With the College Football Playoff National Championship not being played until Jan. 12, this year's NFL draft early entry deadline might have sneaked up on everyone.
The deadline passed at the end of the day Thursday, Jan. 15, giving us a clearer picture of both what the NFL draft will look like in April, and who exactly will be returning and will need to be replaced by college teams for the 2015 season. The NFL won't release its official list for a few days, but between various reports by media outlets and confirmations by players, agents and colleges, we have a pretty strong grip on what this year's list of NFL draft underclassmen will look like, as compiled here by NFL.com.
Barring a few last-second surprises, here are the college teams that won and lost the most because of the pro decisions made by their top underclassmen.
Alabama's defense. Losing safety Landon Collins is tough to take, but we all knew that was coming. What was more uncertain was the fate of the defensive front. Somehow, the Crimson Tide will get every underclassman back, making this week a net win for the defense. On Thursday, both LB Reggie Ragland and DE Jarran Reed confirmed that they would stay, joining players like A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster and top 2014 recruit Da'Shawn Hand in a group that will have an absurdly high ceiling. Despite the struggles against Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, this was one of the nation's best defensive fronts last year, and with Ragland and Reed returning it is in position to be dominant in 2015 -- which is especially necessary given the questions in the secondary.
Auburn. The Tigers defense ranked 76th in yards per play this season. Fortunately, there's plenty of hope for the future. Not only did Auburn hire Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator, and not only will top pass rusher Carl Lawson return from a season-ending injury, but linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost both elected to return for their senior seasons. The Tigers have been very inconsistent defensively, but these are two huge moves, as the defense won't lose anyone early to the draft. While Auburn will reluctantly say goodbye to WR Sammie Coates, fellow receiver Duke Williams will return.
Baylor. We occasionally need reminders about how the importance of line play can't be overstated. We got that in the national championship, when Ohio State physically dominated Oregon up front on both sides of the ball. Despite losing QB Bryce Petty, Baylor appears to be in excellent shape to contend nationally again, and a big reason why is stability on the lines. All-American OT Spencer Drango decided to return, meaning Baylor will return its entire offensive line for a new quarterback. Freakishly athletic DE Shawn Oakman also decided to return, and he'll team with DT Andrew Billings to create one of the best defensive line duos in the nation. The 6-foot-9, 280-pound Oakman is still a raw prospect, but he would have likely been a first-round pick after recording 11 sacks and 19 ½ tackles for loss.
LSU. In most situations, losing three key players early to the draft like LSU this year would qualify as bad news. Make no mistake: The departures of CB Jalen Collins, LB Kwon Alexander and DE Danielle Hunter all hurt badly, especially when combined with the unexpected exit of defensive coordinator John Chavis. Still, context is required. This is nothing. Last year, LSU lost six players early to the draft. Two years ago, it lost 11 players early. The Tigers have suffered absurd attrition recently, and having to replace only three underclassmen is a walk in the park, relatively speaking. OT Jerald Hawkins, G Vadal Alexander and DB Jalen Mills are all expected to stay in Baton Rouge.
Michigan State. As expected, top cornerback Trae Waynes jumped to the NFL early, where he should be a first-round pick, meaning all four players from the dominant 2013 secondary will be gone in 2015, along with defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Still, otherwise the Spartans did well in keeping underclassmen on campus. QB Connor Cook, who probably would have been the third QB selected if he left early, decided to return for his senior season, and DE Shilique Calhoun and redshirt sophomore OT Jack Conklin will also be back for another season. The Spartans will look very different next year with players like Waynes, S Kurtis Drummond, WR Tony Lippett and RB Jeremy Langford gone, but the return of Cook and Calhoun ensures that two of the cornerstones of that Rose Bowl team and this year's Cotton Bowl team will be back to take another run at Ohio State in the Big Ten East.
Mississippi State. The Bulldogs face a very difficult task trying to stay competitive in the loaded SEC West, but they did get one great piece of news when QB Dak Prescott decided to return for his senior season. There is rebuilding to do along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, with junior LB Benardrick McKinney joining seniors like DE Preston Smith, C Dillon Day and G Ben Beckwith in the draft. Plus, RB Josh Robinson also opted to jump to the NFL. Without Prescott, Mississippi State would be a clear pick to finish seventh in the SEC West. Instead, it feels like there's still a chance to compete behind a quarterback who threw for 3,449 yards, ran for 986 yards and accounted for 41 total touchdowns as an excellent fit for Dan Mullen's offense. In other words: Despite losing McKinney and Robinson, Jan. 15 could have been much worse.
Notre Dame. The cavalry is coming. After a dreadful second half of the 2014 season that saw the Fighting Irish lose five of their final six regular season games, they are poised to reload with a lot of familiar pieces. In addition to the expected returns of CB KeiVarae Russell and DE Ishaq Williams from suspension and LB Joe Schmidt from injury, OT Ronnie Stanley and DE Sheldon Day both decided to return for their senior seasons. Stanley in particular could have been a first-round pick, and if he left the Irish would have lost four starters on the offensive line. Instead, they have a stabilizing force at tackle for whomever wins the quarterback job, whether it's Everett Golson or Malik Zaire. The 2014 season was discouraging, but the Irish have the talent to make a giant leap forward in 2015.
Ohio State. National championship teams usually get hit hard by early departures, for obvious reasons: They have a ton of talent, and those talented players feel comfortable leaving after winning a title. Somehow, Ohio State won't have to deal with any early losses beyond Noah Spence, who was suspended for the entire season. The Buckeyes will say goodbye to a handful of key seniors, including DT Michael Bennett, WR Devin Smith, TE Jeff Heuerman and CB Doran Grant, but most of the team's key contributors will return. Of those eligible to declare for the draft, recent QB sensation Cardale Jones opted to return to compete with J.T. Barrett and possibly Braxton Miller, and OT Taylor Decker and DT Adolphus Washington are also on board for a run at a national title repeat.
We'll focus on teams that lost multiple players, while acknowledging here that teams like Arizona State (Jaelen Strong), Boise State (Jay Ajayi), Georgia (Todd Gurley), Indiana (Tevin Coleman), Michigan (Devin Funchess), Minnesota (Maxx Williams), Missouri (Shane Ray), Nebraska (Randy Gregory), Texas (Malcom Brown) and Wisconsin (Melvin Gordon) all lost very important pieces as well.
Alabama's offense. Last year, Lane Kiffin walked into a favorable situation in which he had to develop a new quarterback but otherwise had an experienced and highly regarded supporting cast. Now he'll have to replace the quarterback again, along with just about everything else. WR Amari Cooper, a Heisman finalist, and RB T.J. Yeldon both declared for the draft, which will make life much harder for the new quarterback, whether it's Jacob Coker or someone else. The running game remains in great hands with Derrick Henry, but Cooper joins seniors DeAndrew White and Christion Jones in a mass exodus from the receiving corps.
Florida. It's not unusual for a bunch of early departures to happen after a coaching change, and in this case the Gators lose four underclassmen as they transition from Will Muschamp to Jim McElwain. The biggest name by far is defensive end Dante Fowler, who will likely be a first-round pick, while the Gators will also say goodbye to RB Matt Jones, OT D.J. Humphries and G Tyler Moore. While Jones had a few big games (192 yards vs. Georgia), he's replaceable with Kelvin Taylor in the mix. The big losses are on the lines. Fowler, obviously, is a huge loss because of his top-end talent, while the departures of Humphries and Moore mean that Florida will return just one starter on its offensive line instead of three as it tries to develop young QBs Treon Harris and Will Grier.
Florida State. There was never really a chance of 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston returning, and he'll leave to likely be a top-five pick. He's joined by four other key underclassmen, all on defense (the offense is loaded with seniors): DT Eddie Goldman, DE Mario Edwards, CB P.J. Williams and CB Ronald Darby. One of the Seminoles' biggest problems this year was depth on the defensive line, and the departures of Goldman and Edwards leave the Noles without their two best players, by far, in their defensive front seven. The secondary is in better shape thanks to its returning talent at safety, but it's still quite difficult to lose two touted players like Williams and Darby at the same time, leaving questions about the team's pass rush and ability to lock down receivers at the same time. The only good news is that 2013 Groza Award-winning kicker Roberto Aguayo will return for his redshirt junior season.
Miami. The unexpected 2014 transition to freshman QB Brad Kaaya was eased by the presence of a star running back in Duke Johnson and a talented left tackle in Ereck Flowers. Both are headed to the NFL, putting the weight of the offense in 2015 on Kaaya's shoulders after a promising debut season. Miami was already losing its best defensive player, senior LB Denzel Perryman, and now it parts ways with Johnson, a 1,600-yard rusher, and Flowers, whose departure means that Miami will lose the entire left side of the offensive line, including the center.
Oklahoma. Versatile pass rusher Eric Striker is returning to Norman, which is excellent news for the Stoops brothers' embattled defense. Otherwise, Oklahoma wasn't so lucky. DT Jordan Phillips, the best player on an underperforming line, will go to the NFL, meaning the Sooners will lose two of their three starters up front (Charles Tapper decided to return). Most notably, Oklahoma won't get one down out of WR Dorial Green-Beckham. After getting dismissed from Missouri, the former five-star recruit ended up at Oklahoma, who tried and failed to get him immediately eligible last season. Green-Beckham -- who has first-round talent -- practiced with the team all season, but instead of debuting in 2015 as an enticing weapon for new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, he'll go to the NFL after the position coach who brought him in, Jay Norvell, was let go.
Oregon. The Ducks were hardly ambushed by their early departures, but that doesn't make losing Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota any easier, especially after the loss to Ohio State in the national championship game. Next season might be more of a rebuilding season than a reloading job with Mariota gone. Elsewhere, they got good and bad news at defensive end, where intriguing athlete Arik Armstead decided to go pro but DeForest Buckner will return.
Penn State. While Penn State's NCAA sanctions were rolled back in September, that doesn't mean it won't need a lot of time to get back to full strength, scholarship-wise. So losing anybody early right now hurts in the team's efforts to field a deeper team next year. Three players opted to enter the draft, including TE Jesse James, DE Deion Barnes and OT Donovan Smith. James showed flashes of big potential, but tight end remains one of Penn State's deepest positions, so it should be OK there. Barnes, the Big Ten's freshman of the year in 2012, had an excellent season for one of the nation's most productive defensive lines and will certainly be missed. Smith's departure probably hurts the most. While he has never quite played up to his potential and had an uneven 2014 season, he was still the most reliable part of a messy offensive line that struggled through significant depth issues, and going to the NFL deprives the Lions of much-needed stability up front in protecting Christian Hackenberg.
Stanford. The good news is that, after some speculation that he might go pro or transfer for his fifth year, starting QB Kevin Hogan decided he'll return to Stanford, giving the Cardinal stability at the position. They did suffer two key losses, though. The offensive line was not up to the usual Harbaugh/Shaw era standards in 2014, and now they'll move forward without star OT Andrus Peat, although four seniors will return in 2014. While Peat is more touted, perhaps the more pressing issue is the departure of CB Alex Carter from a talented defense loaded with seniors, including DE Henry Anderson, LB A.J. Tarpley, S Jordan Richards, LB Kevin Anderson, LB James Vaughters and CB Wayne Lyons. The Cardinal hope for a turnaround in 2015 after a disappointing 8-5 season, but can the offense turn things around enough to make up for the loss of eight starters from what was one of the nation's best defenses?
UCLA. So far, the Jim Mora era and the Brett Hundley era have been one and the same at UCLA, with three years of Mora as head coach and three years of Hundley as his starting quarterback. The Bruins stand to return the majority of their starters, but in addition to losing senior LB Eric Kendricks, they lose underclassmen Hundley and DE Ellis McCarthy. McCarthy was a solid rotational player who never quite hit his potential at UCLA, so the Bruins can survive his absence. It will, however, be interesting to see how they move forward without Hundley, who has been such an integral part of UCLA's relative success since Mora arrived, even if the Bruins still haven't quite gotten over the hump.
USC. Many people, including myself, are high on the Trojans entering the 2015 season, but that doesn't mean they won't suffer heavy attrition from a talented roster that finished a slightly disappointing 9-4. They'll return QB Cody Kessler; otherwise, it's mostly bad news. DE Leonard Williams, WR Nelson Agholor, RB Javorius Allen and WR George Farmer will all go to the NFL. The Farmer decision was somewhat unexpected after he caught only 25 passes in 2014. The rest were all expected: Williams will be rated by many as the top player available in the draft, Agholor caught 104 passes and Allen ran for 1,489 yards. The Trojans don't exactly have to panic, given the level of talent still sprinkled throughout the roster, but saying goodbye to talent like this is never easy.