College football's transfer portal is working ... just look at TCU

TCU went 5-7 in 2021, leading to the firing of legendary head coach Gary Patterson. The program had grown stagnant, just 23-24 the last four seasons, and appeared to be in need of a significant rebuild for new coach Sonny Dykes.

The situation was exacerbated when 15 players transferred out following the coaching change, including at least four high-end talents.

While the transfer portal — and the corresponding allure of name, image and likeness money — has been decried and vilified by plenty of people in college athletics, most notably that it serves to make strong teams even stronger, Dykes offers a different perspective, one of opportunity and quick fixes.

Namely, how the program’s turnaround from middling Big 12 program to 13-1 team that will play Georgia on Monday for the national championship, wouldn’t be possible without it. The transfer portal flows both ways, after all, so Dykes brought in 13 new players who added a dash of talent, plugged roster holes and produced necessary depth.

“Had we not been able to add those 13 transfers, you know, we would have been in trouble defensively,” Dykes told The Athletic.

In the past, Dykes would have needed multiple strong high school recruiting classes to get things back on track. TCU’s hope would have rested on Dykes’ deep ties within the state of Texas unearthing some gems overlooked by major programs.

Instead, here in the 2022 season, the transfer portal offered a more immediate impact and, per Dykes, broke down significant advantages that established powers previously enjoyed.

“In today’s college football world, it is a lot different assembling a team than it used to be,” Dykes said last week prior to TCU's 51-46 victory over Michigan. “You used to rely on signing the recruiting class. You [then] redshirted the class if your program is good enough to do that. So all the programs that were good historically had an advantage because they didn’t have to play freshmen.

“Those teams [then] went to bowl games, got those 15 extra practices and got a chance to work those young players,” Dykes said. “There was only one way to acquire players, and that was through traditional high school recruiting.”

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 31: Linebacker Johnny Hodges #57 of the TCU Horned Frogs pressures quarterback J.J. McCarthy #9 of the Michigan Wolverines during the third quarter of the College Football Playoff Semifinal Fiesta Bowl football game at State Farm Stadium on December 31, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona. The TCU Horned Frogs won 51-45. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
TCU added linebacker Johnny Hodges via the transfer portal. Hodges leads the Horned Frogs with 81 tackles this season, including 8.5 tackles for a loss. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

In other words, schools such as TCU were tasked with a steep climb. That playing field is more level now, Dykes said, if only because the fear of a young talent transferring means there are fewer redshirts and thus hoarding of talent.

“In today’s world, it’s a lot different,” Dykes said. “You can acquire players [in] a lot of different ways. People don’t really redshirt as much anymore because if you do redshirt somebody, chances are, they’re not going to be there for very long.

“So what happens is, that opens the door for maybe non-traditional programs to be able to acquire players in a different way, which is kind of what we did.”

Dykes certainly would have liked to have kept some transfers — notably running back Zach Evans and linebacker Khari Coleman, who went to Ole Miss, offensive lineman Tyler Guyton, who left for Oklahoma and defensive end Ochaun Mathis, who headed to Nebraska.

However, multiple other TCU players transferred down to Group of Five or FCS programs, if anywhere at all. That opened scholarship space, which Dykes filled with 13 transfers who saw action this season. They came from name-brand schools (Georgia, Florida State) and upstarts (Louisiana, UConn) alike.

Some became major stars, such as linebacker Johnny Hodges, who arrived from the Naval Academy. Others made significant contributions, such as SMU offensive lineman Alan Ali, Texas tight end Jared Wiley or UL Monroe cornerback Josh Newton. The others provided depth or bolstered reserves.

Whatever it was, Dykes was able to overhaul and strengthen a roster on the fly. The turnaround was historic … but perhaps not rare in the future. The old expectations, limitations and timelines no longer apply.

A program such as TCU can quickly put together a roster that can stand toe-to-toe with Michigan. And with the expanded playoff coming, access to championship opportunities will increase not just for, say, Big 12 programs, but Group of Five schools also.

It’s possible that playing in a certain conference or two will no longer hold the recruiting importance (especially among transfers) that it once did.

“I’ve always believed that the cream rises and the more opportunities that schools outside of the traditional brands get, the more those schools can become traditional brands,” Dykes said. “I think you exclude them, it’s hard to break in. And I think this will give a lot of schools like TCU an opportunity to get in the mix and show what they’re capable of.”

Much of what was predicted about the transfer portal and NIL has not proven true. A lot of it was scare tactics or complaints from old-school coaches who aren’t happy having to deal with new challenges and dynamics when it comes to building a roster.

As for the belief that everything will simply make the rich get richer, well, here is TCU — no one’s definition of the rich — playing for the title.