Posted by Jerry Hinnen
He's not exactly Curt Flood, but all the same Russell Wilson may wind up serving as a college football landmark: the sport's first legitimate free agent. Cut loose from N.C. State, eligible to play virtually anywhere thanks to his early graduation, "95 percent" likely to take advantage of that eligiblity, and -- most importantly -- a bona fide all-conference candidate with three years of starting experience and a 76-26 career touchdown-to-interception ratio.
So Wilson represents uncharted waters for college football; while other players have been eligible to transfer without penalty, none have offered such tantalizing immediate benefits. But which school is going to be the lucky one to sail into those waters?
We don't know. No one does, Wilson included; he's still got months of baseball ahead of him. But we can say which programs would be the best fit should Wilson decide to take a look. Here's our guesses for the comfiest landing spot for Wilson in each BCS conference, judging by both which team would benefit most by Wilson's arrival and which team Wilson would benefit most by joining. Enjoy:
SEC: TENNESSEE. Yep, we're saying the Vols, despite most of the early Wilson speculation centering on South Carolina, Ole Miss, and Auburn. But multiple reporters covering the Tigers have said they won't be interested; it makes sense considering that 2012 shapes up as a much more likely championship campaign for Auburn than 2011, and Gene Chizik won't want to spoil that with a first-year starter under center. Steve Spurrier will certainly give Wilson a ring if Stephen Garcia is finally dismissed, but if Garcia sticks around, neither he nor Wilson will want the controversy his arrival would bring. And though we have little doubt Houston Nutt would welcome Wilson with open arms rather than ride with the untested Randall Mackey or Barry Brunetti, Wilson can probably find a team with higher expectations.
Enter Tennessee. Yes, the Vols have a starter already, promising sophomore Tyler Bray. But Bray's boom-or-bust results late last season and ugly 5-for-30 spring game performance suggest that he might need more seasoning before taking the reins for a full SEC season. Bringing in Wilson lets the Vols redshirt and groom Bray for three solid seasons to follow, without taking a step back at the position; going to Tennessee lets Wilson play for a high-profile team in the nation's toughest conference, one with plenty of playmakers at his disposal. It's a win-win.
BIG TEN: WISCONSIN. An easy call: the perpetually consistent Badgers have the defensive playmakers, the ball-carriers and the receivers to put together another fine Big Ten team if they can hold the line on the offensive line ... and if they can find a quarterback. The results at the Badgers' spring game suggest they don't have the latter yet. The stodgy Badger attack won't make much use of Wilson's mobility, but no other team in the conference offers Wilson the chance to waltz in as the unquestioned starter for a top-25 program.
BIG 12: MISSOURI. After years of Chase Daniel and then Blaine Gabbert spearheading the Tigers' aerial attack, Gary Pinkel has to feel a little spoiled when it comes to quarterbacks. But that may be changing, as Mizzou comes out of spring without a clearcut starter and with neither candidate (Tyler Gabbert, younger brother of Blaine, or James Franklin) having looked quite in the Daniel/Gabbert class. Wilson would short-circuit any potential quarterback-platoon talk immediately upon arrival and give the Tigers one of the best trigger-men their spread could ask for. Wilson, meanwhile, would have the benefit of having the ball in his hands 40 to 50 times a game, for a team whose underrated defense should make them top-25 contenders.
PAC-12: UCLA. Let's face it: the 3-9 Bruins maybe don't have a heck of a lot to offer in terms of football glory. But after their seemingly endless quarterback carousel of the past few seasons, no program would be more appreciative -- no coach more thankful -- than UCLA and Rick Neuheisel. If Wilson can salvage a winning season out of 2011 and potentially turn around the flagging tenure of Neuheisel, the gratitude aimed his way from the Westwood faithful would likely dwarf anything he'd receive anywhere else. (Besides, most of the other Pac-12 contenders -- Oregon, Stanford, Arizona State, Cal, even ineligible pseudo-contender USC -- have fairly established quarterbacks.)
ACC: FLORIDA STATE NO ONE
[This section originally discussed the "far-fetched" possibility that Wilson could transfer to the Wolfpack's intra-division rivals in Tallahassee, but it's more than far-fetched; it's impossible, since Wilson's release -- originally, erroneously reported as "unconditional" -- specifies that he may not transfer to an ACC school or any school on NCSU's schedule. In retrospect, this is a common sense precaution. Apologies.]
BIG EAST: WEST VIRGINIA. We're kidding, mostly; Geno Smith enjoyed an excellent spring game and will be the Mountaineers' 2011 starter. And given Wilson's unwillingness to give up on a "football dream" that likely includes the NFL, he would likely pass on Dana Holgorsen's Mike Leach- inspired "Air Raid" offense anyway, which has struggled putting its passers in the pros. But an offense like Holgorsen's, as helmed by a talent like Wilson? We can dream of those kinds of pinball games, can't we?