Sunday, April 22, 2018
Colleges

Gators have a football stake in SEC's transfer debate

DESTIN — The identity of Florida's starting quarterback will be shaped by what happens in the next few days in the boardrooms and ballrooms of the Sandestin Hilton.

At issue is a unique wrinkle to the SEC's graduate transfer rule.

If left in place, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks and injured incumbent Luke Del Rio are the top two candidates to take the first snaps against Michigan on Sept. 2.

But if the conference's coaches, athletic directors and power brokers debating in the resort's west wing vote to change the rule, Notre Dame's Malik Zaire could be in the mix, too, when coach Jim McElwain begins his pivotal third season with the blockbuster opener in Arlington, Texas.

"It is a hot topic," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.

And it's one that dates to 2010, when another grad transfer quarterback (Jeremiah Masoli) left Ole Miss after one semester.

The SEC added a rule to discourage future cases like that: If a grad transfer doesn't make adequate academic progress, his program couldn't accept another one for five years. The SEC reduced that period to three years in 2014.

"It's like anything in life," McElwain said. "We have freedom of choice. We don't have freedom of consequence."

McElwain and his staff knew the rule before the 2015 season when they made a choice to accept offensive tackle Mason Halter and Tampa linebacker Anthony Harrell as grad transfers for the 2015 season. Both missed the Citrus Bowl because of academics.

So McElwain is left to face the consequences. That could mean missing out on Zaire, a dual-threat lefty who accounted for eight touchdowns and no interceptions in three starts (17 appearances) before graduating from Notre Dame this month.

And that's why this year's ballroom banter is so important to the Gators. It's the difference between opening against the winningest program in Division I history with a first-time starting quarterback and one who has already beaten Texas and LSU.

"Look, I'm not a great lobbyist anyway for anything," McElwain said. "We'll just do whatever the league says."

The league seems open to change because other conferences don't have the same restriction. Texas and Wisconsin — two other potential Zaire landing spots — could theoretically be in the same academic situation without penalty.

Commissioner Greg Sankey referenced that competitive disadvantage in December before UF met Alabama in the SEC title game. At least four coaches (McElwain, Alabama's Nick Saban, South Carolina's Will Muschamp and Georgia's Kirby Smart) voiced similar concerns Tuesday.

"I think we need to have the same rule as everybody else in college football," said Muschamp, McElwain's predecessor at UF. "I think our league has done an outstanding job of monitoring the transfer policy and I think they are fair, but it is a little bit unfair for us as a league to have a different set of rules than the competition at other places."

Saban likes the idea of academic accountability "because that's supposed to be why the guys are transferring." But …

"I don't think we should penalize ourselves as a league and allow people to transfer other places, but they can't transfer to our league," Saban said. "So if there's some balance we can come up with on that, that's more what I would be for."

The SEC proposal might be that balance. It would reduce the ban from three years to one. That's still a penalty, but it's not as severe — and it would still enable UF to accept Zaire.

"We'll see what happens this week," Sankey said.

KICKING OFF: CBS announced a 3:30 p.m. kickoff for the Sept. 16 UF-Tennessee game. The network also officially announced it will air the Oct. 28 Gators-Georgia game in Jacksonville at 3:30.

Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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