First and 10: Recruits, transfers, head coaches, teams ... why everybody wants in the SEC
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Caleb Williams isn’t the outlier, he’s a trend — one that’s growing and developing, season after season.
If you’re going to play or coach at the highest level of college football, there’s only one alternative.
Brian Kelly and Jimbo Fisher, Mike Leach and Bryan Harsin.
JT Daniels and Spencer Rattler, Jameson Williams and Derion Kendrick.
On and on it goes, elite talent from the coaching and playing levels flowing into the SEC. Now here comes the biggest move (potentially) yet: former Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams.
If you didn’t get it after Kelly left Notre Dame for LSU, or after Rattler left Oklahoma for South Carolina, it will come into clear focus if Kelly – or Georgia coach Kirby Smart – lands Williams from the transfer portal.
Think about this: Earlier this season, after then-Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley benched preseason Heisman Trophy favorite Rattler in the biggest game of the season and gave Williams the job, Williams was asked about his relationship with Riley.
Williams, a 5-star recruit, said he would’ve walked on at Oklahoma for the right to play for Riley.
Now that same coach who had that hold on Williams is fighting off LSU and Georgia to bring Williams to his new school, USC. The same USC that is arguably the best job in college football, and unquestionably the best place for players to build their name, image and likeness brand.
“If (Riley) doesn’t get (Williams), that’s a monumental failure,” a Pac-12 coach told me. “And that should scare the hell out of all of us. If (Williams) goes and plays in the SEC, no one is safe.”
This isn’t a new trend, but one that’s more acutely prominent now that the NCAA gave all players 1 free immediate eligibility transfer. But a potential Williams to the SEC transfer will be groundbreaking.
Not because Williams is the highest-rated transfer this season, or in the past few years of the portal. He’s an elite quarterback, no question.
But it’s the circumstances surrounding a potential transfer to the SEC that has everyone in college football watching and waiting. Williams leaving Oklahoma, with new coach Brent Venables and new offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, would be understandable.
Williams signed with Oklahoma to play for Riley, a young, dynamic and charismatic coach who has a track record of winning big, getting to the Playoff, producing Heisman Trophy winners – and developing quarterbacks for the NFL.
His past 3 quarterbacks at Oklahoma are all NFL starters, two (Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts) on playoff teams. The third, Baker Mayfield, had his team in the playoffs last season.
Two (Mayfield, Murray) won the Heisman; the other (Hurts) was a Heisman finalist. Essentially, Riley has every base covered when it comes to coaching and developing quarterbacks.
Yet Williams is considering LSU, with a new coach and a roster of uncertainty, and Georgia, the defending national champion whose coach – until this season, and with the help of the best defense in college football since 1992 — has had a history of struggling to figure out the quarterback room.
Kelly has produced quarterbacks at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame that have gone on to play in the NFL, though none with the impact of Riley’s most recent trio.
Smart has landed multiple 5-star quarterbacks – including JT Daniels transferring from USC – but has had zero sustained success with elite quarterbacks in 6 seasons at Georgia.
Jacob Eason, Justin Fields and Daniels: 3 former 5-star recruits with NFL talent (two currently playing in the NFL), and 3 who couldn’t get off the bench in Athens.
Smart also has 2 other 5-star recruits on the roster: redshirt freshman Brock Vandagriff (who, ironically, chose Georgia over Oklahoma) and freshman signee Gunner Stockton. Smart also has former 4-star recruit Carson Beck, the backup to Daniels when the season began.
When Daniels sustained a lat injury, Smart jumped Stetson Bennett – who played in 2020 when Daniels was injured – over Beck as the team’s starter and Bennett road the defense and smart decision-making all the way to the national title.
So let’s recap, shall we? Williams is considering a program in turmoil the past 2 seasons (LSU), and another that’s on top of college football but has a history of strange quarterback management.
Or USC, a program that, when right, will dominate the Pac-12 and be a fixture in the Playoff. A program that has Riley, who Williams declared earlier this season what it meant to play with him.
“If he were set on playing for Lincoln, he would’ve already singed and been leading that offseason program there,” another Pac-12 coach said. “The fact that he’s wavering, or whatever you want to call it, shows the pull, the draw, of playing (in the SEC). Lincoln is in a fight right now.”
A fight that’s only beginning for the rest of college football.
2. All about competition
When Riley arrived at USC, his quarterback room included Kedon Slovis, who played so well as a freshman for injured starter JT Daniels, his emergence forced Daniels’ move to Georgia the following season.
It also included rising sophomore Jaxon Dart, who played so well last season when Slovis was struggling, Slovis couldn’t get back on the field.
Slovis has since transferred to Pittsburgh, and Dart and Ole Miss could be a real thing soon. Both Slovis and Dart jumped to the portal, in part, because of Riley’s arrival likely meant Williams was following.
Now you quickly see the importance of Riley landing Williams – and how unthinkable it would be if LSU or Georgia does.
Every tangible factor points to USC over the SEC for Williams, except the level of competition. That, more than anything, is what drives both coaches and players to move.
Kelly is the all-time wins leader at historic Notre Dame, and when he left, and he didn’t give Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick – who has a history of doing what it takes financially to keep coaches (including Kelly) – an opportunity to match LSU’s offer.
Kelly wanted to see if he could win in the SEC.
Mike Leach could’ve stayed at Washington State until he retired, making $5 million-plus a year in a job that allows for down seasons. He left for the meatgrinder of the SEC, where he tried to land jobs prior (most recently Tennessee, when it hired Jeremy Pruitt).
Harsin, like most Boise State coaches, was paid well and didn’t have to leave a job that won big in the Group of 5. But unlike previous Boise State coaches who left for Pac-12 and Big 12 jobs, Harsin willingly left for the hardest job in the SEC: going head-to-head with the best coach in the history of college football (Nick Saban).
Billy Napier turned down numerous jobs to stay at Louisiana – including jobs in the SEC – until the perfect fit opened at Florida and he couldn’t say no. Now he has been given the money and resources to transform the program that started the SEC’s run of national championships in the mid-2000s.
Kendrick was dismissed from Clemson, and instead of laying low and playing for an under-the-radar program, he chose the white-hot spotlight of Georgia. He then led the Bulldogs in interceptions and was the defensive MVP of the Playoff semifinal win over Michigan.
Jameson Williams was buried deep on the depth chart at Ohio State and transferred to the best program in college football – and became the best receiver in college football. But for a freak, non-contact injury in the national championship game, he would’ve been the first receiver taken in April’s NFL Draft, ahead of the two Ohio State receivers ahead of him in 2020 (Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave).
These things don’t develop out of happenstance. Players – like Georgia Tech RB Jahmyr Gibbs, TCU RB Zach Evans, Oklahoma WR Jadon Haselwood, Ohio State QB Jack Miller, Rattler – transfer into the SEC to compete at the highest level and get better.
Think about Williams: He left Ohio State for Alabama, which had a new quarterback, a rebuilt offensive line and a new offensive coordinator. How many players willingly transfer into that uncertainty – even if it is Alabama.
3. Only one place, The Epilogue
Brenton Cox left Georgia for Florida. Henry To’o To’o left Tennessee for Alabama.
Now Eli Ricks, an All-American in 2020 and injured for much of 2021, left LSU this offseason for Alabama. Drew Sanders left Alabama for Arkansas. Mekhi Wingo left Missouri for LSU.
See the trend?
Even if it doesn’t work out at your first SEC stop, there are 13 other schools (soon, it will be 15) where you can try again.
Max Johnson left LSU for Texas A&M. Marcus Banks left Alabama for Mississippi State. JJ Pegues left Auburn for Ole Miss. Jalen Kimber left Georgia for Florida.
“It’s the old saying, no matter where you are, the NFL will find you,” one NFL scout told me. “But playing (in the SEC) is absolutely part of the evaluation. How could it not? You’re talking about playing in the best conference, against the best players in the most pressure-packed environments and games. Yeah, it’s a big deal. If you don’t think so, look at how many SEC players have been selected (in the NFL Draft) compared to other conferences.”
Since 2007 – the draft after Florida won the 2006 national title and began the SEC’s run of 12 national titles in the past 16 seasons — the SEC has produced more NFL Draft picks than any other conference. In 2019, the SEC produced a modern draft-era record 64 picks.
Now you can see why Caleb Williams – and many other elite transfers — is intrigued by the SEC.
4. When the music stops
The uncertainty of Caleb Williams has left multiple programs and players reacting to the ramifications.
Understand this: There is no deadline for a decision. Players don’t have to be enrolled at any school, by any date. Any academic work missed in the winter semester can be made up in the summer.
Eligibility shouldn’t be a problem for any player who has left the portal and hasn’t signed and enrolled in class.
That, however, doesn’t mean there isn’t uncertainty.
Dart, a former 5-star, is being heavily pursued by Ole Miss and Oklahoma – and to an extent, USC. If Williams doesn’t sign with USC, does Dart take a stronger look at staying with his original school?
If Dart then stays at USC, where does that leave Ole Miss, which lost out on Dillon Gabriel (Oklahoma) and is still looking for a legitimate starter or another player to push Luke Altmyer. That search could last into spring drills, when there will be more quarterbacks leaving schools at the conclusion of drills (Emory Jones — another SEC to SEC possible transfer).
Or it could be as simple as Daniels signing with Ole Miss.
If Williams signs with LSU, what does that do to Myles Brennan, the former LSU starter who has missed a majority of the past 2 seasons – but returned from the portal to stay at LSU? Would he then leave for another school?
If Williams signs with Georgia, Beck could be on the move. As it is now, Bennett staying at Georgia at least gives Beck reason for optimism: He beat out Bennett once, he can do it again.
5. The Weekly Five
Ranking the coaching hires from 2021 (head coach and coordinators):
1. Shane Beamer, South Carolina: Getting Gamecocks to buy in early and believe again was the biggest step.
2. Josh Heupel, Tennessee: The offensive renovation was remarkable.
3. Bill O’Brien, offensive coordinator/QBs coach, Alabama: Best individual coaching job of any coordinator in college football.
4. Will Muschamp, special teams coordinator/defensive assistant, Georgia: Bulldogs special teams were strong in 2021; Muschamp gets the defense in 2022.
5. Liam Coen, offensive coordinator/QBs coach, Kentucky: It will be fun to watch Coen build on a solid 2021.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Texas A&M TE Jalen Wydermyer.
“He’s not going to run by you, and he doesn’t have the explosiveness that elite tight ends have. But he’s a big guy who can move and is a willing blocker, and he has a wide catch radius. Here’s a problem that I’ve seen too many times: We start measuring guys by their elite or rare counterparts.
“Is he (Travis) Kelce or (George) Kittle or more recently, (Kyle) Pitts? No. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be (Pat) Freiermuth, who is a really good player in this league. (Wydermyer) can split to the slot, and can be a mismatch inside with his unique skill set. The focus should be more what he can do – which is a lot – instead of why he isn’t rare.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: pre-spring concern.
1. Alabama: Replacing both offensive tackles.
2. Georgia: Moving on from and rebuilding the best defense since Alabama 1992.
3. Texas A&M: Find difference-makers off the edge on defense (Shemar Turner?).
4. Arkansas: Find a true No. 1 receiver (Warren Thompson?).
5. LSU: Buy in to what Brian Kelly is selling. The sooner, the better.
6. Kentucky: Find a way to get pressure from a revamped front seven.
7. Florida: Change the mindset and work ethic of an offensive line that hasn’t played well (run and pass block) in 2 years.
8. Tennessee: Protect better on the offensive line, preventing QB Hendon Hooker from needless hits.
9. Mississippi State: Develop a downfield passing game. Time to stretch the field.
10. Ole Miss: Competition at quarterback. At the very least, Luke Altmyer needs someone pressing him.
11. South Carolina: Spencer Rattler has 9 months to build chemistry. It begins in spring practice.
12. Auburn: Tigers must get better in pass protection (don’t let the numbers fool you) or it won’t matter who plays quarterback.
13. Missouri: Fundamental change on defense, beginning with tackling better and taking better angles.
14. Vanderbilt: Get more physical; Commodores were pushed around too often on both lines of scrimmage.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: It looks like Kentucky is loading up at wide receiver in recruiting and the portal. Do you expect them to pass more next season, or still be a run-based team? — Sam Robinson, Atlanta.
Sam: Mark Stoops brought Liam Coen in as OC/QBs coach because he wanted his Crawl Ball offense to become balanced, and to have a vertical threat in the passing game. He got part of that in 2021, but the offense still revolved around the run game and TB Chris Rodriguez (that’s not a bad thing).
Tayvion Robinson is the most overlooked addition from the transfer portal in the SEC. He’s an uber-talented and dynamic receiver who was stuck in a Virginia Tech offense that couldn’t throw the ball with efficiency.
UK is heading into Year 2 with QB Will Levis and Coen, and the natural progression will only get better. Robinson will have a similar impact to that of Wan’Dale Robinson, who became one of the SEC’s best receivers after being underused at Nebraska. Same type of situation.
If Javon Baker is the elite receiver he was coming out of high school – and didn’t play at Alabama because there were simply too many options in front of him – UK will have two legitimate options for Levis. The staff is also excited about TE Jordan Dingle.
The Wildcats won’t get away from Rodriguez in the power run game, but Levis’ progression and two significant additions to the receiving corps will make it easier to expand the passing game.
5.08. The transfer of Max Johnson from LSU to Texas A&M isn’t getting the attention it should. In 17 career games at LSU – amid 2 of the most tumultuous seasons at the school in the past 2 decades – Johnson had a TD/INT ratio of 35/7.
More impressive in 2021, Johnson had 61 completions of 15+ yards, or “explosive” plays. He played in 12 games, and averaged 5.08 “explosive” plays a game in an offense that had lost both of its starting receivers.
He also had 27 plays of 25+ yards, and completed 52.5% of his 3rd-down throws. Those are not only winning numbers, but elite numbers in the right system with the right players surrounding him.
10. Quote to note
Florida coach Billy Napier, on modeling his program after other successful programs in the SEC: “We’ve got our own grass to mow.”