The NCAA is proposing a new rule for Division I student-athletes that will allow them to transfer one time without a time penalty.
Under the current rules, a transfer from FBS to FBS or FCS to FBS requires a player to sit out a year unless they are a graduate student. According to Sports Illustrated, this has been commonplace for over 50 years with one exception. In 1994, the NCAA allowed for a one-time transfer exception between Division I-AA (now known as the FCS) and Division I-A (now known as FBS).
Now the NCAA wants to undo all that and the proposal has no limitations on the number of players a school can accept. In addition, schools cannot object to the new school the player wishes to transfer to and athletes can only play for one team per academic season.
For soccer fans, this is the equivalent of a player being “cup-tied” and prevents players from leaving Oklahoma to join Alabama midway through the season for example.
Overall, the rule is intended to help the players something the NCAA historically hasn’t cared about so this is a benefit to the student-athletes.
One additional note about the change is that the one-time transfer exception AND graduate transfer cannot both be used to allow the athlete to play immediately. This prevents a player from playing at 3 different schools in a short span and basically gaming the system to hop between programs.
Athletes could theoretically sit out a season as a grad transfer and still hit the three different team mark but it is unlikely given how athletes who transfer will want to play immediately. Still, a small group may consider this path if they can use the year off for medical reasons.
So what could possibly go right and wrong in? Let’s take a look at the impacts for each group of Division I teams.
Impact on Power 5 Teams
At face value, this seems like Power 5 teams might massively benefit at the cost to every other Division I conference.
For the true superpowers like Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State, this proposal probably won’t matter much. Those teams are already getting the best recruits so the addition of one more transfer won’t have a big impact. That said, if a certain position group is lagging and a high-quality transfer is available, they could certainly benefit from the rule to maximum effect.
Under the current proposal, the teams most likely to benefit the most are the lower-tier Power 5 teams. The free transfer rule is basically free agency with a chance to gobble up vast numbers of transfers who can upgrade a team and do so quickly in the span of one offseason.
This is where the gap between the Power 5 and Group of 5 *may* grow. It is difficult to predict with certainty but the ability to improve an already decent Power 5 team in terms of player quality (in most cases) allows the good to get better and the struggling to fall further behind.
Impact on Group of 5 Teams
The potential impact on the Group of 5 teams is mixed. On one hand, the upper-tier teams are likely to benefit in the same manner as the lower-tier Power 5 teams. Will it be enough to bridge the gap between the Power 5 and the Group of 5 teams? Maybe.
On the other hand, the Group of 5 is where the most amount of turnover is likely to occur in terms of players in and out. Good players will want to take a step up (whether to Power 5 or from the FCS) while players with something to prove will want a better fit. This may lead to some teams being unable to build a consistent football program if the revolving door is everlasting with no cap on the number of transfers per year. It may also lead to some teams just bringing in junior and senior-heavy players each year to compete (more on this in the recruiting section).
On the aggregate, the Group of 5 is likely to benefit as they have the most to gain from players transferring in with Power 5 teams already having better quality teams due to recruiting advantages on average. There is just more room for improvement for G5 teams relative to P5 with this transfer rule but there will be exceptions with some G5 teams underperforming with transfers and P5 overperformance without transfers.
That leads us to the FCS, which may be in for a rude introduction to the new rule.
Impact on FCS Teams
The potential impact on the FCS teams is dire. The FCS could turn into a farm system as Montana head coach Bobby Hauck put it.
Power 5 teams can already raid the absolute best players such as North Dakota State’s Jabril Cox with graduate transfers. Now imagine if Trey Lance was playing in 2021 after a breakout season and had his choice of Power 5 teams to transfer to without penalty. It would be a complete bonanza for Lance, the media, and the fans.
The biggest beneficiary of the transfer rule might be the Group of 5 teams looking to reload courtesy of the FCS. Want to improve your Group of 5 roster to make an undefeated push? Look no further than the solid playmakers at NDSU or James Madison to fill all your needs. G5 teams could poach the best players from the FCS with little regard for how it will impact the team and it won’t matter how good or bad the FCS team is.
It would be an easy sell for G5 coaches too. Want to play at a high level of football, improve your draft stock, and potentially make history as part of the first G5 team in CFB Playoff history? Then join Boise State, Houston, or UCF.
We discussed the gap between P5 and G5 potentially widening but the real worry is the gap between the FBS and FCS becoming larger to a point that impacts smaller schools’ abilities to compete on the football field.
To put it in perspective, from 1978 through 2004 FCS teams won at least 10% of games versus FBS *every year*. Since 2005? They’ve only posted a win percentage above 10% twice. The win percentage may start to see more zeroes going forward.
Impact on Recruiting
There are a lot of fascinating implications about how the free transfer rule will affect Division I and on the recruiting trail is another one to watch. Recruiting will still be important, especially in football with 25 scholarships a year. However, it might become slightly less important.
Why? Evaluating current college players against more refined/better competition is more valuable than high school attributes. A lot can change between a high schooler’s senior year and freshman year in college. Add in another year or two and the changes can be even higher depending on the environment.
Coaches may prefer to go with proven sophomores or juniors at the collegiate level instead of taking risks on high school athletes to build their rosters, which again will be interesting to see how it impacts recruiting in the future.
One area of recruiting that may be hurt is the Junior College route. Since the free transfer rule has academic performance stipulations, JUCO athletes may still end up there to improve their grades. Overall though, players no longer have to use JUCOs as a stop to continue playing football or get the attention of scouts. Now, they can simply go to whichever school they want immediately, which will definitely hurt the JUCO pipeline.
Bottom line: recruiting will still be important to build long-term roster depth but it will be interesting to see which coaches put more emphasis on recruiting versus the free transfer or vice versa. Also, it is worth watching out for any new trends that develop at a subdivision or conference level.
Impact on Coaching Expectations
This part is purely a guess but with the ability to sign a high number of transfers, the pressure will be on coaches to win right away. After all, if you can build a makeshift roster quicker with free transfers, then why wouldn’t expectations change?
Expectations will largely depend on the school as well. Consider a program like Duke or Stanford. A new coach would likely be given quite a bit of leeway compared to Texas where the pressure is always immense from the start.
If the transfer rule eventually has a yearly limit of players, then the expectations to change quickly will probably not remain as high. Nevertheless, will schools or coaches put a premium on winning now or finding a new delicate balance?
What About Basketball?
We talked about football exclusively above but the Division I proposal affects basketball as well. (Yes, it also impacts the other sports such as baseball and men’s hockey but we are not as versed in the nuances of those sports so we will leave them to others).
For basketball, this will likely have a positive impact on mid-majors. With much lower roster sizes compared to football, smaller basketball programs can benefit immediately instead of waiting a year. The talent is also more dispersed on the court compared to the gridiron in which Alabama can effectively have over 100 four or five-star recruits despite the scholarship limit of 85 players.
None of this is to say top-tier programs won’t benefit as they most certainly will. It’s just a lot harder to stack a 15-man roster when you are already getting good talent. However, if a coach fairs poorly in a recruiting cycle, who says they won’t just get a bunch of good mid-major players as a stop-gap measure?
Like football, recruiting will still remain important though more so as the smaller rosters leave less room for error to miss with recruiting prospects. Despite the one-and-done rule remaining for the foreseeable future, basketball programs will still need to focus on recruiting the next key player(s) with the possibility of them leaving after one season. Relying on free transfer players each season is a risky strategy for some coaches.
The intentions of the one-time free transfer rule are clear: to help student-athletes in a rare case of the NCAA actually doing something worthwhile. However, there are going to be unintended consequences especially since the NCAA did not put limits on the number of players a single program can take in.
There will be impacts on recruiting at both the high school and collegiate levels, albeit small impacts. There will most certainly be chances by the coaches to supplement with the free transfer rule or straight up rely solely on it.
We look forward to seeing how the NCAA amends the rule in the future if it passes as well as the unintended consequences that may arise but we know that on August 1, 2021, de facto free agency could begin for Division I college athletes.
Photo courtesy of Justin Tafoya/NCAA