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The NCAA Transfer Portal and New Rules Mean Collegiate Money Ball Changes Everything

Wait!... I heard something that most of the angry people didn’t. The Transfer Portal has changed college football (and basketball, btw) but it has now changed it even more. New rules mean that the traditional methods of recruiting and retention are over. What comes next? College Football Money Ball... that’s what.

2019 Spring Game. Transfers show up here, first.
John Schneider - SB Nation

Final stanza of one of the defining song/poems of the 1960’s:

The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast

The slowest now will later be fast

As the present now will later be past

The order is rapidly fadin’

And the first one now will later be last

‘Cause the times, they are a-changin’ – Bob Dylan from “Times, They are a-changin’”

That song is nearly 60 years old, and quite frankly, the singer was a much better poet than crooner, but the point that he was making (we won’t argue whether it is good or bad from his perspective) was that things were changing and perspectives were struggling to keep up.

Buried in the press conference and in particular the opening statement by Whit Babcock was a nugget regarding the transfer portal. Recent events, here at Tech, and actually all over college football got me to thinking about something regarding old Bob Dylan. It also got me to thinking because Whit Babcock isn’t and wasn’t a ‘football guy’. He was a baseball player in college, and frankly baseball is an ‘in the blood’ sort of game. The entire ethos, pathos, and logos of the sport is ingrained and buried into the player from a young age. Well, that set me back on my heels and I started to understand where this light of dawn seemed to be coming up over my event horizon.

Thinking Differently

My son has been imploring to read Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game for years, now. For the unaware it’s principally the story of Oakland Athletics’ GM Billy Beane, and how he figured out how to survive and prosper in the world of baseball free agency. The big issue was to field the best possible team with his limited budget. His solution included a new statistical and scouting approach to baseball based on the Sabermetric analytics. So, sometimes fathers listen to their sons and as time filters out approaches to life, parents manage to figure out that their kids have taught them more than they would like to admit. That golden nugget discussion cropped up in my head as I took a non-prejudiced non-anger filled look at Whit’s presser.

There was a whole lot to unpack, and the perpetually angry crowd will remain so, but those of us who are moderately interested in how things might move forward have noted a few things and Whit shined a light on the first order of college football business; Recruiting.

Folks, listen to old Bob Dylan. (Robert Zimmerman, actually) the times are changing, and changing very rapidly. The old assumptions about college football recruiting and retention have been defenestrated. Those folks thinking that they haven’t will wake up when the suitcase hits the ground, but there are those of us who picked up on the gig, and jumped out of the suitcase being hurled out the window.

From 2020 onward, it’s best to think of college football recruiting as being a variation of “Money Ball”. That means the free agent market is where the attention and analysis will be, not primarily the developmental market. In the case of college football, the “free agent market” will be the transfer portal, and the “developmental market” will be High School and prep schools. The developmental market will still play a part, but it will be a reduced role in building a standard depth chart for the football program.

The New Ground Rules Changed Everything and Not Many Folks have Noticed

First let’s review the big changes and new rules to the already problematic transfer portal:

The official NCAA.org page does some general description, here. What the NCAA Transfer Portal Is... and What It Isn’t

The sort of it is the new ‘automatic waiver’ (Note the Brock Hoffman issue was mentioned as a potential catalyst for the change.) described by the Fighting Irish Wire: NCAA Exploring New Transfer Portal Rules | Fighting Irish Wire (usatoday.com)

An absolutely terrible way of going about transfers, the NCAA has been proposed by the Transfer Waiver Working Group to have all athletes become eligible immediately in their first transfer. There are four of guidelines to be eligible for the one-time transfer exception:

1) The player needs to have an official release from the school

2) The student-athlete must leave academically eligible

3) Their academic standing at the new school must be maintained

4) If they opt to transfer due to a disciplinary suspension, they would not qualify

The net effect of this set of rules is that transfers are immediately eligible to play football from day one of the transfer. There are some other internal guidelines and the messy complicated part of the process is hidden from view (much like the messy contract stuff in pro sports). Fans just get to see the transfer, not all the legal sausage being made behind the scenes. There is also the reality that the athlete need not go to the program principals (coaches) they need only go to the administrator in charge of doing the paperwork to put the player’s name in the portal. So, as of February of 2020, we have what amounts to Collegiate Free Agency.

The New Doesn’t Remove the Old, but Sure Makes Things Different

It’s really important to remember that I am not dismissing high school recruiting. That will still be an important feeder to the process, and still represent a significant portion of the scholarship offers; however, it is going to change the focus of high school recruiting.

There will be a time, in the future, with hybrid squads of mixed transfer and high school developmental talent, that this will all make some sense. What will be the break in point? Some schools will build mixes of 60% high school recruits and 40% transfers. Others will look at immediate needs and flip that ratio. It will depend on the number of available scholarships, and the immediate needs of the team for the upcoming season. On average, with normal generational turnover, there are 17 scholarships available each year (85 scholarships divided by 5 years). There will be some seasons where there are fewer, and other where there will be more. But ultimately a team could eventually be filling its depth chart with proven collegiate level talent with double digit additions to the roster from the Transfer Portal in each season.

There are some really interesting realities that are beginning to dawn on folks regarding grabbing talent out of the Transfer Portal as the way of doing business. Some of the issues to consider are:

  • Quarterback talent is nearly impossible to accurately assess from the High School level. Most “prep” quarterbacks are actually half-backs who occasionally throw the ball to a receiver. They are often the absolute best, most dominant athlete in the program, and their positive attributes are very often artificially highlighted against their negatives.
  • Running Backs can develop slowly but good ones leave fast. A very promising high school running back might be very good right out of the blocks; but in general they are also in great need of development when it comes to reading and keying off of more sophisticated college offenses and defenses. (Remember most high school defenses are just blind ball reacting taxi squads, not dedicated defensive units.) It can take a tailback a couple of years to get good, and then because of the nature of the running back position, they bolt for the NFL if they have those sorts of chops.
  • Linemen on both sides of the ball, fresh out of high school, are usually underdeveloped, physically, and only rudimentarily aware of their jobs. Again the taxi squad high school mentality limits their exposure to more sophisticated techniques and play combinations. While it is best to bring linemen along from scratch, their effective playing time is often limited to the final few years of their program exposure. It would not be surprising to see a developmental/completion churn happen within the lines. Programs would bring up 4 or 5 linemen a year with the realization that only 1 or 2 will stick out their entire 5-year eligibility.
  • There might be a better post secondary program completion rate with Wide Receivers, Linebackers, and Defensive Backs, because most of those players are very aware of their potential for early play and long-term single team performance. If there is a move toward “free agency” in these position groups, it’s going to be in the big money skill positions where they can move up in the NFL visibility quotient by attracting the attention of team in a higher tier conference.
  • Many bolting players are often “stuck” trading down to a “lower tier” team. Sometimes that is a purposeful move, but more often than not it is the result of a miscalculation on the players’ part. With the Transfer Portal beginning to become a more prime market for proven talent, it could very well become the way “up” for some, as well. Prove yourself at the high FCS or G5 level and then get attractive to a P5 team for your final season(s). Any program not taking full advantage of that regarding player personnel decisions is stuck in “oldville”.

There are other factors, but these personnel considerations that seem to stick out the most. We aren’t going to address the ephemera (Name, Image, and Likeness - NIL) issue that we’ll cover in another article. It’s not as straight forward as you like to believe, but too much to cover under this topic.

We’ll see how things shake out, but look to see new and innovative analytical tools to be developed. It’s useful to remember some seriously talented Hokies who appeared out of the portal; Michael Brewer (a Beamer Era find), Braxton Burmeister, Justus Reed, Khalil Herbert, Raheem Blackshear, Brock Hoffman (again, who’s waiver case might have helped to trigger all of this), Jerod Evans, and even Ryan Willis. All of them transferred in. There are more who I am missing, but for all of the complaining about Fuente’s recruiting out of high school, he sure has hit the golden tone out of the Transfer Portal.

Don’t be surprised or dismayed at the current turn of events. And the coaches and Athletic Directors who convert from the old college way, to the new Saber Metric driven free agent “Money Ball” model of player personnel management are going to be the winners, here. Fuente and Babcock look like they are getting ahead of the power curve. Look for some interesting portal pickups in the next few months.

GO HOKIES!!!