The NCAA’s proposal to allow every athlete to change schools once without sitting out is designed to address a transfer system one conference commissioner calls “unsustainable.”
But if the change is approved in April and implemented for the 2020-21 academic year, there’s a chance it fixes one of the other major problems facing college athletics.
College football’s lack of parity.
The proposal, announced Tuesday, would give a one-time waiver for transfers to be immediately eligible with their new team, as long as they get a release from their previous school, leave in good standing and maintain academic progress.
It would end arbitrary decisions on which hardships deserve waivers and eliminate the hypocrisy of watching a coach ditch one program for another without problem while a player who makes the same move sits out a year.
It all sounds great in theory. But the unintended consequences could make it even better for the sport as a whole.
The obvious worry is that the lack of transfer restrictions leads to a college version of free agency, where low-level teams see their top players poached by big-name programs. It’s a valid concern, because it already happens; the rich have gotten richer by plundering smaller schools’ rosters.
After receiver Gehrig Dieter had a 1,000-yard season at Bowling Green, Nick Saban took him as a grad transfer at Alabama; Dieter was a key contributor on the Crimson Tide team that played for the 2016 national title in Tampa. Mason Halter started 13 games at offensive tackle for Florida in 2015 after the Gators plucked him from Fordham. The SEC’s top kicker in 2018, Cole Tracy, started at Assumption College before starring at LSU.
Of course this trend will continue with relaxed transfer rules. But almost every addition will have a subtraction. The talent will flow the other way, too, in ways that could benefit the Gators and Seminoles as well as USF and UCF.
The top teams in the sport remain at the top because they dominate recruiting. The last four recruiting cycles have produced 126 five-star recruits. Almost half (61) signed with either Georgia, Ohio State, Alabama or Clemson. Those four teams have all finished in the top eight in each of the last three seasons and — spoiler alert — should all finish in the top eight this season, too.
If players no longer risk a year of ineligibility by transferring, maybe some of the elite talent stuck on the bench at those powerhouses will be more likely to look for a new school. The transfer portal, then, could become a way for college football to redistribute its recruiting wealth and allow other programs to start challenging for championships.
Like Florida, which hasn’t recruited at a top-five level but has landed blue-chip transfers from Ohio State (receiver Trevon Grimes) and Georgia (linebacker Brenton Cox). Or LSU, which won this year’s national title thanks to its transcendent transfer, former Buckeyes quarterback Joe Burrow.
It’s easy to see Group of Five programs benefiting, too, because they already are.
USF’s dozen Power Five transfers included including leading rusher Jordan Cronkrite (UF) and two of its top three tacklers, Devin Studstill (Notre Dame) and Patrick Macon (Oklahoma State). The Bulls could be even better positioned this offseason thanks to new coach Jeff Scott; maybe some of the high-end players he evaluated or recruited as a Clemson assistant will be looking for fresh starts, especially if they can play immediately.
The proposal won’t be enough to overhaul college football as a whole. It will still be ruled by the same dozen bluebloods that have ruled it for decades.
But it could inject a little bit of parity into a sport that needs it.