The new norm in college football already on display at SEC media days

Christopher Walsh

HOOVER, Ala. — The drive was bad. Twelve hours, one-way. It was also a lot colder when he got out of the car. They didn’t mention that part when he was considering his options last year.

Then the sanctions were announced against Missouri, including a postseason ban.

“I was, well, ok,” said Kelly Bryant, who had already enrolled at his new school. “Here we go.”

On Monday, it was fitting that the first player to walk into the main room at 2019 SEC Media Days was the Tigers’ new quarterback, a transfer from Clemson. Of everyone appearing at the Wynfrey Hotel this week he’s had the longest road, and not become of the trip here from Columbia, Mo.

He also may have been the happiest to be at media days.

Regardless of the NCAA ruling, which is under appeal, Bryant is considered a poster child for the new rules in college football that have made it easier for players to go from one school to another. Because he left Clemson with a degree in tow he’ll be able to play this fall, while the NCAA transfer portal has streamlined the process for players to weigh their options elsewhere.

The changes were designed to help players like Bryant and former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, now at Oklahoma. Both did everything their schools asked of them in becoming starting quarterbacks and both ended up losing their jobs to high-profile young talents.

Neither was an easy decision for their coaches, who have combined to win the last four national titles.

Specific to Bryant, he got stuck behind Deshaun Watson for two seasons and then led the Tigers to the playoff in 2017. The product of Calhoun Falls, S.C., threw for 2,802 yards, ran for 665 and had a passer rating of 131.7.

But in 2018 Clemson’s offense was turned over to Trevor Lawrence, who along with Tua Tagovailoa is considered a frontrunner for this year’s Heisman Trophy.

The big difference between them is Bryant left his team immediately after being demoted (albeit, not doing so would have used up his eligibility), and from afar watching Clemson defeat Alabama for the national championship. Hurts was on the sideline. He played all of last season, and at one point saved the Crimson Tide’s postseason drive while coming off the bench to lead the win over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.

Yet exit one from the SEC, and enter the other.

Bryant considered transferring to Auburn, which he said was his first choice coming out of high school, yet preferred Missouri because it’s a pro-style offense, run by a coordinator with NFL experience, and last year’s starter Drew Lock ended up being a second-round draft pick.

“He’s going to put you in position to be successful,” Bryant said about Derek Dooley.

But the comment also reflected his decision and hopes for this season, regardless of the NCAA postseason penalty.

The key word regarding Bryant, and Missouri, is opportunity. It was the first school to contact him, and the quarterback could help make the Tigers competitive in the SEC East.

However, for a lot of players the transfer process has been anything but smooth.

A lot of them quickly find out that the grass isn’t always greener elsewhere. Roster spots are limited so numerous players in the portal will end up at a junior college or Division II-type school if they want to continue playing.

For some it’ll be the first step out of football, not the one to keep them in it.

“There will likely be some rough waters for everyone involved for a couple of years,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “Sometimes, that ideal match doesn’t happen.”

A perfect example is what’s going on at the tight end position at Alabama. With little depth the Crimson Tide scoured the portal this offseason looking for someone who could be a good fit.

Not only would it have to be someone with SEC-caliber talent, but also be able to step in and be able to fit in almost immediately.

The Crimson Tide didn’t find anyone.

Meanwhile, junior tight end Kedrick James, who is immensely talented and has a ton of potential, recently entered his name in the portal and isn’t expected back.

For whatever reason things haven’t clicked for him in Tuscaloosa. He suffered an ankle injury at Arkansas and missed a lot of last season. Then came the public suspension for violating an NCAA rule prior to the College Football Playoff.

He didn’t play against Oklahoma or Clemson and was expected to miss the first four games of this season. No official announcement was made, but the six-game penalty was consistent with failing a drug test.

Talk about a missed opportunity.

Players leaving a football program is nothing new. Neither is someone getting a second chance, especially if he can help a team win.

Yet the norm in college football is changing, with transfers dramatically on the rise and some of the ramifications of the new rules only now being seen. The NCAA has some catching up to do.

Ironically, it was Bryant’s new coach, Barry Odom, who complained the loudest about other teams contacting his players to try and get them to transfer. At least for now, he’s pleased that people took notice, and some of those necessary discussions have begun.

“The NCAA has got a number of things that legislatively, we've got to decide on,” he said. “I don't know that everybody -- or anyone has exactly the perfect answer.”

As for Bryant, he’ll get to spend his final season of eligibility while playing in the biggest conference, against the toughest competition and prepare for the NFL. It’s his chance to show what he can do.

“It depends on your situation” Bryant said about the transfer rules. “If you feel the need to go somewhere else, that will benefit you and put you in a position to be successful you have to take care of yourself at the end of the day.

“I have one year to get it right.”