Free Agency Has Arrived in College Football

The power base in college football is shifting, slowly but surely, in the direction of the players, particularly the quarterbacks.

Litigation is moving through the courts that may provide compensation for student-athletes (more detail to come in a future blog), and two new rules approved by the NCAA during the off-season have combined to give players the freedom to transfer where they want, when they want.

Prior to this year, coaches not only controlled the roster, lineup and playing time, but also could deny players permission to make contact with or transfer to specific schools…in essence, blocking players from transferring to their desired destination. (Coaches, of course, have no such limitations on their movement, other than “buyouts” routinely paid by the hiring school).

Things changed in June, when the NCAA created a new “notification of transfer” rule and a national database. The new rule allows a student-athlete to inform his/her school of a desire to transfer and requires that school to enter the athlete’s name into a national transfer database within two business days. Once the name is in the database, other schools can make contact to discuss a transfer, scholarship, potential playing time, etc.

At the same time the NCAA adopted a more liberal redshirt rule that granted Division 1 football players the right to participate in up to four games in a season without losing a year of eligibility.

The initial thought was that the new rule would let coaches give freshmen some game experience or plug players into holes caused by late-season injuries without burning a year of eligibility.

No one anticipated that the combination of the two rules would lead to in-season transfers.

Then, boom!

The unintended consequences became apparent last week when Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant decided to transfer—four games into the season—after losing his starting job to freshman Trevor Lawrence.

Then, Saturday afternoon, every coach’s nightmare scenario unfolded when Lawrence was injured in a tight game with Syracuse and coach Dabo Swinney had no experienced backup. Despite being down 10 points in the fourth quarter, Swinney got a storybook ending when redshirt freshman Chase Brice (pictured below) led the his team to a comeback victory, keeping the Tigers in the national title chase.

Bryant wasn’t the quarterback everyone expected to transfer this year. That would be Alabama’s Jalen Hurts, who lost his starting job to Tua Tagovailoa after Tagovailoa replaced him in last year’s national championship game and led ‘Bama to the title. Surprisingly, Hurts decided to remain, and Bryant decided to go.

Along with Bryant, about a dozen other players, including prominent wide receivers at Auburn and Oklahoma State, also announced their intention to transfer in week four.

Suddenly, the players—particularly the quarterbacks—have gained a lot of leverage.

As Arizona State coach Herm Edwards says, “It becomes like free agency in pro football."

Yes, it does.

Education? Lost in all this, of course, is the issue of academics. These players are supposed to be student-athletes, yet the “student” part of the equation has been forgotten. Clearly, these players are not going to school for an education, and if the football part doesn’t work out, they’re “outta here.”

Last week: Week 5 of the 2018 college football season was highlighted by two games between top 10 teams—No. 7 Stanford at No. 8 Notre Dame and No. 4 Ohio State at No. 9 Penn State. One was a blowout, the other went down to the wire.

Notre Dame Rolls: Last week Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly benched senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who’d been playing well but had accuracy issues, for Ian Book, a seldom-used redshirt sophomore from Sacramento. The move paid off with Book’s great performance against Stanford.

After a warm-up 56-27 victory over Wake Forest, in which he was responsible for five TDs, Book led the Irish to a shockingly easy 38-17 win over the Cardinal. Notre Dame gained over 550 yards and held Stanford to 229.

And Wimbush didn’t transfer.

Love Struggles: 2017 Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love, who limped off with a sprained ankle in the second half at Notre Dame, hasn’t been the same this year. Sluggish against San Diego State and USC, sidelined by an undisclosed injury against Davis, and cast in a supporting role in the miracle comeback over Oregon, Love has gained only 327 yards so far this season, averaged 4.3 yards a carry, and has no touchdown runs of 50 yards. Last year, he gained 2,118, averaged 8 yards per carry and had an NCAA record 13 TDs over 50 yards.

Teams are stacking the box against Love and the offensive line has been struggling, in part due to injuries and in part due to new blocking schemes resulting from a coaching change. Now, the question is whether Love may have to play the rest of the season on a bum ankle, as he did a year ago.

Worst Call of the Year: Penn State held a 26-14 lead over Ohio State midway through the fourth quarter, thanks to 175 yards rushing and 286 yards passing by sensational quarterback Trace McSorley, before the Buckeyes stormed back to take a 27-26 lead. The Nittany Lions drove downfield to set up a potential game-winning field goal, and faced a fourth and five just past midfield with a minute to go. After two time outs, head coach James Franklin called a handoff to running back Mike Sanders, instead of putting the ball in the hands of McSorley. Sanders was stuffed.

Inexcusable. When the game’s on the line, you make sure your best player has the ball.

After the game, Franklin lamented that his team was “great,” but not yet “elite.” Ohio State, 100,000 fans and a national TV audience might disagree. It may be the coach who isn’t elite.

Undefeated No More: Five turnovers and Oregon’s team speed proved too much for the Cal Bears in a 42-24 loss that dropped them from the national rankings. The game was also a showcase for Oregon QB Justin Herbert, a rare talent who has bedeviled Stanford and Cal in back-to-back stellar performances.

Many scouts rate Herbert the No. 1 QB—and possibly the No. 1 overall pick—in next spring’s NFL draft, and with good reason. In addition to a strong, accurate arm, he has size (6-6, 237), quick feet and the ability to avoid the rush.

Heisman Hype: The early contenders for this year’s Heisman Trophy are all quarterbacks. In addition to Oregon’s Herbert, the others include include Alabama’s Tagovailoa, Penn State’s McSorley, West Virginia’s Will Grier, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//gacavalli49@gmail.com

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