Clemson Football lost to Duke on Monday night. It was their second loss in a row following the loss to Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. It was their third loss in the last four games if you include the South Carolina game, where the Gamecocks ended Clemson’s home winning streak.
It was the second time in three years that the Tigers lost their opener, following their 2021 loss to Georgia in Charlotte.
It was excruciating, and emotions have been running high.
Many Clemson fans, myself included, have been analyzing and considering where things have gone wrong. Some of the analysis is specific to the game itself, such as bizarre mistakes, bad tackling, and expectations that got a bit carried away, by both the team and the fanbase.
Others are examining the wisdom of the way the Clemson program operates, which is led by the philosophies of head coach Dabo Swinney.
Considering the deficiencies that appear to still exist at wide receiver, and to some extent at other positions, Swinney’s hesitance to embrace the transfer portal is again coming under scrutiny.
This scrutiny is being magnified due to the success in Week 1 of a few programs who have embraced transfers.
The transfer portal is here to stay, and it can definitely help programs improve
The Colorado Buffaloes received a massive makeover under the leadership of new head coach Deion Sanders. Most of the roster turned over from the end of the 2022 season.
Sanders was criticized for a lack of ethics in telling the players his blunt opinions about whether they should stay or transfer. The perception was he was ‘cutting’ players he didn’t want.
Yet on Saturday, the Buffaloes defeated the runners-up from the 2022 College Football Playoff, the TCU Horned Frogs, and are now considered a real contender in the PAC-12.
Another example came Sunday when Florida State defeated LSU in a Week 1 Top 10 matchup. Mike Norvell’s transformation of the Seminoles didn’t happen as suddenly as Colorado’s turnover, but he did use the portal as much as anyone over the past few offseasons to elevate the FSU roster.
This follows the transformation of the USC Trojans in 2021 by Lincoln Riley, which boosted the program back into the national spotlight. They stumbled at the end and missed the playoff, but they are back now in the Top 10 and also a contender to win the PAC-12.
Each program used the portal differently. While Colorado did land a couple of high-profile players in Shedeur Sanders and Travis Hunter, they both had a specific tie to Sanders. Most of Colorado’s transfers weren’t high profile. Some will work out, some will not.
Florida State has tended to focus on quality over quantity this offseason. USC’s transformation in the 2022 offseason was somewhere in between. They pulled in big names like Caleb Williams and Jordan Addison but also had quantity as well.
All three examples, however, demonstrate how the transfer portal can be used to make a program better.
The frustrations of the most recent loss for Clemson Football have many people, including some national writers, once again pointing the finger at Swinney and his perceived reluctance to use the portal as the reason why Clemson has fallen on hard times just less than five years after their most recent national championship.
I share the frustration, but I am not as quick to condemn Swinney for his reluctance to use the portal.
Clemson Football should use the transfer portal more, but some fans have unrealistic expectations
I do wish the Tigers did take more transfers. They have taken one each of the past two offseasons. Both were veteran quarterbacks who were taken to provide depth. I would have liked them to take a wide receiver, maybe an offensive lineman, and perhaps a defensive end this past offseason. Nothing crazy, just do the homework, take a shot, and see what happens.
The problem is that many of the people criticizing Swinney right now aren’t giving him a hard time for being reluctant to take a shot at an average transfer that the program thinks could be a diamond in the rough.
A lot of Swinney’s critics are saying “Clemson could have used Keon Coleman” and “Fentrell Cypress could have been an upgrade for the Tigers” and so forth.
The criticism from many is that Clemson should be recruiting high-profile difference-makers.
They aren’t wrong about one thing: Coleman and Cypress would have been great additions. Olusegun Oluwatimi would have been an awesome addition last season. Addison too. All these guys would have been great. Several others as well.
The thing is that Clemson insiders have told us that those are the kind of players the Tigers are targeting. The only transfers that the Tigers are interested in reaching out to are guys they are certain will upgrade their roster. The insiders have communicated that Clemson isn’t going to roll the dice on someone who washed out at another program or never saw the field because they couldn’t break their way through a depth chart.
While they didn’t reach out to every high-profile transfer, they did reach out to Oluwatimi, Cypress and other targets the past two summers. It doesn’t sound like they came close to any of them.
What would it realistically have taken to get those guys? Portal recruitments are rarely public, but there sure has been a lot of speculation out there about some of them.
What I hear or read from college football insiders and observers about high-profile portal players is that most of them know where they are going or have some sort of idea of what their market is before they ever enter the portal. Professionals always practice ‘CYA’ to ensure they aren’t making direct accusations of wrongdoing, but the message is clear if you are willing to listen and comprehend.
First, someone representing the school, even in an ‘unofficial’ capacity, reached out to the players before they entered the portal. Translation: tampering.
Second, the school, or more accurately someone representing the NIL collective, communicated to the player what they were willing to offer in NIL funds if the player were to commit to the school. Translation: enticement.
How many times have you heard fans upset because other programs get away with those things?
Technically, both tampering and enticement are against the rules of the NCAA. They might not enforce those rules right now, but you never know when they might start. There is a reason they have been lobbying the government to create laws about NIL and transfers.
The high-profile portal players are usually looking for things Clemson Football isn’t willing to give
I am generalizing, and there are always exceptions to every generalization, but I believe many college football experts would agree that to have a realistic shot at landing difference-makers in the portal, a program needs to be willing to tamper and entice with NIL to gain a commitment.
I think a lot of Clemson fans would like Swinney to be willing to take a chance on some transfers similar to the way Sanders took chances on transfers this offseason at Colorado. Not the quantity, of course, but just to give it a shot to see if they can help in an area where he knows the team needs help. Two or three players. Five at most.
This doesn’t always work, however, and this type of portal use is like gambling. You might get lucky and nail an FCS transfer like Jared Verse who turns out to be a star. You might end up in the position the Gamecocks are in where many of their transfers from this past offseason didn’t look very good in Week 1.
If a high-profile player enters the portal, and they could be a fit for what Clemson needs, the Tigers absolutely should reach out to gauge interest. If that player is interested, then the Tigers should pursue them, and I genuinely think they do, just maybe not to the extent I would prefer.
If the player asks ‘How much NIL are you offering?’, Swinney has said before that that is where the conversation usually ends because they aren’t going to be a fit a Clemson. Swinney wants to avoid that entanglement, and my guess is that is the point when most of those transfers lose interest in the Tigers.
As fans, we don’t know where that line is drawn between players looking for NIL and players who just want to elevate their experience and aren’t looking to negotiate a commitment. That line might be drawn at the upper 5%. It might be much lower.
I know some fans want Clemson to ‘play the game’ and I understand that sentiment. It is frustrating to see the NCAA make rules and then not enforce the rules because they are afraid of a lawsuit that could knock down their house of cards.
Most of those fans aren’t willing to speak plainly and just say they want Clemson to tamper and entice. A lot of fans practice CYA too.
Are people just venting about Clemson using the portal for high-profile players without putting much thought about whether it is realistic? Or are they actually saying they want Clemson to get better at tampering and enticing without actually owning up to what they are advocating for?
Because my opinion is maybe one or two of the high-profile players that enter the portal every year are interested in a school like Clemson that won’t discuss NIL until you are actually enrolled at school. Even that estimate might be high.
Maybe Clemson is sacrificing potential success to avoid repercussions that may never come, but that’s where I would want the program to avoid the risk.
We have already seen some programs be hurt by their NIL initiatives, either through financial irresponsibility or legal difficulties. The NCAA isn’t cracking down on such business yet, but in the ever-changing landscape of NIL, things can shift fast, especially if the government and authorities do eventually get involved.
It’s not always as easy as saying ‘Use the portal.’ There is more to it than that. If someone wants the high-profile transfers, but isn’t willing to say Clemson should tamper and entice like other programs, they aren’t being very realistic with their expectations.