With the deadline looming for players to declare their intentions, it's happening across the country. Players a breaking fans' hearts and bolting for a their chances at the big bucks in the NFL. "It's going to happen," mused Auburn offensive coordinator Hugh Nall. "You just have to make sure you have signed some to take their place."
It happened to Auburn on Wednesday when tight end Robert Johnson said he would bypass his senior year. Linebackers Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas are considering their options. Dansby might go but will probably stay. Thomas is almost certain to stay. I'm troubled when players are criticized for making the decision to go make a living. Personally, I think Johnson would have been better off to stay another year. But it doesn't matter what I think, or fans think, or coaches think or what anybody thinks other than Johnson and his family. He earned every cent of his scholarship while he was at Auburn.
There are those who point to running back Rudi Johnson as an example of a player who left too early. He's played hardly at all for the Bengals. Maybe he made a mistake, but he's getting paid half a million bucks a year to live with that mistake. A guy who never had any money in his life probably doesn't view that as much of a mistake.
The traditions and history of college football, particularly in this part of the country, are a wonderful thing. But the game is changing, and those who follow might as well get used to it. Most players view playing football in college as a way to get to the NFL. They don't view themselves as being disloyal or ungrateful when they decide it's time to leave. I'm on their side.
For the fans, college football is fun. For the players, it's grueling, tortuous work. They get by on peanuts, go to school full-time and prove week in and week out that the NCAA's 20-hour rule is a joke. The price they pay to go play 12 or 13 times in a season is truly remarkable. How many students wouldn't leave school early if offered a job paying $500,000 a year? The opportunity to return and earn a degree will always be there.
I get amused every year at this time. From coast to coast, recruiting "analysts" rate players and recruiting classes, sending fans into a frenzy. It's a joke. Recruiting is, beyond question, the No. 1 key to having a winning football team. If you're Auburn or Alabama or Georgia or any other SEC team, you'd better get players that are big enough, fast enough, dedicated enough and mentally strong enough to play at the highest level.
Getting players who can fit into your system and do the things it takes to win is crucial. With all due respect to recruiting analysts, many of whom are hard-working, good guys, nothing is more meaningless than how many stars a player is given or the subjective rankings that flood the Internet. Pat Dye used to like to say, "There's enough good players to go around. It's what you do with them that matters." I make no claim to being able to evaluate who is a prospect and who isn't. A recruiting "national championship" means the same as a preseason No. 1 ranking. Nothing at all.
Auburn will go into next season with the highest expectations in years. But it might be wise to take a deep breath before going overboard. I believe the Tigers have a chance to win the SEC championship and contend for the national championship. I also believe they have a chance to lose several games. So it will always be.
Georgia went 13-1 this season. Amazingly, after the win over Florida State in the Sugar Bowl, there was talk of a dynasty. A dynasty? It was the Bulldogs' first SEC championship in 20 years. In the SEC, the line between a championship and the dreaded Music City Bowl is very thin. Georgia could have and probably should have lost to South Carolina and Auburn. Auburn could have and probably should have beaten Florida and Georgia. Change those games, and Auburn has Georgia's season and Georgia has Auburn's season. It was that close, and it will be that close next season.
Auburn plays USC, Tennessee and Alabama at home and goes to LSU, Arkansas and Georgia. The Tigers could win all six of those games or lose all six of those games. Logic tells you they will probably win some of them and lose some of them.
To have a championship year, an SEC team must keep the right players healthy and the ball just has to bounce the right way at the right time. Georgia beat South Carolina because Andrew Pinnock dropped the ball when he was about to score the winning touchdown. Georgia beat Auburn because Horace Willis stumbled when he was about to make what would have been a relatively easy play on a desperation pass. That's how close it is.