What to know about spring college football as Walsh and Mount Union open play this weekend

Alabama officially begins its national title defense when spring practice opens on Friday, March 19. The Crimson Tide bring back 10 starters from last year’s championship squad, but coach Nick Saban will have plenty of holes to address when the team hits the field. The high-powered offense that carried Alabama to a national championship will have a new play-caller (Bill O’Brien) and quarterback (Bryce Young) and there are holes to fill at receiver and up front. The Crimson Tide weren’t an elite defense last year, but this unit got more than enough stops to go with a high-powered offense and win the national title.

FCS 2021: Lamar vs SAMHOU Live Online Spring College Football

FCS 2021: Tarleton State vs Midwestern St Live Online Spring College Football

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The list of question marks entering spring is greater on offense, but Alabama will certainly look to take the next step on defense. Additionally, this spring is a good opportunity for Saban and new assistants O’Brien, Doug Marrone, Jay Graham, Jay Valai, and Robert Gillespie to get comfortable before the fall.

Mac Jones departed Tuscaloosa after one prolific season as the starter. In 13 starts in 2020, Jones completed 77.4 percent of his throws and torched opposing defenses for 4,500 yards, 41 touchdowns to just four picks. While the door is always open for a quarterback battle when the starter leaves, there’s no debate for Saban and O’Brien. Young – a five-star prospect and No. 2 overall recruit in the 2020 signing class – is poised take over under center. The California native played in nine games last year and completed 13 of 22 throws for 156 yards and a touchdown. Young is short on experience, but he’s got all of the talent necessary to be the next superstar at quarterback for Alabama. This spring is all about getting Young ready and comfortable as the No. 1 quarterback, while also working with O’Brien for the first time in his career.

Alabama’s starting five up front claimed the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s top offensive line last season, but there’s work to do this spring to keep that trophy in Tuscaloosa. This unit allowed just 19 sacks, cleared the way for rushers to average five yards per carry, and set the foundation for the prolific offense to take off last fall. New line coach Doug Marrone has to replace three starters, but as always at Alabama, talent isn’t an issue. Left tackle Alex Leatherwood, guard Deonte Brown and center Landon Dickerson are off to the NFL, leaving guard Emil Ekiyor and tackle Evan Neal as the unit’s returning starters. Neal could kick over to left tackle, while Christopher Owens (three starts in 2020) gained valuable experience late in the year with Dickerson sidelined due to injury, opening the door for him to be the front-runner at center. Pierce Quick, Tommy Brown, Amari Kight, and Kendall Randolph were all listed as backups last season and figure to be in the mix for time, along with incoming freshmen Tommy Brockermeyer, James Brockermeyer, JC Latham, and Terrence Ferguson. Options are plentiful but reloading the starting five and providing the same level of performance as the ’20 unit may take some time.

The 2021 FCS spring college football season begins on Saturday, February 27, 2021 (2/27/21) with Week 2 action.

Fans can watch many of the games with a subscription to ESPN+. Sign up for the streaming service here.

Here is Saturday and Sunday’s college football schedule, including start time (all Eastern time), TV channel and live stream options:

The Golden Eagles, playing for the first time in 455 days, were outgained 373-156 but scored 20 points off four Austin Peay turnovers.

Trailing 14-3 midway through the third quarter, Bailey Fisher threw a 13-yard screen pass to Metrius Fleming for a score. Early in the fourth quarter, Josh Reliford intercepted a pass he returned to the Governors 22-yard line. A roughing-the-passer negated a Governors interception and Gist eventually scored from 2 yards out.

On the ensuing kickoff, Seth Carlisle recovered a fumble at the Governors 21 and three Gist rushes later, the Golden Eagles had a 3-yard score.

Another Austin Peay fumble led to Hayden Olsen’s second field goal with 3:46 remaining before backup Governors quarterback Bryce Robinson threw a 14-yard score to DeAngel Wilson with 12 seconds left. The Governors recovered an onside kick at the Tennessee Tech 47. A Hail Mary went out of the back of the end zone as the game ended.

Austin Peay’s Draylen Ellis threw a 22-yard TD pass to Beniko Harley and ran for a 16-yard score but also was intercepted twice. The Governors were penalized 12 times for 117 yards. Wilson finished with 124 yards receiving.

The Governors played and lost three games in the fall, the final one against Cincinnati in September. In early November, they hired Scotty Walden as their head coach.

Sunday’s game was one of four scheduled OVC contests but the other three were postponed because of the impact of recent winter storms.

Running back Najee Harris and receiver DeVonta Smith both depart after prolific 2020 seasons. Harris’ production on the ground (1,466 yards) can be replaced, but he was also a team leader and a weapon in the passing game (43 catches). One player may not replace all of what Harris was able to accomplish last season, but Alabama isn’t hurting for talent at running back. Brian Robinson (483) returned for his super senior year, with Jase McClellan, Trey Sanders, Roydell Williams, Keilan Robinson, and incoming freshman Camar Wheaton poised to push for time.\

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The outlook at receiver is less clear. Smith’s Heisman Trophy-winning production (117 catches for 1,856 yards and 23 TDs) and overall versatility/role with the offense is almost impossible to replace. John Metchie III (55 catches) is poised to take on a bigger role, with Slade Bolden (24) and tight end Jahleel Billingsley (18) also due for more opportunities. It’s a big offseason for Javon Baker, Traeshon Holden, Xavier Williams, and Thaiu Jones-Bell as they look to push for snaps. Also, four top-100 recruits – Jacorey Brooks, Agiye Hall, Christian Leary, and JoJo Earle – will be tough to keep off the field. Alabama has options here. How does the receiver rotation look by the end of spring?

Dwight Ritchie

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