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A Portal to Glory: Will Colorado's gamble pay off?

If you follow college football at all, you’ve heard the biggest story in the offseason. And no, it’s not the age-old question of “Is Texas Back?” (Spoiler Alert: Maybe, maybe not. But probably not). It’s the aggressive roster strategy of new University of Colorado Buffaloes Head Coach Deion Sanders.

The Buffs have completely revamped their roster, with over 60 players leaving the program after Neon Deion took the reigns. We’ve never seen a program lean as heavily into the portal as Colorado is right now.

Can it work? Let’s take a look at three other notable programs that have portaled large majorities of their roster to see.

Charlie Weis’s Kansas

If you’re not a Jayhawks fan or a die-hard college football fan, this one is probably confusing. But buckle up, this is a wild ride.

Perhaps the first coach to really lean into the portal was Charlie Weis when he stopped in Lawrence, Kansas to attempt to right the ship for the Jayhawks. Kansas had no reputation as a football power, in fact, they were generally regarded as a football doormat.

In order to move away from that reputation and rebuild Kansas football following a horrid 1-11 2012 where their only win came over FCS South Dakota State, Weis was the first coach to truly turn to the portal. He took the model of Bill Snyder’s Kansas State to recruit junior college (JUCO) transfers heavily one step further: looking for FBS-level players leaving their programs.

Heading into the 2013 season, Weis brought in a then-impressive three FBS transfers and five JUCO transfers. His FBS class was headlined by former five-star graduate transfer from Notre Dame Dayne Crist, former BYU graduate transfer quarterback Jake Heaps, and Oklahoma wideout Justin McCay. Crist and McCay were former four-stars, and Weis’s transfer class brought much more talent than his high school recruiting class of nine future Jayhawks, none of which were rated above three stars.

2013 brought a slight improvement: the Jayhawks went 3-9, including their first FBS victory in the Weis era over Louisiana Tech, and their first Big 12 victory over West Virginia. Heaps was middling, carrying a lackluster six-to-10 touchdown to interception ratio. The JUCO class combined for 15 touches and no scores, while McCay had nine catches for 84 yards and one score.

With both Heaps and Crist gone, things didn’t improve, as Weis had a second-straight 3-9 season and was shown the door. Once again, McCay was the only one of that transfer class to have any impact, notching 18 catches for 189 yards and two touchdowns. David Beatty took over for Weis and faced a massive roster deficit that Kansas is just now coming out of. It’s fair to say the first big portal experiment was a failure.

Mel Tucker’s Michigan State

In 2020, Michigan State was left without a head coach for the first time in 13 years after program architect Mark Dantonio announced his retirement. In February 2020, the Spartans announced then-Colorado head coach Mel Tucker as head football coach.

Tucker inherited a bad situation. For as much as Dantonio did to help the program, it had started to lag behind its Big 10 rivals. Toss in a global pandemic with massive recruiting restrictions and you get a school on the precipice of falling out of contention.

With all those restrictions in place and the Big 10 deciding to play a limited 2020 schedule, the Spartans went 2-5 in Tucker’s first season. Everyone around East Lansing knew that season would have no bearing on Tucker’s tenure with the Spartans, so 2021 was his true first season.

With the transfer portal opening up for the first time ever, Tucker leaned into his. His NFL background helped him recruit the first wave of college football “free agents.” In that 2020-21 offseason, Tucker signed a then-unprecedented 14 prospects to the Spartans. The highest-rated prospect in that class, per 247Sports? Cornerback Ronald Williams.

Okay, I got you there, didn’t I? While Williams played very well in the secondary, starting all 13 games with an interception, eight pass defenses, and 38 tackles, he wasn’t the catalyst for Tucker’s success and massive contract. That was Kenneth Walker. Walker was the spark that Tucker and the Spartans were missing. The Wake Forest transfer ran for a whopping 1,638 yards and found paydirt 18 times. He also added 13 catches for 89 yards and another score through the air.

Behind Kenneth Walker III, Tucker’s Spartans surged to 11-2 and notched a Peach Bowl victory over 12 Pittsburgh, 31-21. Walker opted out of the game to prepare for that season’s NFL Draft, and the Michigan State running game evaporated. Freshman Jordon Simmons took his 16 carries for only 23 yards, but Payton Thorne was able to get the job done through the air.

Following Thorne’s success in the Peach Bowl, a more pass-happy approach was expected from Michigan State heading into 2022. Thorne took a step back. He increased his completion percentage by a few points, but his touchdowns plummeted and he threw one more interception than the year before. On the heels of Tucker signing a 10-year, $95 million super contract, the Spartans fell to a lackluster, non-competitive 5-7. Their average margin of defeat in 2022? 18.7 points.

Heading into 2023, there has to be some buyer’s remorse in East Lansing. Thorne and top wideout Keon Coleman are both gone, to Auburn and Florida State respectively. The only life for the Spartans in 2022 has poetically left as the success in 2021 came: through the portal.

Lincoln Riley’s USC

If you’ve made it this far, you might be thinking this portal thing is a bad idea. And that’s fair. Weis used the portal to fill holes on a very bad roster and ended up digging a new hole completely. Beatty was still 15 scholarship players short four years into his career. Tucker is facing a reckoning that if you live by the portal, you die by the portal. There has to be some success in there, right?

Enter Lincoln Riley, the bane of Norman, Oklahoma, and creator of some of the worst brisket I’ve ever seen. He’s also a great head coach with an innovative take on the Air Raid, but that’s beside the point.

On November 28, 2021, the University of Southern California announced the coaching coup of the century: they had hired Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma. The 38-year-old posted a stellar 55-10 record with the Sooners, including a College Football Playoff appearance, two Heisman-winning and number 1 overall pick quarterbacks in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, and a Heisman runner-up in Jalen Hurts.

At the time of Riley’s hire, USC was in a severe downswing. The Clay Helton era had some bright points but was an abject failure when compared to the Pete Carroll heights. The Trojans were sick of it and busted the bank for the offensive guru.

Leading up to his first season in Tinseltown, Riley bested Tucker’s marks in the portal. He landed the top class in the nation by 247 Sport’s metrics, with 97.25 points for their 20 additions. The class included five stars Caleb Williams, who followed Riley to USC from Oklahoma, and Biletnikoff winner from Pitt, Jordan Addison. He also lured five four-stars, including Friday Night Tykes legend cornerback Latrell McCutchin (Oklahoma), linebacker Eric Gentry (Arizona State), running back Travis Dye (Oregon), and wideouts Mario Williams (Oklahoma) and Brenden Rice (Colorado).

Riley’s first season was a huge step for the Trojans, finishing 11-3 overall and ranked 12th in the nation. Williams cemented himself atop the college football quarterback landscape by winning the Heisman Trophy and looks to be the top quarterback - and prospect - available in next year’s NFL Draft. Addison was selected 23rd overall in the 2023 NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings.

Despite a stinging 46-45 Cotton Bowl loss to Tulane, USC is expected to compete for a playoff birth this season. Currently, the Trojans clock in at sixth in the nation in both the preseason AP Poll and USA Today Coaches Poll.

Riley set the standard for portal success. But, can Coach Prime live up to it?

Deion Sanders’s Colorado

Colorado is in a unique spot born of Sanders’s desire to immediately flip this team into a winner. But, we’ve seen how difficult that can be.

Like Riley, Sanders has signed the nation’s top transfer class. But, it doesn’t quite measure up to USC’s. Remember that 97.25 rating Riley’s class got? Colorado is currently clocking in at a measly 78.14 in comparison. And that’s with 50(!) commits. Second place LSU is right on the Buff’s heels at 76.69 with only 14 signees.

So, Sanders has succeeded in changing the roster. And, he does have some top-level talent coming in. Travis Hunter is still a bonafide player, and will contribute a ton for the Buffaloes. I’m sure Sanders will try to use him as a two-way player, but Hunter’s body of work on defense immediately translates to the Power 5 level. Four-star tailback Alton McCaskill from Houston will provide immediate big-play potential to Colorado if he can find his 2021 form again. McCaskill missed last season with a knee injury but appears to have fully rehabbed it back. In his true freshman season, the Texas native had 961 yards and 16 touchdowns with a 5.1 average yards per carry. He’s dangerous and should show that off again.

But past that and Shedur Sanders, Colorado doesn’t have those big impact players that USC had a year ago. They’ve built depth for sure, but this is a team that needs to build at the top to compete.

Will Sanders’s aggressive portal strategy translate to success on-field? Well, it can’t get much worse than last season’s 1-11 effort under Karl Dorrell. But this team is not primed to take the world by storm.

Either way, Colorado and Sanders will be must-watch TV. They won’t compete for a title, not yet at least. But this could be the start of something. We’ll just have to wait and see.


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