It was Saturday around 4:30 p.m. ET. The sun was out, but the air was crisp. My three-person family, as we tend to do on lazy weekend days, was spread out into three different areas of our house. And as I always do when I find myself alone on those such days, I started fiddling with the ESPN App to see what was on.
On this Saturday, as it has been for the past two Saturdays and as it will be until mid-May, what it was, was football. College football. Like, a whole lot of college football. For a moment, lost amid college hoops, baseball, softball and NBA All-Star chatter, I forgot about college football, and I’m betting you did, too.
That’s why I am here now, to remind you that the NCAA’s second tier, FCS, is currently playing an abbreviated spring season to make up for its coronavirus-canceled autumn. Some FCS schools played a handful of nonconference contests six months ago, but the entirety of the FCS (OK, everyone except the Ivy League) is playing now. In addition, a handful of Division II teams kicked off last weekend with the majority slated to start their spring seasons over the coming days.
Is it Ohio State-Michigan? No. But we didn’t get Ohio State-Michigan last fall either, did we? Who cares if it’s a mix of schools you’ve heard of (North Dakota State! James Madison!) and schools you’ve never heard of or schools you’ve heard of only because they play SEC schools every November (wassup, Mercer!).
Your mantra for watching the 2021 spring season should be the same as it was during the 2020 fall schedule: just be happy we have games at all. Between overhyped Power 5 spring scrimmages, the USFL, XFL and whatever this fan-driven league thing we have now is (Fan Controlled Football), we the football fans have always wanted to make football work as the flowers bloomed and the creepy mall Easter Bunnies started showing up.
Finally, we have it! We have HBCUs exchanging smack on social media and smackdowns on Saturdays. We have decades-plus rivalries resumed in classic conferences, such as the Southern, Missouri Valley and Big Sky. We have Eastern Washington QB Eric Barriere slinging it around and creating buzz as a sleeper pick for next month’s NFL draft. We have Albany Great Danes QB Jeff Undercuffler, who looks like that one kid in your youth league who looked like he was a 35-year-old man, standing in the pocket at 6-foot-5, 231 pounds. In a division of football that’s supposedly one step slower and a few inches shorter than the FBS, he ain’t.
And yeah, his school’s mascot is a Great Dane. In FCS, they also have the Blue Hens, Governors, Sycamores, Racers, Lumberjacks, Delta Devils and Fighting Camels. The players who proudly wear those names and colors — not to mention those woodchips, pitchforks and furry humps — have worked just as hard to play as the stars you know from the College Football Playoff. They’ve also been forced to employ more patience than players from those big-time programs because they’ve had to sit and wait until the spring. Some left, but most stayed. Why? Because they love it. And we should love them for it.
Back to normal? We’re getting there. A year ago in this space, it was all about college football just days before the shutdown. Now, we’d give anything just to see 120 guys stretch before a March offseason practice.
The 152nd season of college football is six months away, but the second spring dealing with COVID-19 is here. There’s light at the end of the scrimmage. Teams are planning on spring practice without interruptions. The NCAA has not intervened. Sure, there might be a stoppage or two, but with the coronavirus vaccines increasing production, we can turn our attention to position battles, new players, new coaches and transfers.
Last year actually proved college football can get by without spring practice. (Really, did you notice a drop the quality of play?) But there is a sense of renewal each year at this time. For that, we should be thankful.
We have something resembling normal. Grab a lawn chair, bring your cooler, wear a mask. Spring practice is back. Here’s 21 things to look forward to in spring 2021.
- Starting over: There may not be room at the top, but at least there’s hope of new blood. The nation’s three most dominant programs all face some degree of rebuild. Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State will use the spring trying to replace a combined nine CBS Sports All-Americans. The Big Three have lost the projected No. 1 overall NFL Draft choice (Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence), the Heisman Trophy winner (Alabama’s DeVonta Smith), the Davey O’Brien winner (Alabama’s Mac Jones), Outland the Trophy winner (Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood), the Rimington Trophy winner (Alabama’s Landon Dickerson) and the Doak Walker winner (Alabama’s Najee Harris). All that said, it will be an upset if the Big Three doesn’t all start 2021 in the top five and all make the College Football Playoff. Again. They have combined to win 11 consecutive conference titles.
- No. 1: The Tigers started the offseason No. 1, at least in this corner of the world. If not for the transfer of linebacker Mike Jones Jr., all 11 defenders would return. I’ve already said it: Sophomore quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei might eventually be better than Lawrence. A bunch of receivers return. If you attend one spring practice (socially distanced, of course), Clemson should be it. This spring kicks off Dabo Swinney’s pursuit of a third national title in the last six years.
- Nick Saban at 70: He’s not quite there yet (Oct. 31), but Alabama’s coach is in his 70th year and 29th as a head coach. You already know about the talent losses (see above). This figures to be Saban’s most daunting reboot in his 15 years at Alabama. You don’t lose all that talent and get better … or do you? The Bryce Young era begins with Brian Robinson as the primary ball carrier. The defense that was the third-worst ever to win a national championship? Loaded. Don’t be surprised. For those scoring at home, Saban will turn 69 ½ just two weeks after the April 17 A-Day game. The man continues to be amazing.
- Which way, SEC? Because of those Alabama losses, there is reason to believe Georgia should be the SEC favorite. JT Daniels has Heisman potential in what would be the second full season of his career, which is now in Year 4. The Bulldogs defense is always strong. To overtake the Alabama, the offense must be more consistent in big games. It will be interesting. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken was considered heavily by UCF before it went with Gus Malzahn. Biggest spring project for the Dawgs: With the loss of Tyrique Stevenson (transfer to Miami) and reliable veteran Richard LeCounte, the secondary needs to be addressed.
- There is spring practice and a spring season: Ninety-one Division I teams, most of them FCS, elected to play their 2020 seasons in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the likes of powerhouse North Dakota State, that could mean playing up to 28 games this calendar year (including FCS playoffs). Actually, all those games would be within a 10.5-month period. And we’re worried about expansion of the College Football Playoff? Let’s talk student-athlete welfare: The average Bison lineman could average 5.92 full-go snaps per day from now until the FCS title game in the second week of January 2022.
- Year of the super senior: Technically, no players ran out of eligibility in 2020. When COVID-19 hit, the NCAA awarded every player got an extra year of eligibility. That means in 2021 there will be fifth-, sixth- and maybe even seventh-year seniors. That presented a delicate situation for some coaches. While some of those seniors may have preferred to return, coaches may not have wanted them to return. That extra year is only for eligibility. It doesn’t guarantee a scholarship. You can bet two of the best super seniors will have scholarships waiting for them: Clemson linebacker James Skalski and Miami quarterback D’Eriq King both enter their sixth years.
- The LSU mess: Less than 14 months after winning a national championship, LSU is wrapped in controversy. There is an ongoing investigation into alleged sexual assault that may have happened on the watch of both Ed Orgeron and Les Miles. USA Today sued the school attempting to gain access to documents. There was a report this week that Miles was investigated for harassment in 2013. The biggest football question of LSU’s spring — Myles Brennan or Max Johnson at quarterback? — kind of pales in comparison.
- New coaches: There are 15 of them, a somewhat surprising total given expectations that 2020 was going to be a mulligan season for a lot of coaches due to COVID-19. Not at South Carolina, Auburn and Texas where they ponied up $50 million in combined buyout money to make changes. You know what you can buy with $50 million? Your own private island. Eight Power Five schools made a change. Seven of the 15 are first-time head coaches. Sadly, only two are minorities. Here’s the hiring grades.
- Three new coaches we’d pay Bitcoin to watch their first season of spring practice:
Gus Malzahn, UCF: After getting out from under the strictures at Auburn (available on request), he has the chance to go back to his roots as a play-callin’ ball coach savant with the Knights.
Steve Sarkisian, Texas: The best offensive player caller in the sport was the best name available on the board for Longhorns. Next goals: Win 10 games for the first time in his career, beat Oklahoma, win the Big 12.
Bryan Harsin, Auburn: Harsin is not flashy but his chin can cut glass. There’s nothing wrong with a solid hire who knows how to develop quarterbacks. That sort of thing has worked with LSU and Alabama the last two seasons.
- Best in the West: Oregon has won back-to-back Pac-12 titles. Up next? Become a College Football Playoff factor. The Pac-12 desperately needs someone in the league to step up. Oregon’s transition to 2021 began in the Fiesta Bowl when Boston College transfer quarterback Anthony Brown split time with incumbent Tyler Shough who quickly transferred to Texas Tech. Among the options are incoming freshman Ty Thompson and Jay Butterfield from the 2020 class.
- Next in the West: By the time spring practice ends, roughly at the end of April, there’s a good chance the Pac-12 will have hired its new commissioner. Larry Scott parted ways with league in January. Under his watch, there were impressive gains, but mostly a loss of competitive equity. As of now, the league is Power Five only because of the worth of its western markets to TV. The new commissioner must boost football on the field. That might mean folding the Pac-12 Network and getting the league a unique broadcast network deal. Anything to fill league coffers so when the next Urban Meyer is available, a Pac-12 school has the will and resources to hire him. Watch these athletic directors as candidates: Villanova’s Mark Jackson and Washington’s Jen Cohen.
- Jim Harbaugh 7.0: The bombastic Michigan coach who loudly announced himself back into the college game six years ago has been quiet. Headed into his seventh season, flamboyance has been replaced by humility. That was obvious after Harbs suffered his first losing season since 2008. Assistant coaches left. Players transferred. Once the NFL showed no interest in Harbaugh, AD Warde Manuel had the leverage to offer an extension laden with incentives. These days, Harbaugh’s springs are devoid of globe-trotting camps. In six years, he hasn’t been able to solve the simple math of today’s game: If you’ve got a quarterback, you’ve got a chance. After the transfer of Joe Milton, junior Cade McNamara will be the favorite in the spring.
- Transfer portal: The end of spring practice promises to ramp up the first unofficial free agency period in college football history. All because of the expectation that one-time transfers will be allowed later this year. The portal already had become the one-stop shop for teams searching for immediate help. Now, it has exploded with approximately 1,500 names in it as of last week. The losers of spring position battles will no doubt glut the system further. That tells you there is more player supply than school demand.
NCAA legislation is expected to pass by August allowing players to transfer once in their career without sitting out a year-in-residence. If not, players will have to apply for waivers, but that’s why we’re here in the first place. That sit-out rule is unfair as it only applies to five sports — football, men’s and women’s basketball, hockey and baseball. Coaches have decried the one-time transfer exemption, but not a single one will refuse to use it to plug and play if they’re short at a position.
- Transfer studs: Let’s get right to it. Watch these players make big impacts with their new teams this spring.