Kirby Smart built the roster that took No. 1 Georgia to Monday’s College Football Playoff national championship game the old-fashioned way. He signed one elite high school recruit after another. It’s the same formula Nick Saban has used at Alabama and the same one Billy Napier is trying at Florida.
TCU’s blueprint is different. And, if you’re a fan of Florida State, USF, UCF or anyone outside the usual suspects, encouraging.
The No. 3 Horned Frogs have been among the most active and successful miners of the transfer portal. Of the 13 transfers Sonny Dykes added last cycle, 10 have played in at least a dozen games, including all-Big 12 cornerback Josh Newton (Louisiana Monroe), starting center Alan Ali (SMU) and leading tacklers Johnny Hodges (Navy) and Mark Perry (Colorado).
That new-age approach has the Frogs on the verge of becoming the first team to portal their way to a national championship. They might not be the last.
Old way, new way
To understand TCU’s breakthrough, you first have to understand the traditional approach to roster management — the one the Frogs will see on the other sideline at SoFi Stadium.
Smart, like Saban, Dabo Swinney and virtually every other championship coach of the modern era, constructed his team with high school recruits. He stockpiled talent and depth, redshirting players when necessary, and developed blue-chip prospects into NFL draft picks.
For years, Dykes recently explained to The Athletic, there was no viable alternative. Until the transfer portal.
”So what happens is,” Dykes told the site, “that opens the door for maybe non-traditional programs to be able to acquire players in a different way, which is kind of what we did.”
Dykes’ previous stops forced him to learn how to land talent differently. Louisiana Tech wasn’t going to crack the top 25 through the traditional model, so Dykes grabbed players from junior colleges to get the Bulldogs nationally ranked for the second time in program history.
A handful of his SMU starters were Dallas-Fort Worth natives who signed elsewhere out of high school but returned home as transfers. His 30-18 run was the Mustangs’ best since the 1980s.
At TCU, Dykes inherited a roster with promising pieces but too many holes, especially on defense. He looked everywhere to fill them. Big schools like Texas (tight end Jared Wiley). Small schools like Stephen F. Austin (defensive lineman Caleb Fox). Great programs like Georgia (defensive lineman Tymon Mitchell). Bad ones like UConn (linemen Robby Rochester and Lwal Uguak).
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The Frogs’ collective contributions from transfers: 7 touchdowns, 250 tackles (25 for a loss), 15 pass breakups and 6 quarterback hurries across 145 appearances (58 starts).
“Had we not been able to add those 13 transfers …” Dykes told The Athletic, “we would have been in trouble defensively.”
But with those 13 transfers? TCU held its own against Michigan’s elite offensive line to earn a shot at the program’s first national title in 84 years.
Can it work here?
Though TCU’s philosophy has been a success regardless of what happens Monday, it’s too early to tell whether it can be a viable, championship-contending formula elsewhere.
“I think all of us are learning as we go along here,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said.
If there’s a lesson in the Frogs’ rise, Michigan State represents a cautionary tale. The Spartans used an influx of transfers to finish in the top 10 last season but sputtered to 5-7 this fall.
Herbstreit primarily views the portal as a tool for coaches to overhaul their roster in their first few years. After that, he thinks successful programs will only use it for specific needs. Georgia has only one notable transfer: former West Virginia defensive back Tykee Smith.
“I think that’s more sustainable,” Herbstreit said. “I think that’s probably where people will eventually get.”
We know it works at blueblood programs like Alabama and Georgia. But what about everybody else?
Though Florida State isn’t a “non-traditional program,” as Dykes called TCU, the Seminoles haven’t recruited at an elite level under Mike Norvell. They have, however, used the portal as well as anyone. Nine Norvell transfers received at least honorable mention all-ACC recognition this season, including Jared Verse, a potential first-round pick from Albany. FSU’s 2023 transfer class is ranked No. 1 nationally by 247Sports with five of the site’s top 50 prospects; that should push the ‘Noles into the preseason top 10.
UCF and USF are non-traditional programs that, like TCU, embrace transfers. UCF got starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee from Mississippi and top running back Isaiah Bowser from Northwestern. The Bulls have viewed the portal as a vital way to add local talent they failed to land in high school. If the Frogs can piece together a playoff roster through the portal, why can’t USF or UCF — especially once the CFP expands to 12 teams in 2024?
“I do think that you’re going to start to see more teams like TCU, you know, to get on stages like this,” Dykes told The Athletic.
Maybe even some from this state.
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