"The Big Ten was always in my mind," he said.
Karras is the seventh member of his family to suit up for a Big Ten football team. Grandfather Ted Sr. spent four years at Indiana and later went on to play for the Chicago Bears. Great uncle Alex is the most famous Karras, as he won the Outland Trophy at Iowa and gained fame both as a Detroit Lion and as a TV actor. Great uncles Paul (Iowa) and Lou (Purdue) are also Big Ten alums, while his father, Ted Jr., and uncle, Tony, both played for Northwestern.
So Teddy seemed destined to wind up in the conference, too, playing on the line just as all his relatives had before him. All of whom like to give their input on the youngest one's career.
"Everyone chimes in from my family, football-wise," father Ted Jr. said with a laugh. "Everyone really enjoys watching him on Saturdays. Right on down from my dad to his brothers, everybody puts in their two cents."
Maybe it's all that advice, or maybe it's just Teddy's lifelong immersion in football, but there is less and less that his relatives need to help him with these days.
The redshirt junior is entering his third year as the starting right guard for the Illini. That makes him a rare veteran on what is still mostly a young team, and he's taking that standing seriously by becoming one of the anchors for head coach Tim Beckman.
"He's one of those proven guys," Beckman said. "The thing I'm asking Teddy to do is to be one of the top leaders on this football team. Even though he's not a senior, he needs to become a vocal leader of this football team.
"He loves the game. He's been involved in the game since he was born with the family background and the Karras name itself. It shows."
Illinois will have a new starter at quarterback this season and needs new faces to emerge at receiver. But the offensive line should provide a solid building block for offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's attack. A unit that made great strides last season after a miserable 2012 returns four starters including Karras, who has worked this offseason to bolster his hand strength and made adjustments to his stance.
“The line did a decent job of allowing quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to get rid of the ball last season. Now, the goal is to get more physical and improve a running game that finished 10th in the Big Ten in 2013. (That would please his grandfather, who only knew the north-south running game when he was with the Bears and who finds the modern spread offenses annoying).
He loves the game. He's been involved in the game since he was born with the family background and the Karras name itself. It shows.” -- Illinois coach Tim Beckman on Teddy Karras
"It's all about getting people on the ground, whether that be cutting or just being physical and attacking," Karras said. "Really knocking people around and springing big runs. We need a better run game this fall."
Karras is familiar with contact. When he was in the eighth grade, his father -- who has coached at St. Xavier, Rose-Hulman, Marian and now Walsh University -- put Teddy in as the live quarterback for one-on-one passing drills.
"He got hammered a couple of times, and then I took him out," Ted Jr. recalls.
Teddy grew up attending his father's practices and fondly remembers watching game film on Sundays at the house with his dad's entire coaching staff. He used to draw offensive plays up on the whiteboard in his dad's office. The family tried not to push him into playing football, but once he started in third grade, he was hooked.
"I was around it 24/7," he said. "Football shaped my whole life up until this point. I hope it continues to shape it."
Other Big Ten schools like Iowa and Northwestern showed interest in Karras out of Indianapolis' Cathedral High School, but many of the premier schools thought he lacked elite length on his 6-foot-4, 300-pound frame. But he has slotted in well at guard for Illinois, and going there made his mom, Jennifer, happy. That's her alma mater, adding another Big Ten tie to the clan.
"There are divided loyalties in our family, but everyone roots for a Karras," Teddy said.
Teddy, in fact, is bigger physically than all the other Karrases that came before him, even the legendary Alex, who passed away two years ago. He's hoping to carve out his own legacy in the impressive family tree.
"I need to keep performing the way I've been doing and be even better," he said. "I don't think my family would be mad at me at all, but I feel like I need to keep proving it to myself and everyone else."
Our ESPN College Football Spring Tour continues in T-Town, where Alabama reporter Alex Scarborough will be bringing you the sights and sounds from campus today. Keep this page open starting at 10 a.m. ET as Alex provides insight, interviews, pictures and videos from Crimson Tide camp.
With one minute to go in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Sooner linebacker Eric Striker came barreling around the line. After beating left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, who might be a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft, Striker leveled Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron and stripped the ball loose. Flying in from the other side, Sooner end Geneo Grissom scooped up the fumble and rumbled in for the game-clinching touchdown.
After several seasons of relative mediocrity, the Oklahoma defense finally rediscovered its swagger in that 45-31 Sugar Bowl win over the two-time defending national champs.
“The Sugar Bowl gave us a good boost,” said defensive end Charles Tapper, who was the only defensive underclassman to earn first-team All-Big 12 honors last year. “Knowing we kinda dominated Alabama’s offensive line, that the whole defense just dominated Alabama a little bit -- just a great way to come into the 2014 season.”
It wasn’t long ago the swagger of the Selmon Brothers and “Superman” Roy Williams and “The Boz” seemed lost forever.
The Sooners ended the 2012 season capitulating to Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, who humiliated them in the Cotton Bowl while becoming just the second player ever to rush and pass for more than 200 yards in a bowl game (Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl was the other). The final month that season, Oklahoma couldn’t pressure the passer. Couldn’t stop the run. And couldn’t win without getting a half-a-hundred from its offense.
But thanks a scheme change from four to three down linemen last offseason that commanded a more blitz-oriented style, as well as a successful bid to bring Michigan defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery to Norman, the Sooners rapidly improved defensively last season despite playing several new starters.
Spurred by the emergence of underclassmen like Striker, Tapper and the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, linebacker Dominique Alexander, that improvement finally culminated in New Orleans.
The Sooners didn’t play perfectly against Alabama. But they sacked the Heisman runner-up seven times, and forced three turnovers that all led to Oklahoma touchdowns, capped with Grissom’s fumble return.
“As a team, things started to come together,” said coordinator Mike Stoops, who resuscitated the Sooner defense at the turn of the millennium 14 years ago and has done it again in the present in his second stint in Norman. “I think our team came together in that last game. That let us play with more confidence and swagger in the second half. Even when things got tough, I felt like our players were in control.”
With the return of almost all those players, the Sooners figure to storm into 2014 with one of the best defenses in the country.
Who knows, maybe the best.
Virtually the entire defensive line comes back, including Grissom and Tapper, who team up to give the Sooners a destructive duo off the edge.
Inside, Oklahoma will also welcome back Jordan Phillips, who was playing at an All-Big 12 level before suffering a season-ending back injury, and redshirt freshman Charles Walker, who has been turning heads for months during closed practices. During the winter, Walker ran the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds, shattering the Bob Stoops-era defensive tackle record at Oklahoma set by All-American Tommie Harris (4.80) in 2003.
“We’re starting to gain quality players in our backup positions that can play a lot of different places trying to earn their way onto the field,” Mike Stoops said.
That hasn’t just manifested along the defensive line, either.
Oklahoma’s entire linebacking corps returns, including Striker, who has become the Big 12 version of Lawrence Taylor. The secondary is brimming with young talent, too, led by cornerback Zack Sanchez, who intercepted McCarron in the Sugar Bowl to set up a late Oklahoma touchdown at the end of the first half and give the Sooners a 31-17 lead.
“We’re so far ahead from where we were last year,” Striker said. “We got chemistry with each other. We know how to play off each other.”
That’s a scary thought for the rest of the Big 12, and maybe all of college football.
Especially if Oklahoma can keep getting to the quarterback the way it did late last season. In their final four games, the Sooners sacked opposing quarterbacks 16 times. According to ESPN Stats & Info, South Alabama’s was the only FBS defense with more during the same stretch.
“We like to get to that quarterback,” Tapper said. “On third down, we let the dogs loose. Like the cops let the dogs loose to get them bad guys, we let the dogs loose on third down.”
Though it wasn’t a third down, that’s exactly what Oklahoma did to McCarron at the end of the Sugar Bowl.
The play won the game for the Sooners. While sending a message that defensive swagger is finally back at Oklahoma.
“I feel like this is going to be a big year for us,” Tapper said. “Dominating every team in the Big 12 and just all over the country.”
And, as it turns out, Saban’s process boils all the way down to what he puts on in the morning. Whether it’s been by design or not, the notoriously meticulous head coach has worn the same exact outfit for the first day of spring practice ever since 2008. This year was no different.
A new group of players and coaches walked onto the Thomas-Drew Practice Field for the first time on Saturday afternoon. AJ McCarron was gone from under center, C.J. Mosley was no longer captaining the defense and a number of other familiar faces were noticeably absent. But Saban remained. He put on the same red sweater, khaki pants and nondescript sneakers he’s worn for the first day of spring practice the past seven years. He donned the same straw hat he’s used every year since then, too, with the exception of a rainy day in 2009 that forced his team indoors.
Anyone looking for Alabama to change after ending last season with two losses will be disappointed. Saban may have a new roster, a new coaching staff and a new set of challenges, but his demeanor is exactly the same. His goals haven’t fluctuated: create incremental improvement and focus on what he calls “consistency in performance," which is his process, in a nutshell.
“The first practice is always a sort of work in progress for everybody. [It's] new players learning where to go, old players trying to get back into the swing of things," Saban said.
He used the phrase “work in progress” three times during a hurried seven-minute news conference. He was in a rush, one of his staffers said, because there were a number of recruits he needed to visit with. He went through the motions, answered three questions and was off. With the exception of one position change (ArDarius Stewart at safety) and a few roster moves (Harrison Jones, Chad Lindsay and Jai Miller are gone), it was business as usual.
Saban said he was pleased with the way his team responded to the offseason conditioning program and was eager to see how spring practice would play out. Re-establishing the fundamentals will be the focus for the first few days, he explained, and then they’ll get into the playbook. He made no mention of last season, the last-second loss at Auburn or the poor showing against Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It has weighed heavily into the national conversation, but it’s clear Saban has moved on.
“Players have to develop the discipline to sustain so we finish practice, finish games, finish quarters, finish halves like we really want to,” he said.
Trey DePriest, however, is using last season as inspiration. He was on the field when the Sooners embarrassed his defense in New Orleans, racking up 45 points and 429 yards. He was on the sidelines a month earlier when Chris Davis went 109 yards to steal an Iron Bowl win and an undefeated season away from the Tide. The last time Auburn dealt Alabama such a blow, a motivational poster was made as a reminder. “Never Again,” it read, along with a grinning picture of Cam Newton. The next year Alabama destroyed Auburn, went 12-1 and won a national championship.
“Guys are just a lot more hungry,” DePriest said. “We didn’t finish the season like we wanted to. Guys knew that and they just took a different approach to it, and [we] are trying to get back to the standard to how we do stuff.”
Amari Cooper wasn’t around when Alabama was dealt a similar setback in 2010, losing three games after being ranked preseason No. 1. But the standout junior receiver has noticed a different motivation from his teammates this spring. The leaders are stepping up more, he said. What Saban is asking them to do -- “stay focused and finish” -- isn’t different from years past, but Cooper has seen a better focus from everyone.
As far as the quarterback battle, he thinks that will be fine, too.
“It’s not weird,” he said. “It’s just a quarterback competition. I think schools have that every year.”
But Alabama isn’t any school. Not when you win three of the past five national championships. Not when your head coach is Nick Saban and losing two games is a disappointment.
The quarterback competition may be simmering on the back burner now, but it’s going to heat up when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives in May. As far as Saban is concerned, he’d like to keep that on the periphery. He’s going to be asked 1,000 times about it, and 1,000 times he’s going to give the same answer: “We’re going to wait and see.”
If you’re looking for Saban to give into the pressure of naming a starter before he’s ready, you’ll be disappointed. As with everything else he’s done as a head coach, he’s doing this on his own terms. His process is set, his plan is laid out, and after five decades of coaching, there’s no changing it. When a man wears the same thing for seven years in a row, you have to expect some consistency from him.
AUSTIN, Texas -- Five miles on Monday. Six miles on Tuesday. Then five, six and five to finish out the week.
This is the routine, the ritual, by which Charlie Strong abides: The daily morning jog. He wakes up around 4:30 a.m., laces up his sneakers and hits the pavement.
“I’ve got my route here,” he said. “There’s some really good routes around here.”
“That’s just a way to get my time for myself. I think you need to have time for yourself,” Strong said. “I don’t like to run with anyone. I’m not gonna run with anyone. I don’t want to talk. I just want to run and just let your mind kind of wander, let it go.”
On the chaotic mornings and the calm ones, the new leader of the Longhorns gets away from it all. He’d been doing this for years, embracing the calm before the new day’s storm.
“It’s just a sense of relief, you know, because you’re able to do your thinking and put your day together as you go on,” he said. “And not only do you think about that, you think about everything else, too.”
And that’s how he’ll continue to start his day as Strong continues to work toward giving Texas football the fresh start it desperately needed.
To appreciate the challenges Strong will face in his first year in burnt orange, understand that the first few honeymoon months haven’t exactly been a cakewalk.
Strong had 10 days to assemble his coaching staff. One day after his assistants were all on board, they hit the road to save and salvage the 2014 recruiting class they’d inherited.
“We just tried to keep the class together,” he said. “I know a couple might’ve slipped away from us, but just getting around to the different high schools for two weeks, I went non-stop.”
Strong hit Dallas, Abilene, East Texas, Houston, Beaumont, New Orleans and everything in between, racing to meet as many commits as possible and sway a few more to join him in Austin. There was no break after that class signed. Texas had to piece together its plans for the next batch of recruits and host two junior-day events in the weeks that followed.
One month after agreeing to leave Louisville for the bright lights and big opportunities of Texas, Strong was still living out of an on-campus hotel room and spending many of his days in rental cars and planes.
When he was in town, he joked that he’d spend most of his time in a staff conference room. No time to decorate the new office.
This week provided one of his few chances to exhale. Texas begins spring practices on March 18, and the grind to get there hasn’t let up. This is a day-by-day process, so you can see why he cares about starting those days off right.
Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford witnessed another daily routine during his years of coaching with Strong at Louisville.
“Charlie, every morning at 7 a.m., would call his two daughters and make sure they were up and ready to go to school,” Bedford said. “To me, that’s saying a whole lot about who he was as a man. He treats the players the same way. I can’t say that about a lot of guys I’ve worked for. He has that same attitude on the football field -- he’s going to coach them hard, but he cares about them as young men first.”
Getting Longhorns players prepared for their fresh start is just the first of Strong’s many challenges in 2014. The transformation is already underway, led by new strength coach Pat Moorer -- another Louisville import -- whose offseason training program is said to be infamously painful.
Meanwhile, Strong’s staff has spent weeks putting together their playbook. Plenty still needs to be sorted out in spring ball, most notably the decision on whether a 3-4 or a 4-3 base defense best suits the Texas talent they’ve inherited.
And there are holes to fill in the lineup, of course, with three longtime starters on the offensive line, a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-America kicker/punter all gone.
At quarterback, David Ash missed 10 games with concussion issues and won’t take any hits in spring practice. He’ll need to learn the new scheme and get back to playing his best football quickly, or else landing USC transfer Max Wittek this spring is a must.
But that’s the easy stuff, the in-house issues that Strong has 15 spring practices and a long summer to address. What should consume just as much of his time is figuring out how to slow down Texas A&M in recruiting and Baylor, Oklahoma and the rest of the Big 12 on the field.
Again, this is just half the job. Strong has to find his comfort zone when it comes to the public demands of his new gig. Mack Brown played the politician better than anyone. That’s not exactly the game Strong wants to play.
He says a misconception exists that he doesn’t like dealing with media. Truth is, he doesn’t mind it. Strong’s first few news conferences have exceeded expectations. Still, managing expectations in Year 1 -- with fans, boosters and anyone else bleeding orange -- will get challenging as the year goes on. He’s well aware of that.
“I always say this: We’re like a political office,” Strong said. “You’re open to public scrutiny. Everybody’s got an answer about your job. Everybody can coach. I’m good with it. I’ll give ‘em a lesson if they need it, come on over here.”
Stack up all those demands, and it’s easy to see the pressure, though Strong said last month he isn’t sensing it yet. After all, he did sign up for all of this.
“I don’t think about it. If you prepare the right way, and preparation is the key, then it relieves all pressure,” he said. “That’s the key. You have to be prepared. You can’t just bounce out there with no agenda, no vision, not knowing what you want to go do.
“Why change? Keep doing what you’re doing. Just be yourself and keep doing what you were doing.”
Times like these require staying grounded. That’s where the daily routines help most. The job isn’t easy, but Strong is ready to build Texas back up one day -- and one run -- at a time.
Mostly, though, it made him squirm.
"I felt very uncomfortable about all that," he told ESPN.com.
So now Claeys is perfectly happy sliding back into his familiar role as defensive coordinator this spring.
"I'm looking forward to kind of hiding again," he said. "Getting back to working with the kids and just coaching ball."
Claeys could have parlayed his tenure as interim leader -- he was officially 4-3 in place of Kill, who remained very active during much of that time -- into a head-coaching gig elsewhere. A few schools contacted him this offseason to gauge his interest, but Claeys said he declined to even interview for another job.
Instead, he's content to remain with Kill. This will be their 20th season together, beginning in 1995 when Claeys was Kill's defensive line coach at Saginaw State and continuing as he served as defensive coordinator at Emporia State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois.
Claeys is one of several assistants who have worked for Kill for at least a decade. Kill made sure they were rewarded when he signed his recent contract extension, and Minnesota guaranteed that its staff salary pool would rank among the top six in the Big Ten. Claeys made just under $350,000 last year in base pay, plus an extra $13,000 per week while he was interim coach. He could soon be earning more than he would have made as a head coach at a MAC-level school.
Money, however, isn't the main consideration for the 45-year-old Kansan. He likes working for Kill and said his goal has never been to become a head coach. A few years ago, Claeys had a conversation about career arcs with Virginia Tech's Bud Foster, who has worked as an assistant under Frank Beamer since 1987.
"When you can go to work every day and like the people you work with and you know what's expected of you, the grass isn't always greener," Claeys said. "There's nothing wrong with staying where you're at and being successful, and Bud reaffirmed some of those things in our conversation."
Any small group of people -- whether it’s a rock band or a married couple -- will have its disagreements and difficulties while working and/or living in close quarters over a long period of time, especially in a high-stress environment like sports. Claeys said that's no different with the tight-knit Gophers staff.
"We have meetings, and some of them get a little heated," he said. "But everybody knows that when the meeting is over, the decision has to be what's best for the football team.
"The bottom line is, coach is a very caring person. We feel like a reason we've been able to build programs and have success is the consistency of our staff."
Claeys said Kill had often consulted with him on the headset about what to do in situations like fourth-down plays. So once he had full play-calling responsibilities last season in Kill's absence, he felt prepared and was confident the entire staff was on the same page.
Claeys is glad that Kill is now back handling media obligations and boosters. He can focus on working with the defense this spring and figuring out ways to replace starters like Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen. Maybe the right head coaching opportunity will come along someday, but Claeys won't be angling for it.
"As long as I'm having fun and am wanted, I'll stick around," he said. "I've told the Kill-er, whenever you want to make a change, come in and tell me, and when that time comes, I'll go back and home and tend bar."
It might be another 20 years before that happens.
“It’s always a little crazy, it just depends what kind of crazy,” Bielema said of the road to spring practice. “But it’s good. I’m excited. I know our kids are.
“A year ago at this time, we were getting to know these kids, trying to know their names. ... Now a year into it we have 88 kids who are going to partake in practice, and 84 of them you’ve seen before.”
Bielema and the Razorbacks are putting last season’s 3-9 finish behind them. In December, the team watched the SEC championship game and the second-year coach asked his players why they couldn't be there in 2014. Auburn and Missouri combined for two SEC wins in 2012 and now they were playing in Atlanta. Only a month earlier, Arkansas threatened a fourth-quarter comeback against Auburn, falling short despite getting almost 200 combined rushing yards from Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins.
“I really wanted to challenge them that it’s not one but two teams that decided to make a stand,” Bielema said. “And to do that, you need to change your actions. I knew they were going to work hard, they were going to listen, they were going to try and do the things we asked them to do. But maybe off the field they needed to dedicate themselves."
The results, Bielema said, have been positive. He has seen a number of players change physically since then, pointing out Williams in particular. The rising junior has put on 15 pounds and “is actually faster and more limber” than he was before, according to his coach.
Collins, who ran for 1,026 yards as a freshman last season, and Williams will once again make up Arkansas’ tandem at tailback. Fellow tailback Kody Walker will play much more at fullback this spring, switching back and forth between the two positions much like Kiero Small did last season.
With Hunter Henry back at tight end, there’s a good nucleus to build around on offense. Henry had his highs and lows last season, said Bielema, who is hoping for more consistency from his standout freshman. What he’s seen from Henry this offseason has been promising.
“He’s bigger. He’s faster. He’s stronger,” Bielema said. “I think he understands what it means to play in the SEC in an eight-game schedule, and hopefully beyond that.”
For Arkansas to go “beyond that” -- as in, the conference championship or a bowl game -- other players need to step up.
The defense got a boost from the return of defensive end Trey Flowers, who was second-team All-SEC last season. New defensive line coach Rory Segrest will “allow him to play faster and a little more aggressive,” Bielema said. And with new defensive coordinator Robb Smith in place, expect a slightly different look from the defense as a whole.
““If you’re inside the huddle, you’ll hear a lot of things change," Bielema said. "We’re going to try and simplify it for our players and get them lined up quickly and put them in a position to play aggressively.”
We'll let him work through the process, feed him as much as he can be fed and see where he can go with it. He's a guy that if he can play we will. If not we'll give him a redshirt year.” Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema on early enrollee quarterback Rafe Peavey.
Despite its 12th-place SEC finish in points per game allowed last season, the biggest question facing the Razorbacks isn’t defense. Instead, it’s who will start under center.
Brandon Allen started 11 games as a sophomore, ending the season 13th on the SEC leaderboard for passing yards per game (141.1). His double-digit interceptions (10) were the most troubling, though.
Bielema said he wants competition at quarterback this spring, all the while acknowledging that Allen has “gotten stronger” and is the favorite to win the job.
“In theory, the first time we yell out for the ones, he’s going to step out there,” Bielema said. “But ... there will be other guys who get opportunity. Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.
“If it’s B.A., that’s great. If it’s not, hopefully that next person is ready.”
Watch out for Rafe Peavey. The four-star prospect enrolled in January and has the tools to push Allen. Bielema likes Peavey's talent and “football junkie” attitude, but Peavey is still just a freshman.
“We’ll let him work through the process, feed him as much as he can be fed and see where he can go with it,” Bielema said. “He’s a guy that if he can play, we will. If not, we’ll give him a redshirt year.”
Peavey was just one of a handful of freshmen to enroll early, the four unknowns of the 88 players Bielema referred to earlier on the phone. When Bielema spoke to the Razorback Club that night, much of the talk surrounded recruiting, and with good reason. Approaching the second season of his tenure at Arkansas, Bielema is slowly putting his imprint on the program with the way he brings in players and the changes in attitude on the roster as a whole.
When Arkansas opens camp on Sunday, his message will be much as it was Wednesday night. The record is wiped clean, he’ll say. It’s time to launch forward.
“Don’t worry about what happened yesterday and focus on getting great today. At the end of this stretch we’ll all be better," he said. "We’ll take where we’re at, take all the things that were positive and all the things that were negative, evaluate it and move into the next phase.”
The new College Football Playoff is supposed to encourage schools to schedule better nonconference games, as teams try to beef up their schedule strength to earn one of the playoff’s coveted four spots at season’s end.
On Thursday, Texas A&M and UCLA announced that they’ll play each other during the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Other schools have announced future marquee nonconference opponents, including Texas A&M vs. USC, Notre Dame vs. Texas, Alabama vs. Michigan State and LSU vs. Oklahoma.
Here are five other nonconference games I’d like to see in the future:
When Meyer was still coaching at Florida, the Crimson Tide and Gators played in two of the most anticipated SEC championship games. The No. 2 Gators beat the No. 1 Tide 31-20 in 2008, and then the Tide turned the tables on No. 1 UF with a 32-13 win in 2009.
Alabama and Ohio State have played only three times in history, with the Tide winning each time, most recently in a 24-17 victory in the 1995 Citrus Bowl.
2. Texas vs. Texas A&M: Perhaps the biggest casualty in conference realignment, Texas and Texas A&M haven’t played each other since the Aggies bolted the Big 12 for the SEC after the 2011 season. Sadly, there are no plans for the in-state rivals to play again in future regular seasons.
The Aggies and Longhorns played each other 118 times from 1894 to 2011, with their annual meeting traditionally being played on Thanksgiving Day. UT won nearly twice as many games as the Aggies (76-37-5), including nine of the last 12 meetings.
With former Louisville coach Charlie Strong taking over at Texas, and Kevin Sumlin building the Aggies into an SEC powerhouse, the game would also pit two of the sport’s best African-American coaches against each other.
3. Oregon vs. Baylor: Two of the game’s most explosive offenses -- and two of its best-dressed teams -- would undoubtedly light up the scoreboard if they ever played. In fact, the contest would probably look more like a track meet.
Under coach Art Briles, the Bears have become the Ducks of the Southwest, with their hurry-up, spread offense and myriad flashy uniforms closely resembling what Chip Kelly and then Mark Helfrich built at Oregon. The Bears and Ducks follow the same blueprint on offense: play fast and score fast.
We hoped to see this matchup in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl last season, but alas, it didn’t happen. Oregon and Baylor have never met on the gridiron.
4. Michigan vs. USC: Two of the sport’s traditional heavyweights have faced each other eight times in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio, but only twice during the regular season -- in 1957 and 1958.
The Trojans won the last three meetings in the Rose Bowl, 32-18 in 2007, 28-14 in 2004 and 17-10 in 1990. USC has won six of the past seven meetings overall and holds a 6-4 advantage all-time.
We might have seen this matchup during the regular season if a Big Ten/Pac-12 scheduling partnership hadn’t fallen apart in 2012.
5. Georgia vs. Florida State: UGA coach Mark Richt was a longtime assistant under legendary FSU coach Bobby Bowden before taking over the Bulldogs, and he recently poached defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt off the Seminoles’ staff.
The Bulldogs and Seminoles go head-to-head for a lot of recruits every year, and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher upgraded his roster by effectively recruiting South Georgia and Atlanta.
The Bulldogs and Seminoles have played 11 times and only once since 1984 -- UGA defeated FSU 26-13 in the 2003 Sugar Bowl. Georgia leads the all-time series, 6-4-1.
Fans and recruits could circle the date on their calendars, young players and new coaches saw it as the first opportunity to make a lasting impression.
This spring, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy raised eyebrows when the Cowboys announced their “Orange Blitz” open practice session would replace their traditional Orange-White spring game. TCU has rarely held a traditional spring game under Gary Patterson, with the Horned Frogs preferring intra-squad scrimmages.
Patterson values the opportunity to watch other team’s spring games on television but refuses to give other coaches that advantage over his team and doesn’t view the event as essential for the Horned Frogs program. TCU has not finalized its plan for this spring, but a traditional spring game seems unlikely.
Although his program normally holds an event, OSU opened the spring with a young, battered roster, which was the main reason for Gundy’s decision to shun a spring game this year. For Gundy, engaging fans with a spring game had to take a backseat to the overall development of the young players in the program during the 15 practices the Cowboys will hold in March and April.
“At some point I have to make a decision based on what's best for our team first and then our fans and people that follow us second,” Gundy said earlier this week.
Other Big 12 coaches point to health concerns as obstacles to holding a traditional spring game featuring two separate squads.
“Spring games are always a trying time due to depth at certain positions,” said Kansas coach Charlie Weis, who will hold KU’s spring game on April 12. “Concern for injuries is always an issue, not being able to field two entire competitive teams is a problem.”
Postponing the spring game can become a real option, particularly after losing a large class of seniors off the roster thus crippling the overall depth of the program until February signees arrive in the summer. Quarterbacks end up switching teams in the middle of the game, a lack of available linemen waters down the quality of the action and fears of a season-changing injury can cloud these spring finales.
“Everyone says, ‘Well I would love to have a draft and have my guys go on each side of the ball,’” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “You can’t, you don’t have the personnel. Sometimes you have so many injuries or you may be thin that you can’t afford to have a spring game and get somebody hurt. Some other years, when we are a little bit down, I don’t want to take a chance on it. It is all great until someone gets hurt and blows a knee out, and then it is, ‘Why did I do that?’”
The Sooners are one of the Big 12 programs that are all-in on the spring game, selling tickets to the event, televising the action and creating a game-like atmosphere at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. But even OU dumbs down the efficiency of the actual football in the game, sitting starters and simplifying schemesto avoid lurkers, such as Patterson, who are aiming to gain useful tidbits on the Sooners that they can use in the fall.
Even with all those drawbacks, the spring game remains valuable for the majority of the conference, with several Big 12 coaches pointing toward the game-like atmosphere, not to mention the recruiting value, of the traditional spring game as assets too useful to ignore.
“I think it's great for the fans,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “You only get six home games in the regular season, sometimes we only get five some years. So to have another game at Jones Stadium so that everyone can come back and tailgate, have some festivities, I think it's great for the university and great for the fan base. And I like to see our players when the lights come on. Anybody can do it in practice, but when the lights come on and there's some pressure and people are watching, let's see how you perform."
Kansas State won’t kick off its spring drills until April 2 but will hold its spring game on April 26. Head coach Bill Snyder believes the tradition of the spring game outweighs any cons.
“The positive attributes of having a spring game for us include tradition, for our young people and our fan base, the benefits it provides our local community and the experience our players get by playing in front of a large crowd,” he said.
Charlie Strong is convinced his team can still get quality work done with a traditional spring game. The Longhorns will hold their version on April 19, with UT’s new head coach convinced it will be just another day for his players to get better.
“The most important thing is that the spring game is another opportunity to get out on the field and coach your team,” Strong said. “It's another practice, more reps and more video to look at as you get ready for the season. It is the final spring practice and having a chance to go in the stadium with a great crowd gives you an opportunity to see how the team responds to that as well."
Realistically, while opinions about the spring game vary when it comes to its value in terms of developing the current roster for the upcoming season, its recruiting value cannot be understated. There is no better spring event to put all the positives of the program on full display and intrigue potential recruits to make a special trip to campus.
“When you can bring players in and see people in the stands cheering and excited, it really helps,” Kingsbury said.
There are those who subscribe to the theory that a coach making the leap from a mid-major conference to one of the big five will need some time to adjust.
Then again, few coaches have the résumé that Chris Petersen brings from Boise State to Washington. Among his accolades: 92 wins, a pair of Fiesta Bowl victories and five conference titles. Oh yeah, he’s also the only two-time winner of the Paul “Bear” Bryant Award.
So if Petersen is fending off any challenges by way of transition, he isn’t letting on.
“The job is exactly the same,” Petersen said. “There hasn’t been one thing that has surprised me. It’s exactly the same. Our recruiting process is the same. When we were recruiting at Boise, we were recruiting against the Pac-12. We were in the same footprint. It was the same battles. All of that is the same. Everybody is regulated by the NCAA on how much time you can lift weights, so it really comes down to implementing your systems and your schemes.”
No question, Petersen has the coaching chops. And Huskies fans are universally proclaiming that they got the better end of the deal when Steve Sarkisian left Washington for USC after five seasons and a 34-29 record.
So the biggest challenge facing the new Washington skipper isn’t transition, but replacing departed personnel. When Sarkisian left, he didn’t exactly leave a barren cupboard. But a talented trio will be noticeably absent in 2014: three-year starting quarterback Keith Price, 2013 Mackey Award-winning tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Doak Walker-finalist running back Bishop Sankey. All are expected to either be drafted or land on an NFL roster.
“That makes things really tough,” Petersen said. “When you lose a quarterback who has been a three-year starter and was as productive as Keith was, that’s hard. Everything on offense, no matter what style you run, is run through that guy. If he’s successful, your team is going to be successful.
“Bishop Sankey was tremendous. You put that tape on and study him, it’s like, ‘wow.’ He has tremendous vision. We played against him twice and we thought the world of him.”
Petersen has already had to deal with a little adversity when one of the quarterbacks vying to replace Price was suspended indefinitely. Cyler Miles, along with wide receiver Damore'ea Stringfellow, remain suspended after allegedly assaulting a Seahawks fan after the Super Bowl last month. Obviously, Petersen doesn’t ever want to have to deal with discipline issues. On the flip side, he has an opportunity early in his tenure to establish himself as a no-nonsense disciplinarian, which he’s done.
Now it’s a matter of filling holes -- knowing full well that most of them probably won’t be filled during the spring session.
“Aside from getting your systems in place, so much of it comes down to how much talent you have,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to. So much of this is just recruiting and how much talent you have.”
That and an awareness that he isn’t going to have any easy weeks in the Pac-12. For a while, the Mountain West was considered the strongest of the non-AQ conferences. But even in its heyday, there were always weak sisters. That's not the case in the Pac-12 -- especially in the top-heavy North Division.
“I’ve known about the Pac-12 forever,” Petersen said. “I think it’s extremely competitive conference. The parity from top to bottom is as good as it’s ever been. The coaches are fabulous. It’s as good as any in the country. I thought that before I got here, and now it’s confirmed.”
Expectations are high for Petersen and his staff. While Sarkisian did a fine job turning an 0-12 program into a consistent winner with four straight bowl appearances, the Huskies never ascended to the upper echelon of the league in his tenure.
Petersen brings a big name and track record of success matched by few. Now he has to get the Huskies to buy into what he’s selling.
“The culture is changing. And how quickly those guys buy in is the bottom line,” Petersen said. “It can be tough for the older guys who have been here for four or five years and are used to doing things a different way. We have to get everyone moving and believing in what we do as quickly as possible."
2. Hard as it is to believe with a school that has sent Johnny Unitas, Brian Brohm, Stefan LeFors, Dave Ragone, Browning Nagle and Chris Redman to the NFL, but Teddy Bridgewater will likely be the first Louisville quarterback to be drafted in the first round. Blake Bortles of UCF can’t claim that -- Daunte Culpepper went in the first round in 1999. Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M almost could, but Ryan Tannehill became the first Aggie to go in the first round two years ago. Of course the Aggies were a team that ran first and threw later forever.
3. If you love college football, I shouldn’t have to tell you to read Dan Jenkins’ autobiography, “His Ownself,” published last week. Dan’s 80-year love affair with the game shines throughout. My favorite nugget: Dan recounting how 1938 Heisman winner Davey O’Brien once explained to him that two rules adopted in 1934 made way for the passing game we love today. One reduced the circumference of the ball one inch, making it easier to grasp. The other rescinded the five-yard penalty for throwing more than one incompletion in a series of downs.
If you live in State College and haven't shaken James Franklin's hand, high-fived the Penn State coach or snapped a picture with the new leading Lion, you're probably a recluse.
Since his Jan. 11 introduction, Franklin has been a man about town, at least when he's not feverishly recruiting or attending the State of the Union address as a congressman's guest. From speaking to crowds at THON and other Penn State athletic events, to wearing a wig so he could get his (already bald) head shaved at a fundraiser, Franklin is everywhere.
But there's a group of Penn Staters with whom he has yet to connect, at least not nearly as much as he'd like to.
"We've had very little time to interact with the players," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The 20-hour rule and all those things are good rules, but when you're a new staff, it makes it challenging. We've got to build relationships, we've got to build trust, and we've got to get our system installed. That's why we've been successful in the past.
There will be running when Penn State opens spring practice Monday. Blocking and tackling, too. There will be installation in all three phases and position competitions -- all the standard signs of spring ball.
But the most important work will take place away from the field and might have nothing to do with football.
"It starts in the locker room and selling your vision, selling the culture you want to create," offensive line coach Herb Hand said. "You don't know the kids and they don't know you. That's the first challenge coming in, the development of relationships. You're doing that after you've been on the road recruiting for two or three weeks. And then you're in the middle of winter workouts and you're barking and screaming and getting after them and you hardly know them.
"Relationships take time."
The process is under way at Penn State after an intense winter program.
"I haven't had a coaching staff push us this hard as far as conditioning goes, and also as far as competition," senior linebacker Mike Hull said. "You can tell Coach Franklin's real passionate about what he does, and he fires us up.
"[The coaches] talk about building relationships, and that's exactly what they've done."
After the recruiting whirlwind concluded, Hand took the offensive linemen to dinner, wisely selecting a Chinese buffet ("When you walk in with 13 or 14 300-pound people, that'll garner some attention"). Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, meanwhile, gleaned insight into his new team by spending last weekend reading John Bacon's book, "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football," which chronicled Penn State's transition and tumult in 2012.
"These guys have been through a lot," Shoop said. "They've have had four [defensive] coordinators in four years. They've seen the good and bad of the profession. I'm just amazed with their approach and their maturity."
The second challenge for Franklin and his staff isn't a new one during the sanctions era. Scholarship reductions had a larger impact on the Lions' depth in Year 2 than Year 1, and as Franklin recently noted, "The longer you're in it, the more effect it has."
There are some potential trouble spots such as the offensive line, which enters the spring with only three scholarship tackles (Donovan Smith, Andrew Nelson and mid-year enrollee Chasz Wright). Franklin admits PSU has "major depth issues" up front.
Hand's response? Bring it.
"I could sit there and say this is going to be an obstacle for us and we'e going to struggle," he said. "You know what's going to happen? We're probably going to struggle because of our depth. But you go back to Core Value No. 1: have a positive attitude. Let's dwell on the opportunity."
When Shoop watched tape of PSU's defense last year, he saw the same linemen remaining on the field and few personnel combinations. Shoop's Vanderbilt defense used 20-22 players, while Penn State rarely played more than 15.
The hope is this year's defense will have more bodies, although Penn State is thin at tackle and cornerback. Shoop likes the foundation at defensive end with C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes, and at safety, the position he directly coaches, as Adrian Amos returns alongside Ryan Keiser.
Linebacker depth surfaced in 2013, but Shoop is willing to get creative. One possibility: a 4-2-5 alignment with a hybrid safety/linebacker.
Amos, who has played both cornerback and safety but will start off at strong safety, provides a building block.
"So big, so strong, so fast," Shoop said. "He can contend for first-team All-Big Ten and be a guy who receivers national recognition if he pushes himself to the next level."
PSU returns an excellent centerpiece on offense in quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who will operate a system that, according to Franklin, won't differ dramatically from Bill O'Brien's. Franklin lived on the same street as O'Brien when the two worked at Maryland and is philosophically aligned with his predecessor.
Shoop will pressure more than the Lions did in the past, but the structure of the defense shouldn't change much, either.
"Very, very similar concepts," Franklin said. "The terminology is just a little bit different."
According to Shoop, the players are taking a businesslike approach to their latest transition. Hull came to a program that had been the model for stability in college football. It has been anything but in his time there.
"The first time was real hard," Hull said. "We didn't really know what to expect at all. This time, it’s been a lot easier. Whenever a new staff comes in, they want to get in all their policies and values. Some people it frustrates, but it's good to have myself, Miles Dieffenbach, some of the older guys tell them it will get better, it just takes time."
Penn State must maximize its time this spring. Installation, development and evaluation are the staff's top three goals, according to Hand.
But there's an even bigger objective.
"How do you prove trust?" Hand said. "Studying them, finding out where's their hometown, what's their family situation like, what's their major.
"Once you win the locker room, everything else will take care of itself."
And that’s winning games.
Derek Mason is entering his first spring as Vanderbilt’s head coach. The Commodores, coming off their best two-year stretch in school history, start practice Tuesday afternoon, and if anything, they’re hungrier than ever.
“I’ve loved every interaction I’ve had with Coach Mason and the great staff that he’s brought in,” sophomore quarterback Patton Robinette said. “He’s a very confident guy, and that’s spreading to us.
The translation: Vanderbilt’s players appreciate what James Franklin did in steering the program to nine-win seasons in back-to-back years, but they’re not wallowing in the fact he’s gone.
For that matter, they knew it was probably inevitable he would bolt at some point.
“We watch TV and read the Internet,” senior center Joe Townsend said. “It was talked about in the locker room, but we didn’t let it distract us from what needed to be done. He told us to control what we could control, going to class and playing football. We knew it was very possible that he would go somewhere else.
“So, when it happened, we weren’t surprised.”
Townsend said a standard of winning (and knowing how to win) has been set at Vanderbilt, and the players reminded each other of that even before Mason was announced as head coach.
“We have guys who know how to work hard and are selfless and know how to win,” Townsend said. “Coach Franklin taught us how to win, and that’s not going to change. We talked about it as a team when the whole coaching search was going on, that no matter who we get or who comes in here, one thing that will never change is us winning because we know how to win.
“The only people who can control that is us. No coach can control if we win or not. They supplement it and help us grow as players. But when it comes to winning, we’re the ones on the field who get it done.”
Mason is obviously no stranger to winning, either. Stanford won 11 or more games each of his three seasons as defensive coordinator in Palo Alto.
There was also a time when the idea of Stanford winning Pac-12 championships seemed far-fetched, sort of like Vanderbilt winning nine games in back-to-back seasons and sweeping Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
The expectations at Vanderbilt have reached a whole new stratosphere, and for those who insist the Commodores reached their ceiling under Franklin, Mason offers a confident shrug.
“The one thing I’ve learned over time is that you can’t get mired in people’s expectations,” Mason said. “You have to tear it down and build it up every year. So with that being said, 2013 has no effect on 2014. What we have to do is put our cornerstones in place.
“If you go back and look at what we’ve done defensively and offensively, it comes back to you being able to play a 60-minute ballgame, whether that’s 2013 or 2014. It’s about taking teams into the fourth quarter and winning ballgames. There’s no expiration date on that. That’s a day-to-day, week-to-week process.”
And it’s a process that started the day Mason was introduced in January.
“This program, whether anybody believes it, is going to win championships,” Mason said. “We’re already on the clock. This spring is important for laying that foundation, and then we’re going to go one fall practice at a time, one week at a time, and make our march toward the SEC East title.”
There was a transition period at Tennessee during which Clawson went to the same church as the family of current Duke coach David Cutcliffe. He’d speak with Cutcliffe occasionally, and he also knows NC State coach Dave Doeren from their time together at Mid-American Conference meetings.
Now Clawson is getting to know them all as opponents -- and he has some catching up to do.
Cutcliffe is heading into his seventh season at Duke. He's by far the veteran of the ACC’s North Carolina coaches, and it’s beginning to show in the win-loss column. Duke, which is coming off a school-record 10-win season and an appearance in the ACC title game, is now the team to beat in the state. The balance of power has shifted, as the Blue Devils are 5-0 against their in-state ACC opponents in the past two seasons, having defeated both Wake Forest and North Carolina twice, and crossover opponent NC State in 2013. With 17 starters returning, Duke should be a favorite to win the Coastal Division -- a long leap from being picked to finish last in 2013.
“We know a lot of people, and a lot of young prospects know a lot about us,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re very comfortable we’re here. At first when we came in, people wondered why we were here. Not only did they wonder if we were going to be able to get this done, they thought, ‘Well, as soon as they start showing better, they’re going to be gone.’ None of that has happened. I think that’s opened a lot of people’s eyes, honestly.”
Clawson replaced Jim Grobe and inherits a program that has had five consecutive losing seasons, including last year’s 4-8 finish. He had to piece together his first recruiting class on a shortened calendar, but said that he can draw inspiration from what Cutcliffe has managed to do at Duke.
“I think we’re similar schools with similar institutional missions, but you look nationally at the schools that are like us -- Stanford, Vanderbilt, Northwestern -- those are all schools that have had success on the football field and institutionally they’re very similar to us,” Clawson said. “You can certainly win. Jim Grobe proved that. Certainly it’s our job to get back to that level.”
Fedora has gotten measurably closer in his first two seasons, with back-to-back winning records in spite of taking over a program that was plagued by a two-year NCAA investigation.
In fact, the rivalry game between UNC and Duke now carries more weight than just bragging rights. Last year, Duke’s victory over North Carolina ensured the Blue Devils their first appearance in the ACC title game. This fall, it could determine the division winner. It’s quite a reversal of roles for two “basketball schools.”
“It’s something we embrace, that our basketball team has helped build the national brand we have,” Fedora said. “That enables us to walk into any school, any home, and those people immediately know who the University of North Carolina is. We embrace that. Coach [Roy] Williams is just an awesome guy and such a great sport about our program. We’re trying to raise the level of the success of the football program, and eventually we’ll get there.”
“It’s very competitive, and you have all of the SEC schools who come up here as well,” Doeren said of recruiting against his in-state peers. “North Carolina football is very strong. It’s very diverse, a lot of good players who play at every position group, so we have a battle with Clemson on every kid, it seems like as well. Tennessee is strong here. There’s always competition for these guys, and I’m sure there will continue to be. That’s just how it is. But being one of the larger in-state schools, we have a lot of alumni in this state, there’s a lot of kids who grow up Wolfpack fans, and there’s a lot of areas in this state that are very red. We try to maximize those connections and networks that are out there to help us.”
Duke arguably had its best recruiting class since Cutcliffe was hired, but the Blue Devils only added three players from within the state.
“We would’ve liked to have more,” Cutcliffe said. “We got beat on some, but we got the ones we wanted. We’re going to start everything in-state, always. We’re going to know a lot about our state. We know it’s going to be competitive, and you throw East Carolina in there, you’ve got another school, and Appalachian State is playing at the FBS level, and you’ve got Clemson that comes and recruits it as an in-state area. It’s a war in here, but I like that. That gets your juices flowing. It lets you, as a coach, compete.”
These days, Cutcliffe is winning more than just the state.
When Steve Sarkisian left USC to become the head coach at Washington in 2008, he did so facing an uphill climb. Without any head-coaching experience and at an unfamiliar place, he was tasked with turning around a once-proud program that had gone 0-12 the season before.
Moderate improvement was the realistic goal and an accepted expectation -- at least early in his tenure. Five years and four bowl games later, the Huskies are in a better place and Sarkisian is back home, ready to do it all over again at USC.
This time, however, there won't be mixed opinions about how a seven- or eight-win season should be viewed. At USC, that's failure, and Sarkisian knows it.
The Trojans return eight starters apiece on offense and defense from a team that went 10-4 and finished ranked No. 19, but they'll be without five players who left early for the NFL. Those departures will keep USC below 70 scholarship players as it enters the last of a three-year period in which the NCAA capped its scholarship total at 75.
“We’re not worried about who we don’t have on the roster or what our numbers are,” said Sarkisian. “What we do know is we have a roster of very talented football players who are hungry to do well.”
Having taken over a new program once before, Sarkisian is undoubtedly more prepared to begin his reign at Troy.
"You just have a better understanding of what's coming your way," he said. "There's so much going on. Turning on that fire hose and spraying water ... you can get overwhelmed.
"Whatever we're doing, we'll focus on doing that well and then it'll be on to the next thing. You can't try to do it all at once. Focus is much better the second time around; we feel good where we're at."
The Trojans begin spring practice Tuesday with Sarkisian set to place a heavy emphasis on walkthroughs and meetings. That's partially because the new staff needs to implement its schemes, but also because nearly 20 players will be either sidelined or limited throughout the spring due to injury.
With so many players unable to practice, Sarkisian admitted the staff won't get a full gauge of the roster. Regardless, he and his staff are set to begin evaluating on Day 1.
"We're going in with an open mind and a clear slate for every player," he said. "I don't want to go out there with preconceived notions ... rather them show me who they are. That's the mindset."
The biggest question facing the Trojans before their opener against Fresno State on Aug. 30 is at quarterback, where returning starter Cody Kessler will see competition from highly touted redshirt freshman Max Browne and early enrollee Jalen Greene. Sarkisian said the timetable for when a starter is named will depend on what plays out on the field.
"There's no deadline," he said. "When you make a deadline you tend to wait. We don't want to do that. When it feels right, we'll [name the starter]. If it's one, two, three days or into fall ... I don't think it'll be something that'll linger."
The Trojans will have three practices this week, all of which are open to the public. USC will then take a week off for spring break and practice three times a week until the spring game on April 19 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.