You don’t have to look hard at college football these days to find somebody, somewhere, talking about transfers. More players are switching teams each year, and more are seeking waivers that grant immediate eligibility at their new school — and it seems like just about everybody in the sport has an opinion about it.
“The issue with the transfer portal is we’ve gotten very liberal in giving people waivers, so, when we do that, it becomes free agency,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said last month. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, too, has cautioned against “free agency in college football.”
But even calling it “free agency” is understating the flurry of moves. Of the top 25 teams in the preseason coaches’ poll, as many as eight could start a transfer at quarterback later this month. Five of those eight quarterbacks1 were not active for their current team last season. For comparison, in the NFL — which, of course, has literal free agency — only about four of 32 starters weren’t on their current team last season.2
In the last decade, transferring in college football has increased in frequency. Some of this is due to changes in NCAA guidelines and the establishment of a transfer portal that facilitates contact between players and coaches. The NCAA’s evolving stance on immediate-eligibility waivers — which allowed Michigan’s Shea Patterson to play last season after transferring from Ole Miss, and Justin Fields to suit up for Ohio State this season — has expedited the transfer movement.
The optimal approach is to find an elite talent and develop him, as Clemson has done with Trevor Lawrence and Alabama with Tua Tagovailoa. But those who miss out on that chance sometimes turn to the next-best option — and it often works. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, entering his fifth year with the program, has coached the last two Heisman Trophy winners. Both were transfers, Baker Mayfield from Texas Tech and Kyler Murray from Texas A&M. It’s no longer only bench players who move schools in search of more playing time; athletes of all levels and abilities are taking advantage of their newfound mobility to develop their careers.
The impact of this wave of transfers is evident at both the college and professional level. Alabama and Georgia produced the current starting quarterbacks for four of the top five teams: the Crimson Tide’s Tagovailoa, the Bulldogs’ Jake Fromm, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts and Ohio State’s Fields. Five of the 11 quarterbacks taken in the 2019 NFL draft were transfers.3
The college football programs themselves have also incentivized player movement. Teams’ increasing reliance on younger quarterbacks chases away the rest of the depth chart: If a freshman has a firm hold on the starting job, there’s no playing time available for three years, barring an injury. Lawrence’s emergence at Clemson in 2018, for example, sparked two departures — Kelly Bryant to Missouri and Hunter Johnson to Northwestern — while Georgia’s Fromm pushed out two more, Fields to Ohio State and Jacob Eason to Washington.
The search for playing time creates a ripple effect: Soon after Fields showed up at Ohio State, quarterback Tate Martell, previously expected to start in 2019, transferred to Miami. After Hurts arrived at Oklahoma, Sooners quarterback Austin Kendall left for West Virginia.
It’s not just at the highest level of the sport. In addition to the eight top 25 teams, Mississippi State (Tommy Stevens, formerly of Penn State), Virginia Tech (Ryan Willis, previously at Kansas) and Missouri (Bryant) are among the power-conference schools who have settled on or considered starting transfer quarterbacks.
But what gets lost in the drama of the quarterback carousel is that these transfers are rarely a magic solution. Yes, Mayfield and Murray were the two most successful transfer quarterbacks this century, based on passer ratings.4 But schools turning to a transfer to transform their program often end up disappointed.
Since 2000, 94 players have attempted at least 50 passes in a season for two different schools. Here we see the trend over time: five quarterbacks joined a new team between 2000 and 2004, while 13 transferred schools between 2005 and 2009. Twenty-eight quarterbacks transferred between 2010 and 2014, and 48 of those 94 have departed for greener pastures since 2015.
Of that group, 58 transferred to a Power 5 school. (This includes both quarterbacks who transferred from non-Power 5 schools as well as quarterbacks who transferred between Power 5 schools.) Nineteen Power 5 transfers improved their passer rating from their first stop to their second by at least 15 points, an impressive rise. But 12 more saw their passer rating drop by at least 15 points.5 The average change in passer rating is plus-4.9, and the average bump in completion percentage is 2 points, both modest upticks. However it may seem, it’s just not that easy to move towns, learn a new offense, adjust to new teammates and coaches and blossom into a completely different player.
|First school||Second school|
|Kyler Murray||Texas A&M||109.19||Oklahoma||203.26||+94.07|
|Baker Mayfield||Texas Tech||127.66||Oklahoma||189.39||+61.72|
|Russell Wilson||NC State||135.47||Wisconsin||191.78||+56.31|
|Ryan Willis||Kansas||104.36||Virginia Tech||138.01||+33.65|
|Scott McBrien||West Virginia||110.42||Maryland||142.04||+31.62|
|Matt Moore||UCLA||101.47||Oregon St.||131.69||+30.22|
|Jake Luton||Idaho||100.19||Oregon St.||129.33||+29.14|
|Steven Threet||Michigan||105.26||Arizona St.||133.41||+28.15|
|Ryan Finley||Boise St.||115.63||NC State||140.04||+24.40|
|Will Grier||Florida||145.61||West Virginia||169.18||+23.57|
|Gardner Minshew||East Carolina||127.10||Wash. St.||147.56||+20.46|
|Robert Marve||Miami (FL)||107.19||Purdue||125.91||+18.72|
|Allan Evridge||Kansas St.||104.44||Wisconsin||116.50||+12.06|
|Everett Golson||Notre Dame||138.21||Florida St.||149.16||+10.94|
|Peyton Bender||Wash. St.||106.30||Kansas||113.66||+7.36|
|Brandon Mcllwain||South Carolina||99.15||California||104.41||+5.26|
|Tyler Murphy||Florida||121.05||Boston College||126.19||+5.14|
|Joe Dailey||Nebraska||111.92||North Carolina||114.10||+2.18|
|A.J. Suggs||Tennessee||113.27||Georgia Tech||113.35||+0.08|
|Davis Webb||Texas Tech||138.37||California||135.63||-2.74|
|Patrick Towles||Kentucky||116.80||Boston College||113.16||-3.64|
|Pete Thomas||Colorado St.||121.17||NC State||115.07||-6.09|
|Kevin Craft||San Diego St.||109.18||UCLA||101.72||-7.46|
|Sam Keller||Arizona St.||142.15||Nebraska||133.74||-8.41|
|Matt LoVecchio||Notre Dame||125.27||Indiana||114.24||-11.03|
|Kenny Hill||Texas A&M||154.84||Texas Christian||138.36||-16.47|
|Jake Heaps||Brigham Young||114.13||Kansas||97.00||-17.13|
|Wes Lunt||Oklahoma St.||137.31||Illinois||119.54||-17.77|
|Michael Machen||Kent St.||100.56||Baylor||82.09||-18.47|
|Clint Trickett||Florida St.||151.55||West Virginia||132.40||-19.15|
|Dayne Crist||Notre Dame||127.00||Kansas||96.52||-30.48|
|Brock Berlin||Florida||161.09||Miami (FL)||128.65||-32.45|
|Darell Garretson||Utah St.||137.68||Oregon St.||103.97||-33.71|
|Brandon Harris||LSU||133.86||North Carolina||72.34||-61.52|
Beyond sheer volume, this year’s group of transfer quarterbacks is especially fascinating because it might also be the most talented bunch the sport has seen. Jalen Hurts’s father was not far off when he speculated after the 2017 season that Hurts could be the “biggest free agent in college football history.” The quarterbacks potentially debuting in new uniforms next weekend include a national champion in Hurts and three former five-star recruits (Fields, Washington’s Eason and Northwestern’s Johnson). This could have a major effect. Oklahoma does not need Hurts to do much more than his numbers would already indicate. Even an average 4.9-point bump in passer rating from his career 148.8 would put him among last season’s 20 most efficient quarterbacks in the major conferences.
No matter what becomes of this year’s crop of transfers, schools will surely keep swapping quarterbacks in the future. Transfers can be good for the coaches, who find a one- or two-year solution to their quarterback vacancies. After two of his quarterbacks transferred, Arkansas coach Chad Morris replaced them this past offseason with graduate transfers Ben Hicks, originally at Southern Methodist, and Nick Starkel, from Texas A&M. “As I’ve shared all along, we are always in the quarterback market. It doesn’t matter — we are always in that market,” he said last winter. And it appears quarterback reps are going to remain scarce at Clemson, for example, with Heisman co-favorite Lawrence only a sophomore.
Still, high expectations will follow a transfer anywhere. It would be hard to ask Hurts to replicate the Heisman-winning seasons of Mayfield or Murray. Expecting Fields, a sophomore with 39 career passing attempts, to equal what NFL first-round draft pick Dwayne Haskins did last season is also a stretch.
But that doesn’t mean those teams won’t try. “If Jalen does win the starting job from everything I’ve seen, I’m not sure there’s anything we’ve done before I wouldn’t do with him,” Oklahoma’s Riley said in a radio interview last month. Defenses should buckle up. The twists and turns are just getting started.