New SEC transfer rule might close doors for high school recruits as rich get richer | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

Since the SEC made a bow to the inevitable on Thursday, approving immediate eligibility for intraconference transfers, much of the focus has been on individual players: an understandable look at the stars who will go from playing for a team to playing against that team from one season to the next.

The reason that the decision was inevitable? The SEC couldn’t afford to force players like Arik Gilbert, Henry To’o To’o or T.J. Finley to walk to another league without making some effort to keep things meaning more.

Also inevitable was the reaction that college football will never be the same. Of course it won’t. College basketball hasn’t been the same for years now, and this move will simply accelerate things, both for the men’s and women’s programs. 

There is one new twist that the NCAA and the SEC have both endorsed: in order to be eligible for freedom of movement within the league, a non-graduate transfer in fall sports, including football, has to be in the NCAA transfer portal by Feb. 2. That doesn’t mean a player can’t enter the portal later, but it does mean that the player will have closed the SEC door to immediate eligibility.

What that means is that football programs will have to make the most of their roster decisions in a two-month window that will include the December signing date, the NFL early exit deadline, the vestiges of the old February signing date that still linger and, now, the early February transfer portal deadline.

Apr 17, 2021; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; White offensive lineman Emil Ekiyor Jr. (55) talks with teammates on the bench during the University of Alabama A-Day Game at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

Teams better have a plan, although that doesn’t mean the same plan will fit all programs. The first part of that plan, though, whether you are Nick Saban or Clark Lea, is how you are going to use your resources, particularly the money and man-hours required for recruiting, and the allocation of your limited number of scholarships. 

Saban, whose public comments on such matters speak volumes, has already said that he anticipates the possibility of the rich getting richer. He added a caveat of “you’ll have to decide whether they will or not,” but he doesn’t make suggestions that he hasn’t thought it through – and his hints hit like Derrick Henry stiff-arming a linebacker

SEC TRANSFER RULE:SEC to grant immediate eligibility for intraconference transfers

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Arik Gilbert of the LSU Tigers during a game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Tiger Stadium on December 5, 2020 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

While there is no firm list of who “the rich” are in this context, most people would obviously include the Crimson Tide, possessors of a combined Bezos-Gates fortune in talent. Georgia would be on the list, along with the other geographically blessed teams like Florida, LSU, Texas A&M and, for most observers, Auburn. For the most parts, those schools will continue to recruit the elite high school players in the country and use the portal to cherry-pick other talent from within the SEC and outside of it.

But what if you are in another situation? Let’s use Missouri as an example, but you could just as well use Mississippi State or someone else. Tennessee, at the moment, is a special example.

If you are at Missouri, which strategy makes more sense? First, do you decide you are going to keep going toe-to-toe with Alabama and Ohio State for high school talent and either out-recruit them (best of luck) or rely on your skills at developing the “diamond in the rough” who “really loves Mizzou?" At what point is that going to yield roster parity, especially now that a prep player who shows special promise after a year or two has a free ticket out of town? Is it a better option to reduce your number of high school recruits in favor of transfers, since those transfers no longer have a free pass to leave without penalty?

That doesn’t mean you stop recruiting high school players entirely. Teams can still find talent. Just look at the wide receivers Ole Miss has landed in recent years. But is your best option to keep signing 22 high school players a year and adding three transfers, knowing those high school players can be in the portal before you know it? It might be better, at some programs, to sign 15 transfers, some moving up from the Group of Five and others moving within the league. At least the time you invest recruiting and coaching those players won’t be rewarded by seeing them standing on the opposing sideline in a year or two. 

Don’t say it can’t happen, because in basketball it already has. Teams will still recruit top high school stars. Even if he stays for a year, Alabama isn’t going to back off a JD Davison. But the day is coming soon where an SEC basketball roster of three high school signees and 10 transfers won’t raise many eyebrows. That ratio may be lower in football, but for some programs reducing the high school signees and increasing the transfers is going to make tempting common sense.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt