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Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Luke McCaffrey running with the ball against the Penn State
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

No Power 5 Program Has Dealt with the Portal More than Nebraska

January 31, 2021

Nebraska’s pathway to a strong recruiting class is inherently littered with obstacles. They come with the job and any coach who signs on to run the program acknowledges that on day one. 

Nebraska is in the middle of the country, miles and miles away from the stereotypically talent-rich battlegrounds. There is absolutely talent in Nebraska, and it’s starting to get noticed more and more, but, as evidenced by the recruiting profile of Scott Frost’s staff, Nebraska has to cast a large net. 

Which means you’re pulling people from the coasts and from the edges of the country to come play far, far away from home. In a time like this Covid-riddled one we’re living through, guys are going to decide that being close to home is more important than perhaps ever before. Those conversations are happening everywhere. 

Of the 65 Power 5 programs and Notre Dame, the average team has seen nine entries into the transfer portal since Aug. 1, 2020, according to the 247 Sports portal tracker. 

(For the purposes of this piece, moving forward any reference to “P5 programs” is going to include Notre Dame in the calculus. The Irish make this unnecessarily difficult, but just know there are 65 P5 programs as far as this piece is concerned.)

With the transfer portal continuing to grow, departures have become a way of life. From Aug. 1, 2018, to July 31, 2019, P5 programs saw an average of 9.3 entries. From Aug. 1, 2019, to July 31, 2020, programs saw an average of 9.7. From Aug. 1, 2020, to today, the average program has seen 9.3.

On average, teams have lost a total of 28 players to the portal since Aug. 1, 2018. 

The transfer portal hasn’t changed college football for the worse, but it has unequivocally changed college football. 

(People arguing against the portal come off as very anti-player, or they’re a coach, who would obviously be opposed to looser player movement. There does need to be more loyalty to a program from a player, but the scope of player movement probably won’t start to shrink until the “Free Player X from terrible Team Z” culture of the pros goes away. Or until teams show more loyalty to the players. Hand-in-hand.)

The portal has made roster management into an inexact science. Call a guy the future of your program? He still might go portaling. Make a guy the clear and obvious face of your program? He’ll still go portaling. Of course coaches won’t like that. 

Those are Husker examples, however the general plight of Nebraska lately isn’t unique. Twenty P5 programs have seen more entrants into the portal since Aug. 1, 2020, a list that includes good teams in this most recent season like Notre Dame, Oklahoma, and North Carolina. Could be worse. Tennessee is imploding.

But consternation about three more offensive transfers this past week probably isn’t driven by lamenting what might have been Kade Warner’s role in 2021 and now won’t be. If you’re worried, it’s probably because the three this week continued a trend of guys dipping out of the program, and it’s perfectly reasonable to be worried about that. 

Of the 65 P5 programs since Aug. 1, 2018, no one has had more players enter the portal and leave than Nebraska.

The Huskers have lost 45 players to the portal in the last three years.

The bottom 11, with team winning percentage and players lost to the portal in parenthesis:

55. Virginia Tech, 0.514 (40)
      North Carolina, 0.472 (40)
      UCLA, 0.323 (40)
      Rutgers, 0.182 (40)
59. Penn State, 0.686 (41)
      Michigan, 0.656 (41)
61. Arizona State, 0.567 (42)
62. Tennessee, 0.457 (43)
63. Nebraska, 0.375 (45)
      Maryland, 0.345 (45)
      Arkansas, 0.206 (45)

Of the 11 least-stable rosters over the last three years, eight have changed head coaches over the last four years.

And now, for comparison’s sake, the top 26:

1. Northwestern, 0.543 (12)
2. Wisconsin, 0.647 (13)
3. Clemson, 0.929 (14)
    Ohio State, 0.917 (14)
    Pitt, 0.553 (14)
6. Washington, 0.677 (17)
    Stanford, 0.548 (17)
8. Wake Forest, 0.543 (18)
9. Virginia, 0.595 (19)
    Baylor, 0.556 (19)
11. Oregon (20)
      Georgia (20)
13. Indiana (21)
14. Notre Dame (22)
      Iowa State (22)
      Kentucky (22)
      Purdue (22)
      Michigan State (22)
19. Alabama (23)
      Miami (23)
      Boston College (23)
      Ole Miss (23)
      Missouri (23)
24. Minnesota (24)
      USC (24)
      Cal (24)

That list includes only 10 programs who have hired a new coach in the last four years.

At least as it relates to the top of that list, firm footing stands out as a unifying factor. What can you say about Northwestern and Wisconsin on a year-to-year basis? How about what most coaches always say about them: “you know what you’re going to get.”

Clemson and Ohio State are similar. Stanford and Oregon and Georgia and Notre Dame and lately Indiana and Iowa State belong, to varying degrees, in a similar bucket of programs that have a defined and engrained identity. 

Nebraska has no such thing. No such stability. 

The portal situation is problematic in that it’s the latest illustration of that. 

Take each individual case on its own merit. That’s fine. Some losses have been vastly different than others in terms of impact on the field. Wan’Dale Robinson and JD Spielman represent huge production losses. Losing one of them isn’t the same as losing a seldom-used, end-of-the-bench kind of guy. 

Nebraska has experienced both. 

But there’s enough going on here to question why this continues to be an issue. Only 10 P5 programs have lost double-digit guys to the portal in each window. Nebraska is among them. 

Shrugging departures off isn’t the way Nebraska can afford to operate. It can’t be a “we only want guys who want to be here” situation. That no one else has lost more players to the portal should force Nebraska to take a hard look in the mirror and ask “Why don’t guys want to be here?”

A team can’t lose talent to the portal, claim the departures will be “addition by subtraction,” and then claim they’re too young or inexperienced to expect better when the level of play drops later.

A popular comparison made this week was to compare Nebraska to Northwestern. “Look at the Wildcats, the West Division winner; they have seven departures.” They do. Almost all of them will be immediately eligible at their new homes. But Northwestern had five total in the two years prior. Coach Pat Fitzgerald can chalk his losses up to COVID-19 if he so chooses. Nebraska had 34. This is a new phenomena for Fitzgerald, the 2020 Coach of the Year. This is a way of life for Frost.

Winning changes everything. It’s so much easier to hang on to a bench-warming role when you’re getting a ring at the end of the season. When you’re losing and you aren’t playing, it’s much easier to walk away. 

As with so much else in Frost’s program right now, simply winning football games can be an elixir. But perhaps the latest batch of guys to duck out can be an inflection point. Role clarity is needed. 

Luke McCaffrey had a Taysom Hill-lite role against Ohio State and then faded. He got 21 snaps against the Buckeyes despite Adrian Martinez being deemed the starter, and then in the last three games of the year saw seven, two, and zero. 

Marcus Fleming caught five of his eight targets for 75 yards against Northwestern, the second game of his college career. In the three weeks that followed, he made two appearances and saw zero targets. 

The way young players’ roles have been talked about hasn’t matched the roles they’ve actually had. This dates back to the staff’s first few months in Lincoln. 

Did McCaffrey want to play something besides quarterback and Nebraska wouldn’t acquiesce? Did Nebraska want him to move positions and he wanted to stay put? Maybe we’ll get clarity on that in the coming months. An offer to talk about his decision was not responded to. 

What we do know right now is that McCaffrey is the latest in a line of recruiting wins deemed talented enough to change Nebraska’s fortunes who have decided, for one reason or another, to take their careers elsewhere. 

Maybe a more localized recruiting effort changes things going forward. To Frost’s credit, he’s already made plenty of necessary adjustments to unexpected Big Ten speed bumps.

The portal has been a problem for Nebraska, and problems don’t go away by ignoring them.

**Numbers for players in the portal during the latest window were gathered on Thursday, Jan. 28.

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