I wrote about this last week in the newsletter - well, I wrote the "wow, 99 scholarship players and 30-some walkons will mean a lot of players on the Illinois sideline for home games" part - but today I want to go through the 2022 numbers. This is a very unique time in college athletics (with the "Covid waiver"), and I want to go through all of it.
Where we're headed: Illinois has 21 Super Seniors returning. Two Big Ten teams (Maryland and Michigan) have one. Is that a financial decision for Maryland and Michigan? Or is it a look towards the future? Is Illinois possibly at a recruiting disadvantage in the future because of the 21 Super Seniors returning?
There are a lot of levers to pull here. I can already tell this is going to be a long one. Let's just frame this post this way: "Robert, when I sign up for the Orange Tier subscription and I get that newsletter every other week, what kind of stuff is in the newsletter?" This is the stuff in the newsletters.
How It Worked In 2019
First, we need to go through the basics of college football and scholarships. I say "in 2019" here because the rules have evolved over time. Many fans still operate under old assumptions, but the rules have changed and those assumptions are no longer correct.
An example: up until 2014, if you got a scholarship offer from a Big Ten institution, it was a one-year scholarship which was renewable up until your eligibility expired. Why is that important? Because a coach could just run you off. You got a scholarship in 2009, you redshirted, in the fall of 2010, you're a redshirt freshman but there's already two true freshmen in front of you on the depth chart. So after that season the coaches just tell you to get lost. They want your scholarship to give to some other recruit. You got your scholarship for two years, but they didn't renew it beyond that.
In 2014, the Big Ten made all scholarships guaranteed for four years. Other conferences followed (with slightly modified versions of the same). In the seven years since, I've had at least 15 college football discussions where someone would say "the coaches will just clear out Anderson and Sanderson to make room for more OL recruits" to which I've responded "you can't do that anymore". Clearing out the 3rd-string guys to open up scholarships is no longer a thing.
Well, it's still a "thing", but it has to be the player's choice. There will still be honest conversations with players after the season, saying "I'll be honest, kid, we have you as the 4th-string strong safety next season" and the player might choose to transfer somewhere in search of playing time. I'm just saying that "we have you as the fourth-string safety so we're not renewing your scholarship" is no longer a thing. If the kid wants to stay, he gets his scholarship no questions asked. And if you try to force him out, he can pull a Johnnie Vassar and sue the school for attempting to run him off.
The other major change in the last 10 years was the Houston Nutt rule. With the ability to run players off - even players who just signed a letter of intent in February - coaches used to sign 30+ recruits (putting them well over the limit of 85 scholarships) and then just sort it out before the first game, telling the "worst" players to get lost. So the NCAA put the limit at 25 new players per year. They can be backdated to the previous class if they enroll early, and they can be "front-dated" to the next class if you follow certain rules, but in the end, no class can be more than 25. If you brought in 24 guys last year, you can only backdate one player and then you're capped.
So in 2019, the system was fairly simple. You're working with the numbers 85 and 25 and you no longer have the ability to just clear out players to open up scholarships. I'll just use an imaginary FBS team here to run some imaginary numbers.
Southwest Idaho State has 84 scholarship players in the fall of 2017. They have 14 seniors who graduate and then they have 3 players transfer out plus one guy kicked off the team for a violation of team rules, so 18 players departing. That takes them down to 66 players, meaning they can bring in 19 new players (either freshmen or transfers). In 2008, they might have brought in 28 new recruits and told the nine worst players to get lost to end up at 85. In 2013, after the Houston Nutt rule happened but before four-year guaranteed scholarships, they might have brought in 25 recruits (the max) and told six players to get lost, but this is the spring of 2018, so all they can do is bring in 19 new players.
During the 2018 season, Southwest Idaho State has a bunch of seniors - 26, to be exact. And they have four other players leave. Two were redshirt juniors who were told that they wouldn't get a fifth year of their scholarship (only four years are guaranteed, not five), and two other players chose to transfer. So they just went from 85 scholarship players to 55. The cap is 25 per class so are they screwed? No, they have six backdates available because the 2018 class only had 19 names. So in the spring they add five high school early enrollees and all of them count towards the 2018 class. They then add 25 more players (21 high schoolers, one juco, three transfers) and presto, they've brought in 30 new players and are back to 85.
That's how the math works today (in a normal year). You have the 85 limit (overall), you have the 25 limit (every new class), and you have to keep every player for at least four years.
Covid Waiver Changes
When the NCAA shut down all spring sports on March 12, 2020, the immediate discussion was the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament. This meant that winter 2020 athletes could not complete their season. But it also meant that spring 2020 athletes had to stop their seasons immediately. Baseball, softball, golf, tennis - all spring sports were immediately halted.
Because of that, the NCAA put in a waiver for those athletes. If they wanted to return for 2021, they could do so even if their eligibility expired in 2020. Illinois took immediate advantage of this rule - the golf team would not have reached the final eight (match play) at the NCAA's had Michael Feagles and Giovanni Tadiotto not returned for a fifth season - but some schools did not. Wisconsin, notably, did not allow their spring sports athletes to return for 2021. The reasoning - mocked at the time and looking worse by the month - was that other students wouldn't be able to complete their extracurricular activities (a student studying abroad couldn't complete their semester; a musician wouldn't be allowed to have a senior recital) and so they should not "cherry pick" athletes to let them have another senior year.
That's not why they did that, of course. Wisconsin's athletics department gets 58% of its revenue from football Saturdays, and with the uncertainty last July, they were making budget cuts across the board and didn't want to add "even more spring 2021 scholarships" to the list. The reason I say that it "looks worse by the month" is that most other Big Ten schools did allow athletes to return. And Wisconsin is now allowing Brad Davison to return for more basketball next winter (and seven football players to return for more football next fall), so they've certainly "cherry-picked" athletes since. The lesson: never make a grand "we don't want athletes to get special treatment" statement if there's a chance you'll eventually give athletes special treatment.
When eligibility was extended for spring athletes, there was some discussion that it should have been extended for winter 2019/20 athletes as well. Andres Feliz didn't have the chance to play in his postseason conference tournament or the NCAA Tournament, so extend the rule back to winter 19/20. The NCAA declined, and then, as it turned out, it worked out quite neatly. They extended eligibility for fall 2020 athletes and for winter 2020/21 athletes. So for every sport (spring 2020, fall 2020, winter 2020/21), an eligibility waiver was added.
For football, it means that the 2020 season did not count. If you were a redshirt sophomore last fall, you're a redshirt sophomore this fall. That meant that all seniors could return (if - and this is an important "if" - their school is offering to pay for additional scholarships). Because of that, they had to extend the scholarship limit for one season. If you're going to allow for seniors to return, then you're going to have to lift the limit of 85 scholarships because if you didn't, theoretically, every player could return and you'd have 0 available scholarships for incoming 2021 freshmen.
This, obviously, changes the math we went through earlier. There's still a 25 (you can't bring in a class with more than 25 players), but there's no longer an 85. At least not this year.
How Teams Are Approaching This
This was in last week's newsletter as well, but here's what the AP put together on "Super Seniors" returning in the Big Ten:
Illinois - 21
Rutgers - 13
Minnesota - 10
Indiana - 8
Wisconsin - 7
Nebraska - 7
Michigan State - 5
Ohio State - 5
Northwestern - 4
Purdue - 4
Iowa - 3
Penn State - 3
Maryland - 1
Michigan - 1
So, uh, yeah, there are different approaches. Why? It's complicated. That's why this newsletter (er, post) is so long.
First, there's the financial considerations. The sticker price for an Illinois scholarship is something like $48,500 now. So if I use this calculator here to take 48,500 times 21, that's $1,018,500 to pay for these 21 players to return. Obviously, there's many ways to look at that number. Yes, it's the DIA "paying" the University, but what's the real cost of giving out a free education? And it's not like we're 21 scholarships above the limit - we're somewhere around 14 over the limit - so that's not really an accurate way to look at the "cost".
There's also the roster considerations, both for 2021 and in the future. There's a natural flow to a roster, and there have been recruiting promises, and there are players fully expecting their starting spot to open up so they can showcase themselves for the NFL scouts, and if you have all of your seniors return, that puts a stop to all of that for one year.
So let's take the teams on the top and the bottom of that list above. Let's look at how Michigan might be approaching this and then look at how Illinois might be approaching this.
The Michigan Approach
I guess I don't know if this is Michigan's approach. It's possible that they are only bringing back one Super Senior because they just can't find the scholarship money for more than one player. But I think Michigan would be a good example of a school that just wants to operate like this whole Covid waiver thing never really happened. Not for financial reasons, but to preserve normal roster flow.
Let's go back to my imaginary FBS school to run some numbers here (Southwestern Idaho State, which I'm going to call SWISU). When we last left them they were right at the limit of 85 scholarships because they brought in a class of 30 with five players backdated. Then Covid hits, and the NCAA extends the scholarship limit, so now they have some decisions to make.
SWISU decides to bring back 14 Super Seniors. They're going the Rutgers/Illinois route. Let's also guess that seven players left during the offseason (a few just decided to leave, a few declared for the draft, one decided he wanted to pursue a career as a full-time blogger). And they have a class of 21 coming in (between transfers and freshmen). So they were at 85 going into the 2020 season, only seven players left (down to 78), and 21 came in (up to 99). They'll have 99 scholarship players for 2021.
Now it's December 2021. SWISU says goodbye to those 14 Super Seniors as well as four other players (some to draft, some just leave school). But remember - every class gained an extra year, not just the seniors. That means the 2022 SWISU roster will have... 81 scholarship players returning. Which means they can bring in a 2022 recruiting class of four. Wait, what?
Yes, if these things are true - no limit to scholarship in 2021, limit goes back to a hard 85 in 2022, all players, not just the seniors, take advantage of the Covid waiver - then some schools are going to have very small recruiting classes in 2022. As I explained in the newsletter, college football always has the faucet turned on (15-25 players come in every year) and always has the drain open (15-25 players leave every year). The Covid waiver closed the drain for one year. So now the sink is overflowing.
Michigan, I'm guessing, looked at that and said "we don't really need to plug the drain". Their faucet brings in solid players every year, so why plug the drain? They'll keep one extra player for 2021, keep recruiting like they've been recruiting, and proceed forward as if the Covid waiver wasn't really ever a thing. I'm guessing their juniors are being told the same thing their seniors were just told: "yes, technically you could have an extra year, but we're just going to operate like this is your final season". Aidan Hutchinson is a fourth-year defensive end at Michigan, and technically, because of the Covid waiver, this is only his junior season, but they'll list him as a senior, he'll play that senior season, and then he'll depart.
This, I think, will be fairly common at blue bloods. See Kirby Smart's comments in this article from last fall. As he notes there, they don't really have many redshirt seniors at a program like Georgia, so they might use the rule for a guy who still needs to get his degree (for academic, not athletic reasons), but otherwise, they'll just behave like it didn't really exist. They live in a "we'll get three, maybe four years from him" world anyway. "Should he be here five years or six?" is kind of a silly question when you have a bunch of 4-stars and 5-stars queued up.
I don't think Kirby Smart would ever want to be in SWISU's position where they only have four open scholarships for 2022. That consistent stream of incoming freshmen is part of what makes it all go. One class with only four players would bring about all kinds of issues in the future with roster balance.
So why do it?
The Illinois Approach
I feel like I need to start this section by drawing a distinction between "2021 seniors get one more year and there's no scholarship limit" and "juniors, sophomores, and freshmen from last season were all basically frozen in time and return this season as juniors, sophomores, and freshmen". We'll go back to Michigan for a moment.
Michigan only brought one Super Senior back. I'm anticipating they will do the same for the next three seasons. If Aiden Hutchinson played this fall and then returned in 2022, he'd technically be a Super Senior, playing out his bonus year in 2022. What we're really talking about here is the potential of four years of Super Seniors, not just one.
That's where this whole thing hinges. Technically, since everyone gets an extra year of eligibility, there will be Super Seniors in 2021, 2022, 2023, and 2024. But the only year where the NCAA has allowed for more than 85 scholarships is 2021. More on that later.
Illinois is currently listing all players as if 2020 never happened. Keith Randolph is listed as a freshman on the roster even though this is his third season. To me, that seems to state that they're going to utilize that bonus year for as many players as they can. Instead of exhausting his eligibility in 2023, Randolph will exhaust his eligibility in 2024.
Why do that? To jump-start the program. If "get old, stay old" is a thing, this approach is "somehow get even older". Jump-start with experienced players and then figure out the rest later.
The main part of "the rest" that needs to be figured out later: if the scholarship limit goes back to 85 in 2022, what is to be done about all of those additional players returning? Let's do some more SWISU math.
SWISU brought back those 14 Super Seniors and now they're in a situation where they might only have four open scholarships for 2021. For class balance, they'll need more than four incoming freshmen in 2022. Where can they find more open rides?
Start with the junior class. Which is really the senior class. This will get confusing so I need to go slowly here.
They had 99 scholarship players in 2021. Those 14 Super Seniors are now definitely gone (they double-exhausted their eligibility). And four other players departed. So with their juniors (who should have been graduating seniors but now they get their Super Senior season) returning for one more year, they're at 81 scholarship players for 2022. The recruiting class can only be four players.
But the "juniors" on that roster are only juniors because 2020 didn't count. They were supposed to be the 2021 senior class. And all could be treated as if they're 2021 seniors because they've all gotten at least four years of their guaranteed scholarship. So while the third-year players all get at least one more year of their scholarship, these fourth-year players can only come back if the staff invites them back.
Let's say SWISU has 18 juniors in 2021 (who were supposed to be seniors). They obviously want to hang onto James Jamison, their starting QB, and they're not going to tell star defensive end David Davidson to get lost after four years if he could possibly play a fifth, so they tell eight of the 18 players they get a scholarship for 2022 and 10 of them are informed that this is the end of the road. Now there's 10 more players leaving, so the open scholarship number goes from 4 to 14. They also have some very real conversations with a few sophomores who are further down the depth chart and those players choose to look for playing time at another school. Three of those players leave, so SWISU just went from 4 available scholarships to 17.
That seems to be the way Bret Bielema will be approaching this. If there's no scholarship limit in 2021, he maxed out the Super Seniors. He even talked Owen Carney and Jake Hansen into returning after they announced that they were leaving. Michigan might be saying "we can't bring those linemen back because these sophomores are expecting those starting spots to be open this fall", but for Bielema (and Schiano at Rutgers), they're just now starting a rebuild and haven't made any recruiting promises to anyone.
So for this year, max it out. For 2022? Very real conversations with the juniors (who were supposed to be seniors), letting them know which ones are welcomed back and which ones have reached the end of the road.
What Are The Actual Illinois Numbers?
These numbers are not exact (we don't even know which walkons put on scholarship in recent years will return on scholarship this fall), but as of right now, Illinois is right around 100 scholarship players. I have it at 99, but depending on a few scholarship decisions it might be 101 or it might be 97. Let's just run the numbers with 99 scholarship players and 21 Super Seniors. Again, it might be 22 Super Seniors because Mike Epstein could be considered a senior (he could also be considered a junior - see how muddled this is?). But for the purposes of this exercise, let's say 99 scholarship players and 21 Super Seniors.
All of the Super Seniors graduate and we drop from 99 to 78. So technically that's only seven spots in the 2022 class if everyone else returns. Now let's look at the juniors (who, technically, would have been this year's seniors). There are 16 scholarship "juniors": D. Smith, Hightower, Martin, Hayden, Joseph, Epstein, S. Brown, Tolson, McEachern, Pihlstrom, Ford, Navarro, Barker, Shipton, Avery, and Pate.
All 16 of those players will sit down with the coaching staff after 2021 and have a discussion on whether they are coming back. These players will have had their four years of guaranteed scholarship, so if the staff wants, they can extend their hand, thank them for their time, and tell them they won't be returning (just like the players can tell them that they're not returning). Just to run the numbers here, let's say that 8 players leave and 8 players return. That adds 8 to 7 and so the 2022 class can now be 15.
After that, I'm sure there will be normal discussions with other players further down the depth chart (discussions that happen every year). The difference there: it's the player's choice to stay or leave. After the rule change in 2014, the coach can no longer say "your scholarship won't be renewed" unless that player has received his full four years. So at that point, it will be up to the players to decide what they want to do based on what the coaches told them about their future depth chart spot.
Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that six players decide to enter the transfer portal after those conversations. Maybe they were a better fit for the Lovie defense than the Ryan Walters defense. Maybe they want to chase a starting job somewhere else. So if those six leave, now the class is up to 21 scholarships available.
Right now there are nine commits in the class. So that would mean 12 additional spots for either high school recruits or transfers from the portal. If we assume around 6 transfers (it's been more than that the last three years), that would mean there are only six more scholarships available for this high school class. And THAT'S if the attrition is eight juniors leaving after four years (staff decision) plus six freshmen and sophomores leaving as well (player decision). It's probably less than that.
See what Michigan is trying to avoid here? Listing/viewing all of your 2021 seniors as "juniors" does have drawbacks. They're probably acceptable drawbacks for a new coaching staff - they were going to comb through their roster anyway and some players just weren't going to be a fit - but the numbers will create a pinch in 2022.
Now, it's also possible that the NCAA sees this and says "fine, you can have 92 scholarships in 2022 and then it's back down to 85 in 2023." And there will likely be a lot of noise made by some prominent high school coaches about this. If all players get one extra year of eligibility, and if scholarship limits are only extended for one year, then every school is going to be dealing with a few less rides for the 2022 class, be it two or three at some blue blood or more than a dozen at Illinois. Add all of that up and you're going to see something like "2,730 FBS scholarships were given to the 2021 class but only 1,665 were given to the 2022 class".
For more on that, see this article. The podcast link there goes into depth on the scholarship shortage on the horizon for the 2022 class. A quote from Jason Biggins of 247 Sports which gets right to the point:
"Now, the '22 class however, you've got to get back to that 85-man [roster]. Basically, you're looking at a very small 2022 class for a lot of schools. It's also not just the seniors re-classifying. It's everybody, so you're not going to have a lot of space available for that 2022 class. It could be between 10 and 15, so a lot of colleges are maybe being careful on how many rides they offer. And if you're a player, you better jump on that quick, right, because you don't know how many spots you have. If you're a quarterback especially you want to be quick and jump on the school you like. That's why I keep saying that the 2022 class is going to be a smaller one."
So I'm guessing you'll hear a lot of noise about this. There might be 1,000 kids who would normally get an FBS ride but won't because of the Covid waiver, and that might lead to the NCAA extending the scholarship limit for 2022, slowly stepping it back down to 85 by 2023 or 2024.
One other thing on that topic: if I was a Kent State blogger, I would be writing a 19-part series on 2022 recruiting. As noted above in the quote from the 247 guy, there's a chance there's a lot of 10-15 player classes in 2022, not the usual 20-25 player classes. If that's the case, there's more talent available for Kent State than any time in the last 50 years. The 1,000 players who won't get scholarships are the ones that rank 1,700 through 2,700. So here's Kent State's chance to land more higher-ranked kids than they've ever landed.
But I don't have a Kent State blog, so I'm not writing that article.
Time To Wrap It Up, Robert
OK, fine. One more thing.
The part I find the most fascinating about all of this: the different roster approaches across the Big Ten. Go look at the Illinois roster right now and every player is listed with their Covid eligibility. Isaiah Williams is a third-year player but he's listed as a freshman (redshirt year then Covid year, now "redshirt freshman" as a third year player). The "concept" here - max out the eligibility for all players. The more you have the players in your system, the better you might be able to jumpstart the program.
Then go look at the Ohio State roster. Everyone is listed like they'd normally be listed. Jaxon Smith-Njigba was a freshman last year, the season didn't "count" (so he could be listed as a freshman again), but he's listed as a sophomore. There's no attempt to max out eligibility because the lifeblood of a program like Ohio State (or Clemson or Alabama) is three good seasons and then off to the NFL. The quicker you can get to the next freshman who will play three seasons and then go off to the NFL, the better. They really didn't attempt to plug the drain.
I'm very fascinated to see how it all plays out. Because Bielema is bringing back the most, if it works, get ready for dozens of "how Bret Bielema used the Covid waiver to win immediately at Illinois" articles from the national media. If it doesn't work, honestly, we might not hear much because it would just be an Illinois team losing and all Illinois teams always lose.
According to this AP article, of the 65 Power Five teams, only 17 are bringing back 10 or more Super Seniors. And the next-closest to Illinois (listed at 17 returning Super Seniors when that article was published but now at 21) would be Arizona State with 14 and then Rutgers with 13.
Illinois Super Seniors returning: 21
Total for the ten teams in the Big 12: 69
We'll be discussing this topic for several years. There will be at least one program that says "a recruiting class of 7 in 2022 is fine - let's see what it looks like when we have a bunch of 5th-year and 6th-year players in 2023". There will be coaches lobbying for a scholarship limit of 95 in 2022 and then 90 in 2023 and then 85 by 2024. There will be small school AD's crying foul at the suggestion of extending scholarship limits because they don't have the financial situation to support more than 85 scholarship players.
And perhaps most importantly, there will be many players who get the raw end of the deal. They'll read the NCAA release on the Covid waiver, realize that the weird 2020 season really never happened, return this fall as a sophomore again, and then will be told after their junior season "sorry, this is technically your senior season so you're out". Some of those players will have 2 years of eligibility and not be able to find a transfer spot simply because of that one year where the faucet was on but the drain was plugged.
But that's all for the next few years. For now, one season with no roster limit.
And Illinois with likely the largest roster in college football.