Hot Reads: The Tricky Thing About the Transfer Portal
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: The Tricky Thing About the Transfer Portal

May 17, 2019

I guess this should've been easier to see coming, but I definitely didn't when the NCAA announced its new transfer portal policy last year. Like a lot of people, I was focused on what a central database of available players could mean for the future of college football.

Here's what I wasn't focused on: The math of it all. 

As Max Olson of The Athletic detailed in a story this week, the math isn't working out for a lot of players in the portal. Plenty of players are interested in seeking a new opportunity, but those opportunities are way more limited than those players know.

The portal has become an open marketplace struggling with an extremely basic issue: too much supply, limited demand. At just the Power 5 level, more than 450 players have entered the portal, according to 247Sports’ transfer portal tracker. And at the moment, 240 of them are uncommitted. Including Group of 5 players, the total available is far more than 400.

A more telling reality check from this portal era: Of the more than 450 looking to leave Power 5 schools, only 20 percent have ended up at another Power 5 program. Upon hearing that percentage, [Arizona State Coach Herm] Edwards paused and then replied: “I’m actually gonna go tell our team that. I want to make sure they understand this, because I don’t want a kid to be blindsided.”

The math of roster construction has always been something of a strangely inexact science with exact limits in place. Teams are limited to 85 scholarships, but teams can sign up to 25 players each recruiting cycle. Easy enough, but that's a maximum of 100 scholarships that can be offered over a four-year period yet a team can only have 85 scholarship players on the roster at any time. Of course, teams don't sign the maximum every year. They try to recruit to the scholarships available, not allowed, but throw in various other rules that allow for back counting a player and over signing in some cases, and what should be a simple number to hit is more of a moving target.

Coaches have to account for the "breakage" that's going to happen. Players leave, get injured, decide football's not for them, etc. In some cases, they're counting on players entering the portal. The problem when it comes to this player exchange via transfer appears to be that those same coaches aren't counting on addressing immediate needs via the transfer market. It's not to their advantage in many cases.

Talented players will always find a home, but the instances of slam-dunk, this-guy-helps-us opportunities are rare. Most of the time, a staff is still trying to project how a player will fit, how good he actually is. It's little different than recruiting outside of the players in question having some college experience under their belts. But if a coach is going to have to probe and project the same way he would with a transfer as he would in recruiting, does it make more sense to invest that time and training in a player he'll have for four years or a player with just a few years (at best) available?

So far, it looks like coaches are more comfortable with the traditional way of building a roster. Having a way to see all of the options available is great. Doesn't mean the coaches have to use it.

Poking around the transfer tracker is an interesting experience. You get a real sense for just how many guys are out there and you can see just how many (or how few) of them have found a landing spot. It's still pretty early for Nebraska's recent transfers, but Breon Dixon, Quayshon Alexander and Caleb Lightbourn are still looking for a place to play. Cam Jones announced he was headed to SMU this week, but Guy Thomas and Justin McGriff, two players who announced their departures at the end of last season, are, like a lot of players right now, still looking for the next stop.

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