Last season began with the nation’s three top-ranked teams — Alabama, Clemson and Georgia — in the throes of a quarterback duel. Only Clemson announced its starting quarterback ahead of opening day, and that starter (Kelly Bryant) didn’t make it through September as No. 1.
A year later, those three teams no longer have such an issue. Of the six quarterbacks who were Nos. 1 and 2 at Bama, Clemson and Georgia in August 2018, five are scheduled to start for a team ranked in the Associated Press top five. (Bryant is again the exception.)
Scroll down the AP rankings, and you’ll find that teams No. 6 and 7 — Michigan and LSU — are working with transfer QBs. So is No. 13 Washington, where the new starter is the former Georgia starter Jacob Eason. UCF, loser of one game in two years, has a new quarterback in Brandon Wimbush, who began last season as Notre Dame’s No. 1. Of the nation’s top 17 teams, six — that’s 35 percent — will have a starting quarterback who signed with a different program.
This is not, we concede, breaking news. The past two Heisman winners were transfers who landed at Oklahoma — Baker Mayfield from Texas Tech, Kyler Murray from Texas A&M. Cam Newton began at Florida and conquered at Auburn. Georgia began consecutive seasons under different coaches with Greyson Lambert, who couldn’t hold the No. 1 job at Virginia, as its quarterback. The time of a gifted quarterback waiting for the incumbent to leave seems so last-century, although technically that’s what D.J. Shockley at UGA at the onset of this century.
No longer, though. College quarterbacks strung together their own waiver wire, and the arrival of the transfer portal accelerated everything. Note the divergent paths of the two Georgia quarterbacks who couldn’t beat out Jake Fromm: two winters ago, Eason transferred to Washington and didn’t file a waiver claim that might allow him to play immediately, believing it would be rejected; last January, Justin Fields entered the portal and had his waiver granted before Valentine’s Day. Two former Bulldog quarterbacks will make their debut for a ranked team other than Georgia this weekend.
Barely a year into its existence, the transfer portal has become the sport’s hot-button issue. What “hardships” allow, in the NCAA’s eyes, a waiver to be granted? Simply not being able to play because the other guy is better? Tate Martell was slated to replace Dwayne Haskins as Ohio State’s starter. Then Fields arrived in Columbus. Martell entered the portal and zapped himself to Miami. His waiver was granted. Update: Martell didn’t become the Hurricanes’ starter, either; the job was claimed by Jarren Williams, a redshirt freshman from Central Gwinnett. Against Florida on Saturday, Martell was mostly deployed as a receiver.
The NCAA doesn’t deign to give grounds for its waiver decisions. It just stamps “granted” or “not granted.” Said Alabama coach Nick Saban at SEC Media Days: “We’ve gotten very liberal in giving people waivers. When we do that, it becomes free agency, which I don’t think it’s good for college football.”
Certainly it’s bad for coaches. Do you dare signing high-profile quarterbacks in consecutive classes, knowing the one who isn’t starting could leave? (Recent case study: Washington coach Chris Petersen named Eason his starter on Friday; on Saturday, backup Jake Haener announced he was transferring.) On the other hand, the NCAA has been pushing to give players more control over their careers. But is this what it wants? When does individual control devolve into a communal free-for-all?
So many waivers were granted this offseason that it was shocking when one wasn’t — like Luke Ford’s. The Georgia tight end transferred to Illinois to be closer to an ailing relative. For reasons unknown, the NCAA said no. Such instances lead to the inevitable plaint: “Why does that guy get to play right away and I can’t?” Nobody has a good answer.
Things have gotten so twisted that Tom Mars, the Arkansas/Atlanta lawyer who’d become the players’ go-to guy for waivers — he assisted Fields with his — has, as AJC colleague Chip Towers reports, has been asked by the NCAA “to join its enforcement staff as part of the specially formed Complex Case Unit.” When Towers asked about Brenton Cox, the linebacker booted from Georgia’s team who transferred to Florida, Mars said, “Unless there’s some well-kept secret that would qualify him for a waiver, I’d say chances of Brenton Cox getting a waiver are approximately zero.”
Ah, sweet clarity. From Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher at Media Days: “I think you have to get consistency on how you rule things and when guys are eligible or not eligible. That’s what we’re searching for: What is the rule?”
As often happens, the NCAA finds itself dealing with unintended consequences. It wanted to help players, but not at the expense of the credibility of its biggest sport. In June, it announced four “minor adjustments” to the waiver guidelines, which seemed an admission that it had gone too far. That said, anyone expecting the portal to be dismantled is living in false hope. It’s here. It’s not going away. The new reality is that last year’s quarterback at a big-time program might be next year’s quarterback at another big-time program.
Jalen Hurts couldn’t beat out Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama; Hurts is the new No. 1 at Oklahoma. Fields of Georgia is now Fields of The Ohio State University, while Fromm stands unchallenged in Athens. Bryant lost his Clemson job to Trevor Lawrence at Clemson; today Bryant is the starter for Missouri. This time last year, those six were competing for three jobs. Today all six are No. 1 somewhere. Funny old world, isn’t it?
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