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Caleb Williams, Kirby Smart, and the New “New Era of College Football”

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Oregon at Oklahoma Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

You have a national championship game to be focused on, and the season of college football that will kick off in August 2022 is probably the furthest thing from your mind at the moment. I totally get that. Keep the main thing the main thing. Good call.

But Georgia and Alabama fans may be the only fans who haven’t moved on to next season. And the players aren’t far behind them.

Oklahoma’s Caleb Williams was the top overall recruit in the class of 2021 and unseated a preseason Heisman favorite to win the starting job at Oklahoma. In a bygone era Lincoln Riley’s defection to coach the USC Trojans might have made Williams feel betrayed but there’s likely very little that would have changed. He would have been back in Norman this spring serving as the centerpiece of the Sooner roster as Brent Venables and new offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby installed a new offense.

No more. Here’s a brief sampling of big time college quarterbacks who’ve already announced they’ll be wearing different uniforms next season. Apologies for the fact that the list will be out of date by the time you read it.

  • Auburn’s Bo Nix will be playing for Dan Lanning at Oregon.
  • Spencer Rattler, who Williams unseated at Oklahoma, will be at South Carolina.
  • Kedon Slovis, who Wally Pipped JT Daniels at USC, will be playing for Pittsburgh.
  • LSU’s Max Johnson announced he’ll be heading to Texas A&M.
  • UCF standout Dillon Gabriel announced he was transferring to UCLA, then changed his mind and committed to Oklahoma following the Williams announcement.

And those are just the players whose destinations are known. Guys like former Florida starter Emory Jones and Texas A&M’s Zach Calzada haven’t announced yet where they’re headed but are very unlikely to be playing in 2022 where they did in 2021.

But Williams is by far the crown jewel of the college quarterback merry go ‘round.

Georgia is likely to have some combination of Stetson Bennett, JT Daniels, Carson Beck, Brock Vadagriff, and Gunner Stockton in Athens next season unless things change. Spoiler: they will change. I place the odds of Daniels and Beck being in Athens when fall camp opens below 50%, not because of any inside information, but because it’s pretty clear that one would have to work pretty hard to regain the starting role he lost, and the other would have a Herculean climb to take the starting job given the competition.

Being a major college football quarterback is a business. That’s hard for some fans to stomach, but it is the reality. If you want a shot at NFL dollars (and every elite QB prospect does) and believe deep down that you have what it takes to get them (every elite QB prospect believes in his heart of hearts that he does), it’s no longer believed that you sit patiently and wait your turn. Gone are the days when Mark Richt and Mike Bobo recruited one quarterback a season to Athens and that guy waited patiently behind David Greene or Matt Stafford for his shot.

Kirby Smart has a roster full of highly regarded quarterbacks. But he’d absolutely make room for Caleb Williams if he wants to pull up a chair in the Classic City. He has to. There was a time when you could haul in elite recruiting classes at a school like Georgia and once you started doing so the momentum was hard to break. That’s no longer the case. In the era of the transfer portal your three deep roster is never more than a few disgruntled sophomores away from evaporating out from under you. Imagine, for example, the 2021 Georgia defense if it had been bringing Florida’s Brenton Cox and Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson off the bench this year. Those guys, all-conference performers at their new schools, would have been just another cog in the machine in Athens. Nobody enjoys being a cog, not if they can be the one running the machine.

As a result coaches no longer need to recruit a roster, they need to rerecruit their roster. Some coaches aren’t going to want to do that. Too bad for them, it’s going to become a necessary part of the job. So far we’ve had every indication that Kirby Smart plans to be at the forefront of this change. Just last year he went into the transfer portal for defensive backs Tykee Smith and Orange Bowl defensive MVP Derion Kendrick as well as receiver Arik Gilbert.

Smith and Gilbert didn’t make immediate contributions, but that’s probably going to be the new normal of the portal: like in high school recruiting you will end up selecting some players who through bad luck or bad scouting just don’t pan out immediately, or may be even ever. To counteract that new Florida Coach Billy Napier has actually hired former Detroit Lions staffer Bird Sherrill to serve as his Director of College Scouting. In essence, he’ll be the guy who evaluates players specifically from the transfer portal.

I don’t know where Caleb Williams will end up. There will almost certainly be rumors flying that this school or that is offering him an NIL deal that is just too juicy to pass up. I’d point out however that even a $1 million NIL package pales in comparison to the difference between being selected in the first and third rounds of the NFL Draft. In the end that remains the name of the game, getting players to the NFL brings in the players who win championships, who then get drafted by the NFL.

But in college football’s new world, getting the players, retaining them, and making hard choices about roster management are becoming a much more difficult and fluid endeavor.