Te'o to USC? Top 10 recruiting what-ifs

How would this season be different if De'Anthony Thomas and Manti Te'o had picked USC? AP Photo, US Presswire

The twists and turns on the road to signing day often leave fans, and coaches, with heartburn. But we thought it would be interesting this week to think about some recruiting what-ifs for impact players on top-10 (or so) teams.

How did a recruiting decision in the past four years make a difference for the school that got the player -- and/or the one that didn't? What if things had gone the other way?

Perhaps by no coincidence, suddenly resurgent Notre Dame is involved in several of the hypotheticals. And it is the school that landed the recruit each time.

I asked Tom Luginbill, ESPN's national recruiting director, to weigh in with some thoughts, as well.

1. Manti Te'o, LB

Went to: Notre Dame

Over: USC

Here's a scary thought: Te'o and Jarvis Jones playing together on the same defense. If things had cosmically gone a different way, for both players, it could have happened at the Coliseum. Jones was already there, and Te'o's not landing at USC was a big surprise at the time.

Luginbill does remind me that Jones -- even before the neck injury that eventually led to his transferring to Georgia -- was often hurt and was never an impact player for the Trojans. But picture Jones, as he has played this season for UGA, with Te'o on the same defense at USC. Isn't that a unit, when paired with the Trojans' offense, that could completely shift the BCS title race as it stands today?

But even if Jones' situation had gone the same way and just Te'o were on this year's USC team, the Trojans' defense would look a lot different. Linebacker Dion Bailey is a terrific athlete, but, at 6-feet, 210 pounds, he is a dwarf compared with Te'o's 6-2, 255-pound frame. The Trojans have missed a big, burly, physical presence in the middle of the field since the Pete Carroll years, when Brian Cushing types were more common. Te'o certainly would have been that.

And he also would have been the defensive yin to Matt Barkley's yang on offense. Te'o is a natural leader, and teams never have enough of those. Maybe he would have helped the Trojans navigate expectations better than they have, on the field and off.

In terms of what Te'o has meant to Notre Dame, to call him the key to the Fighting Irish's undefeated start would be an understatement (inside linebackers don't usually find themselves on Heisman short lists). He has played a huge part in Notre Dame's rebuilding effort (the Irish's national ranking in total defense has gone from 86th in his freshman season to 51st the next year, 30th the next and 11th this season), just recently passing the 400 career tackle mark in just three-and-a-half seasons. It's safe to say Notre Dame's fortunes turned the day Te'o decided to commit to the Fighting Irish.

2. T.J. Yeldon, RB

Went to: Alabama

Over: Auburn

Is it possible wouldn't be talking about Gene Chizik's (lack of) job security right now, had Yeldon stuck with his longtime commitment to Auburn? It might still be a stretch, given that the Tigers are losing (and losing, and losing) with a fair amount of talent on the roster and in the backfield in particular.

Sophomore Tre Mason, averaging 13 carries a game despite 5.7 yards per touch, might be one of the more underused backs in America. Where would Yeldon have fit in as a freshman?

He has fit in for Alabama, a godsend to the No. 1-ranked team after season-ending injuries to Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart. Yeldon made an impact in his very first game, against a top-10 opponent, and he is one of the most explosive weapons on Bama's offense (6.98 yards per carry on average). Surely he could have helped Auburn against a Clemson or a Mississippi State early in the year, potentially heading off this disaster on the Plains.

For all of Chizik's gets, maybe the miss on Yeldon will end up having more of an impact.

3. Jadeveon Clowney, DE

Went to: South Carolina

Over: Alabama

Clowney's mom preferred that he go to Clemson, but Nick Saban had a shot at Clowney, too. Sort of.
Recall that Clowney, in a Fox Sports story, said Saban talked too much and his physical stature didn't impress him. (Whose would, really?)

But in that same story, Clowney said he probably would have been a lock for Bama if it didn't run a 3-4 system. It wouldn't allow him to really show off his pass-rush technique, he figured, because the pressure often comes from the outside linebackers and more hybrid-type ends.

The D-tackle position, with Marcell Dareus and Terrence Cody as examples, has been the more recently disruptive line spot in Saban and Kirby Smart's scheme. But think about someone like Clowney -- that dynamic, that athletic -- with the surrounding cast Alabama has. (Who knows, Saban and Smart might have switched to some 4-3 to use him best, at least in some clear pass-rush situations. Good coaches adapt to personnel.) The Crimson Tide could very well run the table this season anyway, but it's even harder to picture someone beating them if Clowney is lining up on that defense.

And although South Carolina dropped out of the national title race with its losses to LSU and Florida, it's fair to say the Gamecocks' rise to No. 3 in the polls was in large part thanks to Clowney's dominance (8.5 sacks so far). His strip sack of Tennessee QB Tyler Bray this past week sealed South Carolina's win.

4. Teddy Bridgewater, QB

Went to: Louisville

Over: Miami

This one kind of makes your brain hurt, wondering what if. Bridgewater was all set to stay home and go to Miami until it canned Randy Shannon. That's when Charlie Strong began recruiting half of south Florida to come to Louisville.

If Miami had stuck with Shannon for another season, Bridgewater might have stuck with Miami. But then, if and when the NCAA issues popped up, would Bridgewater have transferred to somewhere like Louisville anyway? So Teddy Ballgame might have been in the same place, even if he had initially enrolled at Miami.

That winding logic notwithstanding, Louisville sure is glad to have him. West Virginia's Geno Smith and Alabama's AJ McCarron have received a lot of pub for their efficiency, but Bridgewater's 13-4 TD-pick ratio also deserves a lot of credit, especially compared with his 14-12 from a year ago as a freshman. He's so smooth, even late in games, that it's easy to forget he is just a second-year player. What chance is there that the Cardinals would be in the BCS top 10 right now without him?

5. De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR

Went to: Oregon

Over: USC

Durability will always be a question with Thomas, who moves like Reggie Bush but isn't quite built like the deposed Heisman winner. For that reason, Luginbill suggested that Thomas would be injured if he were used more than he is at Oregon.

But with Marqise Lee, Robert Woods and talented runners, why would he be used any more at USC than he is now?

It's like having several different kinds of sports cars. They're all fast, nice to own -- and you can't drive them all at once. The addition of Thomas may not fix a situation in which it seems the coach is intent on creating the most possible touches for elite talent. In fact, a couple of coaches I have talked to wonder whether Lane Kiffin is more concerned with who gets the ball than with actually calling plays to win games.

But the impact Thomas' last-minute flip from USC to Oregon has had on the Trojans' Pac-12 title hopes this season can't be understated because he is starring for USC's top competition in the league. The Oregon offense would take a major hit if Thomas were removed. Even though he is far from an every-down back -- or even an every-possession back -- the threat of the home run, and how the defense has to account for that, means a whole lot.

6. Everett Golson, QB

Went to: Notre Dame

Over: North Carolina

Some Irish fans probably wished during the Stanford game that Golson had just gone to Chapel Hill. But those same fans were back on his bandwagon after a fourth-quarter drive -- set up with a beautiful 50-yard completion, his best throw of the year -- helped the still-undefeated Domers pull away this past week at Oklahoma.

Potential. That's why Golson falls where he does on this list. He demonstrated that in leading Notre Dame to the upset victory on the road in a very difficult place to win. "He's growing up," Irish coach Brian Kelly told a huddled mass of reporters afterward. For the Irish to make it to -- and win -- the BCS title game, Golson will have to continue to do so.

Andrew Hendrix and Tommy Rees have played in spurts this year, but it seems pretty clear that Golson is the guy Kelly thinks he can mold. Everyone is talking about Kelly, traditionally a wide-open guy, winning by playing smashmouth. But as Golson gets older, and if Golden Tate or Michael Floyd 2.0 appears, the playbook will open more and more.

At North Carolina, Golson would be another talented QB -- like Braxton Miller -- toiling in the face of a postseason ban.

7. Tajh Boyd, QB

Went to: Clemson

Over: West Virginia

The Mountaineers have a very good quarterback now, as everyone knows, but Boyd provides an element of running that Smith really doesn't.
Boyd has run 15 or more times in five of the Tigers' eight games this season; Smith's season high is eight.

The one time I've seen West Virginia this year, I noticed that Smith really seemed to fold as soon as the pocket even showed an inkling of breaking down. Boyd, on the other hand, will continue the play by getting out of there and scrambling.

The Mountaineers would still stink on defense if Boyd were in uniform, but the offense might have an added dimension it doesn't right now.

You have to wonder, too, where Clemson would be without Boyd in Chad Morris' system. He has had his moments in which he has struggled, but he also has flourished compared with how he looked before Morris' arrival. He remains an underrated piece of the puzzle when receivers Sammy Watkins and Nuk Hopkins' success is discussed.

8. Matt Elam, S

Went to: Florida

Over: FSU

According to a 2010 story in the Palm Beach Post, Elam posed for photos in the newspaper wearing an FSU cap and jersey. So, at some point, he was that serious about the Seminoles. Of course, he also had serious flirtations with West Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia.

He stuck with the Gators, even amid concerns that Urban Meyer might leave. Meyer ultimately did.

Meyer's successor, Will Muschamp, mentioned to me a couple of weeks ago how grateful he was that he had inherited such young talent at Florida. Elam is a prime example. More than the impact he would have had at FSU, where the squad is loaded with defensive depth, he is making a huge difference for the Gators as they lean on their defense while the offense continues to figure itself out.

9. Gunner Kiel, QB

Went to: Notre Dame

Over: LSU

Kiel has played no part in Notre Dame's undefeated start, but it's interesting to think about how he might have fit in with the Tigers. In the end, Kiel might have been deemed by Les Miles not to have the "chest" to play for him and in the SEC. But it appears Zach Mettenberger doesn't have quite the arm we all perceived in the preseason that he would. The power is there, but the accuracy? Not so much (56.6 percent completion percentage).

Kiel is a freshman, so the learning curve would have been steep. But he was considered in, or somewhere close to, the mix with Golson, Hendrix and Rees in the spring. So wouldn't Kiel have been pushing a struggling Mettenberger at some point this fall?

History shows, though, that LSU might not have pulled Mettenberger even if it needed to. (See: BCS title game in January, when Mettenberger ironically might have deserved a shot in place of Jordan Jefferson.)

10. Tony Jefferson, S

Went to: Oklahoma

Over: Florida

In fairness, about a half-dozen schools thought they had a shot at Jefferson. But Florida was one of the only programs that wanted him as a running back. And that's an interesting thought.

Let's say Jefferson had gone to Florida, had been a running back -- and had been a good one. Can you envision any circumstance in which Meyer actually stayed at Florida because things continued chugging along in the post-Tebow landscape? Meyer's departure coincided with the Gators' top offensive weaponry jetting to the NFL.

What if there were a new generation of Percy Harvin, in the form of Jefferson? Perhaps Meyer wouldn't have been as quick to leave and, say, Tim Beckman would be coaching at Ohio State.

That's a stretch on top of a stretch, but it's a fun one to let simmer.

As it is, Jefferson has been a key component to Oklahoma's defense -- which was enjoying a rebound until the fourth quarter against Golson and the Irish. Regardless, Jefferson's instincts will make him a nice pro, and the Sooners a possible BCS at-large team.