While we’re still over six months away from the start of the 2012 season, we’re not wandering through a football-less desert quite yet.
From Feb. 13 (Army first practice) through May 5 (UCLA’s spring game), all 124 Div. 1-A (FBS) football programs will utilize their 15 allotted spring sessions to begin preparations in earnest for the upcoming season.
Below are but a few of the storylines and issues we’ll be following over the next couple of months.
Conference change, it’s a comin’
Missouri and Texas A&M from the Big 12 to the SEC. TCU and West Virginia from the Big East to the Big 12. Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada officially moving to the Mountain West from the WAC. And four brand-new football programs moving up from Div. 1-AA (FCS) to Div. 1-A (FBS): South Alabama (Sun Belt), Texas State (WAC), UMass (MAC) and UT-San Antonio (WAC). Hell, there’s even the very real possibility that Temple could be leaving the MAC for the Big East this year as well.
While the moves won’t become officially official until July 1, all of those schools will, in essence, conduct spring practice as members of their new respective conferences. In particular, a lot of the “new kid on the block” attention will be paid to Missouri and Texas A&M — and new head coach Kevin Sumlin — because, well, it’s the SEC and the six-peat BcS champion conference always has more than its share of eyes upon it.
More than one-fifth (27) of the 124 football program that will play at the Div. 1-A level in 2012 made a change at head coach at some point after the start of the 2011 season. From Penn State and Ohio State in the Big Ten to four new ones in the Pac-12 — the most of any BcS conference; Conference USA will have five new head coaches — to Texas A&M ahead of its move from the Big 12 to the SEC, none of the 11 conferences were spared at least one change at head coach from where its members were at the beginning of last season.
The spring sessions will be, for the most part, the first chance for those coaches and their coaching staffs to really get a good look at and begin the evaluation of the roster. The “real” work won’t begin until September, but laying the foundation of new schemes on both sides of the ball will begin in earnest. What happens during the next couple of months will determine how far ahead/behind/in step with the more entrenched programs lugging experienced staffs into the new year. All eyes in particular will be on Bill O’Brien, who will not only take over the scandal-stained Nittany Lions program but will also be embarking upon his first season as a Div. 1-A head coach. Well, all that and replacing a legendary icon who had been the face of Happy Valley for nearly half a century as well.
Needing Moore Luck at quarterback
For the first time in four years at Boise State and three at Stanford, the two top-ten programs won’t have the experience and talent of Kellen Moore and Andrew Luck, respectively, under center.
Who will they have? Brett Nottingham will enter the spring as the odds-on favorite to replace Luck with the Cardinal, with Robbie Picazo and Josh Nunes expected to provide the stiffest competition for the redshirt sophomore. Outside of Moore, junior-to-be Joe Southwick attempted the most passes (30) for the Broncos last year and was listed as the co-backup along with sophomore-to-be Grant Hedrick. How those two competitions shake out will go a long, long way in determining whether the two programs can maintain the on-field excellence and build upon the foundations laid by Luck and Moore.
Better this time around?
After winning its first BcS title under Nick Saban in 2009, Alabama “stumbled” through a 10-3 season the following year, with all three losses coming in SEC play. With a second crystal football in three years tucked under its arm, the Tide will attempt to become the first SEC program in the BcS era to repeat as champions. Two problems with going back-to-back, however. One, the Tide will be forced to replace half its starting lineup, including seven on a defense that ranked at or near the top in nearly every major statistical category in 2011 season. And, two, LSU — ya know, the winner of the Tide’s division and loser of the rematch — remains in the SEC West and returns a squad that not only should be at or near the top of the preseason rankings but will be better because of the attrition at the quarterback position.
Fun fact? The Tide has not lost to a non-conference foe since its two-touchdown beatdown at the hands of Utah in the Sugar Bowl following the 2008 regular season. This year, the Tide will get an immediate test of the rework and revamping begun in the spring as they face likely top-ten foe Michigan in a neutral site game to open the season.
Get those seats warmed, fellas
It’s never too early for some hot seat talk, is it? Based on the offseason he’s had — nearly a dozen transfers and the Danny O’Brien fiasco — and coming off an abysmal two-win first season at Maryland, Randy Edsall should sit at or near the top of any list of coaches on the hot seat. Given the significant amount of attrition on both the roster and the coaching staff — he will have new offensive and defensive coordinators — this spring will likely resemble his first with the Terps, sort of a feeling-out process all over again with the added bonus of vultures circling over the two-win carcass. Edsall simply needs a solid spring to lead to vast improvement in 2012 or he could very well find himself on the outside of the program looking in 2013.
Other coaches who need a strong spring to translate into an immediate turnaround in 2012 include Tennessee’s Derek Dooley, Boston College’s Frank Spaziani, Kentucky’s Joker Phillips, UCF’s George O’Leary and Cal’s Jeff Tedford.
(Still to come: individual storylines for the six BcS conferences — the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.)