What we learned from 2021 spring football, from Alabama's QB to teams with most depth
The sun is shining, flowers are in bloom and delusional fan bases are talking themselves into unrealistic expectations and eventual heartbreak. After a one-year absence, spring football is back.
And so were fans. Alabama had 47,218 in attendance at its spring game April 17, at the time the largest crowd at any domestic sporting event since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. After the Big Ten barred fans from attending any games in 2020, Nebraska's spring scrimmage came in front of a crowd of 36,406.
In more ways than one, the spring gave a glimpse into how the sport may look come August and September. Here are five things we learned:
Alabama has a starting quarterback
To zero surprise, Bryce Young will move from last year's backup role to replace Mac Jones as the Crimson Tide's starter. This comes after a series of spring drills where Young "performed really well," said coach Nick Saban, fueling the optimism surrounding the second-year player's ascension to the starting role.
The questions coming out of the spring revolve around expectations. What should be asked of Young, the top-ranked quarterback in the 2020 recruiting cycle? How much should be expected? And given the sense that Alabama's defense will rebound after an uneven 2020 season, does Young need to be the best quarterback in the SEC for the Tide to repeat as national champions?
For now, only Saban and new offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien can speak to the program's internal expectations for the position. As for where Young is predicted to land in the league's quarterback pecking order, his lack of experience in the spotlight should have him enter the season behind Georgia's JT Daniels, who changed the direction of the Bulldogs' offense after taking over last November.
But to view Young as a question mark ignores all the advantages in his corner: Alabama's quarterback-friendly offensive scheme, his surrounding talent, his own pedigree and the program's run of high-level production from under center. The Tide have led the SEC in efficiency rating in each of the past three seasons and have finished lower than third in the conference only once since 2011.
McKenzie Milton's remarkable comeback story
A catastrophic knee injury suffered late in the 2018 season did more than cast doubts on whether McKenzie Milton might play football again — there were fears in the immediate aftermath of extensive artery, nerve and ligament damage that Milton might face amputation due to a lack of blood flow to the bottom of his right leg.
So let's be clear about one thing: After two seasons on the sidelines at Central Florida, that Milton is playing football at all is an outstanding achievement and a testament to the senior's drive to recover the form that once made him one of the top contenders for the Heisman Trophy.
And that he might earn the starting job at Florida State is simply remarkable. After joining the Seminoles this winter, Milton has placed himself in strong contention to be the starter in coach Mike Norvell's second season after playing well in the team's final two scrimmages of the spring. In the Seminoles' official spring game, Milton threw for 96 yards and a touchdown in leading the first-team offense to two scores in three drives.
The competition will continue. FSU is also evaluating Jordan Travis, last year's primary starter, and former four-star recruit Chubba Purdy, who missed a good chunk of spring drills but has been cleared to return to full team activities this summer.
Clemson quietly puts a cap on the spring
Life has gone on without Trevor Lawrence, though few seemed to notice. Did any other playoff contender have a quieter spring than Clemson? That may represent a nice change of pace for a program fresh off a humbling loss to Ohio State in the national semifinals and in the early stages of an offensive rebuild touching on every position group.
No spot will draw more scrutiny than quarterback, even as the Tigers transition from one five-star talent to another: DJ Uiagalelei will take over for Lawrence after a smashing debut highlighted by his 439-yard passing performance in a midseason loss to Notre Dame. Two starters are gone up front, though the line as a whole is expected to improve after a frustrating 2020 season.
The receiver corps loses top targets Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell but still has enough star power to rank among the top groups in the country, especially with star Justyn Ross set to return after missing last year due to injury.
Clemson's defense has few spots to fill and should rank among the nation's best despite some lingering concerns over secondary play following cornerback Derion Kendrick's departure. The Tigers will be paced by a defensive front led by sophomores Bryan Breese and Ryan Murphy, two future All-America picks, and bolstered further by end Justin Foster's recent decision to return in 2021.
Depth is at an all-time high
With every player offered an additional year of eligibility to make up for last year's coronavirus-influenced season, teams are able to go beyond the standard 85-scholarship limit to account for "super seniors," players who accepted the chance for a fifth or sixth season on campus. (This has created concerns over how teams will get back to the typical scholarship cap in 2022, but that's a topic for next year.)
This opportunity has dramatically increased the level of depth compared to a normal season. Several top contenders for the New Year's Six are teeming with returning talent and experience, including Miami (Florida), LSU and Oregon. Likewise with many Power Five teams looking to take the next step, such as UCLA, Mississippi State and Nebraska.
One way to sum up the overwhelming amount of experience across the FBS is to look at offensive linemen. In a normal year, only a handful of teams will have the good fortune to return all five starters up front; for those that do, this experience is seen as a crucial advantage along this pivotal position group. This season, meanwhile, roughly a third of the FBS brings back all five starting linemen from a year ago.
As we'll see, however, the heightened amount of depth across the FBS will make this coming season even harder to peg than usual.
This experience makes 2021 impossible to predict
Well, maybe not impossible. (Picking Alabama to win the national championship is always a safe bet.) But one of the key factors in projecting any given season is simple experience — teams with a larger share of returning starters and contributors are almost always expected to outperform opponents on the other end of the spectrum, with the exception of those national powers capable of an annual reload regardless of any offseason departures.
When you move past the established top group of championship contenders, how do you split hairs among similar teams with similar goals without being able to differentiate based on returning production?
This suggests that teams near the bottom of the FBS in measurable experience may be in more trouble than usual. That's particularly true for teams already in the early stages of a rebuild, such as South Carolina, Arizona and Kansas. But even established programs may feel the squeeze: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald's deft touch will be put to the test with what is by far the least experienced roster in the Big Ten.
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg