College football is all about talent acquisition. Period. There’s a reason every team that won a national title in the Playoff era had a roster that ranked in the top 10 of the 247sports talent composite, and why each of the past 4 winners were in the top 5. To quote my guy Ari Wasserman, yes, I believe stars matter.

But do I believe the Early Signing Period matters like it did 3 or 4 years ago? No, I don’t. Not at all.

Why? It’s simple. Loosened transfer restrictions have changed the game. The numbers prove it, too.

Ahead of the Early Signing Period on Wednesday — wherein fans will be way too optimistic or way too pessimistic — I looked at those transfer numbers for the 2021 and 2022 classes both from a national perspective and from an SEC perspective.

Why did I do a breakdown with those 2 classes? It’s still probably too early to make any determinations on the 2023 class after just 1 fall semester on campus, and the 2020 class had some wildly atypical circumstances surrounding their signing window.

So if we just look at the 2021 and 2022 classes with high school/JUCO recruits — both of whom have spent multiple years on campus and should have at least 1 year of eligibility left — you’ll see some telling trends.

I looked at the top 100 recruits (based on the 247sports composite) in the 2021 class and the 2022 class. Here’s what I found:

  • 40 of the top 100 recruits from 2021 have transferred at least once
  • 29 of the top 100 recruits from 2022 have transferred at least once
  • 69 of those 200 recruits (35%) have transferred at least once
  • The school with the most top-100 recruits from 2021-22 who left? Texas A&M with 10

Speaking of the Aggies, they’re an interesting case study of why you really can’t claim that a specific high school class is about to change the trajectory of a program. A&M signed the best class in the recruiting ranks era in 2022 when it landed 24 blue-chip recruits (4- or 5-star). Ten of them have since hit the portal. Yes, a coaching change certainly played a part in the high number of elite transfers.

A&M had an even higher rate of blue-chip transfers lost (11 of 16) in the 2021 class than it had in 2022 (10 of 24). That’s common because the further removed from Signing Day, the more likely one is to transfer. If it’s a team with a coaching change, those odds are more likely with the top-100 recruits. Of the 69 combined top-100 recruits lost by transfer from the 2021 and 2022 classes, here’s the breakdown by school (italicized means they replaced a head coach since the end of the 2021 season):

  • Texas A&M: 10
  • Alabama: 7
  • Ohio State: 7
  • Georgia: 6
  • LSU: 6
  • Oklahoma: 4
  • Oregon: 4
  • UNC: 3
  • USC: 3
  • Auburn: 2
  • Clemson: 2
  • Jackson State: 2
  • Maryland: 2
  • Miami: 2
  • Florida: 1
  • FSU: 1
  • Indiana: 1
  • Kentucky: 1
  • Notre Dame: 1
  • Ole Miss: 1
  • TCU: 1
  • Utah: 1
  • Washington: 1

So of the 69 top-100 recruits from the 2021-22 classes who transferred, 38 of them (54%) left a program that made a head coaching change. Eight of the 14 programs with multiple top-100 recruits from the 2021-22 classes who transferred had a coaching change since the end of the 2021 season.

Let’s shift the focus to the SEC. And just to give us a bigger sample size, instead of just looking at top-100 recruits from those 2021-22 classes, let’s look at all the blue-chip recruits (4- or 5-star) that signed with an SEC program in those 2 cycles.

A total of 287 blue-chip recruits signed with SEC schools in 2021 and 2022. That’s excluding portal guys and focusing on high school/JUCO recruits who are rated as 4- and 5-star guys. Of those 287, 138 of them have transferred at least once. That’s 48%. Nearly half.

Of the SEC’s 14 schools, 9 lost at least half of their 2021-22 blue-chip recruits to the transfer portal. Here’s the breakdown by SEC school (the lower the percentage the better a team is at retaining blue-chip recruits):

SEC school
Blue-chips signed 2021-22
13 (27%)
4 (33%)
9 (50%)
15 (58%)
15 (39%)
8 (62%)
14 (56%)
Mississippi State
6 (55%)
6 (43%)
Ole Miss
10 (67%)
South Carolina
4 (57%)
9 (69%)
Texas A&M
21 (49%)
4 (100%)
138 (48%)

That percentage is important because it shows you essentially whether a team kept blue-chip recruits from transferring above or below that 48% average in the SEC. It makes Alabama (27%) that much more impressive and Vanderbilt (100%) that much more unimpressive.

So what does this data mean? And how should we shift our perspective when it comes to the Early Signing Period?

Know that 3 years from now, there’s a decent chance that about half of this class will have moved on to another school. Understand that even if a blue-chip recruit signs, it’s by no means a given that he’s still around by the time he’s ready to become a starter.

We should slide everything over when it comes to recruiting. At least in terms of excitement level:

  • Your team showed up in a recruit’s “final 8” graphic = No excitement
  • Commitment = Your team showed up in a recruit’s “final 8” graphic levels of excitement
  • Signed letter of intent = Your team landed a commitment levels of excitement
  • Blue-chip recruit played as a true freshman = Signed letter of intent levels of excitement

That’s really how we should treat this. Now more than ever, I’d caution fans not to get too attached to a player until he starts playing significant reps for your team.

Then again, look at someone like Trevor Etienne. He was a stud both years at Florida, and yet, by the time the former 4-star recruit wrapped up his second season, it was the worst-kept secret that he was going to hit the portal.

That’s reality. These numbers show why recruiting the portal is now just as important — if not more important — than signing elite high school/JUCO recruits. There are more immediate needs that can be addressed. Coaches have to brace for the likely possibility that their players will leave, no matter how many games they win or how good the culture is.

Take this week’s Early Signing Period for what it is — just one of several steps taken to build a roster.