Everything you need to know about college football’s waiver rule

In August, the NCAA gave all fall students an extra year if they want it, meaning 2020-21 doesn’t count for them.

This is a generous exemption that allows students to resume the previous season that was interrupted by the KOVID-19 pandemic.

The exemption applies to all student-athletes, meaning a redshirt senior in his fifth year can return for his sixth year in 2020, and a True Freshman in 2020 will still technically be considered a True Freshman in 2021.

However, there may be unintended consequences.

With the previous recruiting class complete and spring training still in progress, extended scholarships are in effect. The reality of the exception has set in, and the rule has given coaches headaches about how they will handle future rosters.

ESPN spoke with two FBS directors of player affairs to get a clearer picture of what the waiver means and how it will affect college football in the short and long term.

How does it work?

Each program is limited to 85 prizes. So if 10 student-athletes who normally graduate or leave for the NFL want to come back, it will be difficult to reach the 85 scholarship limit once they join the full recruiting class.

The NCAA allows schools to cross that threshold, though many fourth-year or redshirt seniors were on the 2020 roster.

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There are 85 scholarships for us and then six seniors who chose to stay, so technically we are at 91, said the first source. Let’s say you want to keep six senior seats, but you want to stay at 85 and not move. There were schools that said: I don’t want to take chances with this kid in the 2021 class and I want to save those spots for the 2022 class. Technically, you could do it.

That’s where the numbers and problems come in. The NCAA has not yet set a rule for the 2021 postseason. Since each student-athlete has an extra year, 2021 won’t be the only year teams have to break the 85 scholarship barrier.

What is the problem?

Unless the NCAA enacts a rule that allows teams to exceed the maximum number of scholarships after 2021, coaches and recruiters are worried about what that means for the roster and how they will be able to keep everyone happy.

The coaches get additional scholarships for seniors for the 2021 season, but they have no help for the 2022 season with juniors who would be seniors next season. Normally these players are out after next season, but since they are technically juniors now, they could be back in 2022.

Some of these older, experienced players will graduate, but they will still be allowed to play, which will likely lead to some tough conversations and decisions between coaches and student-athletes.

The gray area that many people don’t understand is that you only commit to these guys until they graduate, the first source said. If they have graduated, you do not need to renew the scholarship. A lot of people don’t do it because it’s not good coaching, and if they’re good players, you want them to stay, but that’s part of what can happen with all this.

There’s a good chance that some of these situations will be resolved by then, but because roster management and recruiting are moving so fast, it’s still a pressing issue. One day there will be a process to even out the numbers.

But the sharp decline between the possibility of exceeding the maximum number of scholarships and returning to a strict number of 85 could lead to monster classes and leave big holes in the rosters.

Technically, we have 31 true freshmen because the true freshmen of 2020 are still considered freshmen and are now combined with the class of 2021, according to the first source. We could have contracted nine more players, so if we had done that, we could have been talking about a 40-man recruiting class. There will be departures, transfers and players turning pro, but this is still a large senior class that will need to be replaced at some point.

Quarterback D Eric King will use his extra year to return to Miami for the 2021 season. AP Photo/John Rau

What effect does this have on recruitment?

As one PLR said, they could have contracted nine more aspirants, but decided not to and used some of those spots for graduate transfers, since those players are only eligible for one more year, instead of five years like in high school.

This will allow coaches to avoid holes in the 2021 season and also eliminate the scholarship to free up a spot for high school recruits in 2022.

But it will impact next year’s recruiting.

You’re getting screwed. I think the path for some of these kids is to go back to the classroom [in 2023], if they can, to go to a prep school, or some may have to go to a juco, said the first source. I know there are schools where many kids drop out, but there are programs where all their kids are on the list and there is no room for those 2022 kids.

A second source was added: We took 25 [with school expectations and transfers] in 2021, and we have a few returning seniors. Did we take a few extra transfers because we knew we could restock faster? Yes. That means we will only take 17 in the class of 2022, while we could take 22 or 23 in any other year. That’s six kids. So if you do the math and you have, let’s say, six kids in over 100 FBS programs, you’re talking about 600 kids not getting scholarships at the FBS level.

These particular personnel directors believe we will see an influx of high school recruits in this class of 2022, earning and securing a spot in the classroom.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean they can’t lose that spot, as programs are not required to honor the scholarship until the applicant signs a national letter of intent.

If they don’t change anything this year and say you have to have a maximum of 85 [seats] after this year, you will have more 2022 children than ever before, the first source said. Because coaches are trying to get a commitment no matter what. You come in November and December [for the early signing period] and some of the guys on the roster who were supposed to leave, transfer or graduate, don’t want to come back, don’t want to come back, and now you have to tell the 2022 guy that he can’t come.

Does money play a role in these decisions?

Yes, especially since athletics scholarships are funded out of the budget and can be very expensive.

Given the current financial climate, where some schools are already in the red as a result of COVID-19, one aspect of the rule of law is that schools must consider whether they can cover the cost of additional scholarships.

Michigan athletics director Warde Manuel, for example, estimated that the athletics department spent about $29 million on scholarships over five years. If each student-athlete stayed an extra year, the cost would increase by about $6 million.

We have all these juniors who have remained juniors, and we’re trying to figure out when these guys are going to graduate. Is this guy going pro? Will some of them leave because of the numbers?

A personnel manager for FBS players

It’s unlikely that all the players will stay, but even a few scholarships will have an impact on the budget. If the school exceeds the five scholarship limit now, that’s 90 scholarships the school must plan for.

We had this meeting for budget purposes when they announced the rule, the first source said. Who do you think needs another year? Who do you think will benefit if not the transfer? Who do you think will try to become a professional so we can determine what we will need in the future for the budget.

The scholarship affects tuition, food, board and lodging whether the player lives on or off campus.

Add to that the other scholarships, which range from $10,000 to $15,000 for board and lodging per child, according to the first source. So you’re talking about $15,000 for a man over 85. If you have seven, that’s seven times 15, so you’re paying $105,000 just for board and lodging, not counting tuition.

Most Power 5 programs will be able to absorb this cost, but not all will be able to afford it, especially as athletics departments across the country struggle with COWID-19 financial losses.

Who’s suffering? A group of five schools where money is tight, according to a second source. Where they may be under pressure from the government to say: Hey, we can’t pay for all these guys, we want you to pick two. Then only two of those seniors can come back and the others can’t.

Does this mean we will see more names in the translation portal?

This is already the case. Three of those were accounted for by 342 FBS players who played between 1 this year. December and the 20th. January entered the gate more than the previous season.

Coaches believe some players who came through the gate were bound by this rule, which allows for an extra year of participation.

If you have seven returning seniors, you can cross the line with them, but everyone else will technically not be replaced by 85, a second source said. We have all these juniors who have remained juniors and we try to understand them. When will these kids graduate? Is this guy going pro? Will some of them leave because of the numbers?

It may even affect recruiting for the NFL. With the return of seniors and third-year players who are technically sophomores in some cases, there could be more players in the 2022 draft than before.

Next year’s selection will be overflowing, according to the first source. You’re talking about the seniors who stayed, the juniors who didn’t become seniors, and everyone else who’s been out for three years. I said to some of our staff who were discussing this project, you need to pull out this year because next year’s numbers will be ridiculous.

This is all based on the assumption that the NCAA will not make a new rule.

So what is the solution?

At the moment there is none. Any solution proposed by the NCAA will result in a return to the 85-star limit.

Whether it’s creating large high schools to accommodate or phasing schools back to 85, something needs to be done to avoid chaos.

Coaches from several conferences are collecting proposals to find the best solution, but a final proposal has not yet been determined.

It sounds like quantum physics to make sense of it, the first source said.

Some say the NCAA should allow schools to exceed the total scholarship limit for two years to potentially bring those numbers down. Some think the limit should be phased out by allowing teams to double the 85 limit in 2022 and then halve it again until schools get back on track.

I’d like to say there’s a great solution, but I don’t know what it is, a second source said. At some point we will either pay back the seniors or the economy. … The economy always wins.

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