We're joined today by esteemed panelists Avinash Kunnath of California Golden Blogs and Pacific Takes, Chris Fuhrmeister of College and Magnolia, Craig Powers of Coug Center, Rodger Sherman of Sippin' on Purple, Steven Muma of Backing the Pack and SBNation.com's own Peter Berkes and Steven Godfrey.
Which new head coach or coordinator do you see having the biggest instant impact?
Peter: The new coach that will make the biggest impact is probably Gus Malzahn at Auburn. The Tiger offense was a complete mess in Scot Loeffler's pro style system last year, in large part because the personnel did not match the scheme. Most of the players there were recruited to fit in Malzahn's offense, and his return should get things moving in a hurry. The team doesn't have a Cam Newton, but they don't need one to show improvement over last year.
Rodger: Bret Bielema at Arkansas. I tend to be of the belief that a team's talent is more important than its coach in-season, so it was pretty fascinating to see an Arkansas squad coasting off of back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins completely derailed under John L. Smith. Bielema did his work on the recruiting trail, and now brings a new identity and new strategy to the Hogs. I don't think they'll hit 10 wins again, but I think they'll have plenty more than four.
Chris: I'm an Auburn fan, so maybe this is biased, but I think it's Malzahn. Because Auburn was so bad across the board in 2012, the Tigers will almost certainly be one of the most improved teams in 2013. Malzahn's going to overhaul the offense, returning it to the breakneck pace that was seen in 2009 and '10. He's taking over a team that won three games in 2012, so he should see immediate, tangible results in the win-loss record. And with a solid staff of defensive coaches and -- believe it or not -- some returning talent, the Auburn D should put up at least some resistance against opposing offenses.
Steven M.: The stability that Arkansas gets from moving beyond the interim coaching phase and hiring Bielema could make a significant difference for the Razorbacks this year. Bielema has an outstanding track record, though he has to adjust to the SEC environment, which will be fascinating to watch, and perhaps leaves some room for a disaster.
Craig: It's hard to argue against the impact that Malzahn has on offenses. Tulsa went from top-20 to bottom-20 in Bill Connelly's S&P+ the year after he left. When he gets to Auburn, they move from 94th to 38th. When he leaves, they drop from 40th to 73rd. Meanwhile, Malzahn is working his magic and improving Arkansas State's offense from 52nd to 22nd. Expect instant improvement at Auburn, while the poor Red Wolves may be in for a tanking.
Steven G.: Malzahn and Ellis Johnson at Auburn, Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech, Mark Stoops at Kentucky and Sonny Dykes at Cal. I think you'll see a dramatic change, albiet not necessarily a positive one, with the defensive changes at USC. Also Ted Roof will improve things somewhat at Georgia Tech.
Avinash: Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin, Cal. And I'm not saying it just because it's the school I follow, but it's a rapid departure from the way things used to run in Berkeley. Tedford had a certain tactical mindset that involved winning each play and executing each part of the offense to perfection. That worked for a long time with the right players, but eventually that way of doing things began to rot.
For Dykes and Franklin it's all about installing a system and a framework for making an offense go. Up-tempo, fast-paced, more plays, better conditioning, heavy execution of all the basic tenets of what they're trying to do offensively. By getting them to run a system and letting 'em loose and having at least a few quarterbacks capable of executing it, it's hard not to see Cal being a very different team offensively this year rather than next, and with practices open they'll be a fun watch all spring.
Jason: Most immediate impact honors go to Stoops, who was out here swiping recruits from USC along the way to Kentucky's highest-rated class in six years and has Cats fans excited about football, the sport. Moving forward, Malzahn and Johnson. Bud Elliott called for this pairing long before it happened, and I'm happy to stand by it.
POSITION BATTLES. Which is the country's most intriguing?
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Avinash: Who's going to be the USC quarterback that Lane Kiffin throws himself into the fire with now that Matt Barkley is gone? Will it be Max Wittek, who looked okay for stretches against Notre Dame before turning in an utter stink bomb at the Sun Bowl? Is it Cody Kessler, who came into college with a lot of hype but still hasn't really made it happen yet?
Or will Max Browne step in and eventually try and make his mark? Making Browne the starter would be a totally Kiffin thing to do, since it almost assures that one of those two older quarterbacks will consider transferring. It'll be fun to watch what USC comes up with this spring and whether the status quo just holds so Lane doesn't get sent his walking papers by the following spring.
Chris: One of the reasons Alabama was able to win its third national title in four years was its offensive line. The Tide had a ton of experience and leadership in center Barrett Jones, guard Chance Warmack and tackle D.J. Fluker. Alabama has been a recruiting machine under Nick Saban, so it has the talent to replace those losses, but how long it takes the new guys to adjust will go a long way toward determining whether or not 'Bama will be playing for another title next January.
Jason: West Virginia's passing game, which loses, in a word, everything. There's a slew of young talent, but the top returning receiver in an Air Raid offense is running back Andrew Buie, and quarterback could be a long battle. Remember how Michigan State fared after losing a similar level of passing battery talent last year? Yeah, and WVU relies on the pass a whole lot more than MSU ever did.
Peter: I think Florida State's quarterback battle is going to be really interesting. Clint Trickett has some experience, but the ceiling is clearly higher with former five-star recruit Jameis Winston. Winston is the future for the Seminoles, but if he looks shaky in spring practice, Jimbo Fisher may elect to go with Trickett to start the season, one in which Florida State has a good shot to win the ACC.
Steven G: Auburn quarterbacks, Georgia linebackers and defensive backs and Texas running backs.
Craig: Oregon State might have been the biggest surprise of 2012, and quarterback play was certainly key for the Beavers. They were fortunate enough to have success with both Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz, and Mike Riley had trouble sticking with one over the other. Mannion completed a higher percentage of his passes, but struggled with turnovers. Vaz was more explosive, but not as accurate. The Beavs will benefit from a tight competition that should bring out the best in both guys.
Steven M.: After roughly two decades of Landry Jones at quarterback, the Sooners have been forced to move on. How will that transition go for OU, and can the team still contend for a conference title despite that change?
Rodger: Kansas State's quarterback battle. Collin Klein graduates, and although he's not a big NFL prospect unless he plays tight end, the Heisman finalist was Kansas State's offense in 2012, and he was why they were 11-2. The incumbent is technically Daniel Sams, a guy timed running a 4.33 per Rivals out of high school - I thought no way, but sure enough, he ran for 235 yards on 23 carries last year with three touchdowns - but they listed him as an athlete, not a quarterback. He likely gets pushed by Jake Waters, last year's Juco player of the year, who won a national title while throwing for 39 touchdowns against only three picks. Sams has two years in the system, but those were mainly on the bench behind Klein, while Waters has two years of slinging touchdowns against lesser competition. If either can come close to replacing Klein's production, Kansas State should contend for another Big 12 Championship.
Name one early enrollee you think we should be excited about.
Craig: O.J. Howard at Alabama is a wide receiver in a tight end's body. He has the size and speed to cause matchup problems for any defense, and may quickly become one of AJ McCarron's favorite targets.
Chris: Several players could make the cut here, but I'll go with Florida running back Kelvin Taylor. Mike Gillislee, the only Gator running back - in the traditional running back role, at least - worth much of a damn in recent years, is gone, and no one else on the roster appears to be the heir apparent to the starting job. Taylor was a five-star and the No. 1-rated back in the Class of 2013, according to ESPN, and at 5'10 and 215 pounds, he should have a powerful, low center of gravity (think Mike Dyer - hopefully, without the attitude). Taylor may be Florida's starter from Day 1 next season.
Avinash: Su'a Cravens, USC. The Trojans signed a bunch of early enrollees to get them on the field as quickly as possible. Cravens is the one who will likely see the field the fastest, because he not only plays at a position of need but might be the most talented player on the field. He was considered a top-10 recruit for much of the 2012-'13 cycle and possesses all the skills to be an incredible contributor at either safety position. Cravens is going to be the type of player that really can help a defense feel much better about its ability to stop big plays from happening, similar to how Shaq Thompson immediately helped Washington get better as a team.
Steven M.: USC's Browne was considered one of the best pro-style quarterbacks in the class of 2013 by recruiting analysts. The Trojans must replace Barkley, and Browne could end up being thrust into the spotlight as a true freshman.
Rodger: Taylor at Florida. The Gators lose Gillislee, and Fred Taylor's son is an elite running back recruit - ESPN had him as the top running back in the class, No. 8 at any position in the country. Matt Jones or Mack Brown could get the gig as the starter, but it's hard to imagine Taylor won't at least get a shot, especially considering how highly touted he is.
Jason: Four-star Georgia safety Tray Matthews could start for a drastically depleted defense that might find itself in a number of shootouts, but there are another dozen new faces for the Dawgs this spring. Surely one of them will emerge on the field, just as surely as one of them will be booted for emerging from an alley.
Peter: I think Howard at Alabama will make the biggest impact of all early enrollees this spring. The departure of Michael Williams means that there will be a new primary tight end for Alabama this year, and the Crimson Tide offense hits another gear when the tight end is really producing. Howard's athleticism could get him on the field and making an impact early.
You must choose only one spring game to watch besides your school's own. Which are you watching?
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Steven M.: I'm interested to see how Kingsbury handles his first season at Texas Tech. He's intimately familiar with the program, for obvious reasons, but he also has to find a new starting quarterback. How will the players respond to his leadership, and can he build an offense that just sort of effortlessly transitions from one quarterback to the next like it did when Mike Leach was the head coach?
Jason: I plan to be at Auburn. I love me some Gus.
Peter: If I had to go to one spring game this year, it would probably be Ohio State. With a year of experience in Urban Meyer's offense, Braxton Miller has the potential to be the best player in the country in 2013, and I'm curious to see how much latitude Meyer will give him to do his thing.
Craig: West Virginia and Dana Holgersen. If Holgo can put up 70 on Clemson and Baylor, he can probably hang 100 on his own defense, though his D actually won last year's spring game.
Rodger: Bama, mainly so I could leave behind Northern weather for a few hours, but also so I can go even more all in behind my three-peat predictions, Paul.
Steven G: Vandy, Wisconsin, Arkansas. The first to see if they can find consistent depth and a new quarterback that will allow them to win six-plus again, the other two for dramatic culture, scheme and philosophy changes.
Avinash: Arizona. You'd think I'd pick Oregon, right? But the Ducks attempt to play defense, so there will be attempts to stop points from being scored, which isn't fun. If points aren't being scored in spring ball, I want to flip the channel to watch Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus because you know that'll get WILD.
Meanwhile, Arizona might be hiring fans around the stadium to walk on and play linebacker. The Wildcats have no defensive depth at all, which means we're just going to see spread-and-shred for three hours from Rich Rod. Last year they totalled 600 yards and 10 touchdowns in about two hours of game time. Sold.
Chris: I'm not a huge proponent of attending spring football games - at least, not to learn anything about the team. But they are fine opportunities to enjoy some tailgating and revelry roughly six months before the season starts. So if I'm going to another team's spring game, I'm going to Baton Rouge for LSU's. Tigah fans, with their Cajun cuisine and strong livers, tailgate better than any other fans in the country, and I could really go for some boudin and gumbo right about now.
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