The NFL Draft early-entry list featured one big surprise (Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas) and a big group of juniors who entered the 2011 season as near-locks to leave (Andrew Luck, Justin Blackmon, Trent Richardson). For the next three months, Mel Kiper, Todd McShay and Mike Mayock will examine their every conceivable strength and shortcoming -- right down to what a player's Starbucks order says about his ability to read NFL defenses.
But what about the teams these players left? And what about the draftable players who elected to spend another year in college? Here's a look at the teams that won and lost when the deadline to declare passed at midnight.
The Trojans lost offensive tackle Matt Kalil and defensive end Nick Perry, but the biggest news of the offseason came when quarterback Matt Barkley said this: "I am staying because I want to finish what I started." Barkley's decision should vault an already loaded USC team into the national title race. With Barkley throwing to receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee and Curtis McNeal running the ball behind a line that returns four starters, the Trojans should have little trouble scoring.
On defense, safety T.J. McDonald also chose to spend one more year at USC instead of turning pro. McDonald's return keeps the 2011 secondary intact, and USC returns two starters at linebacker (Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard). Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's toughest task will be finding pass rushers to replace Perry. Wes Horton and Devon Kennard will likely get the first crack at those sacks.
Monte Kiffin will cringe at this, but we found his missing pass rush. Jarvis Jones, who started his career at USC before heading back to his home state to play for the Bulldogs, led the SEC with 13.5 sacks while playing outside linebacker in coordinator Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme. That kind of year typically would send a player into the draft, but Jones wants to stay in Athens so much that he didn't even submit paperwork to the NFL's draft advisory council to see where he might project. "I've still got a lot to learn. It's my first year at my position," Jones told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chip Towers last month. "I mean, I feel like I've got the best coach and the best group of players around me. I think we can do a lot of stuff here, some great things if we just stick together and believe in each other like we have been. The sky's the limit for us."
The Bulldogs did lose tight end Orson Charles to the draft, but quarterback Aaron Murray -- a redshirt sophomore who did submit paperwork to the draft advisory council -- elected to return for what could be a huge year in Athens. Meanwhile, the return of safety Bacarri Rambo for his senior season means we'll have someone named Bacarri Rambo playing college football for one more year. That is never a bad thing.
The Razorbacks took a serious hit from good, old-fashioned eligibility exhaustion (receivers Joe Adams and Jarius Wright, linebacker Jerry Franklin, defensive end Jake Bequette), but no one left early. Even after only one year as a starter, Tyler Wilson proved to be one of the nation's most capable quarterbacks. Some NFL team would have been happy to draft him, but Wilson elected to stay in Fayetteville and throw to receiver Cobi Hamilton, tight end Chris Gragg and whatever other pass-catchers coach Bobby Petrino might have in the pipeline. (If you hear a loud, long calling of the Hogs on Feb. 1, it's because Arkansas landed 6-foot-6, 220-pound receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, the top-ranked recruit from Springfield, Mo., who is considering the Hogs, Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma and Missouri.) Wilson will also have the luxury of handing off to Dennis Johnson and a healthy Knile Davis, who will have recovered from the knee injury that cost him the 2011 season.
The Sooners fell apart on offense following injuries to tailback Dominique Whaley and receiver Ryan Broyles. This caused the draft stock of quarterback Landry Jones to plummet, and may have helped push Jones back to Norman for another year. It never hurts to get a three-year starter back. Oklahoma might have to deal with a smidgeon of controversy after backup Blake Bell's Belldozer package proved to be the Sooners' only effective means of scoring down the stretch, but the arrangement might also work out as well as the Chris Leak-Tim Tebow combo did during Florida's national title run in 2006.
The Sooners lost defensive end Ronnell Lewis to the draft, but coach Bob Stoops has hinted that Lewis wouldn't have been back anyway. On that side of the ball, the Sooners return enough experience to be the best defensive team in the Big 12. With its rival in Stillwater in reloading mode and Texas still rebuilding, this is Oklahoma's chance to retake the Big 12.
Silly, silly NFL player personnel officials. You gave Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball a third-round grade? Really? Ball dominated the Big Ten, scoring a whopping 39 touchdowns. He would have been a productive back in the NFL this year, too. As good as quarterback Russell Wilson was, Ball was the most important player in the Badgers' offense last season. He made everything easier for Wilson with his ability to patiently wait for a hole to open and his ability to operate as a safety valve or a weapon in the passing game. Ball's return will make the transition to starter easier for whichever quarterback wins the chance to succeed Wilson.
Quarterback Andrew Luck, who redshirted in 2008, could have come back for another season. Noodle that for a second. Then imagine if guard David DeCastro and tackle Jonathan Martin -- two more fourth-year juniors -- had also chosen to stay. Sure, Stanford would have needed to beat Oregon and USC to win the Pac-12, but is there any doubt that the team that emerged would have played for the national title? And is there any doubt that team could have gone blow-for-blow with whatever team the SEC placed in the title game? It wasn't a surprise that those players left, and they made the correct choice in doing so. But for everyone on The Farm, it has to sting a little bit to imagine what could have been.
The loss of tailback Trent Richardson, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and linebacker Donta' Hightower would cripple a lot of teams. For Alabama, it simply means the Tide won't be the odds-on favorite to repeat as national champs.
Defensively, the losses won't be as widespread as they were after the 2009 national title, but the Tide will have to replace seven starters. Safety Robert Lester's decision to return means at least one starter will remain intact at all three defensive position groups, so no group will go into 2012 with zero starting experience. And if the fact that Alabama reloaded its defense in 2010 and ranked No. 1 in the nation in every major category in 2011 is any indication, the seven new starters will be quite serviceable.
Obviously, the loss of Richardson is a huge blow to the offense, but the return of Barrett Jones -- who might move to center and add more juice to my second Heisman campaign for him -- gives the Tide a huge boost. So does tailback Eddie Lacy, who averaged 7.1 yards a carry (1.2 yards more than Richardson) despite dealing with turf toe for much of the season.
Despite going 6-6, the Hurricanes suffered the largest early exodus to the NFL. Five Miami players (tailback Lamar Miller, defensive tackle Marcus Forston, offensive tackle Brandon Washington, receiver Tommy Streeter and defensive end Olivier Vernon) jumped into the draft. Considering Miami suffered fairly heavy losses (quarterback Jacory Harris, linebacker Sean Spence, center Tyler Horn, receiver Travis Benjamin) due to eligibility exhaustion, coach Al Golden and his staff will have to prepare a fairly inexperienced group.
The good news is that Miami has some excellent young players led by freshman defensive end Anthony Chickillo. Golden is also in the midst of recruiting what appears to be a highly rated class. Those players -- safety Deon Bush from Miami Columbus High and tailback Duke Johnson from Miami Norland High, for example -- should get a chance to prove early if they are as good as the recruiting hype machine claims.
It's no surprise that receiver Justin Blackmon skipped his senior year. He went through Senior Day in Stillwater, for goodness sake. Still, the Cowboys would've loved to have Blackmon for another year. To discover just how much the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder changes a game, simply watch the second half of the Texas A&M game or the entirety of the Fiesta Bowl against Stanford. No receiver meant more to his team.
The Spartans are going to be good in 2012, but they would have been even better if nose tackle Jerel Worthy and tailback Edwin Baker had elected to come back for another season. When Worthy wanted to play, he was unblockable. Baker, meanwhile, would have teamed with LeVeon Bell to give Michigan State a deep backfield as the Spartans make the transition from Kirk Cousins to Andrew Maxwell under center.
The biggest return for Michigan State is All-Big Ten cornerback Johnny Adams, who will join fellow corner Darqueze Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis to man one of the nation's best secondaries.
The Ducks lost a tailback (LaMichael James) who led the nation in rushing the past two seasons and a quarterback (Darron Thomas) who threw 63 touchdown passes the past two seasons. So why isn't this a much bigger deal? Because the star in Eugene remains on the sidelines: coach Chip Kelly.
The loss of James means more touches for rising sophomore De'Anthony Thomas, who averaged 10.8 yards per carry and 13.2 yards per catch as a freshman. The Ducks also still have Kenjon Barner, who rushed for 939 yards in 2011. Meanwhile, Bryan Bennett proved to be a more-than-capable replacement for Thomas after Thomas went down with an injury against Arizona State. Of course, Bennett will have to fend off 6-foot-4, 200-pounder Marcus Mariota, a Honolulu native who redshirted in 2011. No matter who starts at quarterback, Oregon will keep piling up points.