Any NASCAR fan will tell you that in racing if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.
That was once also the case in college football.

Not anymore.

Now that the “student-athletes” are more or less professionals free to profit from their name, image and likeness, all those inducements that were once illegal can now be accepted above board.

It’s a development that has helped drive a record number of players scurrying into the transfer portal. Some multiple times.

In the process, it’s helped drive veteran coaches like Nick Saban into the broadcast booth or retirement while simply driving others – most notably LSU’s Brian Kelly and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney – nuts.

Kelly is so morally opposed to the cost of doing business in the current free-agent frenzy that he made headlines by saying that his program is “not in the market of buying players.”

He went on to say that “unfortunately, right now, that’s what some guys are looking for. They want to be bought.”

He’s 100% right, of course. Even though his rationale for making the comment is as disingenuous as the fake Cajun accent he put on at his introductory press conference.

Kelly isn’t really angry about the players wanting to get paid. He’s just bent out of shape because he’s been outbid for several key transfer targets over the past few weeks.

Swinney, on the other hand, is a completely different story.

Being the man of principle that he is, the Clemson coach makes his statements through his actions, not his words. His Tigers are the only team in the Football Bowl Subdivision, other than the service academies that aren’t allowed to accept transfers, that hasn’t brought in a single player off the portal this offseason.

It’s a noble gesture of loyalty to the players he recruited out of high school, many of them 5-star prospects. But it’s also a major contributing factor to the slippage Swinney’s program has experienced over the past 3 seasons.

The drop-off hasn’t been dramatic. The Tigers are still considered an elite enough program to continue warranting Playoff consideration from every major preseason publication.

But it has been noticeable.

In the 7 seasons between 2014-2020, Clemson lost only 10 times while making 6 Playoff appearances. It’s taken the Tigers only 3 seasons since to match that number.

It would be easy to write the downturn off as a product of the revenue gap that exists between the ACC and its 2 main rivals – the SEC and Big Ten. Clemson has already done as much in the lawsuit it filed against the conference.

And it would be naive to suggest that finances aren’t a legitimate issue.

In football as in life, however, money isn’t the answer that solves all problems. Even with an SEC or Big Ten-sized windfall at his disposal, Swinney would still be putting himself and his program at a disadvantage by not using every tool available because he just doesn’t agree with it.

It would be like refusing to give up your old America Online CD and continuing to use dial-up internet while everyone else is getting faster, more reliable service because you’re not a fan of wireless.

That philosophy is a big reason he wouldn’t have been a good fit for the Alabama job after Saban unexpectedly walked away in January. Despite all the positives he seemed to have going for him.

Adapt or get left behind.

Imagine the fallout if an NFL general manager with plenty of cap space chose not to pursue free agents to fill holes in his team’s roster because he wants to stay loyal to his untested draft picks. While in the meantime, everyone else in his division added proven veterans to help them get better.

That’s exactly what’s happening in the ACC.

Swinney, whose distaste for NIL and the portal are well-documented, has made the conscious decision to stand pat and hope for the best.

In doing so, he’s rolling the dice that quarterback Cade Klubnik stays healthy. That his highly-rated true freshman receivers are everything they’re cracked up to be. And that all those backups he’s groomed to replenish his defense live up to their former 5-star ratings.

In the meantime, Florida State’s Mike Norvell has been busy reloading his defending league champions with a large cache of talented replacements. Most with proven track records at the highest level.

And he’s not the only one.

According to a composite of rankings compiled by several respected recruiting sites, including 247 Sports, NC State, Louisville and Miami have also amassed top-15 national transfer classes.

That doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. Or that 1 or all of those teams will finish ahead of Clemson in the standings in 2024. As they did in 2023. But it does give them a greater margin for error.

At least they’re trying.

And they don’t even have to cheat to do it.