Seven months on from Georgia's coronation as the best team in college football, we are merely weeks away from what looks like a tantalising season ahead. Daniel Shirley, Senior Editor for College Football at The Athletic, described this game as "a year-round sport" when I spoke to him in the off season. For good reason. NIL, the transfer portal, Saban vs. Fisher and a flurry of coaching changes amongst other off-season stories have kept opinions divided and keyboards warm.
There's almost so much I'll break it down into two parts. The first, looking at some of the headlines of a tumultuous off-season, and the second, highlighting some of the must-see games to watch, players and new coaches who will keep us entertained as the 2022 college football season kicks off.
So, what's been happening in the off-season?
Name, Image, Likeness (NIL)
If the 2021 close season gave birth to NIL, a breakthrough rule giving college athletes the rights to earn money from their name, image and likeness, a year later, we seem to be in its teenage phase. NIL is still developing, working under a vague set of rules and nobody seems to be able to parent it consistently. Quoted at Big 12 media days, Oklahoma State Head Coach Mike Gundy said of NIL:
"My opinion is in a couple of years it will settle... it's running a little out of control right now."
NIL is enabling big-money college programs to tempt elite high school prospects and encourage established college stars to switch schools, or cement the loyalty of their current stars. Stewart Mandel at The Athletic reported that a five-star high school recruit in the Class of 2023 signed an NIL deal paying him $350,000 immediately and which could escalate to a staggering $8 million by the end of his third year of college. Refreshingly, Texas Tech, according to si.com, have launched The Matador Club, a collective run by five alumni which has pledged to pay an even $25,000 each to a hundred players joining the football program.
While the top teams are very likely to remain at the top, NIL will impact the emerging contenders in the next few years. Texas A&M's No.1 recruiting class will see them emerge as Playoff contenders in the next two years while Miami could be reborn under new coach Mario Cristobal and wealthy boosters to back him. Grinding it out for your team on a frozen northern field in the Big 10? An ambitious program with growth plans, money to burn and practices on the beach could be an awfully tempting place to spend your last year or two in college football.
Nick Saban vs. Jimbo Fisher
Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher got into it in the off season, in a spat dubbed "The Beef". The two coaches sniped at each other in a series of press conferences after Saban complained about the NIL's impact on recruiting, particularly Texas A&M's top-ranked class of recruits:
"A&M bought every player on their team - made a deal for name, image, likeness. We didn't buy one player, all right?"
Fisher insisted no laws were broken and responded by calling Saban a "narcissist", describing his comments as "despicable" and suggested that people might want to "go dig into how 'God' did his deal." Alabama, incidentally, had the No.2 ranked class.
The spat has added some extra spice to an already tense SEC West rivalry. Fisher had predicted his team would upset the No.1 Crimson Tide while Saban, his former boss, was the coach. Saban had sarcastically asked if he meant Fisher would beat him at golf. Texas A&M upset Alabama 41-38 in College Station in their October showdown last year, ending their unbeaten record.
Saban and Fisher have reportedly since made up, but they will have stoked the fire within their talented teams. Their October 8th showdown in Tuscaloosa promises to be one of the most anticipated games of the season.
The Transfer Portal
The success of college football programs often lies with their coach's effectiveness in recruiting well. The ability to attract the best talent out of high school now extends to persuading elite players to switch campus and fill vital gaps in college rosters.
USC, Alabama and Ole Miss were arguably among the winners of the off-season. USC, fresh from prising the talented Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma on a $110 million contract, lured high-profile transfer quarterback Caleb Williams and wide receiver team-mate Mario Williams to follow their coach to California. They then weakened Pac-12 rivals Oregon and Arizona State, plundering Ducks running back Travis Dye and Sun Devils linebacker Eric Gentry respectively. Landing the fiercely pursued Pitt wide receiver Jordan Addison was the cherry on top.
Smarting from losing to Georgia in the national championship and losing the No.1 recruiting class crown to Texas A&M, Nick Saban and Alabama have been shrewd in the transfer portal. In comes LSU star cornerback Eli Ricks to bolster a young secondary, while top running back Jahmyr Gibbs brings experience and lots of yards to the Crimson Tide's run game. Lost two top receivers in the Draft? No problem. Four-star receivers Tyler Harrell (Louisville) and Jermaine Burton from Georgia will help will the void left by Jameson Williams and the brave John Metchie III, who announced post-Draft he is battling leukemia.
Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, the self-styled "Portal King", went as far as picking up recruits himself, chauffeuring some from the airport in Memphis to Oxford in a Rolls-Royce. It worked for UCF receiver Jaylon Robinson, who will line up for the Rebels this season. Kiffin also raided USC for quarterback Jaxson Dart and tight end Michael Trigg. Running backs Zach Evans from TCU and Ulysses Bentley IV from SMU will add some real spark to a potentially explosive offense.
The Arch Manning Sweepstakes
The Mannings are football quarterback royalty, both in college football and the NFL. Archie Manning lit up Ole Miss and the New Orleans Saints in the late Sixties and Seventies. His sons Peyton and Eli starred at Tennessee and Ole Miss respectively before both being drafted No.1 overall by the Colts and Giants, winning two Super Bowls apiece (Peyton won his second in Denver). No surprise then, that Archie's grandson and nephew of Peyton and Eli, Arch Manning, was viewed as the consensus No.1 overall high school recruit of the Class of 2023.
The 6'4", 215lb quarterback, currently starring at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, regularly featured in blogs, on Twitter feeds and rumour mills visiting campuses across the South East. Arch in a Texas hoodie at Darrell K Memorial Stadium one week, working out in a Clemson T-shirt the next, sporting a Georgia hat and polo shirt another week. Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss, Virginia and SMU were also in the running to land the highly touted high school junior. On June 23rd, Arch announced his decision on Twitter:
The impact of Manning's commitment to the Longhorns has been significant. Texas, from the start of next season, will have the No.1 overall recruit from the Class of 2022 (Quinn Ewers, who left high school early to go to Ohio State before transferring to Texas) and 2023. Since Manning's announcement, Texas have managed to land several additional prominent high school recruits and have quickly moved up to have a top 5 recruiting class for 2023.
It's been an interesting off-season to say the least. Next up, is a look ahead to what we can expect from an already intriguing 2022 season of college football. Stay tuned.