Sports

Why a big-money, high-stakes QB transfer carousel will define the 2024 season

The list of programs with some degree of quarterback uncertainty heading into the 2024 offseason could double as a list of perennial national title contenders.

At least two of the four College Football Playoff participants — Oregon and Washington — lack a proven quarterback for next season. The other two CFP teams (Texas and Michigan) and two-time defending champ Georgia are all waiting for official word on whether their star signal-callers — Quinn Ewers, J.J. McCarthy and Carson Beck, respectively — will return for next season.

From there, it’s a roll call of big brands that have either cannonballed into the quarterback portal pool or are monitoring the ripples closely.

With more than 90 FBS quarterbacks in the portal, a high-stakes carousel has begun that offers many options but little certainty.

Consider that powerhouse brands USC, Ohio State, Florida State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Miami are all monitoring the market, as they lack an established quarterback. Not all of these are definitive portal shoppers, as OU looks to roll with Jackson Arnold (the No. 3 overall recruit in last year’s class), and Ohio State is giving Devin Brown a chance.

The lack of proven production in the portal makes all these big programs at least portal peepers. A rough count by ESPN has nearly half the Power 5 — more than 30 schools — seemingly in need of a starting quarterback.

“The difference in this portal is that we’ve never seen the blue bloods with so much need,” said a director of player personnel at a Power 5 school. “That’s the difference.”

And that demand for quality quarterbacks has been met with much more quantity than quality, creating a competitive quarterback penthouse. Many of the top quarterbacks linked to seven-figure price tags are eager to exploit the circumstances, especially the ones without strong NFL outlooks who realize this could be their biggest sporting payday.

But can a school sit it out? That’s a big risk, too, if you remember the lack of viable arms available after spring ball last year.

As a result, there’s a cutthroat market for blue bloods, so it’s not a surprise that some with the biggest known NIL purses have been linked to the top players.

This week, former Duke quarterback Riley Leonard is visiting Notre Dame, and former UCF and Oklahoma quarterback Dillon Gabriel is checking out Oregon, per ESPN sources. Both schools are the favorites for those players. They also have refined and established NIL infrastructure.

Washington has been linked to both former Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers and Washington State quarterback Cam Ward, per sources. Former Kansas State quarterback Will Howard has been linked to several schools, including USC and Miami. The Hurricanes have also shown interest in Rogers.

Ward has a robust market and many potential suitors, as his strong arm and dual-threat ability have a lot of schools intrigued. Expect him to take a flurry of visits, as he appears to be the most intriguing commodity on the board because of his dynamism.

Are any of them actual difference-makers who can lead a team deep into the 12-team College Football Playoff and be worth the up-to-seven-figure price tag that many — including Nebraska’s Matt Rhule — are saying is at the high end of what they are seeking?

Is a fifth year of D.J. Uiagalelei, the promise of former blue-chipper Dante Moore, the rejuvenation potential of Tyler Van Dyke or the production of 2023 Kyle McCord worth the claims of market price? That’s hard to say.

Here’s what’s most interesting to veteran observers of the market — for the second year in a row, there’s a lot of need among schools and few sure answers available.

“There’s not a proven guy out there that schools feel like they have to go get,” a Power 5 assistant said. “There’s not a proven guy like Caleb Williams that’s a home run.”

Most of the top portal quarterbacks are one-year rentals.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Last year, for example, the biggest buzz portal quarterback recruits were Sam Hartman to Notre Dame, Devin Leary to Kentucky, Brennan Armstrong to NC State and Tanner Mordecai to Wisconsin. None led his team to a high-end season, and both Leary and Armstrong were considered disappointments.

Shedeur Sanders transferring from Jackson State to Colorado proved the biggest portal splash, and he solidified himself as an NFL prospect. But the Buffaloes still went 1-8 in Pac-12 play, showing how the setting and supporting cast need to match the talent.

Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz, who will have a top returning quarterback next year in Brady Cook, points out that many of the recent top portal quarterbacks took a year to find their footing.

“Quarterbacks are not usually a one-year, plug-and-play position,” Drinkwitz said. “Michael Penix, Jayden Daniels and Bo Nix all took a year. Look at Joe Burrow — it took him two years, too. The one-year plug-and-play has not had a whole lot of success. I think some of these programs are going to be taking big risks.”

Can some of the one-and-done members of this year’s portal class fast forward to similar results? The schools in the market are betting big that they can.

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