LSU and USC are once again linked at the top.
In January of 2004, the Tigers and Trojans were arguing over whose share of the mythical national championship was more legitimate. Now the two powers are commiserating over the staggering number of underclassmen that have entered the 2014 NFL Draft ahead of the declaration deadline which came and went Wednesday.
Seven LSU players have declared, five from USC, and none appear likely to use the three-day window to rescind his name and return to school before the formal list of early entrants is released this weekend.
LSU head coach Les Miles has now lost 17 players in the last two years. And while the team won 10 games for the fourth consecutive season, it isn't difficult to wonder how much better it could have been with the likes of defensive end/outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo and safety Eric Reid back for another go-round, to say nothing of the benefits of additional roster continuity and player development.
Now LSU is looking at a totally overhauled set of running backs and wide receivers on offense and defensive tackles to continue that streak. But if there is anyone capable of reloading, it would be Miles, whose chief weapons are a line of endless top-tier talents at those positions, baffling clock management, awkward clapping and oddly charming interviews. Really, Miles is the Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition of college coaches.
New USC coach Steve Sarkisian is less amusing, or amused by his circumstances. The last year of scholarship reductions from the Reggie Bush case limits him to a maximum of 75 players, with 15 additions in his upcoming recruiting class, making it that much more difficult to replace departing starters and have adequate depth. On the offensive line, where center Marcus Martin is forgoing his final season of college eligibility, Sarkisian said Tuesday that incoming true freshmen will have to contribute this season.
Yet, both LSU and USC are making appearances in the early 2014 top 25 polls, regarded as potential contenders for conference championships.
Reload, retool, move on and win games. That is what both teams will be expected to do this season and again next season when they are inevitably gutted by another wave of departures.
Here are the other winners and losers from the underclassmen declaration period:
Winner: Florida State
The final BCS champions lost defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and running backs Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., but held on to offensive tackle Cameron Erving and guard Tre Jackson. To have those two back and blocking for Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston again makes the Seminoles strong favorites to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff four-team field. The returning Karlos Williams should excel in a featured role at running back with the departure of his fellow juniors Wilder and Freeman.
Loser: Notre Dame
Defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III were the anchors of the Fighting Irish's magical undefeated 2012 regular season. With Nix and Tuitt coming in as first-round picks in the initial mock drafts from NFL Media analysts Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks, those two tremendous talents will not be easily replaced. Tight end Troy Niklas was expected to be a main component in a rejuvenated passing offense.
Another November swoon derailed the Ducks' title aspirations, but head coach Mark Helfrich fared much better in January with the return of quarterback Marcus Mariota, center Hroniss Grasu and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu for another season. Each could have been the first player taken at their respective positions. Mariota, who accounted for 3,665 passing yards, 31 touchdowns against four interceptions, 725 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, will be on the short list for every major award in the game next season.
Sonny Dykes' first season was an unmitigated disaster, except in draft departures-to-wins ratio. The Golden Bears are losing four players from a one-win club, including three starters who could have helped turn around the second-worst defense in the FBS in points and yards allowed.
Winner: Big Ten and Big 12
While the Pac-12 and SEC have been gutted by defections, the middle of the college football nation returns almost entirely intact. The Big Ten sees only four underclassmen depart in Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby, Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson and Indiana wide receiver Cody Latimer. The Big 12 loses only three players, not surprisingly all on offense in the wide-open conference.
Loser: Big Ten and Big 12
Wondering why these two leagues have fallen so far behind their coastal counterparts? Talent drain, and not one resulting from underclassmen leaving. The Big Ten is dealing with a declining population base, while California, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana have emerged as the standout states in high school recruiting. Former Big 12 members Texas A&M and Missouri are thriving in the SEC, while Texas' recent downturn in draft output reflects signing day misses and poor player development.
Follow Dan Greenspan on Twitter @DanGreenspan.