- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Stanford's Andrew Luck left a year early for the NFL. USC's Matt Barkley returned for his senior season. Baylor's Robert Griffin III bolted. Oklahoma's Landry Jones stayed. Alabama's Trent Richardson moved on. Wisconsin's Montee Ball is still in Madison.
The top six finishers in the Heisman Trophy vote were all underclassmen. The top three left early (Griffin, Luck and Richardson). But the next three came back (Ball, Tyrann Mathieu and Barkley, though Mathieu was given the boot from LSU).
On the defensive side of things, while superstars such as LSU's Morris Claiborne, Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox and Alabama's Dont'a Hightower entered the draft early, others, such as LSU's Sam Montgomery, Utah's Star Lotulelei and Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, came back.
Bottom line: There's a lot of star power returning to college football in 2012. More, perhaps, than usual. Each player has his own reasons for coming back, though visions of national championships, individual awards and, yes, better NFL draft position certainly danced in their heads.
There are a lot of moving parts inside the brain of a player debating whether he wants to leave early for the NFL draft of return to college. It's business and personal. There are cautionary tales on both sides of the decision. A survey of some of the top names who opted to stay for the 2012 season revealed that many at one point believed they would enter the draft.
The NFL offers immediate financial gratification. But delaying gratification could yield greater financial rewards if a successful year in college improves a player's stock.
Returning to college provides another chance to win awards and conference and perhaps national championships. It allows a young man a chance to enjoy himself for one last year before entering the dog-eat-dog professional world. Heck, it might even help him finish his degree.
On the negative side of the ledger, he could get hurt. His team might fall short of expectations, and the season might become a drudgery. His play might slip. More game tape could allow NFL scouts to microanalyze his faults. And he'd still have to go to class and not get paid for playing.
Yet for most, the decision to return circles back to what has become a catchphrase for Barkley and USC this fall: "Unfinished business."
"This 2012 team has some serious unfinished business to attend to, and I plan to play a part in it," Barkley said during his announcement on Jan. 13, the school using the opportunity to turn the event into a glorified pep rally.
USC went as far as to print up T-shirts with the "Unfinished Business" slogan over pictures of Barkley and safety T.J. McDonald, also an All-American who opted to return for his senior season. Barkley and McDonald have been pretty straightforward about their thinking: They came back to USC to win a national title. Preseason rankings released since then have suggested their stated motivation for coming back is backed by plausibility.
The same could be said for Jones at Oklahoma. The Sooners also are a consensus top-10 team and the favorites to finish atop the Big 12.
"Having a chance to win a national championship was the big one for me," Jones said. "I do enjoy being a Sooner, but for me that was the bigger motivation, to have another shot at that."
Both Jones and Barkley admit eyeballing the Heisman Trophy. They've combined for more than 21,000 yards passing and 173 touchdowns as three-year starters, but both labored in the shadows cast by Luck and Griffin last year.
Barkley has been honest about his competitiveness with Luck through the years as well as his desire to win the Heisman, for which he is the 2012 front-runner. But he also knows that the Heisman only comes to those who win. Trojans quarterbacks who do that tend to have pretty good luck getting the bronze statue when they do that.
It just can't be a primary focus.
"Not right now," Barkley said when asked whether he's thinking about the Heisman. "If that's your mindset going into the season, then you're screwed. I'm not worried about stats or trophies. My goal is to play the highest-quality football and for my team to win. If I'm doing that, the rest will fall into place."
The same could be said for NFL draft position. Both Jones and Barkley have a good chance to improve theirs. Barkley could become the top overall pick next spring, which he wouldn't have been this past spring. Jones could move up substantially from the late first-/early second-round grade he received after the 2011 season. In fact, Jones, who's taller and owns a stronger overall arm than Barkley, could end up challenging Barkley as the top QB if he ends up hoisting the crystal football at season's end.
Although a number of stars returned to high-profile teams that appear to be in the middle of the national championship chase, that probably can't be said for others. Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Utah could push into the national picture, but none is ranked in the preseason top 10. Ball returned to a Badgers team with plenty of holes to fill at key positions, and the Irish and Utes don't appear to have enough big guns to make an undefeated run.
Ball's, Lotulelei's and Te'o's situations are different in terms of their NFL expectations. Ball admitted that he was disappointed in his third-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board after he earned consensus All-America honors, tied Barry Sanders' NCAA record for single-season touchdowns with 39 and led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards. When he did a postseason self-assessment, it wasn't obvious what he could do better.
"I believe that, in the biggest games we had, I didn't play my best football," Ball said. "So I plan on doing that this year."
In the Badgers' three losses, Ball rushed for 364 yards, averaged more than five yards per carry and scored a TD in each game.
Te'o, who also cited "unfinished business" as a Notre Dame senior for why he opted to return, likely would have been selected in the middle of the first round of the 2012 draft, and that's probably where he will fall in 2013.
Lotulelei, however, has a chance to move up substantially in the first round. The winner of the Pac-12's Morris Trophy, which is given annually to the conference's best lineman based on a vote from his peers, could climb into the upper reaches of the top 10 of the first round if he improves on his consistently dominant play in 2011.
But Lotulelei doesn't talk about improving his stock, individual awards or even national titles when he is asked why he came back.
"I didn't feel like I was ready to make the next step," he said.
The prime beneficiary of a star's decision to stay is obviously his team. And his coach. College coaches don't typically sound giddy or gush about players, but coaches with a potential high NFL draft choice returning often sound that way.
"I didn't recruit Matt to stay," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "Sometimes we recruit kids to stay because they're projected as a second- or third-round pick, and they could stay and work on things and get better. Matt was completely ready for the NFL. I assume he would have been a top-5 pick, totally ready to go in and be the face of a franchise and be ready to play in the NFL. I think it was about him wanting to do something special. Some people have written, he may be able to go down as the most historic Trojan ever if we do big things this year."
All the star players who didn't enter the NFL draft share that "if." They rolled the dice and decided to return, hoping for a payoff in multiple ways. The measure of that decision will be their and their team's success this fall, as well as where they end up this spring when the NFL calls their names.
Not every top player picked the NFL over staying in school. Getting another shot at the Heisman Trophy and a better spot in the draft are among the reasons some elite players are back.