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Transfer Portal Analysis

The transfer portal has taken the college football world by storm. I have considered adding it to the WRC rankings, but first, I need to know how substantial the effect is from year to year. So, lets evaluate the impact of the transfer portal.

The prevailing wisdom in some circles is that the value of signing transfers has become as much as, or more vital, to high level success than recruiting and developing high school signees. Is that actually true?

We know that between 2,800 and 4,100 Division 1 college football players have been entering the portal per year. We know that just 54% were able to find opportunity at another school. Of that 54%, the majority of power 5 transfers end up at non-power 5 schools. So, most of the transfers are players dropping down a level to get better opportunity.

There are exceptions to this though, most notably, at the QB position. USC and LSU got the last two Heisman Trophy winners out of the transfer portal. Of course, their impact wasn’t enough to get their teams to the elite level, but they certainly benefitted their respective programs. These kinds of players have impact but are also outliers that are not indicative of the several hundred players that land a power 5 gig.

How much are these transfers elevating their new programs vs. the players using the traditional High School player development path? As the WRC on this site shows, the correlation between elite level high school recruiting and elite level success is extremely high. What about the programs knocking it out of the park in the transfer portal?

To find out, I looked at the top 20 teams in 247 Sports Transfer Portal Team Rankings. I’m starting by measuring the transfers’ initial impact. I want to see how much a great transfer class elevates a program from their previous season. In the table below, you can see that in the “YR 1 Gain” column.

Next, I want to see the cost of bringing in transfers. Is using the transfer portal to bring in key players a sustainable model? I want to track the program’s results in the following 3 years after their highly rated transfer class.

After that, I want to see if the program is being elevated beyond its traditional program composite rankings? We know what these programs have done historically, so how much are these teams improving beyond their typical standing. I measured them against their program composite ranking for that and you can see that in the “Gain” column at the far right.

As you can see, the net gain in year one for the 2022 top 20 was 14.6%. The net gain in 2023, though, was 0%, although most teams did improve. In year two of the 2022 top 20, they are down 1.0%. In the far right column, you can see that in both 2022 and 2023, the programs that are winning at the transfer portal game are performing on average, below their Program Composite Ranking.

As the national poster child of not using the transfer portal, I also put Clemson down at the bottom as a control. They have declined on the field in recent years, but as you can see, they are still performing at a higher level than their program composite ranking by just developing high school talent.

There’s only two years of data here, so making conclusions is premature. However, there is nothing yet showing that the transfer portal is anywhere near as important as recruiting and developing high school players. Other researchers have looked at this and found similar results. I’ll keep tracking this and see if a stronger correlation between transfer portal success and program improvement develops.