Spring football primer: College football's 10 biggest storylines entering 2020

We’re only two months removed from LSU’s national championship triumph and spring practices are already beginning on campuses across the country. That means it’s time to turn our attention toward the 2020 season. 

Plenty has happened since LSU took down Clemson in New Orleans, but we understand if you may have missed a few things. College football has become a year-round sport, and it’s not always easy to keep up. 

With that said, we’ll catch you up on what you may have missed and the storylines you need to know about ahead of spring football. 

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New faces lead LSU

The 2019 LSU team had one of the best seasons in college football history. Led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow, the Tigers cruised through the regular season unbeaten, beat Georgia in the SEC title game, demolished Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinals and overcame an early deficit to beat Clemson for the national title. 

But the Tigers will have a slew of new faces when spring ball begins. Burrow is gone and will likely be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Many of his record-setting teammates — LSU had 16 players at the NFL combine, five more than any other school — moved on to the pros, too. So did Joe Brady, the assistant coach most credited for the incredible ascent of the LSU offense. Dave Aranda, LSU’s heralded defensive coordinator, left Baton Rouge to become the head coach at Baylor. 

Yeah, Ed Orgeron has plenty of work to do. And on Tuesday, he said that presumed backup QB Peter Parrish was indefinitely suspended for a violation of team rules.

Replacing Tua

Alabama failed to reach the College Football Playoff for the first time in the format’s era but returns a loaded roster. The main question that Nick Saban’s program must answer is who the replacement for QB Tua Tagovailoa will be. The national title game hero has been one of Alabama’s biggest stars during Saban’s tenure.

Mac Jones filled in when Tagovailoa went down with a hip injury against Mississippi State in 2019. Jones performed quite well at times but also struggled with some turnovers. He is the frontrunner to start in 2020 but will have to fend off one of the country’s top recruits: five-star quarterback Bryce Young. Young, ranked No. 2 in the class of 2020 by Rivals, is already on campus in Tuscaloosa and is expected to give Jones a serious competition for the starting job. 

There’s also another Tagovailoa on campus who could contend for the starting job. Tua’s younger brother, Taulia, served as the team’s No. 3 QB in 2019.

Will Mac Jones be able to hold off freshman Bryce Young in Alabama's quarterback competition? (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Clemson’s ACC dominance

To describe Clemson as dominant in the ACC would be underselling it. The Tigers have won two of the last four national championships and five straight ACC titles. During that five-year run, Clemson is 38-2 in conference play and has appeared in four of the last five title games.

Last season, the Tigers won their ACC games by an average margin of 36.4 points, including a 62-17 beatdown of Virginia in the ACC title game. 

With Trevor Lawrence back in the fold and his presence coupled with Travis Etienne’s surprising decision to return for his senior year, there’s no reason to think Clemson will be challenged in 2020. Teams like North Carolina and Louisville are headed on the right path. Virginia Tech finished strong in 2019, too. But Miami is a mess and Florida State is entering Year 1 under new coach Mike Norvell. 

We could be in for another year where the strength of the ACC — or lack thereof — affects Clemson’s ranking throughout the year. Though a November trip to Notre Dame should help Clemson’s strength of schedule.

Can anybody overtake Ohio State in the Big Ten?

There was no drop-off for Ohio State as the program was handed off from Urban Meyer to Ryan Day. The Buckeyes, with Georgia transfer Justin Fields thriving at quarterback, cruised through Big Ten play and into the College Football Playoff before losing a heartbreaker to Clemson in the semifinals. 

Even after losing a bevy of talent to the NFL, the Buckeyes remain in reloading mode under Day, ready to replenish the depth chart with top recruits. Meanwhile, Penn State returns a significant chunk of its 2019 starters, led by star linebacker Micah Parsons. The Nittany Lions are the only team other than OSU to win the Big Ten East (2016). Can PSU do it in 2020? Or could this be the year Michigan finally beats the rival Buckeyes? 

Oklahoma’s homegrown QB

After three years of Baker Mayfield, one year with Kyler Murray and another with Jalen Hurts, it’s time for Oklahoma to start a homegrown recruit at quarterback. Mayfield, Murray and Hurts were all transfers who performed at an extremely high level after Lincoln Riley’s arrival in January 2015. Now Riley must show he can develop one of his own recruits. 

That recruit is most likely Spencer Rattler, a five-star prospect in the class of 2019 who arrived in Norman as the top-rated dual-threat quarterback in the country, according to Rivals.com. Rattler spent the 2019 season redshirting behind Hurts and now is expected to be handed the reins to Riley’s offense after competing for the job with redshirt sophomore Tanner Mordecai.

Whoever wins the job will be faced with massive expectations after Mayfield and Murray both won the Heisman, and Hurts finished second in 2019.

Is Spencer Rattler Oklahoma's newest starting QB? (Photo by John Adams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Can the Pac-12 break its CFP streak?

It has been three seasons since a Pac-12 team reached the College Football Playoff. Utah was on the precipice of the CFP last fall until it was upset by Oregon in the conference title game. Oregon returns an abundance of talent after its Rose Bowl win but must work in a new quarterback to replace Justin Herbert and has a new offensive coordinator in former Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead. The Ducks are the subject of plenty of preseason hype, but could QB play hold them back?

Elsewhere, USC seems to be treading water under Clay Helton. Helton has been the subject of endless job speculation, yet somehow is returning for his fifth season in the role full-time. Despite the tumult, the Trojans should be in the mix for the Pac-12 South title. 

Florida nipping at Georgia’s heels

Florida is 21-5 in its first two seasons with Dan Mullen as head coach but that excellence hasn’t been enough to overtake Georgia atop the SEC East. Georgia has recruited at an extremely high level under Kirby Smart, but needed to dive into the grad transfer market for a quarterback in 2020. That pursuit yielded Jamie Newman, formerly of Wake Forest, to replace Jake Fromm. Meanwhile, Florida looks poised to make a move up the SEC pecking order. Will it come to fruition in 2020?

Leach and Lane arrive in Mississippi

The fallout from the 2019 Egg Bowl — a one-point Mississippi State win over Ole Miss that was aided by a penalty for an Ole Miss player pretending to pee like a dog — was wide-reaching. Ultimately, both schools sought new coaches and landed two of the game’s most, um, intriguing personalities: Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss and Mike Leach at Mississippi State. 

Kiffin arrives in Oxford after a nice run at Florida Atlantic. It’s his fourth shot at an FBS head-coaching gig and he will certainly bring a bit of juice to Oxford that Matt Luke couldn’t quite muster. And over in Starkville is the Pirate himself. Leach won at Washington State — something that’s extremely hard to do. And now he brings his quirks and Air Raid offense to the SEC. We can’t wait to see how that pans out. 

Lane Kiffin is now the head coach at Ole Miss after three years at Florida Atlantic. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Impending change to NCAA transfer rules

Other than a minor change to the targeting rule and players being allowed to wear No. 0, there’s one main NCAA issue you should know about. 

The NCAA has a longstanding rule requiring athletes in football, basketball, baseball and hockey to sit out for a season once they arrive at their new schools. But the Big Ten and ACC have come out in support of a rule that would allow transfers a one-time exemption to play immediately. More significantly, the NCAA committee tasked with working through issues related to transfer waivers supports the concept too. And it hopes to have the new rule implemented for the 2020-21 academic year. 

Should the rule come to fruition it would surely impact the 2020 college football season. 

What about the coronavirus?

Precautions surrounding the coronavirus have already led to the cancellation of one spring game and will likely impact many others.

Tuesday, Cincinnati announced that it wouldn’t hold its spring game on April 10 as residents of the state of Ohio have been recommended by Gov. Mike DeWine to avoid large gatherings.

Spring games at tradition-rich schools typically draw tens upon tens of thousands of fans. Will other schools follow suit with canceled or closed spring games? We’ll have a better idea after the NCAA gets a handle on how the basketball tournaments should be handled to help contain COVID-19.

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