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The top college football storylines to follow as spring practice starts around the nation

Spring practice is upon us and around the nation college football teams are ready to put on pads and get to work in preparation for the 2015 season. Each team comes in with a clean slate and optimism for the upcoming season, but across the board there are question marks facing each team.

We’re going to go conference by conference and look at the biggest spring practice storylines to watch as we move towards spring games in April that will be the public’s first look at each team. We start in the Big Ten with the defending national champion Ohio State Buckeyes.

Big Ten:

Who emerges as the Ohio State starting quarterback?

Ohio State has a three-headed monster at quarterback, which is a good thing, but all three won’t be able to play. With Cardale Jones passing on entering the NFL Draft, Braxton Miller deciding not to transfer, and J.T. Barrett returning from injury the Buckeyes have a log jam under center. Urban Meyer’s not afraid of using multiple quarterbacks, but deciding on which quarterback should start and gives them the best chance to repeat as champs will not be easy. Jones had the unbelievable run to end the season, but Barrett set a number of Buckeye records as the starter for the entire regular season. How Urban Meyer handles the quarterback situation will be the biggest storyline in all of college football this season, and will be closely monitored by everyone.

Can Michigan State or Wisconsin fill holes to challenge Ohio State in the conference?

Michigan State knows who the quarterback will be, but they have to replace a lot of talent on defense and find a back that can takeover for workhorse Jeremy Langford who is off to the NFL. The Spartans’ secondary was susceptible at times in 2014 and they lost their top cornerback in Trae Waynes — the top CB in the NFL Draft this year. The Spartans have a new defensive coordinator with Pat Narduzzi bouncing to the

For Wisconsin, they are in desperate need of a quarterback to take pressure off the running game — which only has to replace one of the most productive backs in college football history. If the Badgers can’t find a viable quarterback to create plays in the passing game they could find the same fate as last year, which was a beatdown in the Big Ten title game.

What will Jim Harbaugh’s immediate impact on Michigan be?

Michigan’s program is at a low point and the Wolverines are looking to Jim Harbaugh to bring them back to the top of the Big Ten. It’s wildly unrealistic to expect them to get there in year one — especially with almost nothing at the quarterback position — but Harbaugh needs to begin building a foundation for his program. Charlie Strong went through this at Texas last year and started by booting a number of folks from the program. We’ll see if Harbaugh goes through a similar spring cleaning this year to set a tone for how his program will operate.

SEC:

Quarterback battles galore:

While Ohio State’s QB competition is the big story in college football, nearly every contender in the SEC has to figure out who will be their quarterback. Alabama will give Jacob Coker a look, but incoming freshman Blake Barnett has a ton of hype and talent and will make things interesting (More on Alabama’s QBs). Georgia has a similar dilemma, as the Dawgs are the favorites in the SEC East with a lot of returning defensive talent and RB Nick Chubb ready to be the full-time workhorse, but they need to find a quarterback if they are to get into the College Football Playoff conversation (More on Georgia). LSU also returns a phenomenal freshman running back and a strong offensive line, but they have serious QB issues if they want to challenge in the SEC West (More on LSU’s QBs).

Can Jim McElwain fix Florida’s offense?

The Gators’ defense lost some talent, most notably Dante Fowler Jr, but they reloaded in recruiting this year and still have the nation’s top corner in Vernon Hargreaves III. The big question is whether new head coach Jim McElwain and his staff can get the Gators’ offense to be competitive in 2015. That starts with finding a quarterback, but extends far beyond the signal caller (More on Florida’s offense).

Can Tennessee get the offensive line right and contend in the East?

I’m on record as being a big believer in Butch Jones and Tennessee. The Vols have a ton of talent returning from last year, headlined by QB Josh Dobbs and RB Jalen Hurd. The biggest issue from last year was a very young offensive line that struggled a lot last year. A year of experience and a full year of practice could do wonders for that group, and if they come together the Vols are a darkhorse in the relatively weak East division (More on Tennessee).

What will the early impact of Will Muschamp and John Chavis be on Auburn and Texas A&M’s defenses? 

The Aggies have the offensive talent to compete with anyone in the country, but their defense was a disaster last year. They swiped defensive coordinator John Chavis away from LSU this offseason, and he’s got a tall order ahead of him to make that defense a competitive unit. They have some talent — most notably sophomore star DE Myles Garrett — but they need to come together in the system (More on Texas A&M). For Auburn, the scenario is very similar. The Tigers have a high-powered offense that needs the defense to help it out on occasion. Muschamp comes over from Florida and had an immediate impact on recruiting, but now it’s time to see how quickly he can start getting the Auburn defense to improve on the field (More on Auburn).

Pac-12:

Will Oregon’s FCS transfer QB be able to step in for Mariota and keep the Ducks as National Championship contenders?

Oregon fell short in the National Championship against Ohio State, but they have plenty of talent to get back to contending with one minor (read: MAJOR) catch: they have to replace the Heisman Trophy winner QB Marcus Mariota. Vernon Adams Jr comes to the Ducks from FCS Eastern Washington where he had a stellar career, but he’ll have to take over and command a fast-paced, high-powered offense that expects to be great. Adams has plenty of talent and his development in the Oregon offense will be critical to the Ducks being able to get back to the Playoff.

Does USC have the defensive talent and depth to get back to the top of the Pac-12?

The Trojans figure to be excellent on offense in 2015 with QB Cody Kessler back, but they have to improve defensively from last year while replacing their most productive players — DL Leonard Williams and LB Hayes Pullard. USC was finally able to bring in a full recruiting class this year with NCAA sanctions ending, so the roster should be filled out. However, those young players will have to contribute and play at a high level. The Trojans allowed 25.2 points per game in 2014, but in losses they gave up 34.3 on average. If USC is going to get back to being the top dog in the conference that defense has to become more consistent, and having depth two-deep on the roster is the way to do it. If those young players develop in the spring and fall to be impact players, they could do it.

Can UCLA replace Brett Hundley and improve the O-Line to live up to expectations in 2015?

UCLA was a trendy National Championship pick heading into 2014, but they were wildly inconsistent and were a disappointment. This year they return a lot of talent — Myles Jack is a star — and the offensive line has another year of experience, but have two gaping holes with LB Eric Kendricks and QB Brett Hundley heading to the NFL. Finding replacements for those two will be Jim Mora Jr’s primary objective in spring practice.

Will Rich Rodriguez be able to push Arizona to the next level?

Arizona shocked everyone by winning the Pac-12 South in 2014 and they are no longer an overlooked program. QB Anu Solomon and LB Scooby Wright III are legit talents and will lead their respective sides of the ball next year, but with UCLA and USC looking strong the Wildcats have to improve to repeat in the South. Rodriguez and his staff need to improve their secondary which Oregon gashed in the Pac-12 title game and Solomon and the passing game need be able to be more efficient on offense if they want to do it again.

Big 12:

Will Seth Russell be able to keep Baylor’s offense clicking?

Baylor ended 2015 on a sour note, first missing out on the Playoff and then giving up a big lead in the Cotton Bowl to Michigan State. The Bears are still one of the favorites in the Big 12, but they have to replace QB Bryce Petty. Seth Russell has experience running the offense when Petty got banged up last year and in garbage time. The Baylor offense is dynamic and they have playmakers on the perimeter like KD Cannon, and it will be Russell’s task to keep them on track.

Can Oklahoma figure things out with a revamped coaching staff?

The Sooners were favorites in the Big 12 last year, but come into 2015 as the Big 12’s third team behind Baylor and TCU. Bob Stoops replaced a lot of his staff from last year and we’ll see if that makes a positive difference for Oklahoma this year. RB Samaje Perine is a stud and QB Trevor Knight is back after an inconsistent 2014 that saw him miss the last few games with a concussion. The defense was a sieve at times and got torched by Clemson in the bowl game. The Sooners are expected to contend each year and if they aren’t improved in 2015 we might hear some folks calling for Bob Stoops to lose his job.

Can TCU improve on an incredible 2014 campaign?

The Horned Frogs return 21 starters from their squad that went 12-1 in 2014, including star QB Trevone Boykin. Gary Patterson’s group dominated the bowl game and are the slight favorites over Baylor to win the Big 12. The College Football Playoff is the goal for TCU this year and as last year proved, in a conference championship game-less Big 12, they may just have to run the table to get an invite. While the offense got the shine, their defense was eighth in the country allowing just 19 points per game. With another year of experience and a round of practice, it’s hard to find too many holes with the Horned Frogs so long as they stay hungry.

Can Texas continue to improve in Charlie Strong’s second year?

The Longhorns quietly made some strides in 2014, but they still have a ways to go to contend in the Big 12. This year isn’t expected to be the season Texas returns to the top of the mountain, but they need to keep climbing and start to find some consistency. The defense showed moments of brilliance last year, but just couldn’t put it together consistently against top teams. QB Tyrone Swoopes was similarly inconsistent as a passer, but he’ll be the starter throughout spring practice after being thrust into the starting job when David Ash retired due to concussions last year. Texas isn’t a real contender, but next year they’d be happy to improve and be a team that spoils someone’s season.

ACC:

Can Clemson’s defense replace the talent leaving from the front seven and remain an elite level defense?

Clemson comes into the year as the favorite in the ACC with Florida State expected to take a step back. The Tigers hung onto DC Brent Venables despite overtures from other top-level programs trying to lure him away, which was a huge win for the Tigers. The issue facing the Tigers is trying to replace six starters from their front seven last year that led the nation’s 3rd best scoring defense. The entire defensive line has to be replaced and the returning players accounted for only 14 of their 45 sacks last season. If they’re going to finally put it together and win the ACC, they have an uphill battle in the trenches on the defensive side of the ball (More on Clemson).

What does Florida State do to replace Jameis Winston and company?

The Seminoles’ incredible run came to an end in the Rose Bowl last year, and 2015 they have to replace a ton of the talent that led them to 27 consecutive victories, most notably QB Jameis Winston. Spring practice will be vital for Florida State to get guys reps and comfort as a lot of inexperienced players are given important roles. The Seminoles have holes to fill all over and Jimbo Fisher’s recent top-level recruiting classes will be put to the test as they step in for one of the most successful groups in Florida State history (More on Florida State).

Will Georgia Tech step into the void of a clear ACC favorite?

While Clemson is the favorite in the ACC, they aren’t that far ahead of Georgia Tech. QB Justin Thomas runs Paul Johnson’s triple option offense as well as anyone has for the Yellow Jackets, and the offensive line is almost completely left intact from last year. Those are two huge factors for GT’s success and they should have plenty of confidence after they blasted Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl. The question for Tech will be if the defense can step up in those few games when the option is struggling to get going. Johnson’s group returns a lot of starters from last year and spring practice will be all about tightening up execution.

Can anyone else make things interesting for the top three in the conference?

Is there another team that can break into the conferences top tier? Miami has the best quarterback in the conference after Watson at Clemson (and Thomas in his own way at Tech), but they lost a ton of talent and Al Golden has yet to prove he can get a team to live up to expectations. Duke has been in the conversation the past few years, but they have to replace QB Anthony Boone and top WR Jamison Crowder. Will Virginia Tech’s youth gain enough experience to make the leap to contention in 2015?

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