A decade ago, if you wanted to know who won the college football offseason, you simply visited your favorite recruiting website in mid-February and examined which programs signed the best recruiting classes.
Now, it’s not so simple. Signing classes tell only a portion of the offseason story. Winning the transfer portal matters. So does staff retention and reassembly.
Which teams did it best this offseason? Here’s my ranking of the top five offseason winners from the SEC:
Brian Kelly’s staff overhaul deserves praise. He plundered Missouri’s defensive coordinator Blake Baker and Texas’ defensive line coach Bo Davis to spearhead an overhaul after LSU’s defense kept the Tigers from contending for the College Football Playoff despite having a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback. Baker and Davis were instrumental in Missouri and Texas having top-25 defenses last season.
Kelly also signed the nation’s No. 7 recruiting class, and although he didn’t go for quantity in the transfer portal, he acquired some important quality. Wide receivers Zavion Thomas (Mississippi State) and CJ Daniels (Liberty) plus safety Jardin Gilbert (Texas A&M), all profile as starters.
4. Texas A&M
A coaching change is a recipe for a roster exodus, and the Aggies were no exception after firing Jimbo Fisher in November. But, the Aggies emerged from the roster carousel better than most would. New coach Mike Elko maintained a top-20 recruiting class, then supplemented it with the No. 2 transfer class. That included some instant-impact intraconference additions like linebacker Scooby Williams of Florida.
Texas A&M didn’t emerge unscathed. Notable losses included wide receiver Evan Stewart (Oregon) and defensive linemen Walter Nolen (Ole Miss) and Fadil Diggs (Syracuse).
Still, the Aggies return more production than any other SEC team, based on ESPN’s advanced metrics. Elko retained and added enough talent that FanDuel lists the Aggies with an over/under of 8½ wins for 2024. That betting line reflects Elko’s roster work. I also like his hire of offensive coordinator Collin Klein from Kansas State.
3. Ole Miss
Lane Kiffin made clear years ago that he intends to win with transfers instead of sign-and-develop recruiting. Embracing that avenue means he can’t afford an offseason during which fails to assemble a premier transfer haul. The “Portal King” doesn’t miss. He signed a best-in-nation transfer class. He particularly loaded up on plug-and-play defensive talent, a group headlined by Nolen, the Aggies’ star.
Not even Kiffin bats 1.000 in the transfer market. Top Ole Miss running back Quinshon Judkins transferred to Ohio State. But, the Rebels gained more than they lost.
By retaining Pete Golding, Ole Miss will have the same defensive coordinator in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2020-21. Combine Golding with the transfer talent assembled, and this should be the best Ole Miss defense of Kiffin’s tenure.
Quinn Ewers eschewing the NFL Draft for another season is a win for Steve Sarkisian. Thanks in part to Ewers’ return, Texas A&M is the SEC’s only team that returns more production than Texas. The Longhorns are positioned to smoothly transition to the SEC and vie for a spot in the conference championship game.
Texas joined Oregon and Ohio State as the only programs to sign a top-10 recruiting class and a top-10 transfer class. The Longhorns avoided any crippling transfer departures while adding impact players like wide receivers Isaiah Bond (Alabama), Silas Bolden (Oregon State) and Matthew Golden (Houston).
The Longhorns’ offense is assembled for a run at a national championship, but they’ll need to show they’re fortified enough in the defensive front after a few notable departures.
Kirby Smart dominated the offseason, once again putting the Bulldogs on the shortlist of teams with a prime chance of winning the national championship.
Let’s start with recruiting: The Bulldogs signed the nation’s No. 1 class. No surprise there. Smart is the nation’s best recruiter, particularly with Nick Saban retired. Georgia’s class included five five-star prospects on defense. Yahtzee. This class bears resemblance to Georgia’s 2019 signing class. Several of those recruits developed into standouts on Smart’s first national championship team.
On the staffing front, Smart retained coordinators Mike Bobo and Glenn Schumann and plundered Travaris Robinson from Alabama to assist Schumann in running the defense.
Smart also got more active than usual in the transfer portal, cherry-picking some top talent, including running back Trevor Etienne (Florida) and wide receivers Colbie Young (Miami) and London Humphreys (Vanderbilt).
If championships are won in the offseason, then Georgia just positioned itself to reclaim the crown.
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