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Tennessee Football adopts Michigan’s ahead-of-the-curve NIL model

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Tennessee Football and Michigan used to compete to see how many people they could stuff in their stadiums. Now, they’ll be competing for the next evolution of NIL.

Michigan won a national championship with NIL payments last season, but not like you might think. The Wolverines spent money on current players on their roster so they would stay around. Their transfer portal class ranked just 17th best in the nation before its title run. Imagine that.

Would you prefer handing NIL money to a high school prospect or a player with actual experience in college football that you know because they’ve been in your system? I’ll take the latter. So did the Wolverines. So is Tennessee Football.

The Vols signed a portal class in 2023 that was based on star power and impact players. That was a bit hit or miss. However, they know what they have in their current players, so they decided to pay them instead. Before bills were even sent out last year, the Vols were saving money.

UT held onto key players, like center Cooper Mays, by using its NIL dollars on grown men instead of young boys. Michigan did the same before the 2023 season, and it was obvious the Wolverines were more disciplined and more developed, which one would expect with a longer playing career.

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Passing on the NFL is a realistic option that many Michigan players took because the money waiting wasn’t elite and comparable in college. The Wolverines went 15-0 last season, so they’ll likely stick with that method even though former head coach Jim Harbaugh is now with the San Diego Chargers. 

Before their national championship run, Michigan brought in nine transfer players but let 14 others look for somewhere else to play. The Wolverines didn’t rely on that average transfer class they signed in 2023 to win a championship. They relied on current players they knew they could count on because they were proven.

This offseason, Michigan has repeated its approach with a “Those Who Stay” campaign, short for the phrase “Those who stay will be champions.” Even as they transition from Jim Harbaugh to Sherrone Moore, stability is their focus above all else.

With a similar approach in doling out NIL dollars, the Vols brought in eight transfers last year but allowed 22 to transfer out. That portal class ranked 36th in the nation. This offseason, Tennessee Football had 15 defections and eight additions.

However, the Vols took mostly affordable players to once again save their money on current players. Again, not much star power, but a body can transform quite a bit in four years in college. If everything else is equal, any coach would rather have the seasoned vet than the transfer who is having trouble finding his classes, managing team duties and, oh yeah, play football.

As NIL continues to evolve, we’re seeing the next major shift in paying players. High school prospects aren’t going to get unusually big NIL payments very often in the future. The Vols already played that card with Nico Iamaleava. The redshirt freshman quarterback’s $2-million per year contract paid big dividends in exposure and surely benefitted in recruiting. 

Michigan has proven there’s a way to make a national championship run without rebuilding a roster on an annual basis and paying out big-time dollars to highly rated high schoolers or even college transfers. Tennessee Football are now trying to do the same.

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