You’ll love Andy Staples’ latest column for obvious reasons…
That there are two SEC programs acting this way instead of one should excite everyone within the league. Since splitting into divisions in 1992, the SEC has always been the most fun when two programs duked it out at the top. For much of the first decade after the split, those two programs were Florida and Tennessee. That was a little anticlimactic because Florida won so many of those matchups and because those games always took place in September. The ideal came in 2008 and ’09 when Alabama and Florida played in consecutive SEC title games that served as de facto national semifinals. But then Urban Meyer quit, came back and quit again in Gainesville and Alabama essentially ruled the league—with guest appearances by Auburn and LSU—for most of this decade. That changed when Smart got to Athens. Saban won the SEC West in his second year at Alabama. Smart won the SEC in his second year at Georgia in 2017 but fell to Alabama in overtime of the national title game. Last year, the Bulldogs led the Crimson Tide for most of the SEC title game but fell when backup quarterback Jalen Hurts led Alabama back in the fourth quarter (shortly before Hurts entered the transfer portal and got beamed to Oklahoma).
Georgia is going to have to win one of these to turn this into a true slugfest at the top—and LSU, Auburn and Florida still may have their say—but it appears these two programs are set up for an epic rivalry.
… but for my money, Andy’s point about the transfer portal is way more interesting.
Throughout this spring meeting season, the easiest way to get a millionaire football coach on his soapbox was to bring up the NCAA’s transfer portal. Most coaches are freaked out by the notion that they can’t control where players are allowed to transfer on scholarship.
At the SEC’s spring meetings on Tuesday, the waters were thoroughly chummed with transfer portal questions, but two coaches handled those questions differently than most of their colleagues around the country have. Alabama’s Nick Saban and Georgia’s Kirby Smart are playing a different game than most of their brethren, so it makes sense that their responses would diverge from the mainstream.
“I can’t tell you how many guys are in the portal,” Saban said. “We check it just to see if there’s anybody we would be interested in if we have a position of need.” Said Smart: “I don’t think there’s a major concern there. You’ve got 85 scholarships. You’ve got to work off your 85.”
Translation: Everyone wants to play for us. If someone leaves, it’s because they aren’t playing as much as they think they should. And if we do have an open spot, we know there are dozens of good players who would crawl across broken glass to get on our rosters. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and Ohio State’s Ryan Day can take similar stances because their programs are in similar places. Unlike many of their counterparts, they don’t consider the introduction of the portal—which remains the coolest name ever for an online spreadsheet—to be the start of the downfall of western civilization. Where their less accomplished, less creative counterparts see chaos, they see opportunity.
This was the point I was trying to make the other day with my post about Saban’s sanguine take on the transfer portal. If you’re an elite recruiter selling an elite program, you’ve already come to the realization that it’s not worth sweating the portal. In fact, you’ve already come to the realization that it’s a tool for making your roster management even more efficient.
On the other hand, if you’re someone who, say, has a name that rhymes with Mus Galzahn, the transfer portal is more of a challenge than a useful tool. That’s all the more reason for Saban’s and Smart’s apparent lack of concern. Hell, they probably deserve some credit for not being outwardly gleeful about it.