On Tuesday, Alabama continued preparations for its College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl game against Ohio State on Thursday.
Meanwhile, LSU was playing Notre Dame in the relative obscurity of the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn.
The contrasting conclusions to the season for two of college football’s elite programs demonstrate the challenges faced by the top teams as an increasing number of marquee players leave early for the NFL.
Last season, a record 98 underclassmen entered the draft, up from 73 in 2013 and 65 in 2012.
It’s a challenge that might soon await the Crimson Tide’s opponent in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Buckeyes’ return to national championship-contender status was fueled in part by elite young players who are unlikely to exhaust their college eligibility before heading to the NFL.
Ohio State has five players who were named first-team freshman All-Americans by one outlet or another, including quarterback J.T. Barrett, who suffered a season-ending fractured ankle against Michigan on Nov. 29.
Linebackers Darron Lee and Raekwon McMillan, cornerback Eli Apple and guard Billy Price were the other first-teamers. H-back Jalin Marshall was named to a third-team squad.
Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said Tuesday that “we should have played (Lee and Apple) sooner.”
“The days have changed,” he said. “We don’t save it for down the road because, with the great ones, you don’t get five years.”
Since Alabama beat LSU 21-0 for the 2011 BCS title in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Jan. 9, 2012, the Crimson Tide and Tigers have had the most players drafted — many of them players who bypassed remaining college eligibility.
Alabama’s 25 draft picks are the most from any school during the past three years, and LSU has had 23. The Tigers have been particularly hard hit by underclassmen leaving: 21 have gone, including a record 11 two years ago.
“It’s hard,” Bama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “You can’t replace those holes. It drains you at a position where you can’t recover fast enough.”
Tide recruiting coordinator Burton Burns said the early departures forced Bama to alter its recruiting approach.
“Some of these higher-profile guys, you already know (leaving early) is what they’re thinking, so you have to continuously find guys behind them,” Burns said. “In the past, you might look at your numbers recruitingwise and say we’re good in this position for one or two years. Now you’ve got to look at replacing the numbers at every position from year to year.”
Since last playing for the national title, LSU has gone to the Chick-fil-A Bowl (now the Peach), the Outback and now the Music City, a 31-28 loss Tuesday on Kyle Brindza’s 32-yard field goal as time expired.
Alabama has fared better, winning another BCS title after the 2012 season before going to the Sugar Bowl last season and qualifying for the first four-team playoff this season. The Tide’s ability to sustain its success is due in part to losing fewer underclassmen to the draft (nine in the past three years), though it has taken some hits with players such as Dont’a Hightower, Dre Kirkpatrick, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
“It’s just harder to recover, so when you recruit, you’ve got to recruit more guys ready to play,” Smart said. “They’re going to have to play. We’ve had a lot of guys come out early; so have a lot of the other big programs. There’s no reason to make excuses. You’ve just got to continue to improve and get good players and develop them faster.”
They’ll probably have to do it again. Underclassmen interested in turning pro have to declare by mid-January, and Tide candidates include receiver Amari Cooper and safety Landon Collins, considered the best pro prospects at their positions.
It’s something Ohio State likely will start confronting regularly. Apple said it’s too early for him to be thinking about when he might leave for the NFL, but Meyer’s track record for developing pro prospects was a major factor in his decision to choose Ohio State over Notre Dame, Michigan State and Rutgers.
“That’s your ultimate dream — to be able to play in the NFL,” he said.
The flip side of the coin is the Tide has a few examples on this year’s team of players who benefited by staying in school. Safety Nick Perry, guard Arie Kouandjio, fullback Jalston Fowler and quarterback Blake Sims have been key players as fifth-year seniors.
“Honestly, I came here with hopes that I’d be able to leave a little early,” Kouandjio said.
“But it was God’s plan to keep me here a little longer, and I’m just happy to be part of the team still.”
Kouandjio said his perspective on sticking around has changed, calling his five-year tenure “a privilege.”
Senior offensive lineman Austin Shepherd said: “I think it helped this year with guys like us after we lost to Ole Miss (in the fifth game) — we’ve never won a national championship undefeated, we’ve had one loss both times — so to get everyone to realize the year wasn’t over helped with all the fifth-years being able to tell (the younger players) we can still do it because we’ve done it.”
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.