Opinion: NCAA Should Cap Scholarships to Even Field

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Another national signing day for college football has played out, and you'll be shocked — just shocked — to learn the big winners are, well, the teams that win every year.

Alabama's dominance over the sport is in no peril of waning. After shaking up his staff to get younger and more aggressive in recruiting, Nick Saban has landed a class that some experts think might contend for his best ever.

Clemson ended up with another top-five class, including blue-chip players from as far away as Los Angeles, a clear signal Dabo Swinney's talent pipeline is expanding rather than narrowing.

Other perennial College Football Playoff contenders could all trumpet elite classes as Georgia, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma were all expected to land in the top 10.

In other words, the college football world order doesn't seem to be changing much. If anything, the bluebloods are strengthening their grip on the best talent and thus the championships for the foreseeable future.

But the NCAA, if it had the willpower and the mandate from its masses, could start to create more parity with the snap of its fingers. All it would take is cutting scholarships down to 70.

Though many coaches would disagree, the 85-scholarship limit has not only become outdated but also allowed for the kind of extreme roster bloat that lets superpowers stockpile talent with minimal consequence for mistakes in how they evaluate talent and which players they choose to spend time recruiting in the first place.

Essentially, it's become pretty easy for the programs on top to stay there. And if that's something that potentially threatens general interest in the sport — we'll see how the TV ratings look with Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma all in the playoff bracket for the third time in the last four years — the powers that be should take a serious look at how to shake things up.

Changing scholarship numbers, of course, isn't new. The NCAA first put in a 105-scholarship limit for football in 1973 after Congress passed Title IX and has reduced it periodically to 95 and then the current 85 in 1992.

Though the data aren't totally clear correlating those reductions to increased competitive balance, the sport has changed quite a bit since the last scholarship limit change. College football is national now, and so is recruiting. While geography is still the pre-eminent factor in where most players end up, ease of travel and communication makes it more likely than ever that recruits will look at schools several states away. Plus, television exposure isn't limited now to a handful teams like it was in the 1970s and '80s. Everybody's games are national.

While reducing roster size admittedly won't stop the parade of top talent to the Alabamas and Clemsons, it stands to reason a handful of top recruits per team, per year would funnel downward and thus reduce the margin for error among the elite. Injuries hit harder. Younger players get more responsibility. Just like in college basketball, the value of a senior-laden team increases, even if they don't have quite as much on-paper talent.

Of course, adjustments to the entire sport would have to made to accommodate such a big change, but let's not act like reducing scholarships would ruin the sport. In fact, teams have made due for years with 70 as the limit for travel rosters to road games. And unless there are extreme circumstances, no more than 45 or 50 are playing meaningful snaps in a game.

In the Wolken Plan for more college football parity, here's how it would work:

No more than 70 scholarship players on a roster.

No more than 20 players signed in each recruiting class.

Get rid of the redshirt rule and give players five years of eligibility to accommodate for injuries or attrition during the season.

Convert five of the lost player scholarships to coaching scholarships. In other words, each year, teams should be able to give a scholarship to someone who is interested in pursuing the coaching profession as a career. These students would do much of the work that currently goes to analysts and interns like breaking down film or recruiting databases or self-scouting.

Take the other 10 scholarships and redistribute to other sports so that schools aren't decreasing the total number of educational opportunities they offer. Surely sports such as baseball (which gets 11.7 scholarships) or soccer (nine) could use the help.

It's just that simple.

And while reducing scholarships isn't going to completely tilt the balance of power in college football — Alabama is still going to get the best players as long as Saban is around — every signing day feels like the top programs just running up the score.

And the reason it happens is because 85 scholarships allows them to stack their rosters with four- and five-stars who will spend their first couple of years playing special teams.

It's unnecessary, and it doesn't really pose much of a challenge when the top teams can lose a player to the NFL and have two more ready to go behind them on the depth chart.

Maybe college football and the NCAA don't really care that the ability to win championships is being concentrated in the hands of a precious few. But there is a more interesting way to do this, if anyone has the guts to pursue it.

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December 20, 2018


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