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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

O'Boyle: Bring free agency to college level

This is a quiet time of year in sports. The NFL season is over, college football is over, the MLB season hasn’t started yet. The NBA, NHL and college basketball are all going on, but none of them are at the playoffs. For football in particular, an offseason lasting around half the year can be a long time without seeing a game for the casual fan, but some of the most interesting developments of the year happen in the offseason: I’m talking of course about free agency.

You’re probably thinking about how the Denver Broncos used high-profile free agent signings like Evan Mathis in 2015, DeMarcus Ware in 2014 and of course Peyton Manning in 2012 to build a Super Bowl-winning team. That’s nice, sure, but it already gets all the attention. You can easily find a list of the best NFL free agents of the year, most of whom will re-sign anyway or else be massive disappointments on their new teams.

But what about college free agency? The recruiting cycle gets attention, but that alone isn’t how you build a team anymore. These days, you have to keep on adding. That means a good team should always look to add a couple free agents — or as they’re called in the college world, “transfers” — in the offseason.

Jake Rudock made the switch from Utah to a team desperately in need of a signal-caller and with a coach who could guide him to success in Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan; Chad Kelly, who left Clemson after conduct issues, found success as Ole Miss’s Alabama-slaying star. And then there’s Baker Mayfield, who played like one of the best quarterbacks in the country after leaving Texas Tech for Oklahoma, and Jake Coker, whose transfer from Florida State to the Crimson Tide allowed him to win a national championship as a starter.

With NFL free agency, you know when a player is likely to leave. But part of the excitement of college free agency is that it remains a mystery. We’ve already seen two of the highest-profile free agents, Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, both leave Texas A&M for pastures green at Houston and Oklahoma, respectively. Oklahoma’s chance to pull out another success story and become the school every recruit wishes to transfer to after leaving the school they originally sign with looks to make them the winners of free agency so far. But what keeps things exciting in college is the unpredictability. Which highly-recruited quarterback will realize he finds himself behind three five-star recruits on the depth chart and get out? Which spread offense star will think about his NFL future and move to an offense that will impress scouts? What will happen to those players kicked off of their original teams, and which coach will be kind enough to look past their transgressions, look inside their hearts, look straight at that blazing-fast 40 time and give a player a second chance?

Sure, a few things restrict transferring a little. A graduated player can transfer freely (provided he wishes to pursue graduate studies in a course not offered at their original school, which by complete coincidence, many high-profile quarterbacks do), but non-graduates cannot. The NCAA’s reasoning is based on something called “academics,” but for high-profile college football teams, this factor is purely athletic. Do you really need to worry about transferring affecting your GPA when a 144-word essay can get you an A-? Let’s phase out the charade that college football has much at all to do with college, starting with the transfer restrictions.

Then there’s the NCAA’s salary cap. The NFL salary cap has risen to around five times its original value since it was introduced, but the NCAA hasn’t tried to keep up, letting its cap remain around $0. Sure, teams can go a little over the cap without repercussions if they’re quiet about it, and I doubt there’s a team in the country that doesn’t take advantage, but this just creates a system in which teams get punished for being a little more public. Let's give the teams in serious cap trouble a little more breathing room. We could extend this rule change to basketball, too, because cash is probably a more sensible way to pay players than prostitutes.

While we’re at it, we could let a few smaller colleges act as farm teams for the bigger ones, forming mutually-beneficial relationships. Hey, why not let teams move, too? The Miami Hurricanes can’t fill their stadium? Well there’s a football-hungry crowd waiting in St. Louis for a new team, it just makes so much sense to allow “The U” to find a new home.

Let’s face it, college football more or less acts like a professional league already. Coaches get paid well into the millions, the connection between so many teams and university academics is tenuous at best and the industry both takes in and spends billions of dollars a year. Maybe we should treat the players like professionals.