Would a Reduction in Scholarships Make College Football Better?


A couple of weeks ago George Dohrmann at Sport Illustrated wrote an article discussing the merits of reducing the number of FBS college football scholarships from the current 85 to 63 (the same at FCS schools) and a roster cap at 90 players from the current 115. In addition, it would allow FBS teams to offer partial scholarships instead of full scholarships, as well as, to allow colleges to offer multi-year scholarships.

I think this proposal has a lot of merits on the face of it, but also could lead to some potential pitfalls. The idea of the proposal is that it would spread the talent out more evenly among the FBS schools so that there is more competitive balance and better games on the field. It would also create a fairer situation for recruits to evaluate their options and not get stuck in a situation once they arrival at the college they did not anticipate.

First, let’s address the reduction of total scholarships from 85 to 63. To me that is a bit drastic. While some would argue that NFL teams have a roster cap of just 53 players and FCS teams at 63, and therefore you do not need 85 players under scholarship, there are some issues with the differences between FBS college football, FCS, and the NFL.

First of all, in the NFL, they do have a practice squad to draw from if players get injured. In addition, there are always dozens of free agents sitting out there waiting for a mid-season call if an NFL team suddenly has a need. While they may only have 53 players eligible for any one game, in actuality, they have an almost limitless supply of bodies. In addition, each year they can replenish and/or replace their roster with draft picks, free agents, players from the CFL, etc.

In college football, a good chunk of the players in any one year are effectively unavailable due to redshirting. Another set of players really are not ready to play in a major game due to inexperience or lack of developed skills. Take into account injured players as well, and the effective number of available players a team can choose from is reduced dramatically.

Some might say, what about FCS schools with 63 scholarships? Well, first of all, redshirting is much rarer at that level (primarily because they don’t have the bodies available to set them aside for a year), and secondly they have the ability to offer partial scholarships to spread those 63 around to a large number of bodies.

That being said, there is merit to reducing the total number of scholarships, but allowing FBS teams to offer both partial scholarships and multi-year scholarships. In recruiting, it would definitely allow a “market place” to develop with players. Some would say such a marketplace already exists, where money changes hands and runner/agents/shoe companies are getting involved. But, really I am not talking about the high level 5-star athletes every college is already drooling over. I am talking about those dependable 2- and 3- star players which every team needs to have depth and be successful. I am talking about that undiscovered 1- star athlete who could be a pretty good player at one school, but will sit on the bench for 4 years at another.

Let’s take a hypothetical example: Imagine you are a 2-star athlete looking at three universities. USC already has 80 players on the roster rated 2-stars or above, so to them you are a nice get, but not critical to their success. They may only value you at 1/2 of a scholarship. You may go there and sit the bench for 3-4 years. Or, after a year or two, they bring in some other higher rated players at your position and decide to cut you loose.

On the other hand, Stanford sees you as a potential starter down the road and thus offers you a conditional one year full-scholarship. Each year, you have a chance to renew it as long as you continue to meet their needs and they see you as having a future in the program. This is the way it basically works today.

Then there is San Jose State, who thinks you will be an immediate impact player for their program and thus offers you a four-year guarunteed full scholarship.

As you look at your options, it is no longer a choice of who is the biggest school who gets on TV the most. Under the current system, all three universities offer you a full scholarship, but any of them can cut you loose at any time. The power is in the hands of the university and they can hold you back from your potential once you are there. This system allows bigtime BCS schools to simply stock up on talent that may never play and prevents lesser known schools from becoming competitive with those same players. It creates a perpetual cycle where the top schools remain on top and the lower schools can not draw solid recruits which could change the culture of losing.

Under the current system, you could sit on the USC bench for 5 years without playing a down. You may get the message after 3-4 years to transfer, but with your redshirt year blown, your only option is now an FCS school.

Or maybe your a great student and Stanford was your dream school and where you wanted to get your college degree for your future career, since NFL was never really an option. But, Stanford could simply cut you loose after one year if they decided to leaving you scrambling to transfer to a FCS school, sitting out a year to go to San Jose State, or paying your own way without football at Stanford.

Under this new system, the market helps you decide what you value more in your college education/football career. If being on a bigtime FBS school like USC has always been your dream, you can still go there, paying your way partially and try to earn that full scholarship the next year. If Stanford has always been your academic dream and they will pay for your schooling one year at a time, then you can go there and prove that you deserve the scholarship each year on the field. On the other hand, if security and playing time matters to you, then San Jose State might be the best choice.

A change in the system of reduced roster size and partial scholarships would help rebalance the power of college football. The Alabamas, USCs, and Floridas could not just stock up on players. Those mid-level players that could turn a mediocre program into a good one, or a woeful program into a decent one, would be more available if those schools made it clear they have more to offer than the BCS schools.

This is essentially what happens in college basketball. With only 13 scholarships, the talent has to be spread around, since there is not enough room for a school to stockpile talent that will never play there. Really solid 2- and 3- star recuits end up at mid-majors and allow them to be competitive. It is this parity and competitiveness that makes college basketball so exciting…especially come March Madness time.

In addition, with fewer roster spots, colleges would fill up their recruiting classes sooner. Recruits could not just sit around waiting and dragging the recruiting process on. If they want to go to a certain school, then they would need to jump at the opportunity soon or risk being left out. Getting the recruiting classes to come together sooner would make it much easier on the coaching staff, allowing them more time to focus on their current team, rather than their potential future team. This would make teams better on the field with better game plans and more fundamental skills being taught.

I think it would also make it easier on the recruits as well, as they could move on with their lives and focus more on their high school classes and preparing for college. 63 scholarships may be too few for this proposal. Something needs to separate FBS and FCS unless you just want to combine both divisions into one Division I, like they do in college basketball. Perhaps 72 or 75 scholarships would be more appropriate. But, I think college football on the whole would be a lot more exciting if every non-conference game wasn’t 63-7. I think college football would be more exciting if the same 5 schools weren’t going to BCS bowls every year.

I doubt the BCS bowls would be happy about it. It would create a larger number of 1- and 2- loss teams, making the selection of the top 2 for the national championships more problematic and controversial than it already is. But, there is a solution to that problem…It’s called a playoff, like every other college sport and division of college football has!