Returning tailbacks to aid Auburn, Texas
At last count, 35 players have surrendered their eligibility for 2004 in order to be available in the NFL draft, and countless others decided to stay, because at one time or another, every single college football player in the country, right down to the fourth-string tailback at SMU, believes he's going to make it, and make it bigtime.
These decisions will also have a major impact on the 2004 college football season. Some teams benefit, while others take a big hit. You could read the list, add up the number of players who are leaving and make your decisions that way, but that's too easy. Taking into account records from 2003, potential records next season and how the decisions to stay or go will affect them, here's a look at the winners and losers from the early-decision deadline.
You don't have to be Shug Jordan to figure out that the Tigers could have had an ugly January. With the decisions by tailbacks Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown to return to the Plains for their senior season, the Auburn ground game gets back 1,753 yards and 22 touchdowns. More important, coach Tommy Tuberville doesn't have to go into the season with the inconsistent Jason Campbell as his primary offensive weapon. That's the last thing needed for Tuberville, who, despite his escape last season, doesn't have job security.
When Herschel Walker left Georgia for the USFL after his junior season in 1982, he opened the door for early departures and closed it for three-time All-Americans. Walker is the last one because no one that good sticks around any more. Until now, with the announcement by Walker's fellow Dawg, the two-time All-American defensive end David Pollack, that he will return next season.
The Tigers lost wide receiver Michael Clayton and quarterback Matt Mauck, and the offense will suffer for it. But this team won a share of the national championship because of its defense, and the decisions by outstanding corner Corey Webster and end Marcus Spears, the Sugar Bowl hero, to stay means that LSU will remain strong.
With the Longhorns' top three receivers out of eligibility, the return of tailback Cedric Benson for his senior season is huge. Benson had his struggles last season, yet still rushed for 1,360 yards and 21 touchdowns, which places him in the top five of returning rushers. He is the only back, returning or not, who has rushed for 1,000 yards in each of the last three seasons. The return of All-American linebacker Derrick Johnson speaks for itself. It has to speak for itself -- with a new defensive coordinator arriving, the roles of Johnson and the other six returning defensive starters are unknown.
The Trojans lose All-American defensive end Kenichi Udeze, but junior tackles Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson elected to stay. Wild Bunch II may have been broken up, Cody and Patterson will continue to provide the push inside that will allow Pete Carroll to devise those pass defense schemes that have been so effective.
The Hogs kept Houston Nutt, but they may have set a record for the number of vital starters who left. All-American offensive tackle Shawn Andrews was expected to leave, but the additional departures of corner Ahmad Carroll, tight end Jason Peters and fullback Mark Pierce, as well as senior corner Lawrence Richardson, who had another year of eligibility if he wanted it, means that the Nutt will essentially be starting over next season.
Junior wide receiver Derrick Hamilton's decision to leave robs quarterback Charlie Whitehurst of a proven target who can stretch the field. With the graduation of Whitehurst's other go-to guy, Kevin Youngblood, the burden will rest with senior Airese Currie, a track star who couldn't stay healthy last fall on the football field (38-510, four TDs). On the other side of the line, defensive tackle Donnell Washington takes with him the most pressures (24) and tackles for loss (nine) on the front.
The 'Canes shuttle players in and out of the lineup as if it's a relay. But no defense drops All-Big East tackle Vince Wilfork and All-American free safety Sean Taylor without feeling it. Ask Florida State, which Taylor bedeviled at Tallahassee this season. On offense, in the absence of a dependable downfield threat, All-American tight end Kellen Winslow became Brock Berlin's security blanket. The offense struggled enough even when Winslow played. Without him, who knows?
Ben Roethlisberger put the RedHawks on college football's map, taking them to a 13-1 record, the longest winning streak in Division I-A (all 13), and a final ranking of No. 10. Never mind the eight starting seniors that leave with him. Miami and the Mid-American Conference won't be the same.
The Sooners return three starters on the defensive line and two of them, end Dan Cody and tackle Dusty Dvoracek, are All-Big 12 players. But you just don't replace a tackle like Lombardi Trophy winner Tommie Harris. Cody, Dvoracek and end Jonathan Jackson will discover next season what it's like to see double teams, because Harris won't be attracting two or three blockers on every snap.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.