Today is National Signing Day, February edition. You’d think coaches would be freaking out, wondering where the last of the best recruits are headed. Well, they may be freaking out, but it’s not over what you’d think.
Combined, the changes to recruiting and scholarship allotment made to meet the demands of COVID-19 have made this the most challenging period for scholarship management in college football history.
“I think probably the most difficult thing for all of our coaches right now is roster management,” said Todd Berry, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. “What we’re getting ready to see this spring will be the most tumultuous spring in our memory as coaches or players.”
The returning seniors, known as “super seniors,” will push FBS programs over the normal cap of 85 scholarships in a given year, which the NCAA temporarily waived to accommodate the expansion…
The challenge is really coming down the road, mainly because of the law of unintended consequences.
While embraced by players and coaches, the NCAA waiver has led to two additional concerns related to scholarship management.
Programs taking back a large group of seniors, such as Ball State, could then lose upwards of 30 or more players after the end of the 2021 season — the super seniors, the more traditional senior class and players opting for the transfer portal or the NFL. With programs facing conference-mandated caps on how many recruits can sign during a given cycle, losing the equivalent of two senior classes in one go could set teams behind the 85-scholarship curve for one or more seasons.
“From a numbers standpoint, we can’t replace 36. We can’t replace 30,” Neu said. “I’m hoping that perhaps there’s some adjustments made, whether it’s on the NCAA level or what, to be able to make the adjustments necessary to fill your roster. That’s what I’m concerned about right now.”
The huge number of players currently in the portal has caused many programs to shy away from adding any recruits on Wednesday’s signing day in favor of leaving scholarships open for transfers after the end of spring drills. Some programs, particularly those on the West Coast, are still evaluating high school seniors from states set to play football in the spring, including California, Washington and Oregon.
“You always say recruiting is an everyday thing,” said Rolovich. “Well, signing people is going to be an everyday thing.”
And with no answer as of yet from the NCAA on whether the 85-scholarship limit will return after this coming year, coaching staffs are unable to plan ahead with any real certainty and begin digging into the makeup of rosters for the 2022 season.
This isn’t just having an impact on coaches’ future roster planning. It’s also affecting what happens to players who decide to enter the transfer portal. Ross Dellinger breaks down the dilemma for coaches and players.
The transfer surge is expected to continue well into next year’s cycle, not only because of the one-time transfer exception but as a result of a COVID-19-inspired rule granting each athlete an extra year of eligibility. While the seniors who return for next season do not count against a team’s 85 scholarship limit, players from all future classes do.
For instance, players who were juniors in the fall of 2020 and would normally have graduated by the 2022 season will now have the option to return as fifth- or even sixth-year seniors. They’d count against the 85. Meanwhile, some freshman classes in 2021 will be giant: 25 incoming freshmen will be coupled with roughly 25 “COVID-shirted” freshmen (true sophomores who were freshmen during 2020) for a 50-person rookie class. That leaves 35 scholarship spots for three classes.
While teams can have 85 players on scholarship each year, they can sign only 25 new players a year. The 100 signees over four years leaves a 15-player wiggle room for natural attrition. New transfer legislation and the impending COVID-shirter wave is causing unnatural attrition.
In the 2022 and 2023 recruiting cycles, coaches have one of two choices: retain their scholarship players and add fewer signees, or push out scholarship players and sign a normal class.
At least for now. There is apparently pressure being put on the NCAA to loosen the annual 25-player limit on new signees. Dellinger outlines three such proposals.
One proposal allows coaches to replace each player lost to the NFL, the transfer portal or for medical reasons, granting an unlimited number of signee spots in a one-for-one approach. Another similar proposal caps the number of replaceable signees at 10. A third proposal turns the one-year signee limit into a two-year limit, granting coaches 50 signees to be used over a two-year stretch.
Talk about your unintended consequences! The first of those would be Nick Saban’s wet dream.
Speaking of Nick, Bob Bowlsby has a suggestion.
As it pertains to the 25-signee limit, Bowlsby has a somewhat revolutionary idea that is probably a longshot. To inject more parity in college football, the Big 12 commissioner believes the annual signee limit could vary from school to school based on that program’s past success and failures.
“If you win the Super Bowl, you have a low draft choice. So maybe in the college environment you have fewer than 25 to distribute the talent, so the rich aren’t rich all the time and the poor have a chance to build their programs up,” he says. “It’s time to think differently about how the enterprise is managed.”
“Probably” is doing a shit ton of heavy lifting there. If Bowlsby’s ears aren’t already ringing, it’s only because he hasn’t received the phone calls from Oklahoma and Texas yet.
Meanwhile, Greg Sankey is here to help.
There are other longshot ideas for scholarship relief. For example, the SEC has proposed that all athletes who are COVID-shirted should not be counted toward the 85. That could result in more than 100 players on scholarship on a given team for multiple years.
Bowlsby calls the move “not likely,” and most other college administrators feel like the proposal has little momentum because of the finances alone. Sure, SEC teams and others in the Power 5 can afford to fund such a large number of scholarships, but what about the little guys?
“Let’s not reduce future opportunities for people coming into the system because we had to manage through a pandemic,” Sankey says. “It’s going to cost a little money but we ought to be spending that money on student-athlete scholarships.”
Greg, you’re not spending money on scholarships, but I digress.
Essentially, college football’s bigshots are into their don’t waste a crisis mode, but given all the competing interests, it’s hard to see how much gets done. In the meantime, expect a lot more whining about roster management from the usual corners.