How Would It Work? (Part I)
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Join me, will you, in a journey through "so how would spring football actually WORK?". I don't have any answers. This won't be "here's my plan on how to play college football in a quasi bubble". This is simply "wait, how would this work?"
Topic number one: eligibility. I think it needs to start there because there are so many unknowns about a possible spring season. What happens with early enrollees (high school players enrolling in January) - do they lose a year of eligibility? What if they can only fit in six games followed by some kind of lame Big Ten/Pac-12 playoff - would many players opt out and say "I'm not wasting a year of eligibility on something like that"? What the season starts and then stops after two games - did you waste a season?
Let's first talk about how it works right now. "5 to play 4" can get confusing, so I'll do a few quick paragraphs on that.
When a freshman arrives on campus he has a five year clock to complete his four seasons on the field. Some players will play their first four years and then their eligibility is up. The fifth year doesn't matter because they've played their four seasons. Other players will redshirt at some point, which simply means "didn't use up one of their four". You can only do that once, though. Sit the bench the next year too and it doesn't matter - your five year clock is going to run out. 5 to play 4 means you get one year where you can say "I'm not using a year here".
Where this gets confused is on the waivers for a sixth year of eligibility. A player will arrive, redshirt as a freshman, and then start playing their second year. Their fifth (redshirt senior) year they have an injury in camp and miss the entire season. They could just apply for a sixth year waiver based on that injury, right? No. Sixth-year waivers are only granted when a player has missed two seasons due to injuries. If they simply redshirted as a freshman (because they were third-string and never played) and only missed one season due to a medical issue, that's that. They only played three seasons, which would technically mean they have one more year of eligibility, but their five year clock has expired.
The new rule in 2018 allowed players to play four games and still keep a redshirt. This can only be used once (five year clock), but now a freshman can play here or there and keep their redshirt. Keith Randolph was needed when Wole Betiku went down with an injury, but once Betiku came back, Randolph sat the rest of the season (only played in four games) so he returns this season as a redshirt freshman. He's now at 4-to-play-4.
Let's use one of Randolph's classmates for our next example. Wide receiver Dalevon Campbell played in the first five games last season before an injury knocked him out for the rest of the year. Unfortunately, that was one game beyond the 4 game redshirt limit. He now returns as a true sophomore (4 years to play 3).
Say the spring schedule is announced and Dalevon Campbell is part of the WR rotation but after three games there's an outbreak and the season is canceled. Did he just lose one year of eligibility in 2019 because he played in five games and then lose another year of eligibility after the 2020 season (played in the spring of 2021) only lasted 3 games?
The answer is no. That's the step taken today by the Division I Council. They make recommendations to the board (so the board still has to approve this), but here was their recommendation:
That means a couple things. If that rule is adopted (it still has to be voted on by the board), Dalevon Campbell wouldn't have to worry about a spring season being cut short. If it is cut short, it's like the season never happened. Everyone would get a year tacked on to their 5 and no one would use one of their 4.
That also answers the big "what happens if a spring season doesn't happen either - would the 25 seniors just be out of luck?" question. The answer is no - a senior who is 1-to-play-1 like Brandon Peters would return next fall as a 1-to-play-1. That obviously raises the issue of scholarship limits - if everyone returns and no one graduates, what do you do with the incoming freshman class? - and the NCAA addressed that in the press release today, saying the following:
Members also will discuss financial aid limits for fall sports. Although that topic was not part of the board's mandate, some Council members think providing schools some flexibility in this area is important.
OK, so what would constitute a "season cut short"? The threshold they're drawing there: "50% or less of the maximum number of competitions allowed in each sport". For football that's easy: the NCAA allows for 12 regular season games, so the line would be drawn at 6. If you play seven games, it's a season and it counts towards your 5-to-play-4.
That makes me think of basketball as well. This question came up last spring. After all spring sports were canceled it was quickly announced that spring athletes would be given the opportunity to return with one year of eligibility tacked on. Michael Feagles will return to the golf team this coming spring even though last year was his final year of eligibility.
That led to the obvious question about winter sports ("Andres Feliz didn't get to finish his senior season - can he come back for one more year?"), but the answer there was "no". With 90% of the season complete for most winter sports, the NCAA decided that those athletes had used up a year of eligibility.
This now sets a bar for that issue should it arise in the future. Say basketball starts and can't finish. At what point does Trent Frazier use up his eligibility? The answer: 50% of the season. I'd need to see the NCAA release the number for basketball - there's so many screwy things about "exempt preseason tournaments" and such that I'm not sure what the actual number is. I think it's 28, but I'm not sure. I'm sure the actual number will be thrown around quite a bit if a 2020/21 basketball season happens. It's like the old "once the home team has made 15 outs" thing for baseball - I'm sure it will be announced once the basketball season crosses that threshold.
I should also note that this counts for opt-outs. If a player doesn't want to participate in the 2021 spring season and wants to opt out, their scholarship is guaranteed and they won't lose a year of eligibility. If they were 3-to-play-2 coming into the year they'd be 3-to-play-2 next fall. So for someone like Ra'Von Bonner who is opting out (he's 2-to-play-1 because he never used a redshirt year), technically, he could opt out of the spring season, redshirt for the fall season in 2021, and still have a year of eligibility in 2022. Not saying that will happen - just saying his 2-to-play-1 could technically stretch all the way to 2022 now.
If this rule is adopted (the vote is August 21), then the next step would be dealing with roster limits. I have no idea what they'd do with early enrollees. Typically an early enrollee arrives in January, goes through spring practice, and then their 5-to-play-4 clock starts that first fall. With a spring season, would their clock start immediately? Would they be eligible to play?
The bigger problem there would be fall rosters. In that "play a few games but then the season is shut down and everyone keeps a year of eligibility" scenario above, the Illini would have maybe 105 scholarships promised for the 2021 season. Where would the NCAA set the limit? If they bump it to, say, 95, would Lovie have to trim some of the freshmen currently committed? It will be interesting to see how that goes.
Well, hopefully, we don't have to learn. Hopefully spring football is a thing and we see a full season. What would that look like? I'll talk about that in Part II.
(Which, if you're used to my writing, I'll remember to write in October.)