college football

College Football’s Transfer Portal

The transfer portal has been transformative for college football. With the ease it has allowed high profile players like Jalen Hurts or Justin Fields to shine. It has also brought more pressure on coaches to give younger players playing time and meaningful minutes. It is not a reach to say that every player is now at the highest flight risk ever. Most players leave in search of more playing time and now with (potentially) no loss of eligibility upon transferring it is even more enticing to seek a new team.

The old ways of a recruit sitting behind a stater for a year or more is gone. Take for instance Jack Tuttle with the University of Utah. He was a highly touted player and decided to leave for Indiana after not getting enough playing time. Conversely on the coaches side, Utah had several wide receivers transfer this year that presumably led to the firing of wide receivers coach Guy Holliday. There will be further scrutiny on who is responsible for keeping players happy. Cool locker rooms and cash in McDonalds bags aren’t always enough.

This brave new world of transfers started in the 2018-2019 academic year. Prior to that, information and transparency on the number of players looking for a new home is sparse. So, it is hard to say definitively if there is more interest after the rule change. That being said, has a list of recruits that have put their name into the transfer database. It is not always clear where the players ended up, but I used this data source to collect the volume of player wanting out and thereby affecting the teams and conferences.

Some key findings:

  • From 2019 to present, there have been over 1,000 college football athletes looking for a new spot from 241 total teams
  • Of those reported players to transfer over 83% of them found themselves in an equal or lowered level conference
  • Just 16% of all players found themselves in a better conference
  • The American Conference leads all other conferences with 196 total transfers received
  • The ACC leads all other conferences with 278 transfers out
  • Tennessee has experienced a mass exodus with 38 total players finding new homes, 24 of which happened in 2021; the next closest mass wave was Penn State in 2019 with 18 players

Better Circumstances?

Under 50% of those players who enter the portal are reported to find a new school, however the majority of the time players are going to a lesser conference. A downgrade would be going from a P5 school to a mid major or FCS school. An upgrade would be going in the other direction. I should note that for simplicity, I gave the SEC the highest grade. If a player went from the Pac-12 to the SEC it would be considered an upgrade. An equal opportunity would be going from the Big 10 to the ACC or American to the MAC. Again, for simplicity that is the rules.

  • From 2019 to Present here are the stats:
    • Almost 32% of the time, players transferred to a lesser conference
    • About 42% of the players went to an equal opportunity
    • Only 26% of the players upgraded to a better conference

Keeping it in the family

Intra transfers are not all the common, with just 10% of transfers staying within the conference. The majority of players are headed to conferences that are not national powerhouses, like Jackson State that has taken in 14 players this year alone or Nicholls State that had 10 players in 2020.

70% of intra conference transfers happen in the P5

I would assume that when a player is looking outside of the program they are looking for an entirely new scene. A transfer is a fresh start after all. I’d imagine it is much more refreshing to start in a completely new place with zero similarities to a previous place.

Where are they going? Where are they coming from?

More minutes? Head to “Other”

So, if not intra conference, then where are the players going? Again, the majority of the time to lower divisions. Only 35% of all transfers happened in the P5. My first thought after looking at the table was that including the Other group was misleading. Surely they had more players and thereby skewing the numbers, but the chart shows where players are going to, not where they are originating from.

Most transfers are gone without a reported success
Of those with success, 65% are in lower conferences and divisions

Why Leave?

Less than 2% of college football athletes will go pro. The average career for an NFL player is less than three years. So, why leave a program for more playing time in a more than likely equal or worse competition? Why start over at another school when the reality is a player will need a college education for the work force after playing college football.

From looking at the data I would argue there are two main reasons:

  1. Players are in a think now mentality and want to play. The vast majority are not improving their competition. They are betting on standing out immediately. Aside from players thinking they are just an opportunity away from making it to the NFL, I think it’s about seeing the rewards of putting in the work. What is the point of grinding it out week after week to just sit on the bench?
  2. Over 40% of the players that enter the draft portal do not find a home. Being patient is hard, but I wonder if the portal could be a mechanism for leverage.

I will be curious how the rest of 2021 plays out and the ongoing years.

Leave a Reply