- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
With 70-plus underclassmen having announced they're turning pro, it got us thinking: Which programs are losing the most talent, both to the NFL and to, well, more natural causes, like graduation? (Spoiler alert: LSU leads the way, with a jaw-dropping 10 juniors leaving. Even so, Les Miles doesn't exactly sound panicked.)
Let's get something straight from the outset: This post isn't to say these teams will struggle in 2013; rather, it's just pointing out how much they'll have to replace next season. Alabama, for instance, is the ranked second in this assessment and yet, last week, I wrote that it would be the clear-cut favorite to win the national title in 2013.
In many cases, Alabama being the prime example, the teams losing the most talent are also the teams gaining the most talent. Recruiting well, in part, is a by-product of success. Four of the 10 teams detailed below are in the top 10 of the current RecruitingNation class rankings and the rest aren't far behind. All of the teams included are "brand-name" programs.
And as a disclaimer, I had an extremely difficult time ordering the final five or six teams in this list; they could really be reassembled in a number of ways. So file that away if you start thinking, "No, my team lost more!" And remember that, in the end, this isn't necessarily a good poll to "win."
Here's my ranking of the 10 college football teams losing the most talent from their 2012 rosters.
1. LSU Tigers
The four names above are just a portion of the 10 LSU underclassmen who filed for the NFL draft. I didn't realize this until I read a story from the Times-Picayune's website, but the most underclassmen LSU previously lost in a season was three (2003, 2011).
Miles shrugged off the outflow, telling reporters, "I like the state of the program." He said he wants his players to leave early for the NFL, as it shows high school players that it's possible to enter the NFL as an underclassman, and the cycle continues.
But, Les, 10 underclassmen, not to mention those players who are graduating or no longer eligible?
The defense will be a particular challenge for veteran coordinator John Chavis to piece together. In addition to those previously mentioned, tackle Bennie Logan and cornerback Tharold Simon are leaving. Every other corner besides Simon was a freshman last season, although the Tigers were still steady in yards allowed per attempt (5.9, which ranked third in the SEC and 11th in the Football Bowl Subdivision).
Know what would help? LSU is among the finalists for Georgia-based defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, who is currently RecruitingNation's top overall prospect.
Las Vegas still has faith in Miles' ability to reload on the go; depending where you look, the Tigers have about 10-1 to 12-1 odds to win next season's BCS title. Why? Good question, honestly. Jeremy Hill could be a dark horse Heisman contender running behind a sturdier line, but the defense will take a step or two back with or without Nkemdiche.
Wait, didn't I just write a week ago that the Tide would be an overwhelming favorite in 2013? That's how well Nick Saban has it going right now. If the turnover from 2011 to 2012 didn't deter Alabama, there's no reason to believe the 2012 departures will hamper success in the immediate future.
That said, the losses are individually pretty profound; they'd cripple a lot of programs, including well-established programs. The Tide, according to some NFL scouts, had the top-rated running back (Lacy), guard (Chance Warmack), center (Barrett Jones) and cornerback (Milliner).
How the team replenishes its offensive line, minus Jones, Warmack and D.J. Fluker, will tell the story of the 2013 season. There are plenty of reasons to believe the Tide will transition well, because they stockpile at most every position, but it doesn't change the fact they are losing a lot of talent. However, because of all of the talent that Alabama will return (T.J. Yeldon for Lacy, for instance) -- in addition to another top-five recruiting class -- it isn't going anywhere. We all know that.
But we saw in 2012 that some holes are harder to fill. Corner, for one, wasn't a particularly strong position in '12 even with Milliner. Perhaps the line will be affected more than we presently recognize.
In 2012, attrition meant a one-loss season. In 2013, might a loss preclude the Tide from the title chase?
I started thinking last week that this was Bob Stoops' biggest rebuild at OU since ... and I had a hard time coming up with the answer, even though I lived in Norman last year. So I asked SoonerNation reporter Jake Trotter, who confirmed that it had been a while. He said 2005 and 2009 were close, but important pieces -- Adrian Peterson in '05, for instance -- were still in place in those years. So, really, this degree of turnover might go all the way back to Stoops' first year on the job.
Some have wondered if Jones' graduation -- paired with Blake Bell's presumed promotion -- will signal a shift in the offensive philosophy, from a pass-heavy scheme to something more balanced or run-oriented. But Stoops and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel have said there will not be wholesale changes. Still, you'd think they'd tailor the offense to personnel, something I recall Stoops saying in 2011 was part of his overarching philosophy. It won't be the wishbone, but it's clear the Sooners might move the ball in different ways.
As far as the defense, Jefferson's versatility will be sorely missed. Colvin's return will help the secondary. The defensive line, a mess in 2012, must improve.
If there's good news for OU, it's that the top end of the Big 12 is the weakest it has been in a long, long time. If you thought there was no clear-cut favorite in 2012, just wait for the parity of 2013.
I'm probably in the minority on this, but I've said all along that Stanford would miss this class just as much as -- if not more than -- it did Andrew Luck and the 2011 bunch.
Luck was a once-in-a-generation QB; no argument there. But Stanford is built on running and defense. It lost more defensively in Thomas than it did a year ago. I recall the glowing tones in which coach David Shaw described Thomas when I covered the Cardinal's late-September game at Washington, which interestingly turned out to be one of their two losses.
Taylor's yards per carry dipped below 5.0 for the first time in his four years, but he still rushed for a career-high 1,530 yards. That proved that when Stanford's quarterback position was up in the air -- until Kevin Hogan took over and stabilized things -- Taylor kept the offense moving. Stanford will miss Taylor, who was one of the most underrated players of his generation.
Did you realize Taylor had three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, going from 1,100 yards to 1,300 to 1,500? In an era of spreading it around more and more, Taylor's durability was a staple in Stanford's three consecutive BCS bowl bids (which included two wins and what should have been a third). Running back Barry J. Sanders might indeed be the second coming of his father, Detroit Lions legend Barry Sanders, but Taylor was highly consistent and dependable; he'll have bigger shoes to fill than most recognize.
Ertz, as well as fellow junior Levine Toilolo, were the last of those safety-blanket tight ends who were staples of the recent success. So Hogan might have to throw to, gasp, receivers in 2013 and beyond?
Stanford demonstrated in 2012 that it's a program capable of replenishing; it'll have to do it again in 2013, even if the hole isn't as obvious to some as the one Luck and the 2011 group left.
What a crummy season for the Spartans, going 7-6 when the Rose Bowl seemed in view when the season kicked off. (I was among those duped.)
And just imagine the offense, which ranked 110th in the country in yards per play (4.9), without the workhorse efforts from Bell. He led the country with 382 carries, an omen that was set opening weekend when he rushed 44 times to help his team (barely) beat a so-so Boise State squad. I was at the game and left thinking that the offense would be OK, because first-year QB Andrew Maxwell could lean on Bell, Sims and the defense. But every week, it turned out, was a grind and MSU finished .500 in the regular season.
If there's any solace for the offense going forward, it's that freshman quarterback Connor Cook relieved Maxwell in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, leading two scoring drives in the Spartans' 17-16 victory over TCU.
As far as finding a replacement for Bell? That isn't as clear. The leading returning rusher, Nick Hill, ran just 21 times for 48 yards as a sophomore.
Gholston and South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney entered 2012 as the country's top defensive ends; only Clowney finished it with the same reputation, though Gholston decided to exit school to test the NFL waters after his 4.5-sack season.
The exit question sure seems like a fair one: If 2012 wasn't a BCS- or Rose Bowl-type season for the Spartans, when will they be ready?
You'll notice that Jenkins, Jones and Ogletree are all defensive players. The Bulldogs remain essentially intact on the offensive side, but the defense -- which played terrific in 2011 but was inconsistent in 2012 -- will be impacted by a number of departures, from the front to the back.
Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. currently has both Jones and Ogletree as top-10 players on his Big Board. Jones, in fact, is his No. 1 prospect. Defensive tackles are tough to replace, and UGA will lose its big man, Jenkins, along with co-No. 1 Kwame Geathers (he declared early). The secondary was comprised of all seniors, including CBs Sanders Commings and Branden Smith and safeties Shawn Williams and Bacarri Rambo.
The Bulldogs remain high on most early top 25 lists, a nearly consensus top-10 choice, because of the return of quarterback Aaron Murray and young running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. How coordinator Todd Grantham retools the defense will determine whether that ranking is too high for a team that was a few feet away from playing for the national championship.
7. USC Trojans
As I write this, I'm sitting next to a laminated schedule USC handed out this past spring. It has Barkley, Woods and McDonald featured on it. Those guys, along with rising star WR Marqise Lee, were supposed to be the central pieces to USC's return to Pete Carroll heights. Instead, a 7-6 season left everyone tremendously underwhelmed. Now that trio on my promotional schedule is gone and Lane Kiffin is under a great deal of pressure.
Maybe Kiffin could use a breather from the burden of expectation. Barkley will be difficult to replace, but he followed a number of successful quarterbacks. It's not as if Max Wittek or the team's other quarterbacks are incapable. (The quarterbacks on the roster had recruiting hype in Barkley's stratosphere.) Lee and Nelson Agholor, who I'd bet will break out in '13, will help Wittek settle.
And what about the defense, particularly since Kiffin's dad, Monte, resigned and has since joined the Dallas Cowboys' staff? Who knows? Hiring someone soon would likely help recruiting efforts, something vital considering USC's scholarship crunch from the NCAA.
The discussion involving Te'o right now obviously doesn't have much to do with how Notre Dame's defense will replace his talent and production. But the fact remains that Te'o had a season worthy of Heisman consideration on the field, and those types of seasons aren't easily replaced.
Are the remaining parts of Notre Dame's defense good enough to keep the Irish among the country's top-tier programs? Defensive end Stephon Tuitt will now become the star of a young-but-talented unit, with nose tackle Louis Nix III and linebacker Prince Shembo also returning.
The best thing that could have happened to Notre Dame in 2013 is, frankly, the decision by Brian Kelly to stay. Even if offensive coordinator Chuck Martin had taken over, as some close to the program suggested he might, there would have been some instability in the wake of Kelly's move. Now? The program will presumably move forward, with the core of the team again being built on its defensive front seven and the ability of sophomore quarterback Everett Golson and junior running back George Atkinson III to become more reliable.
After the Volunteers lost to Florida in mid-September, a friend reminded me that the team could see Bray, Hunter and Patterson all leave early for the NFL. Hunter was coming off knee surgery and Patterson was in his first season after transferring from junior college, but they accounted for nearly 80 percent of UT's receiving yardage. Bray was sometimes raw, but his 34-12 TD-to-INT ratio was promising.
My buddy wondered what the team would look like without those three big offensive pieces, and he also wondered -- even then -- who would be the next Tennessee head coach. Now we know it will be Butch Jones, who was hired from Cincinnati after a couple of public swings-and-misses from athletic director Dave Hart. Jones certainly would have enjoyed having Bray and either Hunter or Patterson back, but he's no stranger to rebuilding efforts.
Jones followed Brian Kelly's consecutive BCS runs, to the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl, respectively, at Cincinnati. The Bearcats went 4-8 that next season as Jones worked to reconstruct the roster. The same could be on tap at Tennessee, where there's a lot of work to be done. Still, even if 2013 is a dud, it might not mean long-term failure for Jones. Those close to the program say things at least appear to be in better shape, in terms of the character of players and the team's overall depth, than when Kiffin "handed off" the program to Derek Dooley.
If QB and former national high school player of the year Justin Worley can play over his head, that would certainly help the transition. A bowl game for Jones and the Vols this fall would be a victory and provide overall momentum.
Even before March, even before Bobby Petrino was fired, 2012 was viewed as a now-or-never season for the Hogs. "Never" might be too strong of a term, but you get the point. The team, coming off a season in which it only lost to the two schools playing for the national title (Alabama, LSU), was built for that one season. And then came the slow deterioration.
The veteran Wilson did his best to lead, on and off the field, but it was to no avail in a 4-8 season that included a number of embarrassing moments. (Losing to Louisiana-Monroe and Rutgers at home? Ouch.) Wilson's TD-to-INT ratio dropped from 24-to-6 to 21-to-13 as he tried to will completions -- and his team to win.
Since most everyone stopped paying attention to the team -- aside from things stopgap coach John L. Smith was saying and doing -- many likely missed the quietly productive season WR Cobi Hamilton (90 catches, 1,335 yards) put together. Davis was a shell of himself coming back from a broken ankle, but he is a talented player nonetheless.
The positive for Arkansas is that new coach Bret Bielema will have a clean slate on which to redesign both sides of the ball. The Razorbacks could go backward before they go forward, because of the relative competition in the division and the losses of so many veterans, but chances are that he'll have them back in the not-too-distant future.
We'll say this, though: Wilson and his teammates deserved better.