TCU’s unlikely breakthrough shows how transfer portal levels playing field

Never in the modern history of college football has a team as unlikely as TCU played for a national championship. In a sport where elite results typically track with elite recruiting, there is no template for a team without single recruiting class ranked in the top 20 over the last five years getting this close to a title. 

But it also doesn’t seem like a coincidence. 

When the NCAA lifted pretty much all restrictions on transfers two years ago, there was a not insignificant amount of panic that free movement of players would only help the rich get richer. But with the Horned Frogs set to play Georgia in Monday night’s College Football Playoff title game, the evidence would suggest that it has in fact does more to level the playing field than anything the NCAA has tried to legislate since scholarship limitations began in 1973.

“We wouldn’t be where we are had we not added (transfers),” TCU coach Sonny Dykes told the Houston Chronicle last month. “It’s a way to fix your program quickly.”  

Though there’s far more to the TCU story than the transfer portal — in fact, the bulk of the talent was already in place when Dykes took over 13 months ago — last season was a tumultuous time at TCU. 

After a string of underwhelming seasons, TCU took the bold step of parting with Gary Patterson on Oct. 31, 2021 despite previously leading the program to seven top-10 finishes, a résumé that five years earlier had earned him a statue in front of Amon G. Carter Stadium. 

As often happens with coaching changes, there was attrition: 15 players left, including some who would become very productive at their new schools. Zach Evans, for instance, rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns at Ole Miss.

There’s no way to know what kind of team TCU would have had this year if the NCAA’s old restrictions on transfers were still in place, requiring players to sit out a year before becoming eligible again. Most likely, the Horned Frogs would have still had several players leave but would have had a far more difficult time replacing them with immediate contributors In the old way of roster building, first-year coaches had little choice but to fill holes with junior college longshots and freshmen, hoping they developed into good players two years down the road.

But Dykes had a different option. For every player that left via the transfer portal, there was opportunity for another to take their place. Some of them like safety Mark Perry (Colorado) had extensive playing experience at the Power Five level. Others like cornerback Josh Newton were toiling far from the spotlight at Louisiana-Monroe. Leading tackler Johnny Hodges came from Navy. One of them, center Alan Ali, even followed Dykes from SMU.

Though some of the 13 transfers have barely played, the bottom line is that Dykes had an opportunity to quickly regenerate a significant portion of the roster at a point when the old rules made it extremely difficult to do so. 

In a sport where depth matters and it takes contributors across the board for a program like TCU to close the gap with perennial powers, the transfer portal is an equal-opportunity environment. Some programs will hit it big, others will strike out.

But at this point, it seems undeniable that transfer prevalence being added to the roster-building mix will help create more parity, add more year-to-year volatility at the top end of the sport and change the paradigm of who can compete in the Playoff.

“Recruiting is not always about finding the bigger, fastest guys,” Dykes told the Dallas Morning News. “Sometimes it’s about finding, especially from a transfer perspective, somebody who can come in and move the needle in a room.”

From a fan’s perspective, it’s understandable why the transfer portal can cause angst. If you’re a Wake Forest fan who watched quarterback Sam Hartman walk out the door after a terrific career, it doesn’t feel great. If you’re a Nebraska fan, it’s going to stink watching linebacker Ernest Hausmann play against you next season when he starts for Michigan. 

But in the bigger picture, what TCU is doing should give every program hope that a coaching change doesn’t doom you to three or four more years of mediocrity. If a new coaching staff gets it right in the transfer portal, a turnaround can happen immediately. And in the new 12-team College Football Playoff that will debut in 2024, it will probably not be unusual for teams to jump from a losing record one season to playoff games the next.

Isn’t that what fans wanted when the four-team CFP started to get stale with the same teams year after year?

College football is never going to be a sport of total parity. The biggest brands are still going to haul in the majority of blue-chip recruits on signing day, and the numbers suggest that those players will by and large turn out to become the best college players and eventual NFL draft picks. 

And, sure, if Alabama or Georgia needs to fill a hole via the transfer portal, they’ll be in a better position than most programs to do so.

But anything that chips away even a little bit at the talent monopoly the top handful of programs have enjoyed makes the sport more interesting and more competitive. The ability for players to transfer more freely plus the coming 12-team playoff should be a shot of hope for the dozens of programs like TCU that might have aspired to greatness but never really felt like they had an equal chance. 

“I’ve always believed that the cream rises and the more opportunities that schools outside of the traditional brands get, the more those schools can become traditional brands,” Dykes said. “I think if you exclude them, it’s hard to break in. And I think this will give a lot of schools like TCU an opportunity to get in the mix and show what they’re capable of.”

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