If Florida State secures a changing-of-the-guard victory at Clemson this weekend, the No. 4 Seminoles and unranked Tigers will both be able to point to the same reason why FSU is a College Football Playoff contender and Dabo Swinney’s reign is slipping.
The transfer portal.
FSU’s Mike Norvell uses the portal as well as any coach in the country. Swinney barely touches it. Though it’s overly simplistic to call transfers the only explanation why the ‘Noles and Tigers appear headed in opposite directions, the philosophical differences are clear. So are their effects.
Florida State’s transfer success is hard to overstate:
• Norvell didn’t sign quarterback Jordan Travis (a Louisville transfer under the last regime) but has developed him into a star.
• The ‘Noles and Michigan are the only teams to have a player catch three touchdowns in a game and another rush for three scores in a game. Both are transfers — Keon Coleman (Michigan State) and Trey Benson (Oregon).
• All five game captains have been from the portal.
• Transfers account for seven of the Seminoles’ eight rushing touchdowns, eight of their 10 passing touchdowns, six of their 10 receiving touchdowns and their lone defensive score.
The highlights in FSU’s back-to-back top-10 transfer classes are impressive enough, but there are two noteworthy factors, starting with depth. Norvell has signed 26 transfers over the past two cycles; 16 of them have started at least one game this season or are expected to start Saturday (including returners Winston Wright and Caziah Holmes). Two more were starters last year, and a third (Tampa native Kayden Lyles) might have started, too, had a preseason injury not derailed his career.
The other consideration is longevity. Though some of FSU’s additions have been one-year rentals, most aren’t. Captain Fabien Lovett (Mississippi State) is in his fourth year as an FSU contributor. Linebacker Tatum Bethune (UCF) was FSU’s No. 2 tackler this year and leads the team this fall. The ‘Noles were also fortunate to get a second season out of future pros Johnny Wilson and Jared Verse.
FSU’s approach hasn’t necessarily been by design. In his December 2019 introductory news conference, Norvell welcomed “every high school coach in the state of Florida to come be a part of getting this program back to where it deserves to be” but never used the words “transfer” or “portal.”
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“For us, we have to be willing to adapt …” Norvell said this spring.
Norvell, clearly, has adapted, supplementing talented high school recruits like Pinellas Park’s Lawrance Toafili with transfers like Benson.
Swinney has not.
Clemson’s only scholarship transfer is third-string quarterback Paul Tyson (Alabama/Arizona State). Its only portal addition in 2022 was reserve quarterback Hunter Johnson — who signed with the Tigers out of high school, transferred to Northwestern then returned to Clemson.
Swinney has consistently defended his approach, including at the ACC’s preseason football kickoff.
“Evaluation and development and retention has been how we’ve won at Clemson,” Swinney said then.
Swinney is correct. He and his staff have won seven of the last eight ACC titles because they’ve identified and cultivated talent well while keeping prospects around long enough to grow them into stars. The retention piece is key; because Clemson doesn’t lose starters to other programs, the Tigers have fewer holes to plug through the portal.
“We’re still signing the best high school players in the country,” Swinney said. “I mean, listen, I would go sign (all-ACC defensive lineman) Tyler Davis and (fourth-year starting center) Will Putnam and (quarterback) Cade Klubnik over anybody right now. These are great, great players.”
The problem is that Swinney could have more of them. Clemson’s receivers have looked pedestrian since their position coach, Jeff Scott, left for USF. A group that totaled only 159 yards in a season-opening loss to Duke could have used a big body like FSU’s Johnny Wilson (from Arizona State) or a dynamic weapon like Coleman, the former Spartan and current ‘Nole.
In an era where too many coaches and players have become mercenaries, Swinney’s loyalty and belief in his players are admirable. But they become a competitive disadvantage if Swinney isn’t willing to replace them with capable transfers.
Though it’s a sticky subject, it’s one Norvell has navigated as well as anyone — which is why he and his ‘Noles are poised to replace Swinney’s Tigers as the ACC’s premier program.
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