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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.