The last big batch of college football spring games for 2022 will give us our first look at the seismic shifts wrought by the coaching carousel this offseason.
Lincoln Riley at USC, Brian Kelly at LSU, Marcus Freeman at Notre Dame — not to mention Dan Lanning at Oregon and Brent Venables at Oklahoma — all make their on-field debuts at their new places of employment this weekend.
Here are the top storylines we’ll be watching at this weekend’s games.
1 p.m. ET, ESPN+
What can we expect from Year 3 of Dave Aranda?
What was the difference between 2020, when Baylor went 2-7, and 2021, when the Bears won the Big 12 with a 12-2 season? Aranda shook up his offensive staff, and along with new offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, moved Abram Smith back to running back after a switch to linebacker, and Smith reeled off nine 100-yard games and set the single-season school rushing record with 1,621 yards. But Smith and another key back, Tristan Ebner (859 yards rushing, 284 receiving) are gone. The Bears have two capable quarterbacks fighting for the job: Gerry Bohanon (12 starts last year, 2,200 yards, 18 TDs passing, nine rushing) and Blake Shapen (two starts, 17 straight completions in the Big 12 title game against Oklahoma State’s stingy defense), so it remains to be seen how that race will shake out. — Dave Wilson
3 p.m. ET
Will the Colorado offense show signs of life?
Only one of the 130 teams in FBS last season had a worse offense than the Buffs. Averaging only 18.8 points and 257.4 yards per game, it is a minor miracle that they won four games. Head coach Karl Dorrell cleaned house and hired a new offensive coordinator in Mike Sanford, as well as a new offensive line coach (Kyle DeVan), new wide receivers coach (Phil McGeoghan) and new tight ends coach (Clay Patterson). Although Colorado returns quarterback Brendon Lewis, it also has transfer Maddox Kopp from Houston as an option. Saturday’s spring game is the first opportunity for all of them to show that this upcoming season can be different on that side of the ball. — Paolo Uggetti
2 p.m. ET, SEC Network+
Sorting out a crowded QB competition
Brian Kelly has a lot of work to do in order to get the Tigers’ roster backfilled after the flood of transfers that hit when Ed Orgeron was fired. But there’s one area where he’s got numerous options: quarterback. Yes, former starter Max Johnson is now at Texas A&M, and losing anyone with that much experience isn’t ideal. But Kelly was able to keep talented freshman Garrett Nussmeier and pulled former starter Myles Brennan back after he’d entered the transfer portal. Then Kelly got former Arizona State starter Jayden Daniels late in the cycle. The only problem is how to divide the reps among three QBs who see themselves as starters. Saturday’s spring game should provide a glimpse in the pecking order. — Alex Scarborough
1 p.m. ET, Peacock
Marcus Freeman makes his much-anticipated debut
When it was announced that Marcus Freeman would be the head coach at Notre Dame, a video went viral showing the players celebrating the decision. Freeman relates well to players and recruits, and has had a smooth start to his tenure. At only 36, Freeman has a big opportunity ahead of him and all eyes will be on him and how his team performs this season. He’s losing some important pieces from last season, including safety Kyle Hamilton, running back Kyren Williams, quarterback Jack Coan, receiver Kevin Austin and a handful of others. Freeman has shown what he can do on the recruiting trail, getting Notre Dame off to a fast start, but having a similar start on the field will be a challenge. — Tom VanHaaren
4 p.m. ET, SoonerSports.TV
How good does Dillon Gabriel look?
After losing both Mario Williams and Spencer Rattler to the transfer portal, Brent Venables’ first season in charge in Norman will hinge pretty significantly on another transfer: Dillon Gabriel, formerly of UCF. The junior lefty has loads of experience in the tempo-heavy attack that coordinator Jeff Lebby likely wants to deploy — Gabriel threw for 8,037 yards and 70 touchdowns over three seasons in Orlando, two of which were under tempo king Josh Heupel. If he plays at a level most think he can, and if he can build a strong rapport with Marvin Mims and some youngsters in a green OU receiving corps, the Sooners should again be considered the favorite in the Big 12. On Saturday, Gabriel will take center stage, however briefly. — Connelly
2 p.m. ET
Looking for some defensive playmakers
After an incredible 12-win season and the program’s first top-10 finish in a decade, OSU and head coach Mike Gundy are looking at a bit of a rebuild. The offense returns decent experience, but defense drove last year’s success, and the Pokes are replacing not only defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, but also two sure-tackling linebackers and four-fifths of a dynamite secondary. New DC Derek Mason will have a potentially fantastic line to lean on — ends Tyler Lacy, Brock Martin and Collin Oliver are all among the best in the league — linebackers Mason Cobb and Kamryn Farrar and corners Jabbar Muhammad and Korie Black are filling big shoes. Making a big play or two on Saturday (in what will evidently be more like a regular practice than a spring scrimmage) might assuage some concerns heading into the summer months. — Connelly
1 p.m. ET, SEC Network+
The Portal King?
Back in late November, things looked kind of bleak when projecting what Ole Miss’ offense would look like in 2022. Starting quarterback Matt Corral was going to the NFL, along with wide receivers Dontario Drummond and running backs Snoop Conner and Jerrion Ealy. But then coach Lane Kiffin — the self-styled Portal King — hit the transfer market in a big way, landing former TCU standout running back Zach Evans and a handful of former Power 5 pass-catchers in Michael Trigg (USC), J.J. Pegues (Auburn), Malik Heath (Mississippi State) and Jordan Watkins (Louisville). The cherry on top, of course, was Jaxson Dart, the former No. 2-ranked pocket passer in the 2021 class who threw nine touchdowns as a true freshman at USC last season. While there might be a steep learning curve with so many new faces, the talent to field another top-flight offense is certainly in place. — Scarborough
4 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Networks
What will Oregon look like in Dan Lanning’s first spring game?
Much like USC with Lincoln Riley, the scene in Eugene this Saturday will feature a lot of firsts. It is the first time Oregon and its fans will get a glimpse of the coach they hope does not leave them for another job, as the last two have. It is the first time former Auburn quarterback Bo Nix, who like Lanning, left the SEC for the West Coast, will suit up for the Ducks. And it will also be the first time Autzen Stadium will see what highly touted redshirt freshman QB Ty Thompson, who has been taking first-team reps, can do. Lanning brings with him an SEC pedigree and a recruiting reputation that more or less got him the job. But he’s also a first-time head coach with big shoes to fill, elite players to replace, including Kayvon Thibodeaux, and questions to answer about how he will be as a CEO of a football program that does not want to take a step back. — Uggetti
2 p.m., Big Ten Network
Can Penn State find a running game?
Last season, Penn State ranked 40th in pass touchdowns, 54th in interceptions, 115th in total rushing yards and 117th in rushing touchdowns. The run game was a problem, and the offense is losing running backs Noah Cain, who transferred to LSU, and John Lovett, who has no eligibility remaining. Leading rusher Keyvone Lee is returning, and the coaches signed ESPN 300 running backs Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen, both of whom should have an opportunity to contribute this season. Penn State will need to find consistency and playmakers on offense to replace some of the big losses from 2021. — VanHaaren
Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN+
Sonny Dykes jumped from the Group of 5 at SMU to a Power 5 gig by moving across the Metroplex from Dallas to Fort Worth, and his plan will be similar to what he used to help the Mustangs reach new heights: Recruit their backyard, be a home for players looking to come back to Texas and play a fun brand of football. Zach Evans is gone to Ole Miss, but Max Duggan (10 starts last year, 2,048 yards, 16 TDs, 6 INTs) and Chandler Morris (461 yards passing, 70 rushing in first career start against Baylor last season) both return. Gary Patterson’s legendary 4-2-5 defense is gone, and new coordinator Joe Gillespie, who impressed at Tulsa, has instituted a 3-3-5 that the Frogs hope will shore up a group that allowed 34.9 points per game during last year’s 5-7 season. — Wilson
7 p.m. ET, Longhorn Network
All eyes are on Quinn Ewers
Texas’ defense will be the source of much consternation for fans this season, and former TCU coach Gary Patterson came on board as a special assistant this offseason after the Longhorns ranked 100th nationally in 2021. But this is a spring game, and fans will be eager to see how Steve Sarkisian’s offense looks in Year 2. Bijan Robinson is back after a season-ending injury, and there’s a new wide receiver in transfer Isaiah Neyor (878 yards, 12 TDs on 20.0 yards per catch last year at Wyoming) to pair with breakout freshman star Xavier Worthy. But the main draw is the quarterback battle between Ohio State transfer Quinn Ewers, one of the top prospects in the country coming out of high school, and Hudson Card, who won last year’s battle over Casey Thompson in the fall, but ended up starting only two games, passing for 590 yards with five touchdowns and one interception. — Wilson
1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+
A jolt of enthusiasm for Texas Tech
New coach Joey McGuire has built excitement around the Red Raiders program, including a recruiting windfall that currently ranks among the best nationally. But there’s also reason for enthusiasm with the return of Zach Kittley, the offensive coordinator who began his coaching career as a volunteer assistant under Kliff Kingsbury before running some of the nation’s best offenses at Houston Baptist and Western Kentucky (535 yards per game last year, 63 passing TDs). The Red Raiders will put up points no matter who wins the quarterback race between Tyler Shough and Donovan Smith. But as always, the defense will be the key. New coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who has overseen defenses at Texas A&M, Cal and Oregon in recent years, plays an attacking 3-4 scheme that will get after quarterbacks, but can also give up big plays. On Saturday, we’ll see just how aggressive the Red Raiders look on both sides. — Wilson
Noon ET, Pac-12 Network
Chip Kelly and Dorian Thompson-Robinson ride again
For as long as Kelly has coached the Bruins, Thompson-Robinson — give or take a few snaps, injuries and games — has quarterbacked them. In the midst of what has been a pretty mediocre stretch for UCLA football, the two are back this season, and the flashes that they have shown are tantalizing enough to wonder if they can accomplish more than they have since 2018. They’ll be counting on junior running back Zach Charbonnet to help, but will have to find new targets for Thompson-Robinson. On the defensive side of the ball, there’s a lot to prove starting Saturday. Kelly has a new defensive coordinator, by way of the NFL, in Bill McGovern. The former New York Giants linebackers coach is one of a handful of new hires Kelly made to upgrade his staff after a season that left him hovering over the hot seat. — Uggetti
3 p.m. ET, ESPN
It’s finally time for Lincoln Riley’s (and Caleb Williams‘) USC debut
Any sweeping declarations about this much-discussed USC team will have to wait until the fall, but for now, we finally get to see a glimpse of what Riley, Williams and the rest of USC’s revamped program has been working on the last few months. Riley said Tuesday that the Trojans will “be smart” about what they show during a nationally broadcast spring game that will be offense vs. defense, not two full squads. Williams, for his part, said that he’s enjoyed the fact that USC has brought about different challenges than Oklahoma, including acting as a second coach on the field. Beyond the headliners, USC has a slew of transfers who will be seen for the first time Saturday, including former Alabama linebacker Shane Lee, who has already become a signal-caller for the defense. — Uggetti
2 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network
The Utes begin their title defense as Pac-12 favorites
According to ESPN’s FPI, Utah is the only team in the Pac-12 that has a better than 0.1% chance of making the national title game. They also have by far the best odds to make the playoffs at 4.9%. This is all to say that even though the Utes lost some key starters on defense, the dynamic Britain Covey and a few crucial offensive linemen, what this team is bringing back, not just in personnel but in terms of culture and continuity (especially on offense), is enough to put them at the head of the conference. Kyle Whittingham said this week that he will use the spring game to get a lot of new players reps as they work to maintain what Utah had last season — a top-30 defense and the most complete offense in the conference. “It’s really for the guys who haven’t had much time at this level and to see how they react,” Whittingham said. — Uggetti
4 p.m. ET, ACC Network
What will new head coach Tony Elliott’s offense look like?
Brennan Armstrong ranked No. 2 in the nation in total yards a year ago with 4,700, and now that he is back for another season, first-year coach Tony Elliott and offensive coordinator Des Kitchings understand the Cavaliers need to adjust their approach in order to be more successful. That means establishing the ground game with running backs, and being less reliant on Armstrong scrambling around to make plays happen. (Armstrong led the team with 98 carries and nine rushing touchdowns a year ago.) We may not get a lot of answers in the spring game, as Virginia is down to two scholarship running backs because of injury, and the offensive line is a work in progress with new starters across the board. But Armstrong has shown growth as a passer, and with a talented and deep receiver group returning, finding a running game that is consistent and effective will help not only Armstrong but the entire offense. — Andrea Adelson
6 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network
What will Cameron Ward do for Wazzu?
Jake Dickert’s first season as full-time head coach at Washington State features one of the more exciting things a college football program can have: a quarterback with some hype to his name. Cameron Ward comes from Incarnate Word, where he and new Wazzu offensive coordinator Eric Morris broke records and filled highlight reels. Though Ward has already done plenty of impressing during the Cougars’ spring practices, Saturday will be the first time his potential will be on full display. There’s a lot of work to be done for Washington State to fully recover from last season’s roller coaster, but keeping Dickert and getting Ward to come to Pullman (with help from an NIL) has been a huge step in creating a positive outlook for the program. — Uggetti
2 p.m. ET, ESPN+
How does the secondary look?
The biggest news for West Virginia this spring came off the field, when Georgia transfer quarterback JT Daniels picked Morgantown for his home this coming fall. But he hasn’t officially signed yet and won’t be on the field Saturday, so we might not get a particularly accurate impression of the Mountaineers’ offense. We can begin to learn things about the defense, however: While the front six returns quite a bit of veteran talent, the secondary got waylaid by attrition, losing six of last year’s top seven players. Veteran corner Charles Woods and redshirt freshmen Aubrey Burks and Andrew Wilson-Lamp are among those who will be asked to take on major responsibility this fall, and Saturday would be a pretty good time for them to show out. — Connelly