- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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National signing day isn't until Feb. 5.
It's nothing short of a national holiday for some college football junkies, not to mention where the groundwork is laid for national championship seasons.
Go back and take a look at where Florida State and Alabama were ranked nationally in recruiting the past few years. In 2011, FSU had the country's top-ranked class, and Alabama was No. 2. In 2012, they switched places.
Another date coaches (and players) save on their calendars is yesterday, the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft. While it doesn't receive the hype that national signing day does, it's a date that can certainly shape the next season, both positively and negatively.
Unofficially, a record 95 players have decided to forego their remaining college eligibility to take a shot at pro football, easily surpassing last year's record of 73 players leaving school early for the 2013 NFL draft.
The NFL will release an official list Sunday, but here's a look at the winners and losers:
The three marquee quarterbacks from the Pac-12 all decided to return to school -- Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Oregon State's Sean Mannion. That's 11,398 passing yards and 92 touchdown passes last season among them returning.
Not only is Oregon getting Mariota back, but star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is also returning. It would have been nice to also keep running back De'Anthony Thomas around for another season, but the Ducks still have plenty of firepower on offense returning and are poised for a national championship run and what should be their fourth consecutive top-10 finish.
No conference has been hit harder by underclassmen leaving early than the SEC. The unofficial count this year is 28. That's after losing 32 underclassmen to the NFL draft a year ago. It's rare that any of the big-name players stay for all four years anymore in college football. But in the SEC, it's akin to seeing Bigfoot. That's what made AJ McCarron and Aaron Murray sticking around for their senior seasons so unique.
Talk about a serious talent drain. In two years now, LSU has had 18 players leave early for the NFL draft, which includes Tyrann Mathieu a year ago. This year, seven players are bolting Baton Rouge to pursue their NFL dreams. The heartbreaker for the Tigers was running back Jeremy Hill leaving, especially because it looked like last week he was planning on staying. That means the door is wide open for heralded freshman Leonard Fournette to come in and take over the ball-carrying duties for the Tigers. Losing both defensive tackles, Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, was a blow to the interior of that LSU defense, particularly because neither is being projected as a first-round selection.
WINNER: Big 12/Big Ten
Between them, the Big 12 and Big Ten are losing only seven underclassmen. Alabama and LSU alone in the SEC are losing a combined 12 underclassmen. Some big-name talent is returning in both conferences. In the Big 12, the likes of Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty and receiver Antwan Goodley are returning along with Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker, who introduced himself rather rudely to Alabama left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
In the Big Ten, Ohio State is getting quarterback Braxton Miller back, which will help offset the early departures of linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby. Two of the Big Ten's top three running backs also are staying -- Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah.
LOSER: Stanford's offensive line
The Cardinal specialized in pushing people around this season with that bruising running game, and two big components in that running game are making the jump to the NFL -- guard David Yankey and tackle Cameron Fleming. Yankey was an absolute beast of a road grader in the middle of that Stanford offensive line.
WINNER: Clemson's defense
It was a no-brainer that star receiver Sammy Watkins was bound for the NFL. He's a top-10 pick. The fact that fellow receiver Martavis Bryant also is leaving is a bit puzzling, but the Tigers defense received a huge boost when All-American end Vic Beasley announced Wednesday that he was returning. Beasley tied for third nationally this season with 13 sacks on a Clemson defense that was much improved.
With the return of Hundley, the Bruins are a bona fide top-10 team to start next season. Without him, they might not have been a top-20 team. Either way, Jim Mora Jr. has significantly upgraded the talent level at UCLA, and the Bruins are back.
Outside of LSU, USC was gutted about as much as anybody by early departures. The Trojans are losing five players, which won't make first-year coach Steve Sarkisian's job any easier. With center Marcus Martin leaving early, Sarkisian is preparing as if some true freshmen will have to play in the offensive line next season. The Trojans are still limited to 75 scholarship players because of NCAA sanctions, so there aren't a lot of easy solutions to replacing departing juniors.
TIE: Florida State
It was a mixed bag for the national champion Seminoles, although with the way Jimbo Fisher has recruited, there's never going to be a severe drop-off in talent in Tallahassee. Nonetheless, losing a one-man wrecking crew in the middle of that defensive line like Timmy Jernigan is always a blow, and the same goes for losing a nightmare of a matchup at receiver like Kelvin Benjamin. But holding onto offensive tackle Cameron Erving and offensive guard Tre' Jackson means quarterback Jameis Winston should have plenty of time to do his thing again next season.
LOSER: Players who get bad advice
Every year, players leave early who have absolutely no business leaving early. A year ago, of the 73 players declaring for the draft, 21 weren't selected. Sometimes, players leave because they're asked to leave. Others are flunking out academically and don't really have a choice. But more times than not, there's somebody in their ear telling them that they need to go get paid, and the sad truth is that very few of them ever get paid to play football and have no degree to fall back on.
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