When four of the finest players in college football got together in Times Square in early December for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, it was hard not to notice that three of them were quarterbacks playing for teams other than the ones they joined out of high school. Oregon’s Bo Nix started at Auburn. Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. began at Indiana. And LSU’s Jayden Daniels, who won the award, had gotten to Baton Rouge by way of Arizona State. (He followed 2022 winner Caleb Williams, an Oklahoma Sooner-turned-USC Trojan who defied a lot of conventions about how stars in this sport once acted.)
When the College Football Playoff comes around on New Year’s Day, Penix will face off with Texas QB Quinn Ewers (formerly of Ohio State). One of them will play for the national title a week later in Houston. Meanwhile, the undefeated team that lost a spot in the first true controversy of the Playoff era relied on transfers more than arguably anyone else. Quarterback Jordan Travis, whose broken leg the selection committee cited as a reason to keep the Seminoles out, started his career at Louisville. His two superstar receivers, Johnny Wilson and Keon Coleman, came from Arizona State and Michigan State. Elite pass-rusher Jared Verse, holding things down on the other side of the ball, began at Albany. Together they led a 13-0 season.
It has all been building for a while, but 2023—more than any other year—was the moment transfer players became arguably more important than anyone else in college football. A record 20 percent of rosters were made up of them, and their impact often felt a lot more substantial than that. At the highest echelons of college ball, the past few years also brought a measure of old-fashioned roster management. Every elite team relies on transfers to some extent, but between 2020 and ‘22, only one of the 12 teams to make the College Football Playoff did so with a transfer throwing the ball—2020 Ohio State, which had former Georgia Bulldog Justin Fields running and slinging it. Transfers have reshaped the product on the field, but that only happened because they also shifted something else—a once-intractable power dynamic. Schools used to have nearly total control of their players. The portal has changed that. Rapidly.
The trend toward transfer dominance has been years in the making. In 2018, under pressure from politicians and a college sports press corps advocating for more player agency, the NCAA created the transfer portal, a central database where athletes could declare their intention to transfer and invite suitors to recruit them. The Star Wars-sounding name was fitting: The NCAA doing something to facilitate more freedom of movement for athletes really did have the feel of science fiction. In 2021, the association did away with a rule that required most players to sit out a year of competition after changing schools.
And this year, leaders formally scrapped a policy that limited football teams (in general) to adding 25 new scholarship players per year. That cap had served as a check on coaches taking too many transfers, lest they not have room to bring on recruits out of high school in any given season. But when Deion Sanders got to Colorado, he put 86 new players on a 110-man roster in just one offseason. It was unparalleled, and nobody made 2023 The Year of the Transfer more than Sanders. Colorado, ironically, finished 4-8. It turned out that elite offensive linemen were hard to find via the portal.
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