Four storylines to keep an eye on as spring football practices kickoff

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  • USC quarterback Cody Kessler (6) escapes the grasp of UCLA defensive lineman Owamagbe Odighizuwa in the second half on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. UCLA won, 38-20. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

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By Dan Escalona

Spring may be the time to crown the national champion in college basketball, but it is also the time when the potential national champion in college football makes its first steps toward a championship run. As spring practices start up around the country, college football’s perennial contenders begin to get the first look at what they should expect come the end of August.

What better time to figure out some of the top storylines to follow for four teams in four of the major conferences as spring practices kickoff?

Penn State

Though there are plenty other teams in the Big Ten with qualitatively more interesting spring storylines (Ohio State and Michigan), arguably the most intriguing Big Ten team is the Nittany Lions.

Though Penn State ended 2014 with a victory in the Pinstripe Bowl, the team was by all accounts a train wreck on the offense inside the ball. Last season, the Nittany Lions ranked No. 120 in rushing offense and allowed 44 sacks, which ranked nearly dead last in the FBS.

To make matters worse, sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg regressed following a strong freshman season. Hackenberg threw more interceptions than touchdowns a year ago, tossing only 12 touchdown passes compared to the 20 he threw in 2013. These offensive struggles manifested in an offense that averaged a mere 20 points per game.

To improve the anemic offense and allow Hackenberg to reach the potential he brought with him to State College, Pa., as one of the top recruits three years ago, Penn State’s focus was primarily on patching up the offensive line. The two new additions to the offensive line that James Franklin is hoping to see pay dividends are junior-college transfer Paris Palmer and highly-touted O-line recruit Sterling Jenkins.

If the Nittany Lions can get any semblance of decent production on the offensive line, Hackenburg might have the breakout season everyone has waited on and Penn State may have a chance to contend in the tough Big Ten East.

Auburn

The Tigers enter the spring having signed the nation’s top recruit. Auburn made headlines on signing day by landing defensive end Byron Cowart. It is their first step in shifting the balance of power in the SEC West away from Alabama.

The big emphasis for Auburn during the spring will be on adjusting to a new defensive system in the first year under defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. Given that the Tigers ranked near the bottom among SEC defenses and gave up 55 points to Alabama, rekindling the defense is the main thing to watch with Auburn during the spring.

It will be interesting to see what role Cowart has as a true freshman in Muschamp’s system. Either way, Auburn has built a solid foundation for the future with one of the game’s top defensive minds and one of the game’s breakout defensive ends.

USC

If any team has the ability to overtake Oregon as the premier team in the Pac-12, it could be the Trojans. USC had the top recruiting class in 2015, which was heavy on defense as it signed four five-star prospects. Leading the 2015 class is the No. 7 overall prospect and top rated cornerback Iman Marshall.

The key to watch with the Trojans, outside of the impact made by their top recruiting class, is how well senior quarterback Cody Kessler can replicate the success through the air he had last season. Kessler threw for almost 4,000 yards last season, including 39 touchdown passes and a nearly 70 percent completion rating.

It’s important to keep in mind that Kessler and the USC offense will have to deal with a relatively young and inexperienced wide receiver corps. The Trojans lost their top receiver of a year ago, Nelson Agholor, to the NFL draft. To replace his production, the Trojans will look to sophomore receiver Juju Smith, who totalled more than 700 yards as a true freshman. Smith is likely to be the favorite target for Kessler in the USC passing attack.

Another solid season from Kessler, as well as the nation’s top recruiting class, might be just what the Trojans need to overtake the Ducks as the kings of the West Coast.

Florida State

Perhaps more than any other team in the nation, the Seminoles will likely have one of the bigger adjustment periods throughout the spring and into next season. This is a result of the simple reality that Florida State lost 11 starters from last year to graduation for the NFL draft. This includes five underclassmen, most notably Jameis Winston.

The loss of Winston will be the most difficult to replace. The most likely candidate to replace one of the best quarterbacks in Florida State history is sophomore Sean Maguire. Maguire only threw 49 passes all of last season, in mostly mop up duty. His only start last season was against Clemson, when Winston was suspended. Maguire has enormous shoes to fill, so it should not come as a surprise if Florida State largely regresses at the quarterback position.

The best way for Florida State to take pressure off the new starter under center is to rely on the ground production of sophomore running back Dalvin Cook. Cook ran for more than 1,000 yards as a true freshman, and should be expected to shoulder an even greater load in 2015. He will likely enter the season as one of the top running backs in the country and maybe even a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.

Dan is a junior in Media.

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@danescalona77