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  • Writer's pictureBruin Sports Analytics

How Much of an Impact Has the College Football Transfer Portal Really Made?

By: Trent Bellinger


Source: On3.com

The college football transfer portal made its introduction in 2018, and has since revolutionized the way that college football teams recruit players. All of the best college football teams are using the transfer portal as a way to strengthen their rosters, often bringing in experienced players who have already proven their quality at the college level. The prevalence of the transfer portal in modern college football has raised many questions, one of which will be explored in detail in this article. Should schools be more focused on recruiting high schoolers or transfers? In this article, I will be focusing on Power 5 schools in 2022 to answer this question.


I will answer this question by taking a look at the impact of high school recruits and transfers on the number of wins for college football teams. I would expect transfers to have an immediate impact on the number of wins because many transfers are immediate starters when they transfer to a new school. It is very rare for a freshman high school recruit to be a starter, so we would expect high school recruits to have an effect on wins in their second, third, or fourth year of college. Because of this, I will look at data from high school recruits from 2018 to 2022 and data from transfer recruits from 2021 to 2022 to see the impact that they had on the total number of wins in the 2022 season.


I was first considering whether or not to look at conferences separately in order to answer this question, as the quality of football varies from conference to conference. I looked at the average high school recruiting stars and average transfer stars for the 2022 class among all of the power 5 conferences and found that there is very little difference between conferences, so I will not be considering conferences separately as they appear to be very similar, on average, in terms of recruiting strength.



Now that I have established that I will not be differentiating by conference, I will start by looking at the strength of transfer and high school recruiting classes. I quantify strength by the average number of stars across a recruiting class. A player can have 0-5 stars, with 5 being the best, depending on their ranking relative to the other people in their high school or transfer class.


After fitting linear models for the strength of all high school recruiting classes from 2018 to 2022, it has become clear that the 2018 recruiting class has had the largest impact on number of wins in the 2022 season. This is especially interesting because 2018 high school recruits were in their fifth year of college in the 2022 season, which was granted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The linear model is depicted below.



The model was found to be statistically significant (p-value < 0.001) and estimates that every increase of 1 average star of recruiting ranking in 2018 causes an increase of 4.4 wins in 2022. This is extremely significant because there are only 12 games in a college football regular season, so an increase in 4 wins can completely change the way we perceive a team. This shows that even though the transfer portal has become very prevalent, it is still of massive benefit for teams to get the highest rated recruiting class to maximize their number of wins.


Now I fitted more linear models to find a correlation between transfer class strength in and number of wins in 2022. As expected, transfer class ranking in 2022 had the largest impact on number of wins in 2022, but the results were much less significant than the recruiting model above.



This model was not statistically significant (p-value > 0.25). The model predicts an increase of 0.9 wins in 2022 per increase in one average star of the 2022 transfer class, which is very small compared to the estimated increase per average star of the high school recruiting class. Hence, it is very clear that recruiting high schoolers has a much more significant impact on the number of wins.


These findings indicate that it is more important to focus on high school recruiting and building a team of players who will stick together for four, or in this case, five years. Intuitively, this makes sense overall, as the best teams in the nation focus on building a culture and keeping their top high school recruits at their school for their full four years in college. Transfers have an instant impact, contributing to more wins in their first year, but high school recruits take more time to develop and earn their team wins. Hence, heavily recruiting high school players who may not contribute for a few years is often perceived as a risk compared to recruiting transfers who will immediately contribute to success. However, my findings indicate that this is not the case.



The above graph shows a strong correlation between recruiting highly-rated high school players and team success, even in the recruits’ freshman year. The model estimates that an increase of 1 average star of recruiting ranking in 2022 causes an increase of 3.7 wins in 2022. This is much higher than even the prediction for transfers in the same year. This is likely due to the fact that getting young and talented high school players causes older players to increase their level of play. Also, teams that recruit good high school players tend to get great recruiting classes every year, so this will also increase their number of wins.


Just as a brief note, I also looked at the correlation between number of transfers and wins as well as number of high school recruits and number of wins and found no significant correlation. This is to be expected because in college football, quality of recruits is certainly much more important that quantity.


Conclusion


Overall, my findings may be very surprising to some who assumed that transfers had a large impact on the number of wins for a team. While there are certainly some instances, such as USC in 2022, where landing top transfers gave them a huge boost in number of wins, overall recruiting high schoolers has a much larger impact on the success of a college football team. Many claim that transfers have an immediate effect on team success, which is true to an extent, but my findings show that consistently having top high school recruits is much more effective and beneficial for college football teams.


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