Cheers to the now inevitable demise of the SEC's intra-conference transfer rule
It’s happening. It’s finally happening.
That was the delayed reaction I had to hearing of news that Henry To’o To’o transferred from Tennessee to Alabama over the weekend. The junior-to-be was arguably the Vols’ best defensive player over his first 2 years in school, and now in his pre-draft season, he’ll line up for the Crimson Tide.
But the To’o To’o news was significant not because Alabama added an accomplished SEC player (to what’s a pretty crowded position group). It was significant because it could signify the end of the league’s intra-conference transfer rule, which states that undergraduates must sit a year. While the NCAA has already waived its rule which forced 1-time undergraduate transfers to sit a year, the SEC’s rule for intra-conference transfers still remains. For now.
According to The Athletic’s Aaron Suttles, SEC presidents will vote on the intra-conference transfer rule on June 3.
One would think, at least by reading the tea leaves, that To’o To’o’s intra-conference destination was decided on with that in mind. He could’ve played immediately at Ohio State, which was another school in the market for his services, without dealing with any sort of waiver headache because of the new NCAA rule for 1-time transfers. A stud middle linebacker in his pre-draft year with his choice of basically anywhere in the country wouldn’t go somewhere to sit a year.
Again, that’s what one would think.
One would also think that the SEC higher-ups see the writing on the wall. The dominos have been falling left and right for this change to happen. In addition to the NCAA’s new rule for 1-time transfers in April, in March, the ACC got rid of its intra-conference transfer rule that previously forced undergraduate transfers to sit a year.
On top of that, states with SEC teams like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi have already signed legislation that’ll allow for student-athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL) beginning this July. This past Friday — a day before To’o To’o’s announcement — NCAA president Mark Emmert told the New York Times that “he would recommend that college sports’ governing bodies approve new rules ‘before, or as close to, July 1,’ when the new laws are scheduled to go into effect in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and New Mexico.”
In other words, we could soon be living in a world in which all college athletes could make money off their NIL, regardless of what state they live in.
Let’s back up for a second. How does that relate to the SEC’s intra-conference transfer rule? And couldn’t the league presidents theoretically uphold intra-conference transfers sitting a year when they vote on June 3?
Surely it’s possible, but in a time when the landscape of big-revenue sports is changing by the day, SEC officials are smart enough to know that resisting these changes would put the league at a competitive disadvantage. That, as we know, isn’t in the league’s DNA.
The league’s previous DNA was trying to make transferring within the conference a mess. This is the same conference that, up until 2018, didn’t even allow graduate transfers within the conference to have immediate eligibility. The transfer issue came to a head last year when SEC commissioner Greg Sankey made a 1-year exception for undergraduate transfers within the league to receive immediate eligibility as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s worth noting that even that was a bit strategic. It came after the SEC’s season opener. It meant when Auburn faced Kentucky in the opening weekend, Joey Gatewood wasn’t eligible yet. Gatewood, as you recall, transferred from Auburn to Kentucky following his second season on The Plains.
Coincidence? I doubt it.
Cade Mays and Otis Reese dealt with a similar issue. Mays, who transferred from Georgia to Tennessee after his sophomore season, was allowed to play immediately as a result of Sankey’s ruling. Reese, however, was stuck in limbo for the majority of the season after transferring from Georgia to Ole Miss because while he got the 1-time exception from the SEC, he didn’t receive an NCAA waiver until Nov. 20 (he had previously been denied). In September ahead of the season opener, Reese cited racism and called out Kirby Smart for blocking his transfer. Reese even released a statement pleading his case to play immediately at Ole Miss:
— O Dog™.. (@otisreese13) September 22, 2020
If it sounds like Sankey was being pulled in a variety of directions, it’s because he was. He was at the mercy of SEC presidents, who were at the mercy of their respective head coaches. At least one would think it was SEC coaches who didn’t support immediate eligibility for intra-conference undergraduate transfers.
Assuming the league does rule to allow immediate eligibility for undergraduate transfers within the conference, yes, it’ll create more transfer portal chaos. The balance of power between players and coaches will shift in a unique way. It won’t just be “hey, we’d better change up our calls at the line of scrimmage.” It’ll be, “hey, we’d better be smart about how we handle these position battles because he can be our rival’s starter by the end of the week.”
Is it free agency? In a way, yes. If and when the SEC allows for immediate eligibility for undergraduate transfers within the league, college athletes will have more control than ever.
But at the same time, it’s still just a 1-time transfer rule.
Take TJ Finley for example. Finley left LSU after his true freshman season, during which he got 5 starts but realized that he wasn’t beating out Myles Brennan or Max Johnson. Finley could — pending the June 3 decision — be eligible immediately at an SEC school like Auburn. Let’s hypothetically say Finley does that, but in 2021, Bo Nix puts it all together and decides to stay for 2022. Finley couldn’t then bounce for another SEC school at season’s end. He would have already used his 1-time exception for immediate eligibility, and he wouldn’t be a grad transfer yet.
That’s why this isn’t total free agency. The 1-time exemption element will prevent this from being players looking for new teams every year and creating total anarchy.
Now would Finley be able to transfer within the league after 2022 and play immediately as a grad transfer? We don’t know that yet. We can revisit that extremely hypothetical double transfer scenario after the June 3 vote.
There are still things left to figure out. But it’s certainly going to be less messy than the NCAA’s extremely subjective waiver process. And if this is no longer a league-by-league deal, that creates new possibilities within the SEC.
It could work both ways, too. We could see teams like Mizzou and Kentucky pluck the second-stringers from Alabama and Georgia. On the flip side, a true freshman stud at Mizzou or Kentucky could theoretically bolt for an Alabama or a Georgia without penalty.
Will coaches lose sleep over that dynamic? Probably. It’s not 2007 anymore. Then again, in 2007, Nick Saban was the only FBS coach making $4 million annually. According to the USA Today database, 29 FBS head coaches made at least $4 million in 2020. That’s 45% of the Power 5 head coaches. There were also 34 FBS head coaches with 8-figure buyouts, including 10 of 14 SEC head coaches (that’s not including the unknown terms of the buyouts of Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin).
Is the job harder now with something like that? Sure, but it’s hard to side with the coaches too much when their contracts have ballooned to this level.
Oh, and it was also hard to side with them when they could leave another school without penalty while undergraduate players couldn’t.
Now, though, it appears that’ll no longer be the case. It’ll create a new set of challenges, but it’ll also open doors that shouldn’t have been closed for guys like Gatewood, Mays and Reese. Believe it or not, not every kid who enters the transfer portal is a third-stringer who didn’t want to work to win a starting job. Plenty of starters seek new destinations because of scheme, playing closer to home or because their coaching staff left or was fired.
That’s the case for To’o To’o, who entered the transfer portal just 2 days after Jeremy Pruitt was fired at Tennessee. It would’ve been baffling to watch the NCAA or SEC deny To’o To’o immediate eligibility as the NCAA determines if Tennessee will face a postseason ban for Pruitt’s alleged recruiting violations. Remember, the SEC also put a rule in place in 2018 that allowed for undergraduates to transfer within in the league without sitting a year IF they were leaving a team that faced a postseason ban.
Still, though. Why should that determine To’o To’o’s ability to play elsewhere without wasting a year of his athletic prime? Thankfully, that question likely won’t have to surface.
It took longer than it should’ve, but To’o To’o’s transfer shows that the SEC is changing its transfer ways. Good.
Now let’s talk about targeting.