College Football
College football spring storylines: New coaches, QB battles, more to watch
College Football

College football spring storylines: New coaches, QB battles, more to watch

Updated Feb. 16, 2023 3:14 p.m. ET

The Super Bowl and the College Football Playoff are both firmly in the books, but football never comes to a complete stop.

That’s especially true on the college level, which already has a few teams putting on the pads again to get their allotted 15 practices in for spring football. While this is the first time many coaches can get a sense as to what they have in store for the 2023 season, the storylines are plentiful across the country as every program can officially turn the page and look ahead with a dose of optimism and a spotless record.

Some teams have a bit more going on than others, though, as the interest level spikes around the sport over the next two months. Here are a few key storylines to follow as spring football begins in earnest across all 131 FBS teams.

New coaches, new places


Spring practice is our initial opportunity to see just how different things will be for several programs as they practice under a new staff for the first time. While we did not quite have the kind of blue blood turnover in the coaching ranks like we did a year ago, when Lincoln Riley took over at USC and Brian Kelly headed south for LSU, this spring might be just as intriguing given which coaches will be donning fresh new colors.

One of the bigger job swaps that raised a few eyebrows was Wisconsin plucking Luke Fickell out of Cincinnati. It was already a borderline coup in landing the only head coach to guide a Group of 5 team to the Playoff, Badgers brass also know they got somebody with deep Big Ten roots who can help elevate the program back into a regular conference contender.

Further west in the Big Ten, we'll also see how Matt Rhule readjusts to the college game at Nebraska after his brief stint in charge of the Carolina Panthers. The Cornhuskers have already turned over the roster and brought in an influx of new players, many of whom will be hoping to use this set of practices to get ahead on the depth chart before even more reinforcements arrive in the fall. Rhule has been a master at turning things around after previous stops at Temple and Baylor but at both places, things got off to a slow start — something the Huskers will be hoping isn't the case given the way things have transpired on the field the past few years.

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Then there's the grand experiment set to take place under the Flatirons as Deion Sanders embarks on his first spring as a coach at the FBS level in charge of Colorado. Coach Prime has breathed new life into the Buffs program ever since he was introduced, and we'll get a glimpse of just how talented players like Travis Hunter and Shedeur Sanders fit into the picture at one of the most fascinating experiments in college football for this season and beyond. 

Still, there will be no shortage of new faces settling into their new environments this spring. Whether it's Hugh Freeze trying to win over skeptical Auburn fans, 32-year-old Kenny Dillingham proving that age is just a number at Arizona State, Jeff Brohm officially returning home at Louisville or any of the 15 other head coaching changes, hope springs eternal amid a fresh start and welcome return to action with their new team.

Quarterback battles

While it's safe to assume that Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams has a firm grip atop the depth chart at USC, there are a whole host of other open competitions to decide the starting quarterback at notable programs which will begin in earnest this spring.

The most closely watched of them all might be in Athens, where the back-to-back reigning national champion Georgia will need to find a successor to Stetson Bennett — and do so with a new (but familiar) offensive coordinator in Mike Bobo to boot. Redshirt junior Carson Beck will likely get first crack under center but should be pushed by former five-star Brock Vandagriff and 2022 four-star signee Gunner Stockton. As is the case with most competitions, the spring will not only be hugely important in sorting out the pecking order for signal-callers but also in seeing which ones might end up hitting the transfer portal should things not go their way.

Over in Columbus, the battle to replace C.J. Stroud at Ohio State might be even more wide open and provide head coach Ryan Day a much more interesting stylistic choice to make. Kyle McCord has been the chief backup for the Buckeyes the past few years and has gotten some game action at the end of blowouts, but he's best described as your traditional pocket passer compared to the much more mobile playmaker in Devin Brown.

Fellow playoff contender Alabama faces a similar outlook as the Tide begin spring ball, adding on a layer with Tommy Rees taking over for Bill O'Brien as OC as well. Jalen Milroe did earn a start last season when Bryce Young was injured and played fairly well, but the coaching changes mean this will be much more of a clean slate and offer up plenty of opportunities for ex-five-star Ty Simpson to earn the job.

Spring football is also the first chance some talented freshman signal-callers have to make a run at the starting gig too. UCLA's Dante Moore will have every opportunity to replace Dorian Thompson-Robinson in Westwood, while you can bet that highly touted five-star Nico Iamaleava is going to push incumbent Joe Milton at Tennessee. 

In terms of star power, few are going to compare to what will transpire at Texas, though. It might be a sign of just how seriously he's taking the pending competition on the Forty Acres, but former No. 1 overall recruit and last season's starter Quinn Ewers did end up shaving off his mullet a few weeks ago to showcase much more of a business-like approach in trying to tighten his grip on the job. He'll be under the spotlight either way given that 2023 top recruit Arch Manning is already in Austin and unlikely to back down from any challenge given the legacy he brings into the program.

Throw in highly competitive environments at a handful of Power 5 schools, and this will be a big set of 15 practices for the most important position on the field at Nebraska, Cincinnati, Texas Tech, Ole Miss, Florida, N.C. State and numerous others this spring.

[Oklahoma, Texas and Big 12 all need to part ways as winners]

Battle stations

Quarterback isn't the only position that coaches will be hoping to gain some clarity on coming out of spring ball. 

— At Ohio State, the departure of Paris Johnson Jr. and Dawand Jones to the NFL means as many as five or six Buckeyes will be competing to become the team's new bookends at tackle. On the other side of the trenches, who ends up lining up opposite J.T. Tuimoloau with Zach Harrison — both off to the pros — will also come under the microscope.

— Big Ten champs Michigan won't have to deal with question marks at quarterback, running back or a number of key spots, but do have to sort out at least two or even three places in the secondary, plus plenty of competition along the offensive line and at wide receiver among incumbents and new arrivals.

TCU took the world by storm in 2022, but the Horned Frogs have a number of positions that are there for the taking after losing key contributors like Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson and Dylan Horton on defense, and stars like Quentin Johnston and a host of wideouts on offense. Over at Big 12 rival Oklahoma, it seems like Brent Venables & Co. will open up things at every spot given the disappointing campaign the Sooners are coming off, and the same might be true at a place like USC as defensive coordinator Alex Grinch tries to turn things around on that side of the ball.

Bottom line, no matter where you look around the country there should be plenty of competition going on between the lines as coaches try to be diplomatic about slotting in their depth chart while also trying to make sure they've got the best group possible in the starting 11 by this fall.

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You say goodbye, I say hello

The one-time transfer waiver and the presence of the transfer portal have made player movement in college football far more omnipresent than in the past. As a result, spring ball allows numerous teams a chance to see if they got a new frontline starter hoping to leave a mark in a new city or if they might need to go searching for additional depth when the portal opens again in a few weeks.

Either way, it all could result in a few strange double-takes as fans and players alike get used to seeing former rivals wind up in new colors or players switching sides inside conferences or across state lines.

Take Dorian Singer, for example, who led the Pac-12 in receiving yards at Arizona but will be sporting the cardinal and gold at USC catching balls from a Heisman winner in Williams. A former All-SEC first-team safety, Jalen Catalon is leaving Arkansas to leave a mark at Texas. Quarterback Sam Hartman is using his final season of eligibility to upgrade the quarterback position at Notre Dame, while ex-North Carolina corner Storm Duck will hope to pair nicely opposite Kalen King at Penn State

Linebacker Omar Speights was a big loss for Oregon State as he moved to LSU, but the Beavers do balance it out by taking in talented ACC star D.J. Uiagalelei as the presumed starting QB in Corvallis. Top offensive lineman Clark Barrington is trading new Big 12 member BYU for an established one in Baylor, while pass rusher Josaiah Stewart is stepping up a level by moving from Coastal Carolina to Michigan. 

The portal is far from a cure-all when it comes to roster construction, but it does add another layer to how coaches can change things around, and it will all start this spring as they integrate their latest crop of experienced players into the fold with a new way of doing things.

Big Ten's offensive identity 

Thanks in part to some new coaches and coordinator changes, keep an extra set of eyes on the Big Ten this spring as the league is set to undergo some dramatic changes on the offensive side of the ball. 

Chief among them is in Madison, as Fickell's choice of Phil Longo to be Wisconsin's new offensive coordinator has a chance to completely upend the Badgers' typical pro-style attack into one of the faster up-tempo versions of the Air Raid. It's a change you don't often see in the league and adds another layer to this spring as we see players adjust to an entirely different mindset on that side of the ball.

The same style of offense is also coming to Purdue under new coach Ryan Walters and the arrival of Air Raid native Graham Harrell as OC, while Rutgers is hoping for a big boost with Kirk Ciarrocca coming over from Minnesota. P.J. Fleck elevated Matt Simon and Greg Harbaugh Jr. to co-coordinator roles, but may have more of a hand in the Gophers' offense moving forward in trying to put up more points and use a bit more tempo, too.

Interest at Michigan should be running high, too, with Sherrone Moore taking on additional duties in Ann Arbor and perhaps opening things up some more for QB J.J. McCarthy. Over at Ohio State, Ryan Day seems a little unsure about giving up playcalling but will still be adjusting to having Brian Hartline carry the OC title either way. 

And of course, no mention of Big Ten offenses would be complete without going to Iowa and the loads of pressure on Brian Ferentz to turn things around with the Hawkeyes beginning this spring or risk major changes for the program come December. 

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Preventing the three-peat

We're still several months away from the preseason polls coming out, but one talking point that just won't wait until August will be whether any team has enough to derail the freight train that Kirby Smart has built in Athens and stop a three-peat of CFP titles by the Dawgs.

It's going to be a little early to tell, but we should at least start getting a read on whether regular contenders like Ohio State and Michigan are feeling confident at their prospects of avenging some losses to UGA and ending the year on top in 2023 or whether new challengers like Washington, Texas or USC are ready to make the leap and firmly mount a championship charge.

The list of questions at places like Alabama, Clemson and others only adds to the speculation among the top programs. We'll get at least a glimpse or two at the teams who might just have a shot at denying history in the final four-team College Football Playoff and maybe making a little more of their own later this year.

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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