DESTIN, Fl. — The Southeastern Conference spent last offseason tussling with questions about graduate transfers. University of Alabama coach Nick Saban fielded his fair share of questions about it last summer.
A year later, the SEC is back to talk it over again. Saban’s talking points haven’t changed.
“I’ve never been in favor of free agency in our league,” Saban said on Tuesday. “I don’t think that’s a good thing. I wasn’t for it last year. I don’t think I’ll ever be for it.”
The graduate transfer issue means something to Saban partly because of Maurice Smith. The defensive back transferred from Alabama to Georgia to play last season with a waiver from the SEC. The issue means something this week because of Florida and quarterback Malik Zaire. The two situations aren’t identical, but both could be examples as the SEC reviews its policies on graduate transfers.
Zaire is eligible to play immediately under NCAA rules after graduating from Notre Dame. He has expressed interest in Florida. But the Gators are currently unable to accept his transfer because of an SEC penalty. The Gators’ last graduate transfers in 2015 didn’t complete their academic requirements, which imposed a three-year ban on the school from accepting other graduate transfers.
Other conferences don’t have similar rules. That leaves McElwain and some other SEC coaches wondering why the league has voluntarily submitted to a rule that could put it at a disadvantage to other conferences.
“If we have rules in the Southeastern Conference that are different than the other conferences that we’re playing against and competing against, it kind of… I don’t know what we’re trying to prove there maybe,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said.
The SEC is considering three different changes to graduate transfer policies. One would allow graduate transfers within the conference. Another would allow graduate transfers from players who haven’t earned all of their APR points, which is currently required. The final change would reduce the penalties on schools if players don’t meet their academic requirements, which could permit Florida to land Zaire. That change would reduce the penalty from three years to one year.
South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said Tuesday he wants the SEC to have the same rules found elsewhere in college football. He said he’d also be open to allowing graduate transfers move from one SEC school to another.
Smith had graduated from Alabama and wanted to play for Georgia last season. After an extended public battle, the SEC allowed Smith to play immediately.
“I don’t know what advantage was created by all that,” Saban said. “I don’t know who won any more games or lost any more games because of that.”
Georgia did get at least some benefit from Smith’s transfer. Alabama may have gotten a bump, too. The Bulldogs beat Auburn 13-7 on Nov. 12 thanks largely to an interception Smith returned for a touchdown. That game clinched the SEC West for Alabama in advance of the Iron Bowl.
But Smith went undrafted and signed with the Miami Dolphins. Georgia finished 8-5.
Saban would rather not see another situation like that in the future. But if rules on transfers are loosened, Saban thinks Alabama would stand to gain in the long run.
“We would benefit as much as anybody in our league if you said you can transfer (within the conference),” Saban said. “Kentucky’s got a good player? We’ll go see if we can get him to come to Alabama. Why do we want that? Why do we need that? How does that help the integrity of what we’re trying to do as a conference or as a league? I’m not for having free agency in our conference. When it comes to transfers in other places, I like the fact that we have some kind of academic standard built into it.”
That could prove to be true, though Saban would rather not find out. He’ll have his chance this week to make his feelings known to his colleagues.
The rest of the league coaches may decide they’re willing to take that risk anyway.
“Everybody will push their personal agenda if they see the ability to gain an advantage,” McElwain said. “As long as we’re all playing under the same rules, OK. Those are the rules. Let’s go play them.”