In this way, college football never changes. Season after season, teams lose exceptionally talented players to graduation, injuries and the NFL. And season after season, untested players must step in and step up to fill the void.
Sometimes, the transition is smooth. Last season, Arkansas faced the seemingly impossible task of replacing two NFL running backs, Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. Michael Smith didn't completely erase all the memories of Wild Hog glory, but he emerged to become one of the top backs in the SEC.
Sometimes, though, the quest for a replacement proves futile. Ricky Jean-Francois was Glenn Dorsey's heir apparent at LSU, but a groin injury sidelined him for much of 2008, and the Tigers were never able to replace Dorsey's presence or production.
Here are the 10 teams with the biggest shoes to fill this season.
Who's gone: OT Andre Smith
Who's next: James Carpenter, D.J. Fluker
Alabama won't miss the drama Smith caused during bowl and combine seasons, but it will sorely miss his presence on the line. Last week, coach Nick Saban said Carpenter showed this spring he can "at least be a functional lineman." If that less-than-glowing praise doesn't undermine the juco transfer's confidence, Fluker's creeping shadow might. Fluker would have to make serious strides to beat out Carpenter for the starting spot, but the job will ultimately be his. The hulking 6-foot-6, 350-pound freshman is a true mountain of a man, but he's only played left tackle since 2008 and simply hasn't gained enough experience to start yet. That said, Smith started as a true freshman, and some Tide fans can't help but expect the same from Fluker.STAPLES: Fluker among freshmen bound to make an impact
Who's gone: LB Mark Herzlich
Who's next: Dominick LeGrande
It's hard to overstate how much Boston College lost when Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, sidelined Herzlich. The Eagles didn't just lose an All-America linebacker and ACC Defensive Player of the Year; they lost a bit of themselves. Stepping in for the bearded, eye-black-wearing strongside force will be a daunting task for LeGrande. The sophomore saw limited time in the secondary as a freshman, and though he's undersized, a lack of depth at the position (captain Mike McLaughlin is still out with a torn Achilles) makes him the likeliest replacement. Redshirt freshman Nick Clancy could also challenge for the spot, but it's more likely he'll see time at weakside, where Brain Toal's departure also left a hole. For BC's sake, let's hope what LeGrande and Clancy lack in experience they make up for in athleticism. If they don't, the Eagles will spend 2009 living in the shadow of one of the best linebacking corps of 2008.
Who's gone: WR/RB Percy Harvin
Who's next: Andre Debose and Jeff Demps
SI.com's Andy Staples declared in January "Harvin was a once-in-a-generation player who can't be replaced." Of course, the Gators will still try. Much of the Gainsville contingent has dubbed new arrival Debose "Harvin 2.0," but that's a lot of pressure to place on a true freshman, especially one who's been nursing a bum hamstring all summer. Still, the Gators saw Harvin-type speed and playmaking ability when they recruited Debose and will surely give him his share of touches at receiver (the only true hole for the defending champs) and running back. The weight won't rest fully on Debose's still-scrawny shoulders, though. Demps, a sophomore tailback who displayed breakaway speed as a freshman, will also get a crack at filling what coach Urban Meyer calls the "Percy position." Since it's unlikely either Debose or Demps will amass 600-plus yards receiving and 600-plus more rushing as Harvin did, a "Percy platoon" might develop.
Who's gone: QB Matthew Stafford, RB Knowshon Moreno
Who's next: QB Joe Cox, RB Caleb King
Whenever a team loses its starting quarterback and running back, it's potentially debilitating. When the players in question are both first-round NFL draft picks, it can cause an offensive identity crisis. Georgia fans are crossing their fingers Cox steps into Stafford's shoes the way D.J. Shockley, also a fifth-year senior, did for David Greene in 2005. One thing's for sure: throwing to star receiver A.J. Green will make Cox's job a little easier. King, meanwhile, will have to replace Moreno, the man of many jukes and hurdles. King, who an optimistic Georgia fan once called "the next Herschel Walker" carried the ball 61 times in '08 for 247 yards, and though he may not run with Moreno's acrobatics, he will benefit from playing behind an experienced offensive line. Plus, he'll have help from Richard Samuel. And Carlton Thomas. And Dontavius Jackson. And Washaun Ealey. You get the point.
Who's gone: LB James Laurinaitis
Who's next: Austin Spitler
While Laurinaitis was busy leading the Buckeyes in tackles three straight seasons, earning All-America honors and winning the Butkus and Lombardi awards, Spitler was waiting his turn. If such a dependable force hadn't resided in front of him, the senior would have started sooner. But this year Spitler will get the chance to step up as a playmaker and leader on a team that lost Laurinaitis, Marcus Freeman and Malcolm Jenkins on D.
Who's gone: S Patrick Chung
Who's next: Talmadge Jackson, Marvin Johnson
Yes, Oregon ranked last in pass defense in 2008, but Chung will still be missed. The rover was a leader and the heart and soul of the Ducks' D. With Chung, corner Jairus Byrd and three defensive lineman gone, the Ducks adjusted their defensive philosophy this offseason, placing more of an emphasis on speed on the outside. To be sure, this exciting young D isn't short on speed or talent. Lockdown corner Walter Thurmond III returns, and juniors Jackson and Johnson possess the athleticism to slide into the rover spot. The question, really, is whether either possesses the intangibles to minimize the impact of losing Chung.
Who's gone: Offensive linemen A.Q. Shipley, Rich Ohrnberger, Gerald Cadogan
Who's next: C Stefen Wisniewski
The Nittany Lions should thank their lucky stars QB Daryll Clark and RB Evan Royster are so dependable, because it's hard to recover from losing three first-team All-Big Ten starters on the o-line. Wisniewski, a junior who is moving from right guard to center, will have to emerge as the line's new anchor. With the veteran Wisniewski calling the shots, sophomore DeOn'tae Pannell, junior Lou Eliades and redshirt freshman Matt Stankiewitch (favored to land the left tackle, right guard and left guard spots, respectively) will have a little more room for error as they ease into their new roles. If, however, Wisniewski fails to adjust to his new role as leader of the line, Penn State's offense will suffer, because solid pass protection will be crucial for Clark as he works to familiarize himself with his new receiving targets.
Who's gone: DE Brian Orakpo
Who's next: Sam Acho
The Longhorns lost three of four starters from their defensive line, including Orakpo who had 11.5 sacks. Longhorns DE Sergio Kindle briefly made Texas fans forget about Orakpo this offseason when he caused a stir by crashing his car into an apartment complex while text messaging. Kindle can't do it all alone, though. Unless Acho proves a capable pass rusher (he notched three sacks as a sophomore last season), teams will be able to shift their focus to preseason All-America Kindle, and in so doing greatly minimize the effectiveness of Texas' already diminished line.
Who's gone: QB Brian Johnson
Who's next: Corbin Louks, Terrance Cain, or Jordan Wynn
Sorting out the QB race is the top priority for the Utes, who will seek to defend their Mountain West title without three-year starter and Sugar Bowl MVP Johnson. When spring ball began, junior Louks and juco transfer Cain were battling for the job. Then Wynn showed up. The early enrollee quickly inserted himself into the equation, and as summer workouts began coach Kyle Whittingham described the race as a dead heat. New offensive coordinator Dave Schramm's arrival may have leveled the playing field for Wynn by forcing Louks and Cain to start at square one with a new spread system. Louks, however, doesn't see it that way. Asked as fall camp began if the QB job belonged to him, he said: "Absolutely it's my position. I've been working my butt off."
Who's gone: QB Pat White
Who's next: Jarrett Brown
White may have been the best player in West Virginia history. He was almost certainly the most popular. White won four bowl games, earned All-Big East honors three times and thrilled crowds countless times with his agility and electric speed. He also got hurt a fair share, and when that happened Brown stepped in. Good thing. If Brown, a senior, hadn't had that time, stepping in for White could seem more daunting. Brown can't move like White, but he displayed fair mobility and poise. He showed in a triple-overtime win over Rutgers he can perform under pressure. And of course, this year Brown will have one thing he never had before -- the knowledge that, after four long years of waiting, this is finally his team.