LSU safety Ronald Martin asks himself the question a lot: What if the underclassmen from last season who left early for pro ball would have stayed another year?
What if the reliable hands of Jarvis Landry were on the other end of those dropped third-down passes against Alabama? What if Odell Beckham Jr. and his field-stretching speed were around?
What if Ego Ferguson were the one playing defensive tackle instead of a true freshman who needed time to adjust? What if Jeremy Hill teamed with Leonard Fournette for a two-headed rushing attack?
What if, what if, what if …
“I think about it all of the time. I laugh about it,” said Martin, a senior. “If they had been back here, we probably would have won the national championship.”
That’s shooting high, but as LSU (8-4) prepares to face Notre Dame (7-5) in the Music City Bowl at 2 p.m. Dec. 30 in Nashville, Tennessee, the question looms: Where would the Tigers be spending the holidays if they had at least a few of those early departures from 2013?
A nine-win LSU team might be in the Cotton Bowl or the Citrus Bowl. A 10-win Tigers squad could be at the Orange Bowl, and an 11-win club may be College Football Playoff-bound.
LSU lost 71 percent of its receiving and 44 percent of its rushing last year from underclassmen — a key reason for this season’s offensive struggles. And that doesn’t include losing a starting offensive lineman — right guard Trai Turner.
On defense, this season’s sore spot came at the interior, where a pair of juniors — Anthony Johnson and Ferguson — left early.
“We would have definitely been a better team,” fullback Connor Neighbors said, “but why would they have stayed?”
Five of the seven who left early were drafted in the first three rounds, and many of them are excelling in the NFL.
Entering Sunday’s Week 16 action, Beckham (New York Giants) and Landry (Miami Dolphins) had caught 71 passes apiece, leading all rookies. Turner had started seven games for the Carolina Panthers, and Hill had started six and run for 877 yards for the Cincinnati Bengals. Ferguson had played in every game for the Chicago Bears, compiling 11 tackles and two sacks.
“Since they’re doing great things in the NFL, I don’t think it would have been wise for them to come back,” quarterback Anthony Jennings said.
But what if?
“I think it’s very exciting just to think about,” Jennings said.
Filling Turner’s spot at right guard was an issue. Hoko Fanaika and Evan Washington battled for the job until the season opener.
It took the Tigers some time to find the right fit, a problem made worse with center Elliott Porter’s two-game suspension to begin the season. They have played three players at the spot.
Replacing Beckham and Landry was the most difficult: LSU had just four wide receivers catch passes this season. That’s the fewest in the Southeastern Conference.
Three of the four were playing in their first year of college, including true freshman Trey Quinn, who had two costly drops late in the overtime loss to Alabama.
At defensive tackle, true freshman Davon Godchaux evolved into a starter alongside sophomore Christian LaCouture, who didn’t have a start before this season. The interior of LSU’s defense was ripped in games against Wisconsin, Auburn and Mississippi State before the duo settled in.
Hill and Alfred Blue, who passed on a fifth year for the draft, could have boosted a group of running backs who instead were left with two true freshmen and Terrence Magee for the final two games.
“If they had stayed, I say we’re the best team in the nation,” guard Evan Washington said.
But they left, of course, continuing a somewhat vicious cycle. The Tigers have lost 22 underclassmen to the draft in the previous four years.
Will it continue this year? It’s too early to know, but LSU has as many as seven underclassmen who could be drafted.
One thing’s for sure: If they all return, LSU will be better in 2015.
“It could,” Neighbors said, “be awesome.”
Players who could have helped LSU this season — and, some of them, next season — if they had completed their eligibility:
Passed on eligibility in 2014
WR Odell Beckham Jr.
DT Anthony Johnson
WR Jarvis Landry
RB Alfred Blue*
DT Ego Ferguson
Passed on eligibility in 2014 and 2015
RB Jeremy Hill
OL Trai Turner
* — Passed on a fifth year of eligibility awarded for medical reasons
Walking out the door
LSU has lost a ton of production from early departures in the past two years. Will it happen against this year? The team’s top seven underclassmen in 2014 — offensive linemen Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins; wide receiver Travin Dural; defensive end Danielle Hunter; linebacker Kwon Alexander; cornerback Jalen Collins; and safety Jalen Mills — were massive producers who could leave the Tigers, too:
2014 production from top seven underclassmen:
36 percent of combined receptions, receiving yards, receiving TDs
27 percent of tackles
38 percent starts on the offensive line
2013 production from seven underclassman departures:
71 percent of combined receptions, yards and TDs
9 percent of tackles
21 percent starts on the offensive line
44 percent of rushing carries, yards and TDs
2012 production from 10 underclassman departures:
64 percent of tackles
25 percent of rushing carries, yards and TDs