The biggest spring questions for college football's top 25 teams

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Last week, we ranked our Way-Too-Early Top 25. Now, we've got some questions about the teams that made the cut. Will new quarterbacks be able to settle in before the season starts? Will new coaches be able to gain the trust of their players? And will exceptional units be able to stay strong?

Here are our writers' biggest spring questions for each team.

1. Georgia Bulldogs

Will the Bulldogs be able to replace their departing defensive stars?

Georgia's pass defense was great again last season, ranking sixth in the FBS in yards allowed per attempt. But the Bulldogs will have to do some reloading in the secondary with safeties Javon Bullard and Tykee Smith and lockdown cornerback Kamari Lassiter departing for the NFL. Coach Kirby Smart has loaded up on highly regarded defensive backs, and piecing together a reliable rotation will be a key in the spring. Cornerbacks Daniel Harris andJulian Humphreynearly left via the transfer portal, but Georgia's coaches persuaded them to stick around. They'll be in line for starting spots, along with junior Daylen Everette. All-American Malaki Starks returns at free safety, and Joenel Aguero seems to be in line for the nickelback (star) spot. Senior Dan Jackson has the most experience at strong safety, and juniorJaCorey Thomasand incoming five-star freshman K.J. Bolden could get long looks in the spring. -- Mark Schlabach

2. Ohio State Buckeyes

How will quarterbackWill Howard adjust to a new offense?

Howard comes from Kansas State with the pressure to build off what Kyle McCord, who transferred to Syracuse, did for the first 11 games of last season before a third straight defeat to Michigan. How the versatile Howard (2,490 total yards and 28 total touchdowns for Kansas State in 2023) fits and adapts to the offense for coach Ryan Day and new offensive coordinator Chip Kelly will be the biggest factor in determining how different things will be in Columbus in 2024. -- Blake Baumgartner

3. Oregon Ducks

Who will win the quarterback battle?

Bo Nix's years of eligibility have finally expired, and Oregon will need to play a new quarterback this coming season. In some ways, the biggest spring question for the Ducks has already been answered as coach Dan Lanning & Co. pounced on the transfer portal to bring in not only Dillon Gabriel from Oklahoma but five-star recruit Dante Moore from UCLA. Coming off a 3,660-yard, 30-touchdown season at Oklahoma, Gabriel appears to be the likely choice to start, but Moore's potential has clearly been unrealized through one season. Moore struggled to lead the Bruins in his first year but showed flashes of what made him one of the top high school quarterbacks in his class. Oregon has national title aspirations, and answering its quarterback question (as well as outfitting an offense around said quarterback) will go a long way toward helping the Ducks actually hoist the trophy. --Paolo Uggetti

4. Texas Longhorns

What will the passing game look like?

This time last season, Steve Sarkisian said getting Quinn Ewers comfortable and the deep passing game going was a point of emphasis. Ewers responded with 3,479 yards and 22 TDs to just six interceptions in Texas' final Big 12 season, and the addition ofAdonai Mitchellopened up deep looks for Xavier Worthy. But Mitchell, Worthy, Jordan Whittington and tight endJa'Tavion Sandersare off to the NFL, andJohntay Cook's eight catches from last year lead the incumbents. But that doesn't mean there isn't talent on hand. Sarkisian added transfers Isaiah Bond (Alabama), Silas Bolden (Oregon State), Matthew Golden (Houston) and tight endAmari Niblack (Alabama), as well as star receiver Ryan Wingo, No. 27 in this year's ESPN 300. Now, it's just a matter of finding the right combinations and getting the timing down. -- Dave Wilson

5. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Can Riley Leonard shine in his first season with the Irish?

Leonard infamously has his mother text him "you suck" to keep him from getting a big head, but at the quarterback's new home of Notre Dame, his more immediate concern might be proving to the Irish that, in fact, he's pretty good. Yes, Leonard had a nice 1 seasons at Duke before an injury (suffered against Notre Dame) upended his 2023 campaign, but the stakes are higher in South Bend. He's a smart, competitive and athletic QB, but he'll need to show he's healthy and a good fit for coordinator Mike Denbrock's offense. Last year, Denbrock's passing game excelled with the deep ball at LSU. That has not been Leonard's bread-and-butter, and he'll need to show he can connect downfield if the Irish are to be as explosive as they'd like. -- David Hale

6. Ole Miss Rebels

Will all of the team's transfer additions be able to transition easily?

Lane Kiffin once again hit the transfer portal hard with some talented additions to the roster at a variety of different positions. It's never easy to incorporate new players into a locker room every year and continue to maintain chemistry. Kiffin himself would tell you that's a challenge, especially in the world of name, image and likeness. But he has had success thus far, and with massive expectations surrounding Ole Miss' program in 2024, the spring will be the first time the Rebels get everybody on the field together and see whether it all meshes. -- Chris Low

7. Missouri Tigers

Will the Tigers be able to have another strong defensive season?

Much was made last season of Missouri's offensive production on its way to an 11-win season, but the way the Tigers played on defense might have been the real story. Getting back to that level will be key for Missouri, and that process starts this spring with a new defensive coordinator (Corey Batoon) and a slew of new faces in starting roles. The Tigers are losing 10 players on defense who either started or contributed significantly in 2023, including All-SEC performers Darius Robinson at end,Ty'Ron Hopperat linebacker and Kris Abrams-Draine at cornerback. -- Low

8. Penn State Nittany Lions

Will Andy Kotelnicki be able to revitalize the Nittany Lions' offense?

James Franklin fired offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich a day after the home loss to eventual national champion Michigan in November. Kotelnicki has come from Kansas to fill that position after helping revitalize the Jayhawks behind quarterback Jalon Daniels. Now Kotelnicki will be asked to do the same with former ESPN 300 signal-caller Drew Allar. Allar was fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards (2,631) and tied with Maryland's Taulia Tagovailoa for the conference lead with 25 touchdowns. But he had only one 300-yard passing game (325 yards in a 38-15 win over West Virginia). --Baumgartner

9. Alabama Crimson Tide

Can Kalen DeBoer deal with the pressure of his new job?

The buy-in process has already started for new Alabama coach Kalen DeBoer, who takes on the kind of challenge in replacing Nick Saban that would send a lot of coaches sprinting in the other direction. Spring practice poses the first chance to get the holdovers and some of the newcomers together on the same field with somebody not named Nick Saban running the show. DeBoer has won everywhere he has been and took Washington to the national championship game last season. But every move he makes and everything he says will be intensely scrutinized, especially by his players. -- Low

10. Utah Utes

Will the Utes thrive with a returningCam Risingat quarterback?

Rising is back and healthy for one final run as one of the Utes' most successful players ever. With two Pac-12 titles under his belt, Rising will lead Utah into the Big 12 after a year of not being able to play because of an offseason shoulder surgery. What adjustments will Kyle Whittingham and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig make to give Rising his best chance at winning another conference title and maybe more? Running back Micah Bernard will return after missing the first 11 games of the 2023 season because of an injury, while an offensive line that has lost two of its best players will need a few young players to step up in order to protect Rising's health and fuel his -- and the offense's -- productivity. -- Uggetti

11. Arizona Wildcats

What will Brent Brennan's version of Arizona look like?

After a breakout season for the Wildcats under Jedd Fisch in 2023, the program saw the head coach leave for Washington. Brennan, on paper, could be a great hire, as he brings a reputation for being an offensive coach to a team that has a clear strength on that side of the ball. Keeping players such as quarterback Noah Fifita and wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan in the fold (for now) is crucial in order to maintain the offensive continuity that could make the Wildcats a force to be reckoned with in the new Big 12. But how Brennan sets the tone on defense -- where the Wildcats improved significantly under Fisch over his time there (107th in points allowed in 2022 to 30th in 2023) -- might be what determines how quickly he can succeed. -- Uggetti

12. LSU Tigers

Will LSU be able to shore up its pass defense?

LSU's pass defense was uncharacteristically porous last season, as the unit formerly known as "DBU" surrendered 255.6 passing yards per game, which ranked 118th in the FBS. Tigers coach Brian Kelly responded by firing defensive coordinator Matt House, safeties coach Kerry Cooks and cornerbacks coach Robert Steeples. Kelly poached Missouri's Blake Baker to replace House, and former Tigers assistant Corey Raymond came back from Florida to help shore up the secondary. Jake Olsen followed Baker from Missouri to coach LSU's safeties. Two Ohio State transfers, JK Johnson (who missed all of the 2023 season because of a leg injury after enrolling at LSU) and Jyaire Brown, might get long looks at cornerback. Freshman Ju'Juan Johnson set Louisiana high school career records as a quarterback but will start his LSU career at cornerback. Major Burns is back at one of the safety spots; Texas A&M transfer Jardin Gilbert should be in the mix on the back end as well. -- Schlabach

13. Michigan Wolverines

Who will win the Wolverines' quarterback battle?

With Jim Harbaugh's mission of bringing a natty back to Ann Arbor now accomplished (and with Harbaugh now the coach of the Los Angeles Chargers), the Wolverines will go through a bit of a reset under new head coach Sherrone Moore. That starts and ends with who will replace J.J. McCarthy at quarterback. Jack Tuttle being approved for a seventh year of eligibility changes the dynamic for Moore. In addition to Tuttle, Jadyn Davis (No. 166 in the 2024 ESPN 300), the cycle's fourth-best dual-threat quarterback, comes into the program as part of a 16th-ranked class and joins Jayden Denegal and Alex Orji on the roster. The beginning of the Moore era will be defined by who gets the keys to the offense. -- Baumgartner

14. Oklahoma Sooners

How ready is Jackson Arnold?

Arnold, the No. 1 quarterback in the 2023 ESPN 300 and the No. 3 overall prospect, was thrust into a starting role for the Alamo Bowl after the transfer of starting QB Dillon Gabriel, who decamped for Oregon while Jeff Lebby, the OC/QB coach who recruited Arnold, also left to be the Mississippi State coach. The good: Arnold threw for 339 yards and two TDs. The bad: He also threw three interceptions. With a full spring as the starter under new coordinators Seth Littrell and Joe Jon Finley, the spring will be a sprint to get Arnold up to speed for the Sooners' first SEC season and one of the country's toughest schedules. -- Wilson

15. Florida State Seminoles

Can another elite transfer class help Florida State repeat as ACC champions?

The key players on the team that brought the Seminoles back to relevance last season have all gone, leaving the team in rebuild mode. The good news is Florida State signed yet another high-level transfer class to help plug some holes. But will they jell in time to continue building off what was accomplished last season? The answer might very well come down to transfer quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, who is back in the ACC after beginning his career at Clemson and then transferring to Oregon State in 2023. Uiagalelei wanted to come to Florida State to play for Mike Norvell; Norvell said he has seen enough from the quarterback's skill set to believe he can put it all together in 2024. -- Andrea Adelson

16. Tennessee Volunteers

Will Tennessee's new defensive backfield excel?

The NCAA poking around Tennessee's program and its recruitment of quarterback Nico Iamaleava and then Tennessee's fiery legal response to that probe has dominated offseason headlines. Tennessee fans can't wait to see Iamaleava as QB1 for the Vols. He has tons of talent, but one of the things to watch this spring will be how Tennessee retools its defensive backfield. The starters from 2023 are all gone, and there was also an exodus in the portal. But the Vols like some of their younger players in the secondary and also did their own mining in the portal, including Oregon State cornerbackJermod McCoy. We get our first chance this spring to see Tennessee's new-look defensive backfield. -- Low

17. Oklahoma State Cowboys

Can the Cowboys stay healthy?

You could ask that for just about any team, I know. But there's simply not a lot that we don't know about the Cowboys going into this spring, because they return so much of 2023's production. Sure, there were some departures in Jaden Bray, Blaine Green and Jaden Nixon on offense, but they still return four of their top six pass-catchers. QB Alan Bowman is back for a seventh season, and Doak Walker award winnerOllie Gordonis, too, of course. In total, the Pokes return 79% of their offensive production and 74% of their defensive production. In a reformed Big 12 with Texas and Oklahoma gone, it seems like as good a time as ever for Mike Gundy's team to make a mark on the conference. -- Harry Lyles Jr.

18. NC State Wolfpack

Will the Wolfpack be able to improve their run game?

The biggest concern for NC State entering the spring is likely the same one that loomed over the past few springs, too: the ground game. Last year, NC State's running backs totaled just 930 yards rushing, last among ACC offenses. In 2022, NC State was 10th in running back yards in the ACC and managed just three touchdowns from its stable of backs. The year before that, the Wolfpack were near the bottom of the league, too. In 2023, Dave Doeren's group made up for the lack of production by using QB Brennan Armstrong and electric freshman receiverKC Concepcionas runners, too. That tactic might work again in 2024 (albeit with new QB Grayson McCall), but the far better course for the Pack would be figuring out what has ailed the backfield in recent years and getting that group on the right path. -- Hale

19. Clemson Tigers

What's going on with the offense?

Is it painting with too broad a brush to just say, "the offense?" Cade Klubnik enters a make-or-break year. Garrett Riley's scheme was often ineffective in 2023 but should be a better fit this year. The O-line struggled badly at times last year, but new position coach Matt Luke figures to have the unit improved. The receiving corps has been woefully thin in recent years, but Dabo Swinney likes his personnel. There's upside everywhere on offense, but getting each group to take a step forward at the same time has been an issue. --Hale

20. Kansas State Wildcats

How will Chris Klieman's new offense look?

A big part of Kansas State's success over the past two seasons -- which included 19 wins and a Big 12 championship -- was its offense. That offense is now losing four of the six offensive linemen who started in 2023, including Cooper Beebe, who will hear his name called at April's NFL draft. The Wildcats also lose quarterback Will Howard and their only two players who were reliable pass-catchers in Phillip Brooks andBen Sinnott(another NFL prospect). Dual-threat quarterback Avery Johnson steps in with a lot of potential, but there's no question the Wildcats are entering spring with a lot to prove. -- Lyles

21. Louisville Cardinals

Will the Cardinals be able to get their new-look offense into shape?

Similar to Florida State, Louisville signed a stellar transfer class to help not only fill holes on the roster but take the program beyond just appearing in the ACC championship game. As great as last season was, Louisville wants to win championships, and coach Jeff Brohm feels an urgency to deliver for his hometown team. Tyler Shough is expected to take over at quarterback after transferring from Texas Tech, and there are transfers coming in at receiver in Caullin Lacy andJa'Corey Brooksto pair with Chris Bell to help get more consistency out of the passing game. Upgrading the offensive line was huge, too, as Louisville signed four from the portal. Getting the offense on the same page will obviously be big this spring and into fall camp. -- Adelson

22. Kansas Jayhawks

How will the Jayhawks adjust to changes along the offensive line?

In the 2021 and 2022 seasons, the Jayhawks allowed the fewest sacks in the Big 12, and over the past three years allowed an average of just 1.1 sacks per game. But now, they lose three starters on the offensive line in Dominick Puni, Mike NovitskyandAr'maj Reed-Adams. In addition to those losses, OL coach Scott Fuchs joinedBrian Callahan and the Tennessee Titans as an offensive assistant. That makes this transition more interesting, given the improvements the Jayhawks' offensive line saw under his leadership. -- Lyles

23. Kentucky Wildcats

Can Brock Vandagriff adjust to a new system?

Quarterbacks Stetson Bennett IV and Carson Beck blocked Vandagriff from getting on the field often at Georgia. Vandagriff was one of the most highly regarded dual-threat prospects in the country in 2021. Lincoln Riley had hand-picked him to run his offense at Oklahoma before Vandagriff flipped from the Sooners to the Bulldogs. Vandagriff will have a clean canvas at Kentucky, and Wildcats coach Mark Stoops is hoping he can help revive an attack that ranked 11th in the SEC in passing (211.6 yards) and total offense (339.5) last season. Vandagriff's running ability should take some pressure off Kentucky's offensive line. Getting Vandagriff comfortable in new offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan's system will be a priority this spring. -- Schlabach

24. Miami Hurricanes

What canCam Warddo for the offense?

It is as tantalizing a question as there is headed into the season, because the Hurricanes return talent across the board at the skill positions, from running backMark Fletcherto receivers Jacolby George and Xavier Restrepo. Ward has proven to be prolific in the passing game, with three straight seasons of 3,200 or more passing yards. That is one area where Miami simply had no consistency over the past two seasons with quarterback Tyler Van Dyke. In fact, Miami has not had a 3,000-yard passer since Malik Rosier in 2017 -- the last time Miami won 10 games in a season. How quickly Ward gets up to speed will be a spring storyline to watch. -- Adelson

25. Texas A&M Aggies

What does everything look like under Mike Elko?

Talent was not a problem under Jimbo Fisher. A stubborn lack of offensive evolution plagued the Aggies over the past several years, but so did a lack of discipline or accountability, according to sources inside the program. Elko has plugged holes in the transfer portal, particularly at wide receiver and defensive back. But the biggest question mark will be that offense, and how new coordinator Collin Klein, who ran a highly effective system at Kansas State that often featured the quarterback run, will look with Conner Weigman, who is one of the Aggies' best QB prospects in years. -- Wilson

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