Have we reached college football free agency?

OTL: The Graduate Transfer Controversy (6:53)

Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams is the product of a controversial graduate transfer rule that allows student-athletes with eligibility to play immediately for a new school. (6:53)

Over a period of four days, two of the inaugural College Football Playoff teams replaced their Heisman-Trophy-winning quarterbacks with graduate transfers, fifth-year players who set foot on campus with their eligibility unencumbered by a redshirt year.

Oregon named Vernon Adams Jr., the Walter Payton Award runner-up the last two seasons at FCS Eastern Washington, to replace Marcus Mariota. Everett Golson, who started for Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship three seasons ago, will step into Jameis Winston's spot in the Seminole huddle. There is also Greyson Lambert, who won the starting quarterback job at Georgia after starting nine games for Virginia a year ago.

Heavens to Russell Wilson, have we arrived at free agency?

We live in an era when a football scholarship includes a stipend, when the amount of food provided a player is no longer legislated, when medical care has become a recruiting issue. The right of a graduate to transfer without redshirting is one more weight that shifts the balance of power between player and school toward the former.

How permanent that shift will be is a matter of debate within the NCAA. Coaching traditionalists don't like the idea of free agency. Academic traditionalists believe the low percentage of football graduate transfers who complete a graduate degree -- 24 percent in the latest two-year study -- mocks the academic-athletic model on which the entire NCAA is based.

And then there are the coaches who believe the four-year guaranteed scholarship is what it says -- a guarantee that stops at four years or when the player graduates.

"Why should I, for just my own selfish purposes, be able to stop a guy who's gotten his college degree from playing someplace else?" Stanford coach David Shaw

"Why should I, for just my own selfish purposes, be able to stop a guy who's gotten his college degree from playing someplace else?" asked Stanford head coach David Shaw. Since the end of last season, the Cardinal has said goodbye to five fifth-year graduate transfers and hello to one.

Shaw is aware of the arguments for keeping the veteran. A staff invested four years of coaching in them. Seniors are usually better in the locker room than freshmen. If he's sitting on your bench, he can't go somewhere else and help someone beat you. Shaw dismissed them all.

"I would say coaches are second only to politicians as far as what they try to accomplish and what they believe in is very self-serving," he said. "Right? I mean, nobody wants to give anybody any break anyplace else."

Nearly to a man, transfers want to play someplace else because it offers a better opportunity than what they would have if they stayed. None of the five fifth-year transfers Stanford lost were starters. Golson and Lambert were both starters who lost their jobs in spring practice.

They are the typical transfers, not guys like Wilson, the NFL star who left North Carolina State five years ago with his degree in order to lead Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl. He may be the most prominent player to become a graduate transfer, but he wasn't the first.

The NCAA passed the graduate transfer rule in April 2006, a time of glasnost for student-athletes' rights. The rule passed with no restrictions. You graduate, you have eligibility, you can go. The owner of the undergraduate degree had, according to the rationale presented in the rule proposal, "earned the freedom" to go elsewhere.

Glasnost, indeed -- the rule seemed completely out of character for an NCAA known for its rigidity.

"It was just totally off the grid for any of us who have been around the business for a while," said Marshall defensive coordinator Chuck Heater.

Nine years ago, Heater was the coach of a Florida secondary that badly needed help. Suddenly, that help arrived. Corner Ryan Smith had quit the Utah football team that spring after a falling out with the coaches. He jammed 21 credit hours into summer school and transferred to Florida to play for Urban Meyer, the head coach who had recruited him to the Utes. Smith won the starting job, became an All-SEC defensive back, and won a BCS ring.

"We wouldn't have won the national championship without him," Heater said. "He just kind of dropped out of the sky."

The parachutes furled quickly. Two days before Smith and the Gators defeated Ohio State, 41-14, to win the BCS National Championship, the NCAA members voted to rescind the rule. The advocates didn't give up. Later that year, the NCAA adopted the rule that remains in effect: A player who earns his degree could transfer with permission of his alma mater if he had been accepted into the graduate school in an academic discipline not offered by the former school.

The latter, in practicality, is an academic fig leaf. Transfer candidates figure out where they can fit in on a program's depth chart before they look across campus to the grad schools.

"It seems that the rule is you have the ultimate flexibility to do whatever you want," Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. "But it seems as though there's no academic component with it at all, and we're still colleges and universities."

Keep in mind that a decade ago, the NCAA wanted to increase graduation rates. Today's freshmen football players arrive on campus in June instead of August. And they don't go home very often. They take summer-school classes every year, attending school three semesters a year instead of two.

No one considered the fallout of such a policy -- if the academic clock speeds up while the eligibility clock ticks at the same pace, the result will be graduates who still have a season (or two) to play.

"It has created an interesting issue, hasn't it?" mused Kevin Lennon, the NCAA vice-president of academic and membership affairs.

The NCAA Division I Council appointed a committee of coaches and administrators to look at the rule last spring. The group recommended that graduate transfers should have to redshirt, but should be allowed a sixth year of eligibility. That would give them time to compete at their new program and, more important, get that master's degree. The Council couldn't table that recommendation fast enough. Restricting a student-athlete's flexibility would sound a politically tone-deaf note these days.

"The data shows that folks aren't getting their (graduate) degrees," Gill said. "...I think the issues are easy to see. I think the best solutions are hard to identify."

The philosophical question comes down to this: Should the NCAA emphasize the completion of a graduate degree with the same fervor that it promotes undergraduate degrees?

There is, as always in the NCAA, the fear of the other guy. Taken to an extreme -- and what recruiter fails to stretch any NCAA rule to its elastic limit? -- will this sort of "free agency" promote roster poaching? Gill's committee asked the NCAA Committee on Infractions to weigh in on how severe an infraction that should be.

And there is practical effect of the graduate transfer rule, which has been in effect for nine years. It allows the student-athlete to extend his career.

"A guy has five years to play," Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher said recently on the ESPN Championship Drive podcast. "This may be the last time he ever plays. ...(To) go and fulfill your dreams of being able to play college football at a different level, have a different opportunity, plus, you've already graduated, I don't see the problem in it."

A year ago, Fisher lost Jake Coker, a backup looking for an opportunity, to Alabama. This year, he will start Golson, a backup looking for an opportunity. The graduate transfer rule may be free agency. Then again, it just may be college football's version of a rummage sale.