championship conversation. Whether that should be considered a “down” year is up to your interpretation. Wait for 2016 to arrive. Florida State should be back in the hunt then.

8. Georgia Tech will make history in July. For the first time, Georgia Tech will be picked as the preseason Coastal Division champions. The Jackets return enough talent and were impressive enough in 2014 to make believers out of the usually skeptical voters. Since the ACC split into divisions in 2005, Georgia Tech has finished atop the Coastal five times but has never been picked to win. That changes in 2015.

9. No ACC team in the playoff. I’m probably not going out on a limb with this one, but this would mark the first time in three years the league won’t have a chance to compete for a national championship. Florida State will be young, with a new starting quarterback, four new offensive linemen and new starters at tight end, receiver, defensive end, defensive tackle and in the secondary. Clemson and Georgia Tech play tough schedules and have questions of their own to answer. Louisville also is rebuilding on defense and has uncertainty at quarterback, receiver and offensive line.

10. Dabo Swinney joins Twitter! Can Swinney really let Steve Spurrier get the best of him on Twitter? Now that the HBC is all aboard, time for the Clemson head man to join up too. If their verbal jabs are any indication, the potential of their back-and-forth tweets is nothing short of epic.
When is it not football season in the SEC?

And with spring practice already up and running at a handful of schools, now seems about as good a time as any to take a stab at some early predictions as we look ahead to the 2015 season.

Let's hope I have more success than the West Division did in bowl games last season.

Here goes:

Missouri will win at least 10 games ... again: We've heard all the backhanded reasons about how and why Missouri has won 23 games over the last two seasons (tying Alabama for the most in the SEC). Chief among those reasons is that the East Division has been down. That doesn't change the fact that the Tigers are 14-2 in SEC games with a pair of championship game appearances and bowl wins during that span. Gary Pinkel and his staff are obviously doing a lot of things right, and that's not going to change in 2015. Being able to hold onto ace defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski was huge. The Tigers just keep developing explosive difference-makers up front defensively, and that's where the game is won.

The SEC will crown a new champion: Alabama fans might want to sit down for this, but there won't be a repeat SEC champion. The Crimson Tide will almost certainly be picked to win the title. When are they not? They were the choice four of the last five years at the SEC media days. Of course, the only time the media got it right was last year. Repeating in this league is akin to winning the lottery in back-to-back years. The last time anybody did it was Tennessee in 1997 and 1998. To put how long it's been in perspective, the only current head coach who was a head coach in the league then was Steve Spurrier, and he was at Florida. Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze were coaching high school football. So, yes, it's been a while.

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Mitchell
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsMalcolm Mitchell's past two seasons have been marred by injuries.
At least 13 teams will have two or more losses: When it was all said and done a year ago, everybody in the SEC had at least two losses, and 13 of the 14 teams had three or more. That's just where the league is right now. It eats its own. There's not a huge gap between the top two or three teams and the eighth, ninth and 10th teams. That might not be a good thing for the league in the playoff era, but look for more of the same in 2015. When the College Football Playoff selection committee picks its four teams, at least 13 of the 14 teams in the SEC will have two or more losses.

Carl Lawson will lead the conference in sacks: Some of the best news for Auburn is that Lawson is moving around just fine on his surgically repaired knee and will be ready this spring. Former teammate Gabe Wright called Lawson a “physical beast” last spring when it looked like he was poised to step right in for Dee Ford as the Tigers' finisher off the edge. But then came the ACL tear a month later, and Lawson was out for the season. He had four sacks as a freshman in 2013 but could triple that number this season. He will flourish in Will Muschamp's defense.

Malcolm Mitchell returns to prominence: Speaking of players returning from injury, isn't it about time Mitchell had some luck? When healthy, the guy is an absolute blur. The problem is he hasn't been able to stay healthy. Some of it's been freakish. He tore his ACL two years ago in the opener against Clemson while celebrating a Todd Gurley touchdown run. He reinjured his knee prior to last season and missed the Bulldogs' first four games. This is the season it all goes right for Mitchell and he emerges as the top deep threat in the league. Come on, you gotta root for a guy who's in a book club.

Arkansas and Tennessee break out: The Hogs and Vols are both primed for breakout seasons in 2015. Are they ready to make that leap? We should find out on Oct. 3 when they meet in Knoxville in what will be a top-20 matchup. Brace yourselves for more “Woo Pig Sooie” calls and more renditions of “Rocky Top” than should ever be allowed.

Kentucky will go bowling: The Wildcats looked like they were on their way last season after starting out 5-1, but they lost their last six games and stayed home for the postseason. In Year No. 3 under Mark Stoops, Kentucky will get back to a bowl after a four-year hiatus. Even then, the Wildcats will lose more games in September than their basketball team does this entire season. That's good news for Cal's boys, right?

HailState shows staying power: Mississippi State won 10 games in the regular season a year ago for the first time in school history. The Bulldogs lost some key pieces on defense, and the general feeling around the league is that they won't be able to sustain that success. But with Dak Prescott back, they aren't going to just roll over and play dead. They'll find a way to go at least .500 in SEC play for the second straight season. The last time that happened was when Jackie Sherrill was running “bullish” in Starkville with four straight seasons of .500 SEC records or better from 1997-2000.

Nick Saban joins Twitter: Saban will follow Steve Spurrier's lead and take the Twittersphere plunge even though he vowed last season he was too old school to go down that road. I have it on good authority that Saban has at least kicked around the idea, although it's still a real long shot. Boy, if it were to happen, though, what's next? Saban rearranging practice this spring to play golf? OK, let's not get carried away.

Fans will complain about overpaid coaches: Fans of every SEC West team that doesn't win at least 10 games will gripe loudly and lengthily that their coach is overpaid. That sort of comes with the territory when all seven coaches in the division are making $4 million or more per year.
The Pac-12 Blog offers 10 predictions for this spring season.

1. D.J. Foster's move to slot receiver will prove to be an excellent idea.

Foster was brilliantly versatile last season for Arizona State, tacking 62 catches and nearly 700 receiving yards on top of his 1,100-yard rushing campaign. Simply put, he's a premier athlete, and that gives coach Todd Graham a multitude of options on offense. Foster's move to the slot, then, only makes logical sense given the circumstances in Tempe: Jaelen Strong is gone from the outside, and Demario Richard is ready to pick up Foster's slack in the backfield. This shift doesn't handcuff ASU, either -- Foster can continue being his versatile self in 2015 and contribute to the ground attack. In fact, the slot may actually further highlight his adaptability.

2. At least 27 instances of "Berco-ing" will happen around the state of Arizona as QB Mike Bercovici officially takes the reins.

There have already been a few identified -- official or unofficial -- Berco-ing activities that have happened so far this offseason (see below). But now, with Bercovici officially taking the reins of this team and declaring its goal a national title, there will be a few fans around the state and country who find themselves celebrating in a much different way. Hint: This is much more difficult without a helmet -- don't break your nose.

3. Stanford coach David Shaw will be asked to talk about how no one is talking about his team, leaving him with a "that's so meta" reaction.

For the first time in several years, no one is really talking about the Cardinal going into spring football. The usual powerhouse had a slow start to last season, which left its final stretch -- impressive as it might have been -- relatively unnoticed, which in turn left its team this offseason relatively unnoticed. Enter: the most meta interview in which Shaw is asked to talk about talking, or rather, talk about how no one is talking about his team.

Example:

Q: David, can you discuss how different it is for you to be at this point in the season with little to no one really talking about your team?

A: [Hint: It doesn't matter what he says here because he spurns the question by actually talking about his team.]

4. Oregon State RB Storm Woods will take a huge leap forward as Gary Andersen actually makes running an emphasis in Corvallis.

Andersen has made it very clear he intends to run the ball. Mike Riley used to say this a lot, but given Andersen's ability to turn out some top-notch running backs, we're getting the idea he's very, very serious about it. The front-runner right now is Storm Woods, who showed flashes last season, specifically against Arizona State and Oregon. In preparation for said leap, the Pac-12 Blog is now taking advanced nicknames for Storm Woods in Cor-Vegas. Tweet them to @ESPN_Pac12blog.

5. Mike Leach gon' Mike Leach at some point and say something non-football related that makes headlines.

Now's a good time to review just a smidgen of what makes Washington State's Mike Leach a fascinating treasure. Many details can be found in this piece, which chronicles his long walks through the countryside to work, among other nuggets. But Leach's sound bites may be the most entertaining gifts of all. Remember that not too long ago, he predicted human extinction. What will be next? Better question: Can anything top that? We'll just have to wait and see.

6. Quarterbacks will be the most talked about subject in Eugene, Oregon, even though the competition won't really begin until this summer.

Yes, there'll be intense focus on Jeff Lockie, Morgan Mahalak and the others taking snaps this spring in an effort to become Marcus Mariota's successor. But while that group is doing its thing on Oregon's practice field, the potential front-runner for the job will be working out at Eastern Washington's rec center, of all places. Transfer Vernon Adams won't be around for spring ball, but his arrival in Eugene later this summer will add true sizzle to the battle.

7. Tre Madden and Justin Davis will both settle in primary running back roles at USC.

Javorius Allen is gone, so the Trojans have room opening up in the backfield. Davis is USC's leading returning rusher and Madden is returning following a turf toe injury that derailed his entire 2014 campaign. Built in the 225-pound power back mold, Madden brings a significantly different style to the table than the 195-pound Davis, and this will allow the Trojans to work on developing a complementary mix-and-match between the two players.

8. Chris Petersen will practice his fall avoidance of answering Boise State questions by avoiding answering Boise State questions.

Washington at Boise State is one of the most anticipated season openers for 2015. By nature, most college football coaches don't talk about the ensuing regular season too much during the spring because they don't want it to be too much of a distraction or show any kind of non-spring ball focus. That said, the matchup with the Broncos will probably be brought up a few times. This will give Petersen ample opportunity to practice whatever tactic he intends to apply next fall when folks ask him similar questions but expect a much better answer.

9. Cal will continue to show significant strides offensively.

During their miserable 1-11 campaign two seasons ago, the Bears planted some seeds offensively. Coach Sonny Dykes debuted Jared Goff as a true freshman, and the new coach introduced his aggressive aerial attack. There were growing pains aplenty, but 2014 saw marked improvement for the Bears. They developed an effective rushing attack, and Goff morphed into an upper-tier conference quarterback (5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio). This 2015 spring will see a continuation of Cal's offensive blossoming.

10. There will be a spring football rivalry between UCLA and USC.

Bruins, watch your bear. Trojans, watch out for Tommy Trojan.

OK, so maybe this is a more far-fetched prediction, but we can dream. Spring football needs some excitement.
Four prospects received immediate invitations to The Opening following last year’s Los Angeles Nike Football Training Camp, though several more from the event eventually found their way to the preeminent summer showcase. This year, The Opening Los Angeles Regional will again feature many of the top prospects in the West region, as several position groups will be loaded and several states will showcase their top recruits, who are looking forward to going toe-to-toe with California’s best. Here are five things to watch heading into Sunday’s event.

During a Colorado spring practice last week, head coach Mike MacIntyre approached his program's sports performance director, Dave Forman. He noted that the Buffs, fresh off their first session of winter conditioning, looked more physical and powerful than before.

In many other contexts, such a note from the boss would be music to a strength coach's ears.

But the time for smiles and pats on the back in Boulder isn't yet here. Forman knows the program is still in dire need of visible results: Colorado is 4-32 in Pac-12 play since joining the conference in 2011.

[+] EnlargeDave Forman
Courtesy of ColoradoDave Forman worked to tailor Colorado's offseason strength program to address the team's weaknesses.
From his own recent experience at Stanford and San Jose State, Forman is familiar with what the resurrection of a football program looks like. So despite the Buffs' 0-9 league finish in 2014, he's confident Colorado is churning toward the demanded breakthrough in his third year on campus -- and now is no time to rest.

"First, you have learn to compete," Forman says. "Then, you have to learn how to win."

Colorado has accomplished the first half of that. The Buffaloes were more competitive in 2014, ultimately to no avail in the win column.

"You put your heart and soul into something and it's a heartbreaking loss, those kids finally felt that last year," Forman says. "I think they finally understand what needs to be done. There are little, tiny details they may have overlooked last year, and they now realize how important they are."

In one-on-one meetings to begin this offseason, Forman listened as Colorado players recounted their particular frustrations from the difficult season that had just passed, and he worked to tailor the Buffs' offseason program to address the team's weaknesses. Colorado's rush defense, by far the worst in the Pac-12, gave up 30 runs of 20 yards or more in 2014, ranking the team No. 122 nationally in that category. Blown defensive assignments, often caused by a lack of communication in crunch time, proved devastating.

As a result, Forman has placed an emphasis on fusing communication with greater physical strength. He based many of the Buffs' winter conditioning workouts on cadence -- "down-up-one, down-up-two" -- to encourage a synchronous atmosphere. In this environment, no player could "hide" from any part of the workload.

"At the end of the day, everyone was doing the same amount of work," Forman says. "Nobody skimped out on anything. We're fostering trust and building camaraderie. There's no more pointing fingers. You have to trust that the guy next to you is going to do his job on the field, and this is aimed at developing that trust."

[+] EnlargeDave Forman
Courtesy of ColoradoForman came to Colorado after stints at Stanford and San Jose State.
With Forman's group-oriented focus providing the backbone, Colorado's players saw significant strength gains across the board this winter. Receiver Nelson Spruce said he's already squatting and bench pressing as much as he ever has.

If it's easier for Forman to stay positive and focus on the light at the end of the tunnel, it's because he's seen the results of his regimen pay off twice before.

He served three years as sports performance guru Shannon Turley's assistant at Stanford. He arrived there in 2008, a year after Jim Harbaugh inherited a 1-11 squad, and saw the Cardinal bleed yardage and blow two leads in the final minute of games on their way to a 5-7 season. That team finished an agonizing one win short of bowl eligibility, but it went on to post an 8-5 record in 2009 and a 12-1 Orange Bowl championship season in 2010, Forman's third year.

Forman then took over the head strength and conditioning role at San Jose State following the program's 1-12 campaign in 2010. This resuscitation followed a similar trajectory. The Spartans finished 2011 a painful 5-7, victims of defensive hemorrhaging and several blown fourth-quarter leads. But they turned the anguish into an 11-2 campaign the following season.

Forman came to Boulder with MacIntyre in 2013, and he can draw firm parallels to his previous two jobs. The staff's first season saw Colorado blown out of virtually every conference game except for a win against 1-11 California. Despite finishing 0-9 in Pac-12 play in 2014, the Buffs' average margin of defeat tightened by a full 10 points, including two double-overtime losses.

That hurt has become Colorado's offseason fuel, and it's caused Forman to sense something familiar to him -- a warmth brought on by progress.

"There's a nice feeling in the air," he says. "It feels different. You're walking down to practice, there's construction going on [Colorado's major facilities upgrades], and you can really point to an upward trajectory happening on a daily basis. It's a good vibe."
This spring, the Big 12 is loaded with quarterback competitions. But the three most hotly contested quarterback battles figure to reside in Norman, Morgantown and Austin. We predict the winners of these three competitions in our weekly Big 12 roundtable:

Who will win Oklahoma's QB derby?

Max Olson: I feel like I'd be a fool to bet against Baker Mayfield in this race. I know we've seen glimpses of Trevor Knight's ceiling before, and no question he's exciting on his best days. But if you saw what Mayfield did in the OU spring game last year, you knew this day was coming, right? Sure, the best foe he ever beat at Tech was probably that 4-8 TCU team. But Mayfield is a third-year guy now who's had plenty of time to mature and learn, and I can't discount the fact he's the Oklahoma QB most accustomed to playing in the offense Lincoln Riley will run. I think Mayfield will win the job in August.

Brandon Chatmon: I expect the OU spring competition to end much like TCU’s did 12 months ago, with the overriding summer question being whether the Sooners have anyone who can do the job. The spring will be filled with plenty of ups and downs from all three competitors. I think they do have a guy who can get the job done but, like Max, I think it won’t be decided until just before the season begins. Mayfield is the favorite because people tend to like shiny new toys, but I’m going to go with Knight to hold off Mayfield and keep his job. I like what Mayfield brings to the table, but people are choosing to overlook Knight's positives and focus instead on the mental lapses that plagued him in 2014. I’m betting on Riley to bring consistency and good decision-making to Knight’s game.

Jake Trotter: I don't think Bob Stoops will name a starter until August. But when he's ready to name one, I think it will be Mayfield. I'm not ready to give up on Knight. And Cody Thomas has the tools to be a quality Big 12 quarterback. But given the offense Riley wants to run, Mayfield makes the most sense. He has experience operating the air raid from his time at Tech. And, he's not a retread from last year's disastrous season. Mayfield brings a little bit of savvy and a lot of confidence to the position, too, which is something the Sooners could really use.

What about West Virginia's QB battle?

Olson: The William Crest bandwagon was filling up quickly last year in Morgantown even when he didn't play, and it's easy to see why. Is he better than Geno Smith and Pat White combined, as some WVU fans seem to believe? Not yet. We got such a limited opportunity to see him play in 2014 (four pass attempts and five rushes vs. Towson), but as long as his shoulder holds up, I think he's the long-term solution for this program.

Chatmon: Skyler Howard made great strides toward securing the starting job after Clint Trickett’s head injuries forced him to retire. Howard was solid in three starts to end the season, particularly with his eight touchdowns without an interception. But with five quarterbacks in the battle to permanently replace Trickett, this competition looks poised to extend into the preseason. Among those candidates, I have no doubt Crest is the future at the position with his unique skill set and mature approach, but I think Howard will start when the Mountaineers kick off the season Sept. 5 against Georgia Southern. Whether he keeps that starting spot throughout 2015 is the overriding question.

Trotter: Howard did some nice things filling in for Trickett late last season. But there's a reason why Crest beat him out for the No. 2 quarterback job coming out of the preseason. Howard can make plays outside the pocket, both with his arm and feet. But I'm skeptical his accuracy will be sharp enough to hold off Crest this spring. Crest is loaded with potential, and I see him ultimately beating out Howard again.

Who will emerge from Texas' QB competition?

Olson: Of these three, the Texas battle is the one I feel least confident about. I say that because I'm just not sure where Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard stand in the eyes of their coaches. Shawn Watson repeatedly said during the season that Heard was nowhere near ready. And it's hard to predict which Swoopes we're going to see this spring. A long competition will benefit both guys. I'd give a tiny edge to Heard ultimately being the choice, but I don't assume he's in the lead at this moment.

Chatmon: At Texas, Heard gets the nod over Swoopes despite Swoopes having the edge in experience. Heard seems like the right choice and the Longhorns' best hope of finding an answer at the quarterback position this spring, and I expect him to emerge atop the depth chart after shining in spring practices on the 40 acres. The question remains why Heard didn’t get a chance with the UT offense experiencing plenty of bumps in 2014, but I’m betting he shows he should have gotten that chance by separating himself this spring.

Trotter: Considering Heard is a complete unknown, I'll go with Swoopes here. But I don't feel great about it. Swoopes had his moments last season but struggled down the stretch, leading Texas to finish its season with a thud. Yet despite Swoopes' struggles, Heard never got a shot. Apparently, he wasn't ready. Will he be ready this spring? That's anyone's guess.
While Big Ten and other NCAA officials discuss rules limiting eligibility for first-year players in football and men’s basketball, ACC football coaches are nearly unanimous in wanting to move in the opposite direction.

In a poll of ACC football coaches, 12 of the 13 who responded said they favored or would consider expanding eligibility to allow players to play five years — eliminating the redshirt completely — and every coach expressed significant reservations about potentially redshirting all freshmen.

The debate has become a talking point after the Big Ten opened discussions on the subject of improving academics for freshmen by taking them off the field to focus more on the classroom, but every coach polled said they’d seen no firm correlation between grades and playing time, and many suggested redshirting freshmen can actually have a detrimental effect on their overall college experience.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cutcliffe
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesDavid Cutcliffe coaches at a school known for stellar academics, and he doesn't see a need to restrict freshman eligibility.
“My case study is watching young people, and the people who do redshirt that had been stars really struggle with their identity and happiness,” said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who has 33 years of experience coaching in the SEC and ACC.

Indeed, most coaches suggest the athletes with the greatest deficiencies in the classroom are also the ones who would be hurt the most by taking away their on-field experience, while the ones with the best time-management skills away from coaches are typically flourishing academically already.

“The kids that are mature and make good decisions, a redshirt year can be good for them,” NC State coach Dave Doeren said. “But the at-risk student is better off if he’s playing right away and engaged with the team all the time.”

While the specifics of freshman eligibility have not yet been a topic discussed among ACC coaches formally, Doeren said he was hopeful those conversations would begin soon, so that the concerns shared by the coaches can be addressed.

ACC commissioner John Swofford appeared open to restricted eligibility when asked by the Louisville Courier-Journal last month, though he conceded the logistics would be challenging.

“It's not a new topic,” Swofford told the paper. “It's been talked about in our league, as well as others, periodically. I'm old enough to have played in that system, and it was a good one. I think it's very educationally sound, and I think we should think about and consider anything that's educationally sound. Whether we get back to that, I don't know. I don't know if it fits the times in today's world. We haven't taken any votes in our league in regard to it in recent years.”

While the ACC does not specifically track league-wide academic performance of freshmen compared with older student-athletes, the conference does have the highest academic rating overall among Power 5 leagues, according to U.S. News and World Report, and 11 of the 14 institutions had an APR better than the FBS average. It's noteworthy, too, that of the 65 members of the league's academic All-ACC team, 12 were true freshmen.

On the NCAA level, eligibility restrictions for the most at-risk athletes are already set to go into effect beginning in 2016. Students who fail to meet core course requirements, GPA and ACT or SAT scores will be forced to redshirt or grayshirt their first year.

Extending eligibility restrictions to all freshmen would be a knee-jerk reaction, however, Cutcliffe said.

“I don’t know what they’re trying to accomplish other than getting better grades out of it, and that’s just not going to happen,” he said.

What it clearly would accomplish, however, is a huge strain on the remaining rosters for all teams.

Until 1972, freshmen were ineligible for competition. But at that time there were no scholarship limits in place, and programs could easily field a team without the newcomers. Moreover, seasons were shorter, with the majority of programs playing just 11 games until the early 2000s. This past season, Oregon and Ohio State played 15 games — one shy of an NFL season — and if freshmen hadn’t been eligible to play, they might have been limited to a roster of just 60 scholarship athletes.

“That’s basically an NFL roster, but we don’t get to pick up anybody off waivers, have free agency, make trades,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “I’m not sure how that would work, and I don’t think they have any intention of giving us more scholarships.”

[+] EnlargeLarry Fedora
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonNorth Carolina's Larry Fedora and other coaches would certainly want to ease the 85-scholarship limit if freshmen weren't eligible.
Instead, coaches pointed to two distinct areas that could address academic concerns without eliminating eligibility.

First, schools need to do a better job of developing programs to ensure a smoother transition for incoming freshmen to the rigors of college life. As Doeren suggested, time management and study skills differentiate students who succeed from the ones who fall behind, and instilling those in freshmen upon arrival in the summer is crucial.

Virginia’s Mike London said he shared some of the Big Ten’s concerns regarding academic performance and would be open to further discussion of potential solutions, but he said those answers should start with an in-house focus on supporting students in the classroom.

“We all know the biggest transition is from high school to college,” London said. “It’s important to me that the structures you have in place — academic advising, mentoring, tutoring — that’s as critical as anything else, and if you’re successful there, you allow the student-athletes — particularly the freshmen — to come in and have success.”

Moreover, Fedora said he’d like to see schools raise their admissions standards for athletes to weed out those who would be most likely to struggle with academics.

“Raise your standards,” Fedora said. “Don’t just let anybody in. If they’re not academically ready, then don’t let them in.”

All but one coach polled suggested five years of eligibility on the field would allow coaches more wiggle room in developing their freshmen.

“I would make everybody eligible, and then your team will be a lot healthier,” Miami coach Al Golden said. “There would never be a situation where a kid would feel like he’s letting his teammates down. The communication would improve. Health and safety would improve, and I bet our graduation rates and the number of student-athletes leaving with postgraduate degrees would increase sharply, too.”

It’s a plan that was reiterated again and again by ACC coaches concerned with player safety, academics and, of course, winning.

The bottom line among all coaches, however, is that more discussion of these issues is required, and that input from the coaches dealing with student-athletes on a daily basis should be weighed as strongly as any broad statistics being used to tout academic struggles for freshmen.

“A lot of things we do, we change before they’re truly broken,” Cutcliffe said. “I hope they listen to reason. I’d hate to see [eligibility restrictions] happen.”
Last season, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich held himself to a personal mantra: Year 2 would be an improvement from Year 1.

“If you do something a second time,” he said in August, “you should be better, you should be more efficient, and there’s no exception with me.”

Now defensive coordinator Don Pellum has a similar task.

On the one hand, when looking at a defense that was one of the most inconsistent groups in the conference, it doesn’t seem as though it would be too hard to take a step forward, especially because most of the players will be in their second year in the program.

[+] EnlargeDon Pellum
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesOregon loses quite a bit from its defense, but coordinator Don Pellum sees ways in which his group will be improved and more efficient.
On the other hand, when looking at the players that Pellum loses -- his top two tacklers, an All-American cornerback, his most athletic pass-rusher -- it’s hard to know how the Ducks will be able to take a step forward when they are replacing so many players.

But for Pellum, the answer is simple.

“We have a bunch of weapons,” he said. “This year we won’t carry as many, but we’ll be more specific. So if all of a sudden we’re playing a certain team and they’re running a certain play, last year we might’ve had two or three or four different things we could do. [This year] we’re going to dial it down to one or two and be really, really good at them.”

The process of becoming really, really good at those plans begins at the end of the month, when Oregon begins spring practice. As it gets closer, Pellum is getting more excited.

For him, he sees a lot of veterans in his meeting room, even though most of the public might not.

“I’m excited about where we are,” Pellum said. “We lost some terrific players, but I think overall in terms of depth and experience, we’re far ahead of where we were a year ago right now.”

He said in his first year he hadn’t realized how few senior starters were on the defensive side of the ball until he walked into a meeting as the defensive coordinator and began to actually count: zero on the line, two in the linebackers group (Tony Washington, Derrick Malone) and just one proven, battle-tested senior defensive back (Ifo Ekpre-Olomu).

In Year 2, Pellum rattles off a group of players at each position group that he views as veteran because they know his system and how he works.

The Ducks return defensive lineman Alex Balducci and a few experienced linebackers in Joe Walker, Rodney Hardrick and Tyson Coleman. In the secondary, cornerback Chris Seisay got some playing time near the end of the season after Ekpre-Olomu’s injury and safety Reggie Daniels finished third on the team in tackles. So there’s certainly talent there, but the depth remains to be seen.

But with those players and a coach willing to scale back to better fit his team, could Oregon take a big step forward in 2015?

Absolutely.

“[Last year] we had a big toolbox,” Pellum said. “Our toolbox will be a little smaller this year. And now, after going through the season, we know how the opposition is going to really attack or try to counter, so now it’s going to be more specific to what these defenses are for.”

Pellum will attack Year 2 with the same expectation his head coach had last year: If you do something a second time, you should be better.

“I feel real comfortable about what this group can do,” Pellum said. “I think we can carry a little less, but I think we can be a lot more efficient.”
Auburn's Gus Malzahn and Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze fear they have lost the battle to keep the rule from changing on the illegal man downfield penalty.

The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel is scheduled to vote Thursday on a proposal from the NCAA Rules Committee that would reduce the number of yards offensive linemen can move downfield on a pass play from 3 to 1 yard.

"It’s going to change the way we do things, those of us who are run-pass offenses, and when you look around college football right now, that’s a lot of us," Malzahn said. "You’re always looking for ways to be creative, and I don’t think you should ever change the rules to take creativity out of the game unless it’s a safety issue. This is not a safety issue.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsGus Malzahn on the illegal man downfield penalty: "... don't penalize those of us who are doing it right and coaching it right by changing the rule."
"This is two years in a row now that something like this has happened, and it looks like this one will get through."

Last year, a 10-second rule designed to slow the pace of play offensively was proposed by the NCAA Rules Committee, but it was tabled before it ever got to the oversight panel.

Malzahn and Freeze are among a group of coaches nationally who have asked Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, the rules committee chairman, to also table this proposal and make it a point of emphasis this season among officials.

"I understand those coaches who are upset when a lineman is 5 or 6 yards downfield and the quarterback pulls up and throws a pass," Freeze said. "That’s a penalty and should be called. Throw the flag, but don’t penalize those of us who are doing it right and coaching it right by changing the rule."

Malzahn and Freeze are among several coaches nationally who use the “pop pass,” which is a play-action pass that many of the spread teams use to make it look like a run, particularly on a zone-read play, and then throw it. One of the most obvious examples of a “pop pass” was Nick Marshall’s touchdown pass to Sammie Coates to tie the Alabama game two years ago, which was then won by the Tigers on Chris Davis’ Kick-Six.

Steve Shaw, the SEC’s coordinator of officials, said the new rule would stipulate that an offensive lineman could still be 3 yards downfield as long as he was engaged with a defender, but that offensive linemen would no longer be able to free release beyond 1 yard and a team legally throw a pass.

"This will hurt the high school coaches, too, because a lot of those guys are running the same stuff," Malzahn said. "Those of us coaching in college who came from high school understand how important this is and how much it will change the game.

"Scoring will be down. You’re not going to see teams scoring as many points, and when it’s getting harder all the time to get fans to come to games, is that something that college football wants?"

Rogers Redding, the NCAA’s coordinator of officials, maintains that the proposal has support from both offensive and defensive coaches and that one offensive-minded coach even commented to him, "We have to play defense, too."

Redding added that the changes the committee are sending to the oversight panel are good for the game and that he supports them.

The split among FBS coaches on whether to change the rule, according to Redding, was about 50-50. The rules committee gathered input from coaches via a survey, but Malzahn said only a small sampling of coaches ever send those back.

"Part of the problem is that they do those surveys in January, right in the middle of recruiting, and a lot of us don’t have time to think,” Malzahn said. “Whatever happens, we need to come up with a better system on how to go about doing this."
In the wake of Minnesota’s regular-season-ending loss to Wisconsin this past November, the Golden Gophers, at their annual team banquet, named Briean Boddy-Calhoun as a co-captain for 2015.

It was a formality, really.

“Just a title,” Boddy-Calhoun said this week as Minnesota opened spring practice.

A rising senior from Wilmington, Delaware, Boddy-Calhoun and fellow cornerback and classmate Eric Murray fill leadership roles for Minnesota in the secondary, across the defensive unit and the entire team. They stand out for their similar effectiveness and their differences, complementing each other well -- Boddy-Calhoun as the outspoken motivator and Murray as a quiet, steadying force.

[+] EnlargeBriean Boddy-Calhoun
AP Photo/Nati HarnikMinnesota's Briean Boddy-Calhoun forms one half of what might be the best cornerback duo in the Big Ten.
It works for Minnesota, which relied on their consistency last season to rank fourth in the Big Ten in both passing yardage allowed per game and per attempt. And they return as arguably the top pair of cornerbacks in the league. They’re a driving force behind the rise of Minnesota, which has posted consecutive eight-win seasons for the second time in more than 50 years

"They’re great workers," Minnesota secondary coach Jay Sawvel said. "It's proven by video. It’s proven by how they play. Any time that your best players are your best workers and your best practice players, best meeting-preparation people, well, then it makes things a lot better.”

Boddy-Calhoun, defending the field, snagged a team-high five interceptions last season. Murray, as the boundary corner, ranked fourth in tackles with 69.

“He’s going to be in your face,” Boddy-Calhoun said. “He’s going to press you every play, where I’m more of a finesse corner. I cover a little more ground. I have good feet, good hips and I can cover those shifty guys. I play off a little bit."

The Gophers played on New Year’s Day last season for the time since 1962, losing 33-17 to Missouri in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. The experience left a sour taste.

“In my mind,” Boddy-Calhoun said, “we can hang with the best people out there.”

Murray came to Minnesota from Milwaukee and played a reserve role as a true freshman in 2012. He started every game over the past two seasons.

For Boddy-Calhoun, the route was more circuitous. After a year in junior college, he played primarily on special teams in 2012. Two years ago, he recorded his first interception in the opener against UNLV, returning it 89 yards for a touchdown.

But in Week 2 of the 2013 season against New Mexico State, Boddy-Calhoun went down with a season-ending knee injury. He received a medical redshirt, paving the road for his return in 2015 after a breakout junior season.

“It was a test that I needed to take,” Boddy-Calhoun said. “Ultimately, it made me a better person and a better player.”

His knack for big plays last season gained Boddy-Calhoun a spot on the All-Big Ten first team, as selected by the media; Murray earned second-team recognition from the coaches.

In the Gophers’ November visit to Nebraska, Boddy-Calhoun preserved a 28-24 victory by stripping receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El inside the 5-yard line with 1:19 to play after a catch that would have been negated by penalty.

His nose for the ball no longer surprises Sawvel.

“Sometimes you’ll see something happen with Briean, and you’ll go, ‘Well, that was lucky. Look at that. How did that happen?’” said Sawvel, entering his 17th season as a full-time coach of defensive backs. “But when you see it over and over, it’s not luck. That’s what he does. I don’t know how to explain it. I’ve never really had a player like it.

“He just has a magical way. The ball goes to him in the weirdest ways possible sometimes."

On a smaller scale -- Boddy-Calhoun is 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds -- he plays with a presence Sawvel likens to Richard Sherman, the Seattle Seahawks' All-Pro corner.

“You talk about a guy who would be fabulous as a coach,” Sawvel said. “He needs to be a coach when he gets done playing.”

As for Murray?

“Eric has this little menacing stare,” Sawvel said. “It’s a good thing. You know when he means business. And he’s talented enough that when he means business, he can control people very well.”

With senior safeties Damarius Travis and Antonio Johnson in place to start alongside Boddy-Calhoun and Murray, the Gophers are set in the secondary.

Their 2015 recruiting class included seven defensive backs. The presence of established veterans helped Minnesota land the latest signees, Sawvel said.

“There’s a culture in place,” the coach said. “It was a big selling point.”

The Gophers open in September at home with TCU, likely to rank near the top of preseason polls. TCU beat Minnesota 30-7 last year, a black mark for the Big Ten in a rough opening month of the 2014 season.

Boddy-Calhoun said the Gophers are eyeing the rematch but remain more focused inward. The cornerbacks are intent on leaving their mark as the Big Ten’s best.

“That’s something we’re fighting for,” Boddy-Calhoun said, “something we want to show everyone. It’s something that we strongly believe. But we know that title doesn’t come by looking good or playing good for one season. We know it can only come with work.”
In this week's poll, ESPN.com's Pac-12 blog asked readers about Mark Schlabach's Way Too Early Top 25. Or rather, about the teams that weren't mentioned on that list but have a good chance to be on the final top 25 of the 2015-16 season.

Of the responses, Stanford and Utah got the most votes, which worked out well because David Lombardi felt pretty strongly that Stanford would make the final top 25 next season while Chantel Jennings believed that the Utes would do the same.

They debate ...

Lombardi: Immediately following Utah's double overtime win at Stanford on November 15, my answer would have been different. But it's tough to bet against Stanford after seeing the way the Cardinal rampaged through the end of the season. Prior to 2014, Stanford had posted four consecutive campaigns filled with elite-level, BCS bowl success, and that's earned them the benefit of the doubt coming off a Jekyll-and-Hyde season: History tells us to trust the good Stanford team we saw over the season's final three games more than the wildly inconsistent one that played the front nine.

Of course, the reloading challenges currently facing the Cardinal are unique to the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw era. For the first time, the program must replace the entirety of its starting defensive line -- long considered the bedrock of what has become a top-shelf 3-4 unit. The injury-plagued situation at Stanford practice is currently very frightening, as three relatively inexperienced defensive linemen are being forced to stick through entire sessions without any substitutes at the position.

But the Cardinal still have six months to find their footing, and that allows time for two important developments to take root: Injured defensive linemen can heal and the team's respected defensive coaching staff can develop a slew of talented players to pick up the slack on that side of the ball. Stanford has recruited defensive backs very well the past two years, and the bet here is that Duane Akina can make that talented unit shine by fall. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Lance Anderson earned credibility in 2014, and recent results suggest he can ensure that Stanford's defense doesn't fall off a cliff.

That much should be adequate for the Cardinal, who return almost all of an offense that surged to finish 2014. Kevin Hogan is an experienced quarterback who overcame the passing of his father last season. He has the tools at his disposal to make Stanford's attack consistently productive, and that'll be enough to stabilize this team into Top 25 territory -- even if it does ultimately field a weaker defense.

Jennings: The Utes certainly have their work cut out for them, don't get me wrong. I don't think this is going to be a cakewalk for Kyle Whittingham & Co., but like last season I think the Utes will grind their way into the Top 25 come season's end.

Last season, six four-loss teams (including Utah) made it into the final AP poll of the season. Even one five-loss team (Auburn) made it in. What those seven teams all had in common were two things: 1. Most -- if not all -- of their losses either came on the road or were against a ranked opponent. 2. With the exception of Louisville, every team had at least one win (in some cases as many as three wins) versus ranked opponents.

Utah's doesn't exactly have the kindest schedule for an FBS team this year but they'll just look at that as opportunities to pick up signature wins. If the Utes can pick up some big W's against a few of their many top opponents, then maybe even a four- or five-loss Utah can make it into the final AP poll.

Heck, the Utes have three opportunities before October to pick up big wins in games versus Michigan, Utah State and Oregon.

Now, I don't think the Utes are just going to demolish several teams. But, I think they have a grinding work ethic that's going to help them in close games. The Utes' average margin of victory in conference games last season was 3.6 -- they know how to play (and how to win) in close games.

With running back Devontae Booker taking on an even bigger role, Kenneth Scott becoming a better receiving threat (with the help of players like Kenric Young and Deniko Carter) and Travis Wilson manning the operation (yep, I've called it) I think the offense will be in good hands … or at least more consistent hands than it was last season.

Defensively, I think Hunter Dimick is going to take on a much bigger role without Nate Orchard. With an intact linebacker corps the pass rush has a potential to be just as potent as last season. The secondary needs to shore itself up a bit, but I think they're in pretty good shape, too.

Plus, they've got Andy Phillips and Tom Hackett -- field goals and field position will be no worry for Whittingham.

Do I think Utah will be perfect? No. But, I do think a four-loss Utah team that picked up a few ranked wins along the way could sneak into the Top 25.
Shortly after taking over as coach at Oklahoma in 1999, Bob Stoops inspected the practice fields. There, he was mortified to find chicken bones littering the grounds, remnants of a lax policy that had permitted fans to tailgate on Saturdays where the Sooners practiced during the week. Stoops quickly realized he had much work ahead that spring to overhaul a football culture gone haywire.

In the 16 years since, never has Stoops faced a more critical spring than the one he will embark on this weekend.

After five years of trending in the wrong direction, Oklahoma has arrived at another crossroads. The Sooners are coming off an 8-5 season in which they suffered two of the most embarrassing defeats -- 48-14 to Baylor and 40-6 to Clemson -- of the Stoops era.

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesGetting Oklahoma back atop the Big 12 standings will be a difficult task for coach Bob Stoops.
Oklahoma’s top recruiter, Jerry Montgomery, has bolted town. The rest of the coaching staff has been completely revamped, leaving offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh as the only assistant holding the same duties he did last year.

The funding for an ambitious $400 million stadium renovation has come to a crawl, raising concerns as to whether it will ever be completed.

Quarterback is a total unknown. The pass defense has been in a perpetual spiral.

Baylor and TCU have surpassed the Sooners as the current class of the Big 12. Texas is back to dominating the recruiting trail.

And, for the first time since that chicken bone-clearing offseason, Oklahoma could open unranked in the preseason polls.

The pressure will be on Stoops and his Sooners this spring. To begin reversing this tide of recent decline.

"I’m more determined than ever to get Oklahoma back in the position to competing for national championships like we have so many other times," Stoops said this offseason.

Whether that will happen will hinge heavily on 31-year-old offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who has been charged with bringing the Mike Leach air raid attack back to Norman this spring.

To clear a spot for Riley, Stoops fired Josh Heupel, who, from being Stoops’ first quarterback recruit in 1999 to Sam Bradford’s position coach, had been an integral piece of Oklahoma’s resurgence in Stoops’ early days. Yet as the Sooners struggled to regain their footing over the past five years, they lost their offensive identity under Heupel along the way, prompting Stoops the make the most drastic coaching change of his tenure.

Save for one bowl game, Riley has never called plays for a Power 5 conference offense. And he’s young enough to be Stoops’ son. But Stoops’ future and Oklahoma’s fortunes are now on Riley’s shoulders. All eyes will be on him this spring as he attempts to rehabilitate an offense that desperately needs to uncover an immediate and long-term answer at quarterback.

Trevor Knight, Baker Mayfield, and Cody Thomas will all be vying to be that answer in what figures to be Oklahoma’s most wide open -- and intriguing -- quarterback competition of this millennium.

Knight was supposed to be the Sooners’ quarterback of the future. But after a disastrous 2014 season in which he led the Big 12 in pick-six interceptions and suffered a scary transient quadriplegia injury, he could be Oklahoma’s quarterback of the past.

In three games relieving Knight, Thomas failed to gain a stranglehold on the job, as he finished last in the Big 12 in completion percentage.

That leaves Mayfield, who walked-on at Texas Tech before transferring to Oklahoma, where he sat out last season. Given his Tech ties, Mayfield has experience operating the system Riley will be installing. And he was the 2013 Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year. But after cruising through the non-conference, Mayfield also struggled against Big 12 competition that season. And he has not played in game in two years.

Quarterback, however, isn’t the Sooners’ only pressing concern.

When defensive coordinator Mike Stoops came back to Norman two years ago, he was supposed to bring the ferocious Oklahoma defenses of the early 2000s with him. Instead, the Sooners have been a sieve on that side of ball since his return, ranking ninth in the league in pass defense last season. It got so bad that Sooner fans booed through an embarrassing sequence against Baylor, in which quarterback Bryce Petty completed all nine pass attempts on a cinch of a scoring drive with Oklahoma’s overmatched defensive backs playing 10 yards off the ball.

Bob Stoops has taken his brother off manning defensive backs, and brought in Kerry Cooks from Notre Dame. But Cooks’ task of whipping a secondary into shape this spring is daunting, because the unit features only one proven difference-maker -- cornerback Zack Sanchez.

Oklahoma’s task of challenging for a Big 12 title next season is even more daunting.

TCU and Baylor are top 10 teams. Oklahoma State toppled the Sooners in Norman last season. And a Week 2 trip to Tennessee could thwart the Sooners before they even get going.

Oklahoma won’t have chicken bones on its practice field. But once again, Bob Stoops has plenty of work ahead.
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Junior days are underway, and the spring evaluation period is quickly approaching. While a number of programs are off to a fast start and in need of keeping impressive commitments in the fold, there also are programs in need of creating momentum and battling archrivals on the trail this spring and headed into the summer.

Here is a look at 10 programs that need a big spring, for various reasons (listed alphabetically):

Florida
The Gators saved the 2015 class in the days leading up to national signing day creating some momentum heading into the spring and summer. The time to capitalize is now for Jim McElwain and staff, and Florida simply must continue to gain steam with archrival Florida State swinging a big recruiting stick in state, and Miami on a run headed into the spring evaluation period. Florida currently has three verbals, all outside the ESPN Junior 300.


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