Clemson, the reigning Atlantic Coast Conference champion, has one player on its depth chart who arrived in Death Valley via the transfer portal: The backup quarterback.
No. 4 Florida State is trying to reclaim the ACC crown from the Tigers, and has used the portal to supercharge a rebuild under coach Mike Norvell. Most of the Seminoles’ best players used to play at other schools.
Seminoles vs. Tigers is one of several huge matchups this weekend in college football and one that feels like a referendum on roster management in the sport’s new era.
Clemson sits right outside the AP Top 25, having already taken a loss that again sparked questions about whether Coach Dabo Swinney’s program is working the transfer market aggressively enough since the rules changed in 2021.
“Do I prefer the portal? No, but am I opposed to it? No, absolutely not,” Swinney said the day after the Tigers were upset at Duke.
He better not be because through three weeks of this season the transfer portal appears to be one of the big winners.
Whether it’s Florida State re-emerging as a national power, Deion Sanders’ extreme makeover at Colorado, Texas State’s stunning upset of a Big 12 team or a Pac-12 resurgence fueled by transfer quarterbacks, reasons to embrace college football free agency are everywhere.
“I do think there is a bit of a narrative out there, the portal is not sustainable,” Florida State general manager of personnel Darrick Yrary said. “Well, it’s only been around for a little bit. I don’t think anyone really knows what it is and what it isn’t. But we’re trying to field the best football team every single year. So whatever avenue that does come from we want to make sure our hat’s in the ring for that.”
According to SportSource Analytics, the percentage of production by transfers has increased across major college football compared with last season in every category, from games started to yards gained passing, rushing and receiving to tackles, sacks and interceptions.
Colorado is likely contributing to that trend as much as any school in the country.
Sanders made headlines by flipping Colorado’s roster with the most aggressive use of the portal since the NCAA changed its rules three years ago to allow all football players to transfer one time as an undergraduate without sitting out a season.
The Buffaloes have 87 new players, 58 of them transfers, including quarterback Shedeur Sanders, the coach’s son; two-way star Travis Hunter; and leading receivers Xavier Weaver and Jimmy Horn.
No. 19 Colorado (3-0) has already tripled its win total from last season and heads to No. 10 Oregon on Saturday as one of the biggest stories in sports.
Colorado is one of eight ranked teams in the Pac-12, which is having an ironic renaissance before 10 of its members depart for other conferences. Six of this weekend’s ranked-vs.-ranked matchups are Pac-12 games.
Of the league’s eight ranked teams, six are starting transfers at quarterback. Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams of No. 5 USC, No. 8 Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Oregon’s Bo Nix all arrived via the portal last season and blossomed into stars.
Nationally, the top nine quarterbacks and 16 of the top 20 in yards passing per game transferred to their current schools.
Some coaches bristled about Sanders running players off at Colorado to clear roster spots for more transfers, even though it was within the rules for a new coach. No one can argue with the results.
“You take a team that’s won one game, and you fired a whole coaching staff. So who did the coaching staff recruit? The kids. So the kids are just as much to blame as the coaching staff,” Sanders said on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” “I came to the conclusion that a multitude of them couldn’t help us get to where we wanted to go.”
The second-largest transfer class (39) coming into this season belonged to Texas State. New coach G.J. Kinne said one of the reasons he brought in so many transfers was because many of the better players from last year’s 4-8 team decided to … transfer.
Kinne decided a slow rebuild through high school recruiting at a program with little history of success would be difficult.
“The best way to do it is to win. That helps recruiting, that helps your fanbase, that helps NIL,” Kinne said. “So for me it was like, let’s get the best players that we possibly can and go try to make a statement Year 1.”
Texas State (2-1) opened the season by beating Baylor 42-31, the program’s first victory against a Power Five conference team.
Kinne’s comments echo that of Florida State coach Mike Norvell, who took over beleaguered blue blood in 2020.
After his team went 3-6 that first season, Norvell used the portal to accelerate a turnaround. Florida State jumped to 5-7 in 2021, and then won 10 games last season before starting this season by routing LSU on Labor Day weekend.
Star quarterback Jordan Travis transferred to FSU under the previous coaching staff, but the team’s best two wide receivers, top two tight ends, leading rusher and four of its best offensive linemen transferred in under Norvell.
The defense is loaded with transfers, too. None better than defensive end Jared Verse, who arrived from FCS school Albany. Verse is among 12 players on Florida State’s roster who transferred in and stuck around for multiple years.
Ask coaches and staffers about transfers and will inevitably talk turns to fit and whether a player is a good match for the team’s culture. Sanders, again, pushes back against convention.
“I don’t care about culture,” Sanders said earlier this year. “I don’t even care if they like each other, I want to win.”
Most coaches prefer to have a previous connection between a transferring player and someone on their staff — but they can’t afford to limit themselves. The occasional leap of faith is required.
That’s how Kinne landed starting quarterback T.J. Finley, who was previously at LSU and Auburn.
“It’s scary,” Kinne said.
Money helps, too.
Kinne said a Texas State donor stepped up with a contribution to the collective that supports Bobcats athletes with name, image and likeness compensation, and he believes it helped the program land a couple of its best transfers.
The Battle’s End, the collective that supports Florida State football, is considered one of the best run in country.
“We’ve got a tremendous amount of support around our program,” Norvell told AP.
Florida State brought in 15 transfers in the 2023 recruiting cycle, not a particularly high number. The Seminoles were about on par with USC, LSU, Miami, UCLA and Texas A&M. The success rate is what stands out.
“It’s about about finding the best fit for Florida State,” Norvell said. “And to me, it doesn’t matter the path that somebody takes to get here.”
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