By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The 2012 preseason college football top 25 is already starting to take shape. USC quarterback Matt Barkley has decided to return for another season, making the Trojans one of the early favorites to win the national title next season. Athlon has already released a very early top 25 for 2012, but as expected, underclassmen entering the NFL Draft will have a major impact on how the next release of the poll looks in mid-January.
Here some key players to watch as the underclassmen deadline approaches on Jan. 15, 2012 and how it could impact the national title race next season:
Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
Ball put together a monster junior campaign, rushing for 1,759 yards and 32 touchdowns. He also added 20 receptions for 255 yards and six scores. Ball is regarded as a likely second-round pick if he declares for the draft.
If Ball leaves: Wisconsin always seems to crank out productive running backs, so losing Ball isn’t going to completely shut down the rushing attack. James White ran for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, but compiled only 683 yards and six scores in 2011. White will get first crack at replacing Ball, but Melvin Gordon and Jeffrey Lewis will also figure into the mix.
If Ball stays: Wisconsin is losing quarterback Russell Wilson and will have to replace the right side of the line. However, if Ball returns, it would give the Badgers a workhorse at running back and someone who can carry the offense until a new quarterback settles into the position. Also, with Ohio State’s bowl ban next season, Wisconsin is the early frontrunner to represent the Leaders Division in the 2012 Big Ten title game.
Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
Tyrann Mathieu garnered the Heisman hype, but Claiborne might be the better cover corner. He picked off a team-high six passes and broke up six others. Claiborne also recorded 46 tackles.
If Claiborne leaves: Even if Claiborne leaves for the NFL, the LSU secondary will remain one of the best in college football. Mathieu will likely earn All-American honors in the preseason, while safeties Eric Reid, Craig Loston and Tharold Simon are all solid contributors. Losing Claiborne is a big blow, but the LSU defense will remain strong.
If Claiborne stays: It’s early to etch this in stone, but if Claiborne stays, LSU should have the best defensive backfield in the nation. Claiborne and Mathieu should be one of the top cornerback tandems, while the safety position remains in good shape with Loston, Reid and Simon returning.
Robert Griffin, QB, Baylor
Griffin raised the bar at Baylor, leading the Bears to their first nine-win season since 1986. He passed for 3,998 yards and 36 scores, while adding 644 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Griffin claimed the school’s first Heisman trophy and earned Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year honors.
If Griffin leaves: Thanks to coach Art Briles, Baylor is in a better position to absorb the loss of any player. The Bears have earned back-to-back bowl bids, and Griffin’s successor will have talent to work with at receiver and on the offensive line. Nick Florence will likely get the call to start if Griffin departs, but Bryce Petty will also get a chance to compete. If Griffin leaves, Baylor won’t start 2012 in the preseason top 25.
If Griffin stays: If Griffin returns, Baylor should begin the year in many preseason top 25 rankings. The Bears were ranked No. 21 in Athlon’s very early top 25 for 2012. Repeating as Heisman winner won’t be easy, but Griffin will have a chance, especially with Baylor expected to compete for a finish in the top four or five of the Big 12. The offense will miss dynamic receiver Kendall Wright, but Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese and Lanear Sampson is a good trio to build around.
LaMichael James, RB, Oregon
Even after missing two games with a dislocated elbow, James led the nation with an average of 149.6 rushing yards per game. He finished with 1,646 yards and 17 touchdowns, along with posting an impressive 7.4 yards per carry. James also earned first-team All-Pac-12 conference honors.
If James leaves: It’s almost a foregone conclusion that James is leaving. What else can he really accomplish? Although he has yet to win a Heisman or national title, James has recorded 746 carries in his career and there’s only so much workload a running back can handle in his career. The Ducks are in great shape at running back, with Kenjon Barner, De’Anthony Thomas and Tra Carson returning. The Ducks will miss James’ explosiveness, but the offense shouldn’t drop off too much.
If James stays: If James makes the surprising decision to stick around in Eugene, Oregon’s offense will be one of the best in college football. He will also earn preseason first-team All-America honors and should be one of the frontrunners for the 2012 Heisman Trophy.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina
Jeffery’s 2011 production didn’t live up to the preseason hype. He caught 88 passes for 1,517 yards and nine scores in 2010, but watched his production slump to 45 receptions for 614 yards and seven touchdowns. The dismissal of quarterback Stephen Garcia significantly contributed to Jeffery’s decrease in catches this season.
If Jeffery leaves: The Gamecocks have talent in the receiving corps, but there’s no go-to guy like Jeffery waiting in the wings. Ace Sanders, Bruce Ellington and Nick Jones would have to pickup more slack for quarterback Connor Shaw. If Jeffery departs, expect South Carolina to lean even more on running back Marcus Lattimore to carry the offense.
If Jeffery stays: Give Shaw and Jeffery an offseason to work and this connection should be much better in 2012. If he returns, Jeffery could begin next season on many first-team All-SEC ballots. The Gamecocks will be in contention for the SEC East title next season and getting Jeffery back will be a huge boost to those championship hopes.
Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma
After throwing for 4,718 yards and 38 scores last season, Jones had a disappointing 2011 campaign. He threw 4,302 yards and only 28 touchdowns, while tossing 14 picks. Also, he did not throw a touchdown pass in the final three regular season games, largely due to the absence of receiver Ryan Broyles. The Sooners began 2011 as one of the top picks to win the national title. However, a 9-3 record was a major disappointment for Oklahoma and coach Bob Stoops.
If Jones leaves: With Matt Barkley’s decision to stick around at USC, Jones has to be moving up the quarterback draft boards for NFL scouts. Will that be enough to convince him to leave early? Blake Bell saw limited action for Oklahoma this season and would be the early frontrunner to replace Jones. The Sooners are the very early favorite to win the Big 12 in 2012, but without Jones, they could lose their grip on the top spot.
If Jones stays: Considering how poorly Jones performed over the final three regular season games, there’s a strong chance he returns for 2012. If he comes back, the Sooners should be the early favorite to win the Big 12. However, Jones can’t do it all alone and needs receivers other than Kenny Stills to step up next year.
Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
At 6-foot-3 and 192 pounds, Kirkpatrick is one of college football's most physical cover corners. He earned first-team All-American honors by the FWAA and recorded 26 tackles and nine passes broken up this year.
If Kirkpatrick leaves: The Alabama secondary is already getting hit hard by departures, as safety Mark Barron and cornerback DeQuan Menzie will expire their eligibility at the end of the year. Needless to say, the Crimson Tide are already going to be dealing with some key losses in this group next year, so Kirkpatrick's departure will only add more concern for coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Assuming Kirkpatrick is gone, Dee Milliner and John Fulton will have to take on a bigger role in the defensive backfield.
If Kirkpatrick stays: Kirkpatrick is considered a lock for the first round of the NFL Draft and will be among the first 15 picks off the board. Considering where Kirkpatrick is expected to go, it will be a major surprise if he returns in 2012. However, if he returns to Tuscaloosa, Kirkpatrick will be a lock for preseason All-American honors and help to keep Alabama's secondary among the best in the nation.
Chris Polk, RB, Washington (Declared for draft on Jan. 2)
Polk has quietly been one of the most impressive running backs in college football over the last three seasons. He has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of the last three years, totaling 3,902 yards and 25 rushing scores during that span. Polk has also caught 77 passes for 675 yards and four touchdowns in his career.