In an unprecedented move, college football’s rules committee has signed legislation that has been received with roaring applause from fans across all conferences. After an off-season full of deliberation, the NCAA has announced two major rule changes while more changes are still under deliberation.
The first rule change announced by the NCAA is related to the process through which student-athletes seek to transfer from their current university. As of today, if a player decides that they no longer belong in their university’s football program they must first receive permission to contact other institutions before moving forward with their transfer. This means that a student-athlete is forced to have a very uncomfortable conversation with their head coach without even knowing if they will be able to attain any scholarship offers from other universities.
Coaches and administrators hold a lot of leverage over student-athletes under the current process as they were able to block players from transferring to specific schools or, in the most extreme of cases, all schools. Such occurrences were very common but one case that always stuck with me was when former Kansas State wide receiver Corey Sutton decided he wanted to finish his career elsewhere.
Sutton presented a list of 35 potential transfer institutions to Head Coach Bill Snyder. None of the schools listed were conference mates or future opponents. Some schools were even FCS and Division II programs. Nonetheless, Bill Snyder blocked Sutton from receiving a scholarship at all 35 schools until rampant press and social media pressure caused Snyder to change his tune and grant Sutton a full release.
Snyder’s initial resistance to permitting Sutton to finish out his career at a different program provided a stark reminder of how much the power dynamic between unpaid athlete and multi-million dollar football coach is slanted. A football coach can pack their bags and be at a new program at a moment’s notice but those same coaches will turn around and prevent their student-athletes from making similar moves to increase their chances at a professional career, improved education, or to simply be closer to family.
Starting October 15th, players will enjoy much more freedom to transfer outside of their current institutions. Once the new rule goes into effect student-athletes will simply need to inform their current university that they would like to pursue a transfer. The school will then have two business days to list the student-athlete in an NCAA database where coaches at other universities will have full permission to contact the prospective transfer to discuss scholarship opportunities.
Former Coastal Carolina football player Nicholas Clark welcomed the change as part of the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. “This creates a safe place for student-athletes to have a conversation with their coaches and makes the whole process more transparent,” Clark said. “This will clean the process up and give more influence and flexibility to the student-athlete.”
While the change to transfer rules was the most newsworthy change announced, the NCAA’s revamped approach to determining eligibility will have an even greater impact on the field of play starting this fall.
In previous seasons players could lose an entire season’s worth of eligibility at the drop of the hat. Quite literally, in the case of Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett. Last season Max Browne entered the game as the starter for Pitt before exiting with an injury. Ben DiNucci took the reigns, leading Pitt in a gutsy effort that gave the Panthers a chance to take the lead on the final drive of the game.
With just seconds left on the clock, DiNucci’s helmet popped off, causing him to leave the game for the final snap of the day. As starter Max Browne looked on from the sideline in an arm sling, true freshman Kenny Pickett was forced to burn his redshirt to throw the final Hail Mary pass attempt from Pitt’s own 15 yard line. Had Pitt held a remaining time out, Head Coach Pat Narduzzi could have burned it to keep DiNucci in the game and keep Pickett’s redshirt eligibility in place. Instead, Pickett potentially lost an entire season’s worth of eligibility due to a single pass attempt. Such madness is the cruel, unwavering bureaucracy of the NCAA.
Fortunately the NCAA has pivoted to a more player-friendly model for determining redshirt ability. Starting this fall, any player can fully participate in up to four games (bowl game included) per season without losing eligibility to be granted a redshirt if one is available.
This leads to several different potential scenarios. Coaches (especially P5 coaches with cupcake schedules) could treat the first four games of the season as a “try out” period for freshmen. Prove your worth and keep playing past four games or go ahead and take a redshirt year if you struggle to adjust to collegiate competition.
We may also see coaches unveil freshmen in the final four games of the season as a proverbial ace up the sleeve. Imagine coming in as a true freshman, making an impact in the conference championship game and bowl game, but still getting to play four full seasons after that.
In most cases though, these true freshmen will be utilized as additional pieces of depth as they learn the ins and outs of the game at the next level. While I think the new transfer rule effects all programs about the same, I believe this new redshirt rule gives Power Five programs a big leg up for two reasons.
As most college football fans know, the biggest difference between Power Five and Group of Five programs is the gap in serviceable depth between the P5 and the G5. Every week during the season we see a G5 team jump out to an early lead over an unsuspecting P5 team, only to have their hearts broken in the fourth quarter when the G5’s reserve players are being physically dominated by the P5 reserves who were often three and four star recruits coming out of high school.
On top of that disadvantage, P5 recruits are typically more physically prepared to play at the next level than G5 recruits who may be a few inches shorter or a third of a second slower than their P5 counterparts. With true freshmen now able to play a third of a season without losing their ability to redshirt, Power Five programs will simply have more Division I-ready athletes to throw out on the field than G5 programs will.
In my opinion this will decrease the number of G5-over-P5 upsets we will see moving forward. But hey, don’t get too discouraged, North Dakota State still finds a way to smack around the P5 despite having way less Division I-caliber athletes.
I also think this new redshirt rule will hurt the G5 on the recruiting trail. Oftentimes, early playing time is the only bargaining chip G5 programs have to throw at three-star athletes that are deciding between, for instance, UCF and Florida.
With true freshmen now able to play up to four games without an eligibility penalty, all P5 schools can now guarantee at least four games of playing time to every recruit they sign. While some recruits will see through the smoke and mirrors and realize they could receive a full season’s worth of playing time out of the gates, it’s not as much of a slam dunk decision to chose a G5 school for playing time’s sake anymore.
At the end of the day, these two rule changes are overwhelmingly positive for student-athletes. Players will feel less pressure to play through injuries with additional depth behind them on the roster, freshmen will feel more engaged both athletically and academically, and student-athletes will no longer find themselves trapped by a selfish coach when attempting to make a transfer to improve their future. Kudos to the NCAA for finally taking a common sense direction that benefits the student-athlete.