Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Sports column

April 25, 2014

No team ever loses a spring football game

BLUEFIELD — They are panicking in Alabama, at least those who are fans of the Crimson Tide. They are already talking national championship at Auburn.

At Texas, new head coach Charlie Strong came out and admitted Texas would not be competing for the 2014 national championship.

Finally, a realist.

College football fans are eternal optimists. Their team is always the best, and nothing you can say will change their mind. Then, lose a game and no fans jump off the bandwagon faster.

No where is this more evident than with spring football games, which are nothing more than intrasquad scrimmages. No matter how the teams are divided up — first team vs. second team, offense vs. defense or letting the coaches pick sides with some type of scoring system to appease the fans — it is still your team vs. your team.

For instance, Auburn 'won' its spring game by defeating Auburn 58-3. Nick Marshall and the Tigers' first team simply dominated the second team, which is the way it should be.

Suddenly, in listening to the talking heads or reading what the scribes have to say, the Tigers are now the favorite in the SEC West. They just need to hope Auburn's second team doesn't have to play very often as a unit.

Meanwhile, at Alabama, the Crimson team defeated the White team 17-14. The thinking among the slightly-spoiled Alabama fan base is they 'lost' to themselves.

With A.J. McCarron now engaged to Brent Musburger's favorite model and preparing to prove the doubters wrong in the NFL, the search is on for another quarterback.

It wasn't a good day for any of the Alabama signal-callers, and especially rising senior Blake Sims, who was the backup to McCarron. Of course, he was going against a defense that knows how the Crimson Tide offense operates, and it showed with a dominating performance.

Was it great defense or bad offense? From what I can decipher, it was the latter. Suddenly, Alabama is in trouble, with no hope of competing in the SEC or being part of the four-team playoff at the end of the season.

It has gotten so bad in that part of Alabama that even the fans are being criticized for not showing up. This from a spring scrimmage that drew 73,506 to practice. Unfortunately, the same event has drawn closer to 100,000 since the arrival of Nick Saban, and apparently that 'small' amount was evidence of fan disinterest for the Tide.

Spring games are just that, spring games. This not the USFL, which tried to play real games in the spring. Nope, spring games are simply  exaggerated practice sessions.

Some are played in front of huge crowds. The largest so far have been at Alabama, Penn State (72,000) and Auburn (70,4-5). The lowest attended so far includes Akron (500), Fresno State (500) and Air Force (300).

Apparently, Air Force folks have more to worry about than a spring football scrimmage, such as keeping our country safe. Priorities, folks.

You might think that only the biggest programs drew the most fans. Not so. Michigan had 15,000. Having that few people in the 'Big House' must have been like seeing all those empty seats at Bristol for the March race.

Just for the record, West Virginia had an estimated 10,000, which isn't bad for a state where much of the population is several hours from Morgantown. These are hard times, that gas money can be saved for when the games really count.

West Virginia is also looking for a quarterback. When Clint Trickett is healthy in the fall, he will probably get the nod over Paul Millard and a bunch of other candidates, which includes Storm McPherson, a walk-on from Princeton.

Wouldn't it be nice to see him get a chance? A few years ago I was covering Tennessee and their quarterback situation resulted in a walk-on, Jimmy Clausen, starting for the Vols.

Spring games will continue this weekend, with Virginia Tech and Marshall both finishing out the last of their 15 spring practice sessions. Yes, the spring game counts as one of those 15 practices. It is not a separate game.

While the Hokies and Mountaineers are still searching for answers at quarterback, Marshall is set there. In fact, the Rakeem Cato-led Thundering Herd could easily be the favorite to win Conference USA, which is now a watered-down version of what had already long been a mediocre football league.

Winning C-USA, and even finishing with an unbeaten record, won't get Marshall any closer to the four-team college football playoff than Strong's Longhorns. It could, however, get the Thundering Herd to a bowl game to the Bahamas, Hawaii or Florida, which isn't a bad consolation prize.

Wonder when the day will come when the NCAA creates a new playoff system for those schools who are not in the 'big five conferences' of college football? It could happen, kind of like the old Division 1-AA system that is still in existence as the FCS.

Surely, those schools would like to play for more than just a bid to one of those 40 — yes, 40 — bowl games. There has to be a good reason for Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, long FCS or Division 1-AA powerhouses, to leave for Division I and virtual anonymity on the gridiron.

As for Virginia Tech, the Hokies need help in lots of positions. From the looks of media reports for spring practice, the defense has been great, and the offense hasn't looked much different under Scot Loeffler as it did under former whipping boy Bryan Stinespring.

Virginia Tech has a slew of questions on offense, beginning with quarterback, with Logan Thomas moving on to the NFL, possibly at another position like tight end.

That will be the story during Saturday's spring game for the Hokies. Brenden Motley was, at least for a few days, put at the top of the depth chart ahead of holdover Mark Leal and true freshman Andrew Ford.

Another freshman, Chad Durkin, and Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer will join in the competition in the fall. It will be wide-open, perhaps for the entire season ahead.

Brewer, like Trickett at West Virginia last season, seems to be the popular choice among the fans to lead the Hokies. Remember, though, Brewer threw just 51 passes in very limited playing time with the Red Raiders, having been sidelined most of last season with an injury.

Who will be the choice? We will know more after Saturday's spring game, but remember that the defense already knows what the offense does, and they will shut it down, leaving plenty of questions heading into the fall.

Just don't panic, no matter how bad it is.

I remember my first spring game at Alabama in 1992. It was the 100th anniversary of Alabama football, and it was a celebration of Crimson Tide football. I got to meet and get autographs of numerous former players and coaches, and I still have a seat cushion full of signatures on my wall at home.

It was that day, all those years ago, that turned me into an Alabama fan for life. I went wearing a Duke shirt, I left wearing the Crimson Tide.

Yet, the actual game itself was less than exciting. The defense was great, the offense didn't move the ball at all, and you were left wondering what the season would hold. I still remember a question and answer session between fans and head coach Gene Stallings and some seemed genuinely concerned about the punter.

If your only issue is the punter, you should be fine, but there sure appeared to be other problems on the field.

That team wound up doing pretty well, winning the Tide's first national championship since 1979.

Please, Virginia Tech fans, no matter what happens on Saturday at Virginia Tech, even if the defense is dominant — and it will be — and the offense is stagnant — and it will be — don't panic.

It's spring football. It will get better in the fall when it actually counts.

If it doesn't improve come September when the Hokies play William & Mary, then it might be time to panic.

All that is waiting in the second game is a trip to Ohio State.

—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at bwoodson@bdtonline.com or Twitter @bdtwoodson.

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