When the NCAA altered its rules to allow every college athlete immediate eligibility upon their first transfer, it was seen as a victory for players. And for many, that’s certainly the case.

But as we enter the second offseason of a no-holds-barred transfer portal free-for-all, it appears that the system is working out the way any system does without regulatory involvement.

The few — the best programs and athletes — are flourishing. The many — non-championship contending programs and players who will never play professionally — are at a risk of being rendered completely irrelevant.

In turn, fans of those programs will become alienated and continue voting with their feet in an era where college football attendance is in steady decline.

It’s all about the numbers.

Scholarships a finite resource

With James Madison (the school, not the dead president) moving up to the FBS level in 2022, there are 131 teams at the top level of college football. Each of these teams has 85 scholarships — a total of 11,135 scholarship players.

According to a recent ESPN story, more than 3,600 players have entered the transfer portal since the end of last season. That represents 32.3% of all available FBS scholarships entering a void with no guarantee of landing softly.

In a rather remarkable bit of lunacy, linebacker Branden Jennings is already in the portal for a second time this offseason. Jennings transferred from Maryland to Kansas State in January, then decided to leave the Wildcats before the end of spring practice. It’s hard to argue he’s benefitting from either move.

Granted, some of these transfers are walk-ons seeking scholarship opportunities at a lower level. But all of this movement requires someone to get squeezed out — either a player already playing for a smaller program, or the guy trapped in the portal.

To illustrate this, I’ve taken the artistic liberty of creating a theoretical example.

The Khalil Mack Effect

Khalil Mack didn’t begin playing football until his senior year of high school, and thus every major program missed on him.

But a MAC program like Buffalo could see the potential in a freak athlete like Mack and offer him a scholarship. He thrived with the Bulls and was a known entity to every draftnik heading into his senior year.

In 2013, there would have been no thought to transferring to a bigger school to improve his draft stock. He would have had to sit out a year. There also would have been no need. He was picked 5th overall.

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A decade later, it’s becoming inconceivable that a player like Mack would finish his career at Buffalo. Coaches higher up the food chain are showing no qualms about poaching someone else’s developmental work for the opportunity to plug an immediate need on their roster.

But let’s say the 1-time transfer rule had been put in place in 2011. Mack and Buffalo played against Georgia in his junior season. And you can bet he caught Mark Richt’s full attention.

So let’s say Mack heads to Georgia for his senior season. He could be sold on the idea it would improve his draft stock (false) or just the dramatic upgrade in facilities and competition (true).

In turn, some presumptive Georgia starting linebacker would be bumped down the depth chart upon his arrival. Perhaps that guy knocks a special teamer out of his role. The special teamer transfers. Or perhaps the presumptive starter decides to transfer.

Given the way things are progressing, it’s quite likely both would bounce.

“Who is this new guy taking the spot we’ve earned?” they’d both think.

But in turn, those guys would play Mack’s role at some other school. Maybe it’s Georgia Tech or Georgia State. And at those schools, someone gets squeezed by the new guy from UGA.

So perhaps the guy who originally signed with Georgia State is now on his way to Kennesaw State or Mercer. And now somebody on one of those teams is stuck picking between a lesser FCS program or down to Division II.

There, the cycle repeats itself. Though by that time, a player who signed with, say, Shorter is going to be pretty short on options.

This Mack hypothetical is just a stand-in for what is currently taking place.

Smaller programs get poached. Power 5 players get recruited over and enter the portal themselves. And so on it goes, until somebody down the line gets stuck with nothing.

The new rules certainly aren’t a win for those players.

The fan issue

The players are the most important thing. But as college football becomes more overtly corporate — as opposed to a corporation disguised as a mom-and-pop — it is alienating those who made it profitable.

And this is not a good time to alienate fans. (Not that there ever is — it’s just dumber than usual at the moment).

Even with 2020 removed from the numbers, college football attendance has dipped for 7 consecutive seasons. Last season’s attendance figures were the lowest across the board since 1981.

Increased roster movement will make it more difficult for fans to grow a bond with players — even pro teams don’t have the level of transience we may begin to see in the transfer portal. And for the programs that will begin serving as nothing more than farm clubs, there could be a devastating blow in fan interest.

Which means some smaller programs could start going away. And if that happens, so too go scholarships. Maybe it’s 22 of them, like what Idaho lost when it dropped from FBS back to FCS. Or maybe it’s 63 of them if some schools at that level simply drop football.

The new rules won’t be a win for those players, either.

A transfer portal solution

Player movement is not the problem. It’s the lack of any way to regulate that movement.

While rules say coaches must wait until a player enters the transfer portal before initiating contact, the reality is nothing is preventing coaches from tampering with other rosters — something that incurs a massive fine in every professional league.

And it may be impractical to find a solution to that issue. With Name, Image and Likeness contracts being the purview of 3rd parties, it’s easy to create indirect inducements. And with NIL protected by the Supreme Court, there’s no running from it as a factor.

The solution may be as simple as bringing back an updated version of the old rule — make players sit out a season if they transfer to a new program. But liberalize those rules to it’s possible to grant legitimate exemptions so players can still earn immediate eligibility.

  • Coaching changes: Any coaching change should be an avenue to immediate eligibility as a transfer. This includes assistant coaches, most of whom are primarily responsible for a player’s recruitment.
  • Graduate transfers: This rule was already in place. If you’ve already earned your degree, nothing should prevent you from being able to play immediately. Furthermore, it rewards athletes who actually achieve the thing you’re supposed to go to college for in the first place.
  • Closer to home: Whether it’s 50 miles closer or 500 miles closer to where an athlete graduated high school, this should be a valid reason for immediate eligibility. In the past, athletes had to demonstrate someone in their family had a medical hardship for this to stick. We don’t need to be that dramatic about it. Home, or even a place within driving distance, is reason enough.
  • Scholarship offers: Walk-ons should have immediate eligibility if offered a scholarship from another program.

There would still be quite a bit of movement with these rules in place. And many players — perhaps even most of them — would earn exemptions to play right away.

Coaches would still find ways to tamper, but this at least puts up some roadblocks. If a coach really wanted a Mack-caliber player, for instance, he might have to hire Mack’s position coach or coordinator.

That adds an element of risk for the poachers. At the moment, there is none.

If that remains the case, the limitless transfer portal is bound to produce more losers than winners.