College football transfer portal makes rebuilding, bottoming out easier
The transfer window for college football players doesn’t officially open until Dec. 5., but that hasn’t stopped disgruntled wide receivers, linemen, linebackers, QBs, running backs, and every other position from making their intentions known. Per ESPN, there were 3,085 transfers in 2021-22, almost double the previous season when 1,695 players switched teams. Eventually, that number will plateau because there are only so many football players, but the turnover isn’t going anywhere.
Certain coaches have found success with the portal, opting to bring in experienced players over high school recruits. It worked for Mel Tucker at Michigan State two years ago, and that approach also is a big key to UCLA’s success this season under Chip Kelly. Sustainability might be an issue though as the Spartans went from 11 wins to five after the offense cratered with the departure of Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III and his 1,600 yards and 18 TDs.
Michigan State’s season has been a disappointment for sure — evidenced by MSU having more players charged for assault after the U-M game (seven) than wins (five) — but the portal has provided coaches with quicker paths to rebuild or full-blown revolt. Brian Kelly’s season at LSU probably goes dramatically differently without Jayden Daniels. Same for the two years that Josh Heupel got out of Hendon Hooker, who ended up in Knoxville by way of Blacksburg. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Oklahoma.
Not all transfers are created equal, and if you have a bad coach who cultivates poor culture, the losing will persist despite a highly touted QB transferring from a big-name school. I’m not going to rehash that whole column. I’ll just say, good luck keeping your job, Quinn Ewers. That mullet will look great holding a clipboard while highly touted Arch Manning goes 7-5 and Steve Sarkisian gets fired.
The transfer portal has upended college football more so than NIL money, and in a sport where not only do people not give a shit about the rules, they don’t even know them, it’s created the exact kind of chaos we’ve come to expect under the guidance of the NCAA.
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Jordan Addison took his talents to Southern California beaches after winning the Biletnikoff, and it was undeniably a great football decision considering Kenny Pickett is in the NFL, and Caleb Williams is a year away from being the No. 1 pick. He wasn’t going to stick around Pitt to catch balls from Kedon Slovis, nor was he going to go to USC when Slovis was getting reps and before they hired Lincoln Riley. However, Addison is a first-round pick, and it’s onto the next receiver for Williams.
Drew Pyne is the starter at Notre Dame, whose season isn’t even over, and he’s on his way out. Everything you need to know about the NCAA’s incompetence can be found in this decision to make the transfer portal window the same timespan as bowl season.
If you thought tampering was bad in the NBA, have you seen how much college kids are on their phones? Coaches have been conditioned to exploit every loophole, and it’s not a surprise that Lane Kiffin dubbed himself the “Portal King.” The guy has been mingling with various nefarious characters for two decades, and there’s no doubt he’s constantly greasing his way into the messages of other program’s players regardless of what the rules say. The NCAA probably sent out the regulations in an email at 5 p.m. on a Friday, and by that time Kiffin is already in the middle of trying to figure out his weekend visor lineup.
Auburn just hired a guy who repeatedly lied about violations at Ole Miss to the point that he got sued for it, and an investigation found that he essentially had an escort service on speed dial. But Hugh Freeze is perfect for college football. He’s charismatic, willing to do anything to win, including lying to people’s faces, and builds a pretty competent program.
If you’re Auburn and need a little extra to compete with Nick Saban in Alabama, why not eschew character for a snake oil salesman? Shit, look at how great Bruce Pearl has worked out for the basketball team. Might as well try that method in football.
Established coaches like Saban, Kelly, or Kirby Smart complain about the transfer portal and NIL deals because they can no longer be tyrants. Kids can check out whenever they want and seek a transfer. They might have to wait until arbitrary dates to make the jump official, but quiet quitting can apply to more situations than just work.
All a “student-athlete has to do is keep the grades high enough to transfer, stay in shape, let little birdies know they’re unhappy, and flirt with thirsty suitors — whether it’s a coaching staff or a coed.
And for coaches who can’t compete with Ohio State, Clemson, and the like on the high school recruiting trail, why not try to bring in reduced assets? Trey Palmer was an afterthought at LSU, and broke Nebraska’s single-season mark for receiving yards this season. He almost got Mickey Joseph the full-time job. (Thank god he didn’t because, what the fuck, man?)
Coaches still have to prioritize scholarships between new recruits and transfers, so Dabo Swinney can stay loyal to his recruiting classes all he wants, but the program may slip because of it. Alabama’s best skill player this year has been Jahmyr Gibbs, who came over from Georgia Tech. He’s also probably transferring to the pros in a month or so.
It’s never been easier to build or bottom out a program, which is why Deion Sanders probably could turn around Colorado in two years, and then leave it so barren a vulture couldn’t even get a snack when he goes to Florida State. Mario Cristobal got his dream job after three seasons at Oregon, just went 5-7 at Miami, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was 10-3 or 3-9 next year.
That’s why people are so uncertain about the future of college football. It feels like if the sport was an elementary school and a responsible adult walked into a classroom, they’d immediately call social services on the NCAA.