Free agency has arrived in college football. Not everyone is a winner.



As college football enters the second half of the season, it’s no surprise that Southern California has told the most dramatic comeback story.

The Trojans, after all, were the most active Power Five negotiator in the college sports transfer market, according to recruitment site 247Sportswith coach Lincoln Riley picking up 20 players who entered the NCAA transfer portal – including five-star Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams and the nation’s top wide receiver Jordan Addison from Pittsburgh.

From there it was plug-and-play, like Riley, the offensive guru who was lured away from Oklahoma at the end of the 2021 regular season, spurred a revival of the Trojans that made disenchanted fans forget about last season’s 4-8 record. Had it not been for a one-point loss to Utah in its previous game two weeks ago, USC would be heading into Saturday’s game against Arizona with a 7- 0 rather than a 6-1 mark.

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Either way, the Trojans are still alive in the national playoff conversation, as is Williams, who threw for 19 touchdowns (including five against Utah) and rushed for three more. worked his way into the Heisman Trophy consideration.

In two quick seasons, the transfer portal, more than multimillion-dollar coaches or lavish facilities, has become the most powerful tool for turning around the fortunes of teams.

It also made the work of the coaches enormously difficult. They must not only recruit incoming freshmen; they also have to recruit the best prospects that enter the portal each year while convincing their own players to stay.

“You have to be nimble; you have to be active. You can’t just sit down,” said Matt Leinart, former Heisman-winning USC quarterback, college football analyst for Fox. “Every day, you recruit. And you recruit your own kids to stay, which is the hardest part. We talk about it all the time: the transfer portal has become free agency.

The number of Football Bowl Subdivision players entering the portal has increased significantly since the NCAA waived the long-standing penalty of having to sit out one year after transfer. FBS players who entered the portal increased by just over 60%, from 1,583 to 2,538, according to NCAA data.

At the same time, many top athletes are weighing their recently granted right to enjoy their names, images and likenesses. But because neither the NCAA nor Congress has established clear and enforceable rules on NIL agreements, it represents another unregulated frontier for coaches trying to build rosters.

So not only has free agency arrived in college football, it has arrived without any restrictions on the money that boosters or cash-rich collectives can offer potential recruits — at least none that are enforced.

Former US Congressman Tom McMillen, president and CEO of Lead1, which represents athletic directors at FBS member schools, likens the current landscape to the “Wild West”.

“The transfer gate in college sports is pretty much limitless,” McMillen said in a phone interview. “It made possible the looting of schools, the looting of their curricula. And especially with a NIL advantage, it’s unrestricted free agency with payola.

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Riley’s rebuilding through the transfer portal didn’t stop with a star quarterback and wide receiver. He added tackle Bobby Haskins (Virginia), linebackers Romello Height (Auburn) and Shane Lee (Alabama) and defensive end Solomon Byrd (Wyoming, after disowning Georgia Tech).

All moves were in accordance with NCAA rules. Rather, it was a case study of how to leverage the portal not only to refine listings, but also to revise them.

“It’s a different game of football now than it was when Matt [Leinart] and I played,” said Reggie Bush, the former Trojans running back now reunited with Leinart in the Fox analyst booth. “The transfer portal is like college football free agency. We’ve seen some teams hit some of these players, some teams miss, and some are just passive and doing nothing at all.

“You want a coach who can adapt. The game itself is about adjustments. So who can figure out how to adapt to the current state of college football and be successful there as well.

Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin seems to be one such coach. He jumped the gate to land USC quarterback Jaxson Dart, a former four-star rookie, and tight end Michael Trigg, as well as TCU running back Zach Evans in the offseason. The Rebels are off to a 7-1 start and are in contention for the SEC title.

“We’ve filled a lot of holes with transfer portals,” Kiffin told reporters on the eve of the season at SEC media day. “It’s a good system when you lose really good players and haven’t stayed somewhere long enough to develop a lot of depth classes.”

Oklahoma, on the other hand, knows all about raids after losing its starting quarterback after losing its coach to USC.

First-year coach Brent Venables’ rebuilding challenge was further complicated by the early-season injury of new Oklahoma starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel, a transfer from Central Florida, which exposed the danger of have little depth. The Sooners are 4-3with an ugly 49-0 loss to rival Texas.

In an April interview with SiriusXM Radio, Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione sharply criticized the effect the transfer portal and unregulated NIL deals were having on college football coaches, making the job of creation of untenable lists. “It’s ridiculous, to be frank,” he said.

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Kiffin, who has adapted to the transfer portal as well as anyone, also sounded the alarm about the unchecked NIL, which he likened to “legalized cheating” in the amateur arena.

“It’s like a payroll in baseball,” Kiffin said at SEC media day in July. “Which teams win over a long period of time? Teams that have a high payroll and can pay players a lot. We are in a situation which is no different from that. I said Day 1: “You’re legalizing cheating, so be prepared for the people with the most money to have players.” Now you have it.

Now that football coaches have two potentially powerful rebuilding tools — the portal and NIL deals — the demand for overnight success will only increase, McMillen said.

Five FBS coaches have already been fired this season.

“Now when you hire a coach you expect him to be successful no later than the second year.” McMillen said. “If they fail to use the transfer portal, coupled with the NIL, [universities] know they need to find a coach who can do it. You see coaches who are really good at it, like Riley at USC, and others who aren’t so good at it.

“It’s going to have an impact on job security, there’s no doubt about it. And you’re going to see more takeovers; dead money will increase further because you need to be able to max transfer portal and NIL with.


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