If you’re enjoying a wild season and College Football Playoff race that’s as wide open as we’ve seen, thank two of the sport’s biggest bugaboos: the transfer portal and name, image and likeness (NIL). 

The pair have been maligned by traditionalists for eroding loyalty and amateurism while throwing rosters into disarray. But the two controversial forces have also redistributed talent enough to add a dose of a diversity to the top of a sport that’s monopolized by the same teams every year.

The clearest evidence of newfound parity comes from the AP top 25 poll (which — full disclosure — includes me as a voter). For the first time since the 2016 preseason, six teams received at least one first-place vote this week: Georgia, Florida State, Texas, Michigan, Ohio State and Washington. Penn State, Oregon and USC aren’t in that group, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see any of them make a playoff run.

Compare that jumble to last fall, when Georgia was the obvious frontrunner on its way to the title. Or the season before, when Georgia and Alabama had every first-place vote through four weeks before their inevitable rematch in the CFP final. Or most other years, where you can narrow the list of championship contenders to a select few (Georgia, ‘Bama, Ohio State) before the season even kicks off.

Though this fall could still end with a predictable national champion, the fact that there’s this much uncertainty is a testament to the portal and name, image and likeness.

Fourteen of FSU’s starters in the win at Clemson were transfers, including the receiver who caught the game-winning touchdown ( Keon Coleman of Michigan State). Tampa Bay Tech product Michael Penix has made Washington a championship contender after leaving Indiana. USC’s offense includes reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams (Oklahoma), plus Plant City High’s Mario Williams (Oklahoma) and tackle Michael Tarquin (Florida). Three Penn State starters are transfers, two of Michigan’s starting offensive linemen came from Stanford and Bo Nix arrived at Oregon via Auburn.

If that’s not enough, consider a few other names and where they came from. Instead of shoring up Ohio State’s iffy quarterback situation, former Buckeyes signee Quinn Ewers has nine touchdown passes and no interceptions for Texas. Receiver Adonai Mitchell and defensive lineman Bear Alexander could have been contributing at Georgia but are instead starring for the Longhorns and Trojans. Former Alabama starter Javion Cohen has helped turn around Miami’s offensive line. Their transfers, then, didn’t just elevate new teams; they weakened the usual suspects at the same time.

As the portal spreads talent across the country, name, image and likeness deals help programs retain it. The stated goal of the One Year Fund was to keep four key Michigan players from leaving for the NFL; all four (including standout running back Blake Corum) remained and start for the No. 2 Wolverines.

No. 5 FSU has its best team since 2014 because the Seminoles pro prospects like Jordan Travis, Jared Verse, Johnny Wilson and Trey Benson stayed. Penix and Nix could have entered the NFL draft but remained at Washington and Oregon. Both players have seven-figure name, image and likeness valuations, according to On3. 

To be clear, this does not mean every draft-eligible star stayed in college solely because of name, image and likeness money, but it’s naïve to think those opportunities were a non-factor. Which means NIL deserves at least some credit for deepening the pool of championship contenders.

Even teams outside the playoff mix have benefitted. The portal has allowed new coaches to turn over rosters quickly. Without transfers and name, image and likeness, Deion Sanders wouldn’t have been able to revamp Colorado so well so fast, weakening the biggest story in the sport. USF’s rebuild would have also lagged rather than beginning the Alex Golesh era 2-2.

The changes culminate in one massive number: 12 billion minutes. That’s how much college football fans consumed across all networks last week, according to ESPN, and it’s the biggest Saturday viewership ever (outside of rivalry week).

They were treated to an entertaining slate of games and an exceptionally large group of must-watch teams from Tallahassee to Washington — thanks in no small part to the college sports’ biggest bogeymen.

The transfer portal and name, image and likeness.

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