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Could hundreds of college football players be left stranded by NCAA apathy?

Pete Thamel
·6-min read

The NCAA is a perpetually and consistently reactionary organization. As reliably as its infractions cases move at a glacial speed and its press conference moderators use the term “student-athletes,” the NCAA acts on major items only by circumstantial gunpoint.

As hats were picked, silly videos released and classes filled on the start of the national signing period on Wednesday, coaches expressed concern about the NCAA’s next inevitable oversight and delayed reaction.

An unprecedented confluence of events — the bloated NCAA transfer portal, a blanket extra year granted because of COVID-19 and the expected one-time transfer rule — threatens scholarship opportunities for football players and will eventually undermine the ability for coaches to keep full rosters.

“We’re going to see a situation this year where there could be up to 1,000 players in the portal with nowhere to go,” said South Florida coach Jeff Scott.

How will that happen? As of Wednesday morning, there were more than 750 FBS football players in the NCAA transfer portal. That number is increasing by dozens each day, and will only get bigger with the end of the semester. The players are looking to take advantage of the NCAA’s one-time transfer rule, which is expected to be passed early next year.

But that giant number comes with a jarring reality that has some coaches startled. The NCAA’s ruling this summer to give all fall athletes staying at their school an extra year of eligibility is going to expand rosters past the 85-man roster limit for next season. That will limit places transfers can go. (As of now, there’s a one-year waiver to go beyond 85 in 2021.)

The seniors returning for an extra year are going to limit opportunities for younger players within the program, which will mean even more transferring. Also, the one-time transfer rule is expected to lead to a flurry of Group of Five transfers looking to upgrade to bigger schools.

Nike logo dorns a football in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Boulder, Colo. Colorado won 20-10. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Nike logo dorns a football in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Boulder, Colo. Colorado won 20-10. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

All of this action flowing into the NCAA transfer portal, however, is constrained by some rules that have coaches and administrators projecting a limit on opportunity.

There are three limits that coaches need to worry about. The first is 85 scholarships, which is easy.

The rest requires an accounting degree and reads like something from a scientific journal, as football is the only sport that limits the numbers of players who can be signed each year. There’s a limit of 25 “initial counters” in a recruiting cycle, which is a complicated metric that can be manipulated by back-counting, blueshirting and other methods.

What’s in the crosshairs here is different. It’s the 25-player annual signing limit more commonly referred to as “hard cap.” The hard cap is a limit of 25 players from Aug. 1 through July 31, whereas the “initial counter” limit is per recruiting class.

The influx of available/transferring players and no extra scholarship slots because of the “hard cap” creates a predictable logjam that has some worried the NCAA has no answers for.

A compliance source backs up Scott’s projection and said there “easily” could be 1,000 players left without scholarships. That would be a nightmare for the NCAA, if logistics limited opportunity.

“I do think there are a lot of guys who’ll end up holding the bag without a place to go,” said Rivals.com Southeast recruiting analyst Woody Wommack. “You have the class of 2021 signing, the most transfers ever and a senior class that isn’t going anywhere. That’s made it really cloudy.”

The scary part of a player going into the portal is that they essentially give up their scholarship at their current school once they enter, which means players could end up dropping levels or not playing at all because of lack of opportunity. Not all players fully understand that risk. Scott points out that while coaches can monitor the portal for players, players lack a realtime dashboard of which schools have what amount of availability on their roster. There’s no available statistical indicator of how limited spots are, which leads to bad decisions.

What are the ripples of the roster logjam? One Group of Five head coach pointed out two potential reverberations. He said that the real roster issues are going to come in 2022, as the exemption to be over 85 scholarship players is expected to be gone, but a majority of the roster still has an extra year. That’s going to potentially limit the amount of high school players in the class of 2022.

“What 2022 looks like is crazy,” the Group of Five head coach said. “Now that you have to get under the 85 threshold, it’s a scramble. What can you bring in in 2022? That’s a problem.

“If your son is in high school and he has a 2022 scholarship offer, he should commit right now.”

So how will this number crunch play out? Some portend rule changes. The NCAA has always been fearful of the optics of running players off, which is one reason for the annual cap. While rosters are expanded for 2021, a Power Five athletic director predicted that the NCAA will use a gradual scale – 95, 88, etc. – to get them back to 85.

The schools most worried are those with rosters in disrepair from recent coaching changes. And there’s a drumbeat for change, as more than 100 compliance officers recently got on a conference call to discuss potential changes. But as with a lot of things in college sports, the changes are viewed through what’s best for each individual program and not the players.

Schools are biased by what’s in front of them, which is why moribund Kansas is pushing for change. Athletic director Jeff Long has advocated for a two-year rolling total of 50 counters instead of limiting one year at 25. (There could be a cap of 35 each year.)

One proposal that went before the NCAA Football Oversight Committee (FOC) on Oct. 1 included eliminating the hard cap and initial counters. That gained no traction.

A proposal being discussed now by conferences and schools is a three-prong approach to more roster flexibility and, potentially, allow more opportunity. The proposal would eliminate the “hard cap” and keep the initial counters at 25 per year, with three exceptions – injury or illness ending a career (three maximum), a player graduates early and is no longer on the roster or a player declares for the draft. All of those departures would open up a corresponding slot.

The NCAA FOC has taken a wait-and-see approach. FOC chair Shane Lyons, the athletic director at West Virginia, noted that the schools with the biggest roster issues are pushing the hardest. And he said that more than 80% of coaches at the head coaches meeting at the American Football Coaches Association Convention last year did not want to eliminate the hard cap. (That was before much of this dynamic change.)

“We want to see the data and the data showing that the transfer portal has had a negative impact on signing and scholarships,” Lyons said. “We can all make assumptions, but are those accurate? The committee didn’t want to act at this time. We’re not sure it’s going to have a negative impact as some perceived.”

So we’ll wait. And hope that the sport doesn’t have hundreds of players the next few years jammed up in an untenable numbers crunch.

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