How New Transfer Rules Will Change College Sports As We Know It

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Welcome to the new age of college football and basketball.

Starting this offseason the NCAA has passed a free one-time transfer rule, meaning that players in the sports of football and basketball can now transfer without having to sit out a year. Before this rule change the only way an athlete could transfer without sitting out was to be a graduate transfer or to obtain a waiver from the NCAA itself. This process of obtaining a waiver is notoriously inequitable as was demonstrated by the Brock Huffman and Justin Fields decisions in 2018. With this new rule, the sports will enter a new age of roster building and championship contention.

Even though the Alabamas and the Ohio States of the world have yet to do much more than cherry pick a prospect or two, the transfer portal has become a tool and a weapon for the rest of college football. Teams like the 2020 Rutgers team laid the foundation for the system by using a myriad of grad-transfers (and others who were able to obtain an immediate eligibility waiver) to lead them to one of their best seasons since joining the Big Ten. They showed the rest of the sport how the portal can be utilized for hole patching, cutting dead weight, and program building. 

Beginning with those programs like Rutgers who are either rebuilding or retooling, many programs have taken advantage of this one-time transfer rule to bring in players who have multiple years of eligibility, not just graduate transfers. Michigan State is a perfect example of this. Mel Tucker and his Spartans have added older players like senior and former three year starter at quarterback for Temple, Anthony Russo, and have added players with multiple years of eligibility remaining like soon to be junior Kenneth Walker who, as a sophomore, rushed for thirteen touchdowns in seven games. All together Tucker has brought in nearly 20 transfers this offseason in an effort to revitalize the once proud MSU football program. 

Other teams have utilized the portal to just fill a need or two like the University of Michigan. Jim Harbaugh’s only transfer additions have been former Texas Tech starter Alan Bowman who will compete immediately for the starting quarterback job next fall with returner Cade MacNemara, and former Oregon State defensive tackle Jordan Whittley who is also expected to compete for playing time right away. Many programs like Michigan are still opting instead to rely on more conventional methods like high school recruiting for roster building like Wisconsin or Indiana.

Like it or not, the advent of the one-time transfer rule will change the balance of college football long term. Teams at the bottom will ride it to the middle of the pack or better and teams that fire coaches or are involved in scandals will likely suffer massive personnel losses sinking them to the bottom of the sport. Elite teams will be robbed of depth as the proverbial “next man up” may leave to become the “first man up” at a different school. Schools will be more inclined to “cut dead weight” and show underdeveloped players the door to make room for more impactful additions. If they haven’t already, chances are your favorite school is soon to be creating its own transfer portal scouting department in addition to the already existing high school department. Recruiting services are already beginning to introduce transfer portal players rankings, just like they have for high school prospects. 

The same phenomenon is unfolding for college basketball as well. As of April 13th there were nearly 1,300 players in the college basketball transfer portal. For reference there had never been over 1,000 players in the portal at any given time before. For many teams though, the transfer portal is not a new system. Last year the sport observed a number of grad-transfers and former sit-out transfers dominate the sport at places like Michigan, Houston, and Alabama. National Champion Baylor was a squad assembled on the backs of former transfers. In the portal teams have found players like a First-Team All-ACC guard, James Akinjo, last year’s third leading scorer in the Big Ten, Marcus Carr, and the Big Ten’s most recent defensive player of the year, Darrell Morsell. A team assembled of only the best players who have been in the portal this offseason would easily dispatch many of the best teams in college basketball history.

The evolution of the portal has already begun to upend the traditional hierarchy of college basketball. While powers like Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan State, and North Carolina have added a transfer or two here or there (like the Spartans addition in former Northeastern sophomore point guard Tyson Walker) and continued to predominantly rely on internal improvement, up and coming teams like Maryland or Vanderbilt and rebuilding squads like Indiana have used to portal to make quick turnarounds and close the gap with their more notable counterparts. 

However, the portal’s impact on college sports is not entirely positive. The new one-time transfer rule is all but a death sentence for most potential mid-major Cinderella stories. As is evidenced by players like the aforementioned Walker, Horst, and recent Michigan Basketball addition Devante Jones, the top level talent at the mid-major level is leaving in droves. Where before younger players may have stayed put as to avoid sitting out a year and the potential negative implications it has on their professional prospects, now players can step right onto the courts and fields without personal consequence. 

It isn’t just the schools that are taking a hit either, both current college players and high school prospects also look like they are going to be negatively impacted in some ways by this new legislation. Take Rocket Watts for example. Watts (a former MSU basketball guard) entered the portal weeks ago in search of a new home after finding that Izzo’s Spartans may not have been the best fit for him. Watts (at the time of writing), like many, has yet to find a home. There are a limited number of scholarships available at the Power 5 (or 6) level in college sports. What many like Watts are now discovering is that with many of those slots being filled by Group of 5 transfers and incoming freshmen, the grass may not be so green on the other side after all. Even for those with talent like Watts, the opportunities can dry up quickly. Some may get lucky and be able to run back to the comfort of a spot to return to their former school, but in many cases when they left their coaches wasted no time in filling their spot. 

Another phenomenon that the new legislation has caused is the massive number of redshirt freshmen in football entering the portal. Some of these may be genuinely mutual decisions between athletes and school, others no doubt have been “mutual decisions” where a coach felt that the athlete either was not “worthy” of a scholarship based on talent or was not progressing fast enough and “gently” nudged them towards the portal. From a coaches’ perspective, they have no reason to keep a younger project rostered when they could replace them with a readymade contributor who in many cases is just as young, with just as much eligibility left. To players this line of thinking qualifies as betrayal and could be life altering, but in the age of the one-time transfer policy not everything is going to be fair.

Lastly, look at the high school prospects. Every year all schools have a collection of prospects within their class that have the physical traits to be great but lack the fundamental skills to make them an instant contributor. Why would a coach save a spot for a player that they know won’t play for two to three years? Why not use the scholarship on a prospect already in college who has proven themselves at the college level and is looking for a move up the ladder with a year or two of strength and conditioning under their belt? Now of course that won’t always be the case, but what it would mean is that there will be a significant number of high school players in the nation who won’t receive the interest they otherwise would have without this new rule.

So, is the one-time transfer rule a good or bad thing? Honestly, it’s too early to tell. Even once this offseason’s game of musical chairs is over it will be hard to say. One thing, however, that seems certain is that it is here to stay. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the jungle.