The 2019 playoff: Transfer QBs are the rule, not the exception

LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner, arrives with his team for the CFP Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019.

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LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner, arrives with his team for the CFP Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019.

Have we reached the saturation point of transfers? Of the four teams in the College Football Playoff, three are guided by a quarterback who first enrolled elsewhere. The exception is Clemson, which saw a freshman become a starter after a victory in September 2018 over Georgia Tech, whereupon the guy he deposed – Kelly Bryant, lately of Missouri – announced his intention to transfer.

The past three Heisman Trophy winners? Transfer quarterbacks. The top three finishers in the 2019 Heisman voting? Transfer quarterbacks. And, if the CFP seeds hold, the championship game in New Orleans next month will be waged between Joe Burrow of LSU, who began at Ohio State, and Justin Fields of Ohio State, who this time last year was a Georgia Bulldog.

It isn’t as if nobody of note had transferred before – Cam Newton of Westlake High took both the Heisman and a national championship for Auburn, where he alit after stops at Florida and Blinn College; Jake Coker went from Jameis Winston’s Florida State backup to Alabama title-winner – but the phenomenon no longer qualifies as such. On the contrary, it’s the new norm.

Where we return to the verbiage of our first sentence, to which Burrow, at a Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl media session Thursday, took gentle umbrage. “What do you mean, ‘saturation point’ – like too many transfers?”

Well, yes. (Meaning no offense, as it were.)

Burrow: “Here’s what I always say: ‘Would you rather see me, Justin and Jalen (Hurts) not playing somewhere, the three Heisman finalists that have been three of the best in the country this year?’ If we didn’t transfer, we could be on the bench right now. I think it’s really good for college football. There’s a lot of talented players across the country who just needed the opportunity.”

Said LSU offense coordinator Steve Ensminger, once an LSU quarterback: “You look at the four teams in this playoff deal, in my opinion they’re the four best quarterbacks in the country.”

Forget saturation. Maybe this is a case – apologies for extending the liquid-base metaphor – of water seeking its level. Maybe college football and the quarterbacks therein have become the ultimate meritocracy.

Take Burrow. At Ohio State, he sat behind J.T. Barrett, a serial all-conference selection. Had Burrow not exited as a grad transfer, he’d have served as the backup to Dwayne Haskins, who finished third in the 2018 Heisman balloting. Instead he started at LSU and steered the Tigers to a 10-3 season and a Fiesta Bowl victory. His 2019 season might have been the best by any collegian since Newton.

Burrow: “I really believe everything happens for a reason. If you’re a good person who works hard, things will work out for you. I think that applies to all four quarterbacks and most of the people at this playoff.”

Take Fields. His final act as a Bulldog was getting tackled on Kirby Smart’s immortal fake punt on fourth-and-11 against Alabama in the 2018 SEC title game, which was essentially a CFP quarterfinal. His freshman season consisted mostly of him running the occasional read-option and making way for Jake Fromm on third-and-6. Realizing Fromm, then a sophomore, wasn’t apt to be displaced, Fields skipped the Sugar Bowl. A day later, he was bound for Columbus. (The one south of Cleveland, not east of Opelika.)

Take Hurts. Then a sophomore, he started against Georgia on Jan. 8, 2018, in the national championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Halftime found Alabama 13 points in arrears. Nick Saban opted at halftime to insert Tua Tagovailoa, a heralded freshman who to date had received the freshman Fields treatment. Hurts wouldn’t start another Bama game, though he chose to stick around as a No. 2. Sure enough, Hurts entered the SEC title tilt, also in MBS, when Tagovailoa was hurt and, after Smart’s gaffe, scored the winning touchdown. Now he and Oklahoma will face LSU on Saturday in the CFP semifinal in the building he knows well.

Said Hurts: “Transfers have always been a thing. … What’s new about it is the portal.”

The portal has become the amateur equivalent of the waiver wire, although most seeking to transfer have waived themselves. The portal opened in October 2018. Within months the NCAA was asking itself, “What have we wrought?” (The NCAA is the king of unintended consequences.) Fields left Georgia for Ohio State, which worked out nicely for the player and his new school. But what of Tate Martell, who chose not to challenge Fields and exited for Miami, where he was moved to receiver and has twice taken leaves of absence?

To question whether transfers are bad or good is to miss the point. Transfers are now as big a part of college football as marching bands. The biggest talents head for the biggest programs; if they don’t receive something approaching immediate satisfaction, they split for another biggie. That’s reality. This is Oklahoma’s third consecutive playoff run: Not once has its quarterback been a Sooners signee. (The other two: Baker Mayfield, 2017 Heisman winner, and Kyler Murray, 2018 Heisman winner.)

Said Ensminger: “I don’t think it’ll ever go back the other way. The one thing I do know is that college football has gotten a lot like pro football – you better have a quarterback to win. That position right there – whether it’s Ohio State or LSU or Alabama – you recruit the best and they expect to play. If they don’t, they’ll make a move. That’s just our society right now.”

As a coach, does the thrill of signing a 5-star quarterback soon yield to the pressure to play that 5-star immediately, lest he become somebody else’s sophomore? Said Ensminger: “To me it doesn’t. I’m sure it does to the head coach. … I tell everyone we recruit: My freshman year, we signed five quarterbacks. When you reported for a two-a-days, there were nine quarterbacks on the list. And you were looking down the line and you’re like, ‘Am I going to get a rep?’ ”

For the record, Ensminger played as a freshman. Also for the record, his freshman year was 1976 – a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a galaxy without portals.