Early departures to hurt Trojans
While early departures to the NFL will have a huge impact on some teams, a few teams will survive their loses with only a hiccup.
The biggest news in the early-decision period that just concluded is just how few decisions really made news. Everyone knows what to expect -- coaches, players, the NFL. The only wild card remains the agents who sell prospective players dreams instead of reality. The decision to leave for the NFL -- the real world, in football terms -- brings with it real-world responsibility. Specifically, there's no one there to pick you up and brush you off if you make the wrong decision.
But decisions deemed right or wrong in football terms may not have been made with football in mind. USC guard Fred Matua said he came out for monetary reasons. Had he stayed another year, he probably would have made more money, but that argument is easy to make when you're not the one who needs the money.
Other players leave for health reasons -- they're sick of school. The NCAA demands more progress toward a degree than it used to, and there are fewer shortcuts to remaining eligible than there used to be.
In the end, here's a quick analysis of which teams came out of the early-decision period worse than they went in, and which teams will survive their losses with only a hiccup.
1. USC: The Trojans would have had seven returning senior starters next season. Now they have three: all-conference center Ryan Kalil, flanker Steve Smith and linebacker Oscar Lua. The notion that coach Pete Carroll has a way of keeping his players around crumbled with the departure of five juniors: tailbacks Reggie Bush and LenDale White, guards Matua and Winston Justice, and safety Darnell Bing. I don't care how good the incoming class of freshmen is. They're freshmen. The Trojans won't be the same.
2. North Carolina State: Four juniors leave the Wolfpack and take the heart of a very good defense with them. End Mario Williams has had one foot out the door since November. The surprise came with the decisions of tackle John McCargo, who missed the second half of the season with a stress fracture, and All-ACC linebacker Stephen Tulloch. Without them, a defensive front that would have lost only two seniors instead must replace five starters. On offense, tackle Derek Morris cut short a career that never met expectations. Coach Chuck Amato's motto for the season: finish. His players didn't apply the motto to their careers.
3. Ohio State: Corner Ashton Youboty and strong safety Donte Whitner, both All-Big Ten first-teamers and just about the last vestiges of the 2005 defense, leave early. As a result, the top returning tackler will be Malcolm Jenkins, the freshman corner who tied for eighth with 37 stops. Ohio State will return only seven starters in 2006. Toss in the early departure of wide receiver Santonio Holmes, another all-conference star, and the Buckeyes aren't a shoo-in for preseason No. 1 after all.
4. South Carolina: The decisions of safety Ko Simpson, the Gamecocks' leading tackler (103), and corner Johnathan Joseph to depart mean that only three defensive starters return next season. That's huge on a defense that carried more than its share, as South Carolina went to the Independence Bowl in coach Steve Spurrier's first season. The onus will shift to an offense that has seven returning starters, including freshman All-American Sidney Rice at wide receiver.
5. Bowling Green: Look, I understand why junior quarterback Omar Jacobs came out. He loses his top receivers and most of his offensive line. But that underscores how much the Falcons will miss him. With so little experience around him, sophomore-to-be Anthony Turner may struggle. His numbers this season reflected his inexperience (52-85-4, 492 yards, two touchdowns).
1. Auburn: The Tigers lose defensive lineman Stanley McGlover, but the decision of All-SEC tailback Kenny Irons to return is unusual, simply because three of the five juniors who finished ahead of him in rushing decided to leave early. With three returning starters on the offensive line, plus a steady quarterback in junior-to-be Brandon Cox, Irons has what he needs to leave a national footprint next fall. On defense, second-team All-SEC safety Will Herring made the smart choice and did not declare for the NFL.
2. Louisville: All-Big East tailback Michael Bush decided to return for his senior season, a huge plus with the severe knee injury suffered in the last regular-season game by quarterback Brian Brohm, the conference Offensive Player of the Year. With Bush returning, coach Bobby Petrino knows he still has a game-breaking player in the backfield. Bush scored 23 rushing touchdowns in 2005, second only to LenDale White. And Bush did so while playing in only 10 games. He rushed for 1,143 yards.
3. Texas: Yes, Vince Young could have come back next season and the Longhorns would have been rock stars. You can't minimize the impact between having a Young and not having one. But who can argue with his decision? The point is, even without Young, Texas still looks tough, because seven starters return on defense and six or seven on offense, depending on the scheme. Five of the starters won some sort of conference award, including both freshmen of the year (tailback Jamaal Charles on offense and end Brian Orakpo on defense). If they can find a Roethlisberger-like quarterback, who can stay out of the way, the Longhorns will be a threat to repeat next season as national champs.
4. UCLA: The Bruins lose would-be senior tailback Maurice Drew, but behind him are Chris Markey and Kahlil Bell, both of whom rushed for more than 130 yards in the Sun Bowl against Northwestern. With senior quarterback Drew Olson gone, the Bruins will need a strong running game. If the defense improves at all, the Bruins may finish better than 10-2. If nothing else, they could stand to trim that average margin of defeat (42.5 points in losses to Arizona and USC).
5. Florida State: The Seminoles' defense loses junior linebacker Ernie Sims, whom no one ever expected to stay longer than three seasons, and corner Antonio Cromartie, probably the best defensive player in the nation who didn't play a down this season. He blew out a knee last August. Two outstanding players leave, but Florida State never expected to have them next season, anyway.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.