Spring practice began last week at Army and Duke, unofficially kicking off the countdown toward the 2011 season. These 10 schools will be the hottest spots this spring.
Spring dates: Feb. 24-April 3
Buzz: Meet the most disappointing team of 2010. The program's first losing season since 1997 caused Mack Brown to radically alter his coaching staff, and the new group has a decidedly SEC flavor. Brown hired Manny Diaz from Mississippi State to run the defense, Bo Davis from Alabama to coach the defensive line and Stacy Searels from Georgia to coach the offensive line. Brown also looked to the SEC for a strength and conditioning coach, nabbing Bennie Wylie from Tennessee. But Brown's most vital hire came from the WAC, as Bryan Harsin was hired away from Boise State to coordinate an offense that wants to become more physical. How will staff chemistry develop? And will the players respond? The rushing attack must improve, and QB Garrett Gilbert needs to develop consistency.
Spring dates: March 16-April 9
Buzz: This is Will Muschamp's first head-coaching job, and it's a doozy. The Gators are coming off an 8-5 season; they had lost two games combined in the previous two seasons. All eyes will be on the offense, which ranked 82nd nationally (350.9 ypg). The passing attack was especially bad, finishing 10th in the conference and 88th nationally (184.3 ypg). Muschamp hired former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis to fix the offense. Weis has the acumen, but does he have the personnel to run his pro-style attack? And will his personality be too big for a rookie head coach to handle? The Gators also need to establish a pecking order at tailback and receiver, rebuild the offensive line and find a pass rush.
Spring dates: March 19-April 16
Buzz: The Wolverines led the nation in tumult and angst the past three seasons under Rich Rodriguez. Now he's gone, and former San Diego State coach Brady Hoke is in. Can Hoke a former Michigan assistant under Lloyd Carr revive this once-proud program? Job No. 1 is to rehab a defense that has been an abomination. Most of the key players from last season's unit are back. It will be interesting to see how Hoke's staff uses QB Denard Robinson as the Wolverines transition from a spread-option attack to more of a West Coast scheme. Deciding on a tailback also will be important.
Spring dates: March 31-April 23
Buzz: Sometimes, going home isn't a good thing. Ask Rick Neuheisel. His three seasons at his alma mater have produced just one winning record and a whole lot of bad offense. The staff's inability to develop a competent quarterback has been maddening. New offensive coordinator Mike Johnson must improve an attack that ranked 104th in the nation in scoring (20.1 ppg). Who will be the quarterback? Richard Brehaut? Kevin Prince? Darius Bell? Brett Hundley? Neuheisel still hasn't hired a defensive coordinator, and the Bruins lost their two best players off that unit (LB Akeem Ayers and FS Rahim Moore).
Spring dates: March 23-April 16
Buzz: The impossible task of replacing Heisman-winning QB Cam Newton begins. In addition, All-America T Nick Fairley is one of seven defensive starters who is gone and four starting offensive linemen must be replaced. Auburn also has to replace three of its top four wide receivers, including its top two receivers. Junior Barrett Trotter looks like the front-runner at quarterback. The defense? Coordinator Ted Roof has a lot to sort out this spring for a program that could quickly drop back to the eight-win level.
Spring dates: March 14-April 16
Buzz: The Big Ten era is dawning in Lincoln, and the Huskers may just win the league title in their debut season. But the offense must develop. It appears that coordinator Shawn Watson is out. Who will run the attack? And what will it look like? The offense bogged down last season after QB Taylor Martinez hurt an ankle vs. Missouri. Nebraska's offense ended up ranking No. 7 in the Big 12 overall (398.1 ypg), and last in passing (150.6 ypg). Defensively, the secondary must be rebuilt.
7. OHIO STATE
Spring dates: March 31-April 23
Buzz: The Buckeyes have the makings of a top-five team for 2011, but five key players will miss the first five games of the season for receiving extra benefits. The biggest loss will be QB Terrelle Pryor. Ohio State must use the spring to find a quarterback to lead the team in those first five games: Akron, Toledo, at Miami, Colorado and Michigan State. A loss could trash a potentially great season. Knowing that, would Buckeyes boss Jim Tressel really start true freshman QB Braxton Miller, who will take part in spring drills?
Spring dates: March 21-April 16
Buzz: The roster teems with talent, which should soften the blow of losing RB Mark Ingram, WR Julio Jones and DE Marcell Dareus early to the NFL. In addition, the Tide have to replace QB Greg McElroy. A.J. McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims are more talented than McElroy, but are they leaders? Will they limit mistakes? If not, BCS title talk in Tuscaloosa will be for naught.
Spring dates: Feb. 21-April 9
Buzz: Jim Harbaugh is off to coach the San Francisco 49ers. But the Cardinal still are thinking big, thanks to the return of QB Andrew Luck, who will be the Heisman front-runner. Still, questions must be answered this spring if this truly is to be a top-10 team. The new coach is David Shaw, who had been the offensive coordinator. He never has been a head coach. Harbaugh injected so much mojo and swagger into the program with his bold persona; can Shaw come close to duplicating that? Associate head coach Greg Roman was the brains behind the offense, but he left to join Harbaugh. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio also left for the 49ers. Oh, and four starting offensive linemen must be replaced.
10. VIRGINIA TECH
Spring dates: March 23-April 16
Buzz: Keep your eye on the offense, as QB Tyrod Taylor and RBs Darren Evans and Ryan Williams are gone. David Wilson will become the new marquee runner, but is converted TE Logan Thomas ready to be the quarterback for a team that could challenge for the ACC title? At 6 feet 6 and 242 pounds, he physically is vastly different than the more nimble and athletic Taylor. The offense will be helped by the return of four starting offensive linemen. The defense has to get tougher against the run, though.