This Was the Year the Transfer Conquered College Football

It's been building for years, but in 2023 the transfer wave hit a new peak—and showed that players have more power than ever.
This Was the Year the Transfer Conquered College Football
GQ; Getty Images

When four of the finest players in college football got together in Times Square in early December for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, it was hard not to notice that three of them were quarterbacks playing for teams other than the ones they joined out of high school. Oregon’s Bo Nix started at Auburn. Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. began at Indiana. And LSU’s Jayden Daniels, who won the award, had gotten to Baton Rouge by way of Arizona State. (He followed 2022 winner Caleb Williams, an Oklahoma Sooner-turned-USC Trojan who defied a lot of conventions about how stars in this sport once acted.)

When the College Football Playoff comes around on New Year’s Day, Penix will face off with Texas QB Quinn Ewers (formerly of Ohio State). One of them will play for the national title a week later in Houston. Meanwhile, the undefeated team that lost a spot in the first true controversy of the Playoff era relied on transfers more than arguably anyone else. Quarterback Jordan Travis, whose broken leg the selection committee cited as a reason to keep the Seminoles out, started his career at Louisville. His two superstar receivers, Johnny Wilson and Keon Coleman, came from Arizona State and Michigan State. Elite pass-rusher Jared Verse, holding things down on the other side of the ball, began at Albany. Together they led a 13-0 season.

It has all been building for a while, but 2023—more than any other year—was the moment transfer players became arguably more important than anyone else in college football. A record 20 percent of rosters were made up of them, and their impact often felt a lot more substantial than that. At the highest echelons of college ball, the past few years also brought a measure of old-fashioned roster management. Every elite team relies on transfers to some extent, but between 2020 and ‘22, only one of the 12 teams to make the College Football Playoff did so with a transfer throwing the ball—2020 Ohio State, which had former Georgia Bulldog Justin Fields running and slinging it. Transfers have reshaped the product on the field, but that only happened because they also shifted something else—a once-intractable power dynamic. Schools used to have nearly total control of their players. The portal has changed that. Rapidly.

The trend toward transfer dominance has been years in the making. In 2018, under pressure from politicians and a college sports press corps advocating for more player agency, the NCAA created the transfer portal, a central database where athletes could declare their intention to transfer and invite suitors to recruit them. The Star Wars-sounding name was fitting: The NCAA doing something to facilitate more freedom of movement for athletes really did have the feel of science fiction. In 2021, the association did away with a rule that required most players to sit out a year of competition after changing schools.

And this year, leaders formally scrapped a policy that limited football teams (in general) to adding 25 new scholarship players per year. That cap had served as a check on coaches taking too many transfers, lest they not have room to bring on recruits out of high school in any given season. But when Deion Sanders got to Colorado, he put 86 new players on a 110-man roster in just one offseason. It was unparalleled, and nobody made 2023 The Year of the Transfer more than Sanders. Colorado, ironically, finished 4-8. It turned out that elite offensive linemen were hard to find via the portal.

Others had more success with players who got their starts elsewhere, as the Playoff teams will illustrate when they take the field for semifinals on New Year’s Day. While Ewers and Penix duel for a berth in the title game, even the comparatively traditional rosters of Alabama and Michigan will be laden with guys from other schools. The Tide will rely on former Georgia and Maryland players to catch passes and block for quarterback Jalen Milroe. The Wolverines will send out an offensive line with a left tackle from Arizona State and a center from Stanford, the long-ago employer of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. Whoever lifts the championship trophy on January 8 will do it, either in some part or enormous part, thanks to transfers.

2023 was also a year of transfer athletes asserting themselves in college sports’ mazelike bureaucracy. Universities and players have taken stock of the many legal headwinds facing the NCAA, and they have increasingly taken aim at the last big restriction on transfer movement: a requirement that second-time transfers who have not yet graduated sit out a year before they can play. The NCAA looked poised to require North Carolina wideout Tez Walker, who had played two years at Kent State after being at North Carolina Central during a canceled 2020 campaign, to sit the year. But the Tar Heels did not stop pushing even after an NCAA committee denied Walker’s waiver to play. Eventually, a scorched-earth PR campaign paid dividends and the NCAA relented. (The NCAA criticized the effort and claimed UNC had provided new evidence. In college sports, progress must always come alongside someone saving face.) There will be more Tez Walkers, eventually. As this story was going to press, the NCAA was facing down a temporary restraining order that prevented it from requiring second-time transfers to sit out.

This situation is a marked improvement on how things used to be, when players who had good reason to want to change schools needed to halt their careers and often sacrifice a year of eligibility. (No such rule has ever existed for coaches who change jobs every year or two.) It has come at some cost: if non-elite programs could develop players at a high level, they had a path to contention, if a narrow one. That path has narrowed further as the blue-bloods have realized they can just pluck stars off everyone else’s roster, thanks to the portal and third-party payments under “name, image, and likeness” rules. Wake Forest fans, who lost star quarterback Sam Hartman to Notre Dame, know what it’s like.

But the train has left the station, and it will only chug harder. The NCAA finally liberalized rules on player compensation in 2021, two months before the season kicked off. Payments from third-party “collectives” representing every major program did not become a major factor in player acquisition until the 2022 season, and they became more critical this year. What’s coming next is more extensive; players who came out of high school in an era before they could be paid are beginning to age out of the sport. The remaining players in college football, and all the ones to come, will have all the more reason to expect a fee to play for their school, even if the NCAA can’t quite admit that’s what the exchange represents. Many schools won’t pay up. But if a player has shown enough at a prior school, there’s good news: Someone else will.