First and 10: Pay to play? If you want to win, it's the only way
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
There’s no turning back now. No magic fix.
College football has become an above-board, booming professional business.
And the SEC is knee-deep in it.
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“You can kick and scream about it,” one SEC coach told me this weekend. “Or you can figure out a way to do it better. Which is what we’re being paid to do on the field, anyway. It’s one and the same now.”
The rush toward an open market and multiple forms of financial compensation won’t slow down. It will get bigger, broader and dangerously unwieldy.
It will produce winners and losers.
Two undeniable realities last weekend underscored the seminal moment for the future of college football and opened eyes all over the sport.
Last Friday, multiple reports circulated that All-American Pittsburgh wideout Jordan Addison – one of the top 10 players in the nation — was entering the transfer portal as the May 1 deadline loomed, and the likely destination was USC.
Two days later, former Clemson wideout Justyn Ross – a freshman All-American on Clemson’s 2018 national championship team – wasn’t selected in the NFL Draft because of previous medical flags (a neck injury).
Four years ago after that national title game, I spoke to a scout who told me two players – with all of those future NFL players on the field — stood out above all: Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, who was the first overall pick in the 2021 draft, and Ross.
Four years later, and after a neck injury caused him to miss the 2020 season, Ross hasn’t even signed as an undrafted free agent.
If ever there were an argument for free movement among players and financial compensation in college football – NIL deals, and pay for play – Ross is it. He went from a multi-million dollar future to possibly never playing in the NFL.
He’s not alone. Five years ago, All-American Michigan tight end Jake Butt decided to play in the Orange Bowl and tore his ACL. His draft stock plummeted, he lost millions and had 10 career NFL catches over 3 seasons before retiring because he was never the same player after the injury.
Dylan Moses, Marcus Lattimore, Michael Munoz. On and on we go with careers eliminated or cut short by injury – with no monetary gain to show for it.
Make no mistake, there’s real value in a paid education, in professional development on the field. But when major college conferences are combining to run Fortune 500 companies and generating nearly $1 billion a year, nothing short of swift, meaningful change in the way players can move and are compensated will work.
It began with NIL, and the tentacles of a simply stated model – players can earn off their name, image and likeness – have almost instantly spread to the uncontrollable. Then the NCAA gave every player a one-time immediate eligibility transfer, and the combination of the two has the wildly successful NCAA amateur model bent over, on one knee, one hand raised in the air, gasping for breath.
Who in their right mind could argue that Addison should stay at Pitt, when his ability to earn off his NIL in Los Angeles is likely 10 times what he could earn in Pittsburgh?
Who in their right mind could argue loyalty, when coaches leave programs year after year in search of better jobs and financial security? Why then is it so difficult to acquiesce that players, too, deserve financial security?
It’s over, everyone. College football as we know it is forever changed.
There are only winners and losers to be determined. And that’s where the SEC takes control.
2. Follow the money
Florida was among the earliest universities to embrace the new frontier, though they – and likely nearly everyone not named Texas A&M – didn’t exactly know what they had.
The Gator Collective raised money for NIL deals for student-athletes, like other “collectives” have done throughout the nation. Less than a year later, mega Florida booster Hugh Hathcock developed the Gator Guard – another NIL “collective.” It began with a $1 million donation.
Within the first 3 hours of its existence, that number jumped to more than $5 million.
This is where we are with NIL collectives. The greater the alumni base, the greater chance to build a war chest and compete with Alabama and Georgia for elite recruits.
Every single program in the SEC saw the success Texas A&M had recruiting this season, and have – in one way or another — moved toward the model.
Two weeks ago, the state of Tennessee changed its state law on regulating NIL deals, removing a provision that prohibited entities whose purpose is “supporting/benefitting an athletics program by making deals with current/prospective athletes contingent upon enrollment and participation in athletics at a school.”
Translation: Get ready for more contracts like the reported $8 million NIL deal signed by 2023 5-star QB Nico Iamaleava to play for Tennessee.
The state of Mississippi also redefined its NIL law, allowing universities in the state to be involved with an athlete’s conversations with third parties. Athletes in Mississippi can now enter into contracts as soon as they offer a commitment to a school, prior to enrolling.
Just in case anyone is wondering: QB Arch Manning, the consensus No. 1 recruit in the 2023 class, is considering Ole Miss.
The Texas and Oklahoma collectives are growing quickly, too. Former legendary OU coach Barry Switzer announced the 1Oklahoma Collective, where every Sooners player will have an “opportunity” to earn $40,000-50,000 a year while “positively impacting the community.”
This offseason alone, Texas landed coveted transfer QB Quinn Ewers, who had a million-dollar NIL deal with Ohio State before arriving in Columbus. The Longhorns also outbid Tennessee for star transfer WR Isaiah Neyor, and landed TE Jahleel Billingsley and WR Agiye Hall from Alabama.
If you’re not raising money and spending money, you’re falling behind. But that also leads to dangerous unintended consequences.
“I told our athletic director, ‘Where do you think the money is coming from?’” an SEC coach told me. “It’s coming from the same people who gave for years to the athletics program overall. Now it’s football and basketball. You’re stealing from one to pay the other. Guess who loses out in that deal?”
3. The player procurement battle, The Epilogue
So which comes first? Winning or NIL money?
With deference to Jimbo Fisher’s passionate defense of the way his program recruits, money is increasingly becoming the factor in player procurement.
The Aggies didn’t land 8 – EIGHT! – 5-star recruits in the 2022 recruiting class because of performance. This is the same program that hasn’t won a conference championship since 1998, and whose coach can’t match the résumé produced by the previous coach (Kevin Sumlin), who was fired.
After the first 48 games as coach at Texas A&M:
— Wins: Fisher (34), Sumlin (34).
— Wins vs. ranked teams: Fisher (7), Sumlin (9).
— Wins vs. ranked teams on the road: Fisher (0), Sumlin (5).
Yet somehow Fisher and his staff landed the greatest recruiting class ever.
As adamant as Fisher was on National Signing Day in shooting down rumors of the Aggies paying top-dollar for the No. 1 class, he was dead-on accurate about one assessment: His staff worked harder than any other.
By working harder, I mean his staff figured out how to manage NIL unlike any other, and used it to supplement recruiting to an SEC school with immaculate facilities and on-field momentum.
Everyone in the SEC has state-of-the-art facilities. Every alumni base is passionate and will no doubt feed collectives.
That’s why it truly does come down to who can out-recruit the other – or who sells the process better than anyone else. Or in Texas A&M’s case, how it sells the program and The Fund, its deeply-funded collective.
Florida, Tennessee and Texas are 3 of 9 states with no state income tax, and 5 teams from the future 16-team SEC are from those 3 states. Every dollar counts, as does every advantage.
That’s why many of the sport’s elite coaches are bemoaning the problems associated with NIL and unfettered player movement. Publicly, they’re for it because it’s the only way to recruit at a high level.
Privately, they know NIL and player movement is the great equalizer.
It’s not about wins and championships anymore. It’s about money and a sales pitch.
There’s no turning back now.
4. Top of the mountain
The new world begins with money. It will grow and mature and develop into the backbone of a standalone SEC monster, built on reputation on and off the field.
The SEC is the most successful conference in college sports. Last year, the league’s revenue was $833 million, and the new, bloated ESPN contract doesn’t kick in for 2 more seasons.
A new playoff is (eventually) on the way, one that will pay out more than $1 billion annually.
The movement of star players toward the SEC (or within the SEC) is just beginning. Jermaine Burton, Jahmyr Gibbs, Spencer Rattler, O’Cyrus Torrence, Jaxson Dart, Jayden Daniels.
The SEC and Big Ten are atop the media rights money pile, and the SEC has the modern era history of winning big — and passionate alumni desperate to stay on top. The further along we get with programs figuring how to process the new system, the more players will want to be part of the SEC and playing at the elite level to showcase their NFL value.
A new NCAA president isn’t going to change things, because the NCAA as a governing body has no control over student-athletes earning money off their name, image and likeness. The Supreme Court, in its scathing 9-0 ruling last summer, took care of that.
Congress won’t get involved because it, too, doesn’t want to limit a player’s earning ability – and doesn’t want to butt heads with SCOTUS.
This is where we are, and this is how we move forward. Those who embrace it will thrive.
Those who don’t will fail.
5. The Weekly Five
Five reasons for optimism, post-spring practice: Georgia.
1. Backup QB Carson Beck’s emergence this spring will push starter Stetson Bennett to stay sharp over the summer – or risk losing the starting job.
2. Uber-talented TE Arik Gilbert took a year off and recalibrated, then showed in 15 spring practices that he hadn’t lost anything from a fabulous freshman season at LSU.
3. Brock Bowers, Darnell Washington and Oscar Delp give Georgia the most talented and deepest tight end room in the nation.
4. Watch redshirt freshman DT Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins. He’s a space-eater and can rush the passer. And he’s playing next to the best interior lineman in the game (Jalen Carter).
5. The offense could have a legitimate, consistent deep threat with WR Arian Smith.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout evaluates a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Ole Miss OT Nick Broeker.
“A really smooth player with quick hands. He’s a rangy guy who covers a lot of ground, and can easily reset and anchor. He’s probably a guy who will move inside when he gets to our league. He’s a tough guy who’s more physical than you’d think, and he has great balance. He’s not the longest guy, and you’d like your guys to have a little more reach. He has to be more consistent, but he made some really nice strides last season in pass protection. I’d like to see another year of that, and eliminate some of those functional mistakes like overextending.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: ranking the offensive lines.
1. Arkansas: 4 of 5 starters return, including powerful middle three of C Ricky Stromberg and Gs Brady Latham and Beaux Limmer.
2. Georgia: Broderick Jones and Warren McClendon are studs, and Sedrick Van Pran is a force in the middle.
3. Alabama: This isn’t your typical Tide O-line. Still better on talent alone than most in the SEC, but Vandy transfer Tyler Steen will have to start at one tackle, and a freshman could start at the other tackle (Elijah Pritchett?).
4. Ole Miss: WKU transfer Mason Brooks was a huge addition, and cold move Boeker inside. Jeremy James, who has started 23 games, is a strong RT.
5. Texas A&M: A young group last year played well despite the inexperience, and rising sophomores Reuben Fatheree and Bryce Foster will be big-time players.
6. LSU: Two transfers add starting experience and depth, and the emergence of freshman Will Campbell in the spring has changed the look of the line.
7. Auburn: Four projected starters – Nick Brahms, Austin Troxell, Brandon Council, Alec Jackson – missed some or all of spring because of injury. All will be ready by August camp.
8. Florida: Torrence was a big addition at guard, and will bring a nastiness and experience in the middle three along with solid C Kingsley Eguakun.
9. Tennessee: 4 of 5 starters return from a unit that got better by the end of 2021. LT Darnell Wright played well last season and has an NFL future.
10. Mississippi State: The middle 3 starters return and will be the strength of the unit. Can Nick Jones, or Middle Tennessee transfer Steven Losoya and JUCO transfer Percy Lewis, lock down at tackle?
11. Kentucky: After years of strong line play, UK enters 2022 with some significant questions on the outside. Talented 5-star freshman Kiyaunta Goodwin might be the best of the group by the end of the season.
12. South Carolina: The entire line returns from 2021, and that’s not exactly a good thing. Seven players who started at least 6 games are back, but they need to get stronger and better.
13. Missouri: Javon Foster and Zeke Powell are likely set at tackle. Other than that, it’s wide open.
14. Vanderbilt: Steen was Vandy’s best lineman, and it was limited around him in 2021. Bradley Ashmore could be solid at one tackle, and G Xavier Castillo emerged inside last season.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: What’s your biggest surprise coming out of spring football? — Ken Philpot, Little Rock, Ark.
The biggest surprise — or maybe a better way to say it is biggest revelation — is the lack of talent at Florida. One source at Florida I spoke with said the new staff was “shocked” at the talent level in Gainesville when they arrived.
The starting 22 shouldn’t be a problem, but after that, the drop is significant. How far? Many of the backups and third-teamers, one staffer says, shouldn’t be playing at the Power 5 level. “Unimaginable,” is how another source explained it.
There’s a reason new Florida coach Billy Napier has been so public about the Gators being open for business in the transfer portal. He’s all but inviting unhappy players in their current situations to check out what Florida has to offer.
If you weren’t sold on the reality that former coach Dan Mullen’s recruiting handcuffed the program in 2021, you’ll see more of it in 2022 should Florida deal with injuries among the first 22 – specifically, the interior lines.
3.33. In the last 5 seasons at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly’s offense has averaged 4.95 yards per rush. Last season, LSU averaged a disturbing 3.33 yards per carry.
Despite the outside focus on quarterback (and it is a big deal), the offensive staff has zeroed in on drastically improving the run game. Change begins with Will Campbell, who already looks to have won the left tackle job.
Campbell’s emergence will likely allow Garrett Dellinger, a star freshman last season, to move inside and play guard. Transfers Miles Frazier (FIU) and Tre’Mond Shorts (East Tennessee State) could also win starting guard jobs.
More than anything, LSU is as deep as it has been on the line since 2019, though certainly not as talented. Still, the idea is a more consistent line will allow a deep and talented running back room – has talented TB John Emery finally figured it out? — to average more than 3.3 yards per carry.
10. Quite to note
Mississippi State QB Will Rogers on Georgia transfer WR Justin Robinson: “He needed reps at first, but once he got in and learned the system and got some reps under his belt, he did really well.”