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.

Perhaps no ACC team has as much intrigue this spring as North Carolina, which brought in Gene Chizik to revamp the defense and will go to battle without starting QB Marquise Williams, who is out for the spring with a hip injury. To get a feel for where the Heels are at, we talked with coach Larry Fedora about some of the biggest spring storylines.

David Hale: Last year, you talked a lot about how young your team was. Now those guys have a year of experience under their belts, can you tell a major difference?
Larry Fedora: It's interesting because as we talked about through our [morning] workouts, the guys who were struggling were always the newcomers who just entered school and the freshmen who hadn't been through the offseason workouts. The other guys are veterans. I see those guys have experience, they're comfortable, they're not feeling their way. They understand the expectation level and the amount of energy and work we're asking for them.

[+] EnlargeLarry Fedora
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeCoach Larry Fedora, who guided the Tar Heels to a 6-7 overall record last season, enters spring practices with a new coordinator and more experienced players.
Hale: Obviously bringing Chizik in changes a lot on defense. Have you seen a palpable sense of excitement from the D with him on board?
Fedora: In our whole team -- not just the defense. The entire team is excited about it, and the new guys on that defensive side of the ball -- they're just really, really excited about the new blood and basically starting from scratch with that.

Hale: How big of a transition from the previous system to Chizik's do you expect?
Fedora: I don't think there'll be a whole lot of carryover. It'll be quite a bit of newness for them, and that's one of the things they're excited about. Everybody has a clean slate and everybody gets to build their resume on a daily basis, from the time they step on campus.

Hale: Given the up-tempo style you run on offense, were you looking for a guy who could tailor a defense around that?
Fedora: For me, it was about finding the best defensive coordinator there is. A guy who could come in and I could turn it over and not be worried about what's going on on that side of the ball. Gene is obviously a proven defensive coordinator, who has had success everywhere he's been. That was an easy decision for me. The tempo and the amount of plays we run were not a factor for me.

Hale: How did the hire come about?
Fedora: After the season was over, I started looking into people. Gene was a guy I'd always had on my list, and I think a lot of people, it surprised them because Gene was working in TV at the time. But he's a guy I knew eventually would want to get back in, and I was hoping we were the right time and place for him. And we were.

Hale: What do you see as the biggest challenges for Chizik this spring?
Fedora: One of the things is we had two hybrid positions. Our bandits were a defensive end/linebacker that could rush and drop into coverage. We have to make a decision with those guys whether they're going to linebacker or D-end, and some of them are kind of 'tweeners, because that's what we were recruiting for. Same thing with our ram position. Those guys were safeties/linebackers. We have to find out where they're going to fit best also. There'll be some issues recruiting-wise we have to do to correct those things and recruit toward the philosophy where we're going now.

Hale: You probably want to make some quick decisions there to get guys into the weight room to prep for those new roles, right?
Fedora: Right. Some guys we've already talked about we need to add some weight, some need to drop some weight. But at the same time, Gene has to find where's the best fit for those guys. Where are they going to help us the most? Then we have to mold the defense and the system around what these guys can do because, no matter what, this is who's playing for us, and we've got to get the most out of them.

Hale: Last year, you didn't want to name Williams as your starting QB in the spring, but he turned in arguably the best statistical season of any ACC QB when the season began. How has your opinion of him changed?
Fedora: Marquise is our starting quarterback. That doesn't mean -- we still want competition. But he comes back as a starter in that position. We're still going to have somebody try to push him, but I think Marquise played very well last year, and we need to get him where he's completely healthy and playing at a high level consistently throughout the entire season.

Hale: You got some criticism for playing backup Mitch Trubisky a lot early in the season. Looking back, was that the right decision?
Fedora: I would not have changed the way we did that. It still benefited both players and benefited our team. If you go all the way into the Virginia game, it was a fourth-down call and on third down, Marquise's helmet got knocked off. Mitch came in and threw a touchdown pass on fourth down. If he hadn't had those reps, who knows? You always want your guys prepared. I think the way we did it last year was really good -- for Marquise, for Mitch and for our football team.

Hale: How much has Mitch improved?
Fedora: I think Mitch progressed throughout the entire year. He got better as we went and is doing a good job right now. He knows he's a play away.

Hale: The other big issue for you last season was on the offensive line, where you were especially young. Could that become an area of strength this season?
Fedora: We struggled. I don't mean to put everything on the offensive line, but being young, there were some games we were able to run the ball more effectively, and some we weren't, and a lot of that had to do with the youth up front. When you're trying to develop that many young kids, it's tough. When you're in the trenches, it's hard to play when you're really young. As far as the way those guys developed all year, I'm excited going into the spring. They all have experience. They're still developing, but they're not going to be wide-eyed. They're going to know what to do and I think you'll see them start to really excel up front.
The conference returns a number of experienced and talented quarterbacks, but for two of the ACC's top teams, there is an open competition at the position. Those competitions will define the spring for Florida State and Louisville and could define all of 2015. Those position battles highlight the conference's most intense competitions this spring.

1. Florida State starting quarterback
When Jameis Winston committed to the Seminoles, it was assumed the No. 1 high school quarterback would transition into the starting role after a redshirt year once EJ Manuel departed. There is not an obvious answer for who will follow Winston, however. Sean Maguire filled in admirably against Clemson under tough circumstances and against the top defense in 2014, but he still has much to prove. J.J. Cosentino was an ESPN 300 recruit and certainly has the build (6-foot-4, 234 pounds), but he redshirted as a freshman. De'Andre Johnson enrolled in January and could be a dark horse, but fellow freshman Deondre Francois, who will arrive in the summer, has the higher prep pedigree. John Franklin III could get some looks in the spring, but he spent most of last season at receiver.

[+] EnlargeWill Gardner
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesWill Gardner passed for 1,669 yards with 12 touchdowns and just three interceptions in eight games for Louisville last season, but missed five games overall, including the final three.
2. Louisville starting quarterback
You might have better odds hitting the superfecta at Churchill Downs two months from now than accurately pegging who the Cardinals will start in the season opener. Will Gardner, who took the majority of snaps in 2014, is recovering from a torn ACL. Reggie Bonnafon collected a handful of starts as a true freshman, but he could not wrestle the starting gig from Gardner long term. Kyle Bolin showed promise against Kentucky in the regular-season finale but struggled in the bowl game against Georgia. Tyler Ferguson has followed Bobby Petrino around recently, so the transfer should have the offense down. Making it tougher on the three spring participants is the lack of experienced receivers. That will be another interesting position battle.

3. Georgia Tech's running backs
The Yellow Jackets are losing seven of their top nine leading rushers at running back, so aside from Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech's crowded backfield will have several new faces. Broderick Snoddy is the most experienced but is recovering from a devastating leg injury suffered in November. Snoddy has lightning speed and is a home-run threat with the ball in his hands. Dennis Andrews had only 16 carries in 2014, but he averaged 6.6 yards per carry. The name to watch is C.J. Leggett, who redshirted as a freshman last season but was highly rated coming out of high school.

4. Boston College's starting offensive line
Former offensive line coach Steve Addazio had the luxury of coaching five seniors along the line at certain points in 2014. The obvious flip side is that now he has to completely retool the offensive line, and the spring is the ideal time to start working on that chemistry. Guard Harris Williams returns from injury, but there are a number of question marks around him. Dave Bowen could be a solid bet to start at one of the tackle spots. Senior Frank Taylor could step in at center. Aside from Williams, though, nothing looks to be set in stone.

5. Clemson backup quarterback.
The Tigers probably have the conference's best quarterback, but Deshaun Watson has struggled to stay healthy since enrolling at Clemson. He suffered three significant injuries his first season, the last a torn ACL that will cost him spring practice. A year ago, the Tigers still had Cole Stoudt, who had started a handful of games. If Watson is not ready for the opener or has to miss any time in 2015, the Tigers' season could be in jeopardy. Nick Schuessler is a redshirt junior but a former walk-on who has thrown only 10 career passes. Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel are true freshmen who enrolled in January.

6. Miami running back
Duke Johnson, whose career will be celebrated at Miami for quite some time, is off to the NFL. Miami has a strong stable of running backs it can rely on to replace Johnson, but it remains to be seen who will get the majority of the carries. Joseph Yearby was one of the country's top running backs in the 2014 class and ran for more than 500 yards as a freshman. However, Gus Edwards could leave the spring with the starting gig. Edwards is a bigger back but is capable of running away from defenders. Mark Walton is enrolling in the coming months, and he was one of the top high school players in Florida last fall.
A closer look at a few important position battles in the Big 12 entering spring practice:

Baylor: Middle linebacker
Aiavion Edwards vs. Grant Campbell

Replacing Bryce Hager, one of the Big 12’s most underappreciated stars, won’t be easy. He was the quarterback of Baylor’s defense, and his successor inherits a lot of responsibility. Edwards started five games last season while Campbell, a junior college transfer, served as Hager’s top backup. They’ll be aided by the return of exciting sophomore Taylor Young, who took Edwards’ job at weakside linebacker last year. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is going to let Edwards and Campbell keep competing until the right fit is found, and it’s been a good battle so far.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesTrevor Knight will need to find consistency this offseason to earn the nod as Oklahoma's starting QB.
Oklahoma: Quarterback
Trevor Knight vs. Baker Mayfield vs. Cody Thomas

The great variable here is new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley and the Sooners’ transition to Air Raid-style football. All three of his QB candidates have starting experience in the Big 12. Knight needs to stay healthy and get much more consistent. Mayfield has experience in this scheme and needs to show the spark he provided Texas Tech as a freshman in 2012. And Thomas, who dropped baseball to focus on winning this job, just needs to keep pushing them. All three are in for a rigorous offseason of learning under Riley’s watch.

Oklahoma State: Running back
Rennie Childs vs. Sione Palelei

Chris Carson, the touted juco signee who flipped from Georgia, doesn’t arrive in Stillwater until the summer. Neither does freshman Jeff Carr. That means Childs, Palelei and the rest of the Cowboys' backs have the spring to prove they deserve carries this fall. Childs has rushed for 483 yards and five scores as a reserve over the past two years, while the speedy Palelei redshirted last year. Carson seems like the safe bet to be this group’s workhorse when he arrives, but somebody has to tote the rock this spring.

TCU: Cornerback
Corry O’Meally vs. DeShawn Raymond vs. Nick Orr vs. Cameron Echols-Luper

The Horned Frogs are expected to have a wide-open battle for the spot Kevin White held down for three years, and all four of these guys bring different traits to the table. O’Meally and Orr played as reserves in their first year as Frogs. Raymond, a four-star early enrollee, would be TCU’s biggest option here at 6-foot-1. And Echols-Luper, a prolific returner, just switched from receiver to corner this offseason. There’s not a lot of experience among this group, but there is a lot of potential.

Texas: Quarterback
Tyrone Swoopes vs. Jerrod Heard

Swoopes started 12 games last season and at times showed flashes of an exciting future. He also struggled mightily against TCU and Arkansas to end the year. How much better can he get as a junior? Heard, a redshirt freshman, was nowhere near ready to play last year in the eyes of co-offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. We’ll see how both respond to playing in a higher-tempo offense this spring, and whether ESPN 300 signee Kai Locksley tests them in the summer. Texas badly needs stability and leadership at this spot as well as a much-improved line.

Texas Tech: Defensive tackle
Rika Levi vs. Keland McElrath vs. Demetrius Alston vs. Breiden Fehoko

What’ll makes this group fun to watch is the influence of their new position coach, fiery co-defensive coordinator Mike Smith. He’ll push Tech’s big men like never before. Levi didn’t play up to the hype last year, but he’s looking much better this spring now that he’s dropped 20 pounds. Tech fans will be clamoring to see Fehoko, Tech’s top-rated signee, on the field as soon as possible. Anthony Smith, Marcus Smith and the injured Donte Phillips are also in the mix. Considering Tech’s inability to stop the run last year, finding the right combo here is important.

West Virginia: Quarterback
Skyler Howard vs. William Crest vs. Paul Millard

Howard showed dramatic improvement leading up to his three-game audition to end 2014. He lost two of those three, but threw eight TDs and played with confidence when he got his shot. West Virginia fans are rightfully excited about Crest, a dual-threat redshirt freshman whose first year was cut short by a shoulder issue. Millard and true freshmen Chris Chugunov and David Sills are also battling for this job, giving Dana Holgorsen better QB depth than he’s had in a while. If Crest proves he’s ready to lead now, he might run away with this race.
The opening of spring practice around the Big Ten brings competition to each of the league’s 14 programs. Departing top players and the maturation of others lead to fights for practice reps that will help shape depth charts and summer conversation topics.

At Ohio State, the nation’s most prominent position battle looks set to be waged at quarterback upon the return from injury of Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. This spring, the spotlight belongs to Cardale Jones.

So which position battles require close attention over the next few weeks?

Michigan quarterbacks: It’s wide-open, with junior Shane Morris, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and true freshman Alex Malzone auditioning for Jim Harbaugh and coordinator Tim Drevno. Speight owns a size advantage. Morris has played in parts of the past two seasons, but was ineffective in place of Devin Gardner. The spring serves only as an appetizer in this race, which figures to extend to August, when freshman Zach Gentry joins the fun.

Minnesota running backs: David Cobb meant so much to the Gophers over the past two seasons as they rolled to 16 wins. Minnesota likely can’t replace his production with one back, though redshirt freshman Jeff Jones -- a homegrown, elite recruit from the Class of 2013 -- looks physically equipped to give it a shot. Senior Rodrick Williams Jr. (who showed flashes late in the year), sophomore Berkley Edwards and redshirt freshman Rodney Smith will likely also factor in the battle for the top job.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsJunior C.J. Beathard is in a battle with senior Jake Rudock to quarterback the Hawkeyes.
Iowa quarterbacks: Junior C.J. Beathard dodged rumors of a transfer in December and senior Jake Rudock did the same recently. Both remain in Iowa City, ready to resume the battle that ended in a bowl defeat against Tennessee with Beathard in charge of the offense. Soon after, the Hawkeyes placed him atop the depth chart. But any edge over Rudock, a 25-game starter over the past two seasons, is small and could disappear quickly this spring.

Ohio State cornerbacks: Opposite Eli Apple, the Buckeyes must replace Doran Grant. It’s no easy task, considering Grant’s value to the Ohio State defense during its national title run. But sophomores Gareon Conley and Damon Webb look up to the task. Conley played considerably more last season after a redshirt year that followed his arrival in Columbus as the No. 1 prospect in Ohio in 2013. Webb, the top prospect out of Michigan a year later, figures to make a jump after limited action last year.

Penn State offensive tackles: The urgency here outweighs the options, and the Nittany Lions have plenty of candidates to replace Donovan Smith, gone early to the NFL. Andrew Nelson started as a freshman at right tackle and may take over on the left side. Opposite Nelson, the race is on, with redshirt freshmen Noah Beh, Brendan Brosnan, Chance Sorrell and Chasz Wright set to enter the mix. Newcomer Paris Palmer, a junior, may be the man to beat, though. True freshman Sterling Jenkins joined the program in January.

Purdue quarterbacks: Juniors Austin Appleby and Danny Etling bring considerable starting experience into the spring. Redshirt freshman David Blough, who came to Purdue with credentials equally as impressive as the other two, has yet to take a collegiate snap. But for the Boilermakers, who’ve won just one Big Ten game behind the elder quarterbacks over the past two seasons, it’s all hands on deck.

Nebraska I-backs: This is a legitimate four-man race to replace three-time 1,000-yard rusher Ameer Abdullah. Senior Imani Cross has the size and experience, with 22 career touchdowns. Junior Terrell Newby is a quicker option with skills perhaps well suited to Mike Riley’s offense. Sophomore Adam Taylor offers an impressive mix of power and speed but missed last season with a knee injury. Redshirt freshman Mikale Wilbon showed promise last year in scout-team duty.

Michigan safeties: The Wolverines have a lot back at safety, including surefire starter Jarrod Wilson. But competition for the other spot may grow fierce between the likes of senior Jeremy Clark and juniors Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas. Most intriguing, Jabrill Peppers, after injuries shortened his much-hyped true freshman season, has taken spring snaps at safety. Michigan coaches continue to audition defensive backs, so it may take much of the spring to sort out who is vying for specific spots.

Rutgers running backs: If healthy, rising senior Paul James has earned the top spot. But James needed knee surgery last fall and has battled other injuries. He’s out this spring, leaving a glut of young backs to fight for time. Sophomore Robert Martin finished last season on a strong note, but not as well as classmate Josh Hicks, who gashed North Carolina for 202 yards in the Quick Lane Bowl. Juniors Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples, who led the Scarlet Knights in rushing last season, add flavor to this competition.

Northwestern quarterbacks: Senior Zack Oliver is the man with the most experience as the Wildcats prepare to replace Trevor Siemian. But Oliver’s late-season turnover trouble helped open this race up for sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson. Each of the three brings a different set of skills, so a decision would help simplify matters as the season nears.
Spring practice is always a good time for players to make their cases for a move up the depth chart and much can be gleaned from position battles that occur this time of year. Given that, we take a look at some of the top position battles worth watching this spring in the SEC:

Alabama: Cornerback and quarterback
The Alabama secondary left much to be desired last fall, allowing 226 passing yards per game (11th in the SEC). Cyrus Jones serves as a returning starter but the spot opposite him is open for competition. There are plenty of contenders, such as sophomore Tony Brown, junior Eddie Jackson, redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey, senior Bradley Sylve and sophomore Maurice Smith. Alabama's cornerback recruits, Kendall Sheffield and Minkah Fitzpatrick, aren't on campus yet but when they arrive in the summer, they'll join the fray. As for the quarterback battle, if last season taught us anything, it's not to assume what Nick Saban will do. Many felt Jake Coker being the starter was a foregone conclusion only for Blake Sims to emerge as the guy. This year, it's Coker, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Who will emerge from that battle?

[+] EnlargeTreon Harris
Scott Donaldson/Icon SportswireThroughout spring practice, Treon Harris will be competing for Florida's starting QB job.
Auburn: Running back
Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant graduated. Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber are next in line, but junior college transfer Jovon Robinson, the No. 1 running back in the ESPN JC 50, is one to watch here. He's enrolled early, so he will participate in spring football. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year he's been at Auburn going back to his coordinator days, so whoever wins the job will likely be one of the top backs in the SEC.

Florida: Quarterback and offensive line
With a new head coach in Jim McElwain, this situation is intriguing. Treon Harris showed some promise when given the chance to play as a true freshman last season but Will Grier, who redshirted, looks like he'll get an opportunity to compete for the job, too. And there should be battles across the offensive line, because the Gators have to replace virtually every spot up front. Those are just as important as the quarterback battle, because good protection is a must.

Georgia: Quarterback
There's a three-man battle for the right to succeed Hutson Mason and it's a wide-open battle. There's redshirt sophomore Brice Ramsey, redshirt junior Faton Bauta and redshirt freshman Jacob Park. Georgia coach Mark Richt called the race wide-open; Ramsey is the most experienced of the bunch, and Park is the only one who hasn't taken a collegiate snap yet. It should be compelling to follow.

LSU: Quarterback
It's just a little bit of history repeating -- same candidates, same position, new season. Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris square off once again for the right to start for the Tigers. Jennings emerged victorious last season and held on to the job for most of the year (Harris started at Auburn and it didn't go well), but that didn't stop the fans calls for a longer look at Harris. Jennings finished the season with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing only 48.9 percent of his passes; Harris completed 55.6 percent with six touchdowns and two picks.

Missouri: Defensive end
The tradition of defensive line talent at Mizzou is rich but the latest two greats have departed to pursue the NFL: Shane Ray (as an early entrant) and Markus Golden (who was a senior). So who's next in line to replace them? At one end, sophomore Charles Harris is a potential option after appearing in 14 games, starting one, last season. At the other end, junior Rickey Hatley and sophomore Marcus Loud are the returning candidates with game experience and could battle it out for a spot. There's also a host of youngsters behind these three.

Ole Miss: Quarterback
Bo Wallace is gone so the signal-caller spot is up for grabs. Who will it be? Junior college transfer Chad Kelly? DeVante Kincade? Ryan Buchanan? Kelly appears to be the early favorite, though Kincade and Buchanan got a little bit of game action last season.

South Carolina: Quarterback
The Head Ball Coach has to replace a graduating senior quarterback for the second straight season -- first Connor Shaw, now Dylan Thompson. This spring, it will be sophomore Connor Mitch, junior Perry Orth and freshman Michael Scarnecchia competing. Quarterback recruit Lorenzo Nunez doesn't join the fray until the summer. Mitch appears to be the early favorite.

Texas A&M: Left tackle
This has been a money position for the Aggies in the Kevin Sumlin era. He had the good fortune of having Luke Joeckel man the position in 2012 (he went on to be selected second overall in the NFL draft); then Jake Matthews succeeded Joeckel (Matthews was also a top-10 pick) and last season Cedric Ogbuehi took over. With Ogbuehi gone, the spot is up for grabs; look for Avery Gennesy and Germain Ifedi to compete for it. Gennesy, a 2014 ESPN JC 50 signee, redshirted last year but has the ability needed for the position. Ifedi had a good year as the Aggies' starting right tackle in 2014, and Sumlin said Ifedi has "earned the right" to at least compete for the job.

Vanderbilt: Quarterback
This position was a mess for the Commodores last season. They started four different quarterbacks, the most of any FBS team (only Utah State started as many quarterbacks as Vanderbilt). This spring there are four competing, three of which are returnees -- Wade Freebeck, Johnny McCrary and Patton Robinette. Stephen Rivers, who was with the Commodores last year, transferred, but redshirt freshman Shawn Stankavage joined the competition. New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was blunt early in spring practice, saying simply "We've got a lot of work to do."
Spring practice has begun its roll around the Pac-12, so the table is set for a bevy of position battles that should last the course of the entire offseason. That means it's time to highlight the key fights around the conference.

The quarterback cases

A year after the Pac-12's "year of the quarterback," the conference sees its marquee position enter a state of transition this spring. Plenty of top-flight talent has departed, but an influx of emerging signal-callers has the potential to take at least some sting out of the exodus.

Oregon's saga will generate the most headlines. Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota is gone, while electrifying dual-threat talent Vernon Adams has transferred to Eugene, Oregon, from Eastern Washington. Coach Mark Helfrich's succession plan isn't determined yet, though: Jeff Lockie was last season's second-stringer, and he'll have a chance to get a jump on Adams -- who can't enroll until fall -- during spring practice.

Less than an hour up the road, Oregon State is tasked with replacing all-time Pac-12 passing leader Sean Mannion. The Beavers are confronted with a traffic jam of their own at the position, as seven quarterbacks currently pack the roster. Luke Del Rio was Mannion's backup last year, so he's a popular name right about now. Expect plenty of maneuvering as the entire stable adapts to Gary Andersen's new offensive system.

[+] EnlargeJerry Neuheisel
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezCan UCLA's Jerry Neuheisel earn the starting quarterback job over highly touted true freshman Josh Rosen?
Jerry Neuheisel made a memorable start in Brett Hundley's stead against Texas in 2014, but that might have been just a prelude to what's expected to be a fierce offseason quarterback battle at UCLA. Josh Rosen, one of the most highly touted prospects in the nation, has also entered the Westwood fray.

Intrigue extends further into the conference. Luke Falk will likely be Connor Halliday's successor at Washington State, but the fates of incumbents Cyler Miles (Washington) and Travis Wilson (Utah) are far from settled. K.J. Carta-Samuels looks to steal the reins in Seattle. At Utah, Kendal Thompson's challenge of Wilson for the starting job, which raged throughout most of last season, will continue following Thompson's recovery from injury.

The defensive battles up front

Stanford, the Pac-12's best defense three years running, is currently competing to reload a unit that lost eight starters following 2014. The most painful attrition for the Cardinal has happened along the defensive line, where all three of last year's starters are graduating. Coach David Shaw actually wishes he had more competition there, since injuries have reduced Stanford to only three healthy players at the position. But Aziz Shittu and Solomon Thomas will be back, and the fight to replace Henry Anderson and David Parry will rage on in due time.

Washington, meanwhile, is tasked with replacing six members of a front seven that was stocked with pro talent in 2014: Danny Shelton, Hau'oli Kikaha, Shaq Thompson, John Timu, Andrew Hudson, and Evan Hudson. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, and ouch -- all of those guys are leaving. That's a tough rash of losses. Brace for a free-for-all of competition in Chris Petersen's second year. Meanwhile, a few hours to the east, two spots are open on Washington State's defensive line.

The offensive trenches

Most of Cal's rising offense returns in 2015, but there's a big battle for Chris Adcock's vacated center position between Matt Cochran and Addison Ooms. Both Arizona schools should see spirited competition among the offensive hogs, too. The Wildcats must fill three holes up front, including center. Carter Wood is the front-runner there, and Cal transfer Freddie Tagaloa throws his name into the tackle ring. He is 6-foot-8, 330 pounds -- that sounds fun.

Arizona State tackles Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka are both gone, setting up a critical reloading effort to ensure that Mike Bercovici is well protected next season. Evan Goodman and Billy McGehee seem to be the early leading options, but nothing is a lock at this point.

Colorado has lost both starting offensive guards to graduation, and there are four bodies currently competing for those two spots.

Skill-position central

The running back room always seems to be crowded at USC, and Javorius Allen's departure has set the table for a wide-ranging battle this offseason. Allen was the Trojans' leading rusher, but the next six performers on the ground-yardage list come back in 2015. Justin Davis and Tre Madden are the only two scholarship backs returning, and they'll be joined by a trio of freshmen from Steve Sarkisian's monster 2015 recruiting class -- Ronald Jones II, Dominic Davis and Aca'Cedric Ware.

Of course, the departures of Nelson Agholor and George Farmer have also opened matters up at receiver for USC. Expect plenty of explosive fireworks there: JuJu Smith and Adoree' Jackson are just two of the exciting names on the Trojans roster.

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