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The NCAA froze eligibility to solve one problem, but there’s plenty more

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Adjusting for COVID-19’s impact on scholarships and rosters will take a lot more work

Photo by Jacob Kupferman/NCAA Photos via Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

On Friday afternoon, the NCAA approved a waiver allowing college football players to participate in games during the 2020-’21 season without exhausting any eligibility. The waiver had been discussed in coaching circles for days, as a large portion of college football has either postponed or cancelled their season while a smaller but significant number of schools, including three Power 5 conferences, still plan on playing in September.

The initial, unsolicited reaction from coaches I spoke with was unanimously positive. At first.

“A lot of our guys have been more worried about eligibility than COVID, so this is peace of mind,” a Group of 5 staffer said.

“Makes total sense and won’t hurt us or teams not playing. They [NCAA] got it right,” an assistant for a Sun Belt team scheduled to play this fall said.

This is true: If a school plays just one or two games in September or shuts their season down early because of COVID-19, players who participated won’t be punished for doing so. Additionally, programs who aren’t playing this fall (and still might not in the Spring, as most conferences have yet to firm up any specific plans on a season that could account for winter weather and the NFL Draft) won’t have an advantage of a more experienced roster in 2021.

Given the extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances around the 2020 college football season, this made sense. Then coaches started asking follow-up questions.

First, some quick math: Normally a college football player has five years to play four seasons. At the Division 1 level, each program is allotted 85 scholarships at a time and 25 scholarships per recruiting cycle.

The waiver the NCAA approved Friday adds both one more year of eligibility for athletes in fall sports and one more year in which they can use it. The NCAA also stipulated that a senior in 2020-’21 who decides to return next year won’t count against a team’s scholarship limit.

But it’s not that easy.

How many players will schools be able to keep on scholarship in 2021 and beyond?

“I need to know a scholarship total or this means nothing,” a recruiting coordinator in the Power 5 said, referring to the 85 player limit. Right now, coaches are still unclear if the NCAA will allow for more than 85 to account for the “frozen” year of eligibility, or if the number will stay firm. We know seniors won’t count against 85, but a fixed number or a message that 85 is sticking is what recruiting coordinators and assistants who scrutinize rosters are clamoring for.

How many schools can afford to fund more full scholarships right now?

“I have no idea what our AD would say about adding 20 scholarships right now,” one assistant in the Group of 5 said. “I bet it won’t matter at Alabama though.”

Historically that’s an accurate barb — Alabama gave us logos in waterfalls, etc. — but because of the idiot balance sheet gymnastics required to claim “amateurism,” even the Tide are hurting right now. So if the NCAA allows for a larger amount of players on scholarship, where’s that money coming from while employees are furloughed and other sports are being eliminated altogether?

“I just don’t think we can afford this,” a staffer at a Group of 5 school said.

Recruiting staffs are expecting a tidal wave of mid-year enrollees and transfers

“Think about it this way: Your high school’s been letting you take online classes since March. Guys who want to get on [a college] campus early used to have to fight with high schools or worry about other sports they played. Now they’re going to blast through those classes and get here earlier. We’re going to see higher numbers,” a Power 5 staffer said.

The ongoing issue for mid-year enrollees is whether they count on the current or previous 25-scholarships-per-year count, another figure coaches believe could change temporarily. Additionally, coaches believe graduate transfers — players who complete their degree can play for one additional year at another school provided they’re enrolled in a graduate program — will increase.

“Also, don’t expect to see those videos where a hard-working walk-on gets a scholarship for his senior season. If we don’t know how many we have, no one’s going to give [a scholarship] away.”

What’s the transfer window going to look like?

Let’s say for a second that you’re a graduating senior in the Big Ten who plays in the hypothetical Spring season and you want to transfer for a grad year to another program. Will a scholarship be available by the time you’re done? This also might be a good time to mention junior colleges are starting their season in March, meaning player evaluation for transfers will be thrown into disarray.

“Your targets don’t change if you’re a top program. If you’re a top program playing this year I think very little changes. But right now in our world it’s every man for himself... we have absolutely no idea where to start building a ‘21 class. We can’t do it the usual way,” a Group of 5 assistant said.

“The reality is, the law of unintended consequences is always the law of the land. So this is classic NCAA,” a Power 5 staffer said.