The 85 scholarship limit: helping or hurting college football?

Submitted by uofmfan_13 on December 9th, 2018 at 10:33 AM

Is the 85 scholarship limit helping or hurting college football, in a macro aspect, today?

I'm old enough to remember how it was heralded as more of an "equalizer" and how this drove parity and caused "The Horror" and other small, mid majors to finally "compete with and beat the big boys"...

But my observation is that this arbitrary limit just strengthens the tip-top of the pyramid (Alabama, Clemson, maybe Ohio) who recruit outrageously and build incredible depth at nearly all positions with the best identified talent. This depth is unmatched by nearly all other programs.

The next "tier" is more watered down then ever and probably won't catch up under the current system. The depth of talent needed is too far a bridge and the 85 scholarship limit keeps teams from taking more flyers on developmental guys... Some of these guys might end up very good but you need to have more of them to identify the diamonds in the rough.

And then yes, you have MAC and Mountain West or App State able to pick up players and develop guys who otherwise might be stashed on any team not named Alabama, OSU, Clemson, a few others.

What say you? 85 scholarships seems arbitrary and hurting the competitiveness of the game (at the top end) at this point.  



December 9th, 2018 at 10:41 AM ^

I think it helps because overall it increases interest in all the sport teams. Sure it gets grossly misused by over recruiting as Alabama does ( a few others too). The competitiveness doesn't bother me that much, I believe more in helping the athlete/students to worry about it.



December 9th, 2018 at 10:49 AM ^

But my observation is that this arbitrary limit just strengthens the tip-top of the pyramid (Alabama, Clemson, maybe Ohio) who recruit outrageously and build incredible depth at nearly all positions with the best identified talent. 

If the limit were still 95 (or 105), those teams would have even more depth than they do now.


December 9th, 2018 at 11:09 AM ^

Correct - prior to the 85 scholarship limit you had Michigan/Ohio State; Nebraska/Oklahoma; USC/maybe UW or UCLA....a much greater concentration of talent because lots of guys went to schools and sat on the bench at say Michigan rather than start at Iowa.  Ultimately the limit creates more balanced distribution of talent.


December 9th, 2018 at 10:50 AM ^

You could not possibly be more wrong.

The 85 limit does nothing but help competitiveness.

College football is also not more stratified today than in the past. Yes, Alabama is on a historical run but this is nothing like the talent divide that used to exist in the 1960s and 70s and the top teams wouldn’t win 45-7 as they do today but 70-7.

If you want to make a scholarship tweak that would help competitiveness in football - and especially basketball - do not allow schools to replace players who early declare for the pro draft until that 4 year time span is over.

That way if Alabama has 5-8 juniors declare for the draft, they have to wait an entire calendar year before recruiting replacements.

That they would notice.

This would also force schools like Duke and Kentucky to vastly limit the 1 and done players they can afford to roster, because they would have to wait three years before bringing in replacements.


December 9th, 2018 at 12:02 PM ^

Understand where you're coming from but my calculus is this: it has been established that only certain institutions, mainly in the South, will do whatever it takes to get the best. Includes bag men, cars, lazy river installs, personal chefs, 8 million dollar coaches, 10 million dollar weight rooms, etc. This advantage leads to about 10-15% of the top 200 players in America, as scouted by camps and other money interests, to only go to 1-3 institutions. That depth is unmatched. It can't be matched under the current set up.

An increased scholarship limit allows institutions like a Michigan or even a VA tech or even a Washington to, over time, scout and develop more guys and at least build depth approaching what the dirtiest have right now. Stash and develop. It would greatly change the game.

Within a couple years you will have competitive football in the top 10, top 20 again. Injuries and transfers are the biggest things impacting depth for every team not Alabama or Clemson and this would be mitigated by allowing for more then just an arbitrary 85 scholarships.

snarling wolverine

December 9th, 2018 at 12:12 PM ^

I think people need to let go of the idea that there is this handful of dirty programs and everyone else is clean and fighting an uphill battle.  It's probably much more accurate to say that it's shades of gray, that there is dirty stuff going on all over - and I suspect that a lot probably happens without the coach's knowledge, like local businesses giving out free stuff on the sly.

And regarding facilities, everyone is trying to outdo the competition.  Northwestern just spent like $200 million on a new football facility.

The biggest strategic advantage the SEC has is probably just geography.  The South is the most talent-rich region in the country.  It's generally going to be easier to recruit a kid 100 miles from your campus than 1000 miles away.


December 9th, 2018 at 4:06 PM ^

So serious question: what does M do in recruiting in the gray area? 

M has no shortage of alumni with large bank accounts and an interest in CFB.  Brandon was able to raise all sorts of cash for his projects tapping alumni.  If we were to wade into that realm, M would not be outbid for guys like Isaiah Wilson, and Rashan Gary coming here would not have been a nail-biter. 

It sure looks like an uphill battle to me, and M isn't alone.  I'm sure Brian Kelly is frustrated, I'm sure he could build an even better team if the rules he had to operate under were loosened and ND alumni participate in the bidding wars.  People seem willing to believe that all/most P5 teams have some degree of shadiness, but I haven't seen any evidence M is doing anything shady.  If I'm being naive, I'd be happy to be corrected.  We had Ed Martin doing bag man kind of stuff in the 90s; it's my understanding that those kinds of things were firmly shut down when that all came out. 

For SEC, that kind of stuff goes all the way to the top.  School presidents are fully vested in their football programs.  Pres. Mark Schlissel only cares because the alumni cares, and barely at that.  It's hard to imagine him willing to risk the school's reputation on some football studs reluctant to play school during their stay here.


December 9th, 2018 at 2:44 PM ^

I’d love to see the scholarship limit be applied to class sizes rather than overall, to accomplish exactly what you’ve outlined here. Say the limit is 25 per class (which with no attrition is even more generous than today), but make that a hard limit. No backdating, no catch-up years, you can sign up to 25 per recruiting cycle and that’s it. 


December 9th, 2018 at 2:59 PM ^

What about if when a player leaves early for the draft, you can't offer that scholarship to a new recruit, but you can offer it to a walk-on who's already on the team?


The problem with your proposal is it could be spun as a way to further avoid compensating the players. If the system was instead freeing up those scholarships for walk-ons, I think it'd be a lot more popular.


December 9th, 2018 at 11:01 AM ^


85 is the level where there is a real benefit to cheating (Alabama, tOSU, etc...)

Bumping up to 95 would change the cost-benefit analysis of cheating. 


December 9th, 2018 at 3:07 PM ^

You are assuming these star rankings can't be manipulated? We are all aware they are right now. Certain areas of the country are limited as to four and five star talent now. The rankings are manipulated to keep interest at the highest level possible until signing day.  When a four or five star commits, pay attention. You will see there is a commensurate shift of talent in the next ranking, making then 3*s into 4 and 4s into 5s.  It's a subscription based business. 


December 9th, 2018 at 11:08 AM ^

The parity in CFB today seems hardly any different than 10 years ago, 20 years ago, etc. 

I also don't really think this is a great take considering Michigan benefits from this more than about every program but 3.


December 9th, 2018 at 11:50 AM ^

The 85 scholarship limit has been in effect since I believe the late 90s? In the last 20 years we've seen the super elites widen the gulf between them and everyone else. Some of the MAC schools beat UVA or Michigan. Beyond that, the limit hasn't done too much in addressing awful uncompetitive football in the top 25 (numbers 6-25 are way way behind the top 5).

Here's 2019 and 2020's college football preview for you: Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio State.  

snarling wolverine

December 9th, 2018 at 12:03 PM ^

The 85 limit came into effect in 1992.

Don't be fooled - there have always been football dynasties.  Miami won four national titles between 1983 and 1991.  FSU finished in the top five every year from 1987-2000.  Just imagine if there had been a playoff back then.  Bobby Bowden might be considered the best coach of all time.

The introduction of the playoff is the real difference.  In the pre-playoff era Bama would have like 2-3 titles under Saban instead of six.

rob f

December 9th, 2018 at 11:26 AM ^

What would happen at Bama (and for that matter, across the SEC and at Clemson, OSU, Texas, etc.)?

A massive and rapid increase in the bagmen budget (like at least 2.35X) and massive hiring of new bagmen, all GREAT for economic growth in those areas.

The South would approve unanimously.


December 9th, 2018 at 11:26 AM ^

I don't have the time right now, and the data would be hard to find, but I'd be interested in doing a study on how many starts players have averaged at the majors over the years.

Was it a couple of years ago that Alabama got a top-100 recruit to grey-shirt? I'd imagine that fewer players these days expect (not the reality of course) to stay in school more than three years.

College football is "helped" by having talent more evenly distributed. But then Alabama or Michigan wouldn't be possible. I'm not sure the scholarship limit, as high as it is, makes a huge difference.


December 9th, 2018 at 11:57 AM ^

The consequences for UM, PSU, Texas, etc. - programs not built with 4+5 stars throughout like OSU, Bama, etc. - is that you can't miss on too many recruits at one position - either from injuries, transfers, Ondre Pipkins and Derrick Green syndrome of injury/underperformance.

Guys like Rondale Moore probably end up at OSU or UM and not necessarily a Purdue. Rutgers had Grant, who was a great athlete - may have been at a big school.

I first noticed this when you started having guys like Darnell Autry at NW when they went to the RB - in the 70s or 80s those guys ended up at OSU, UM, PSU, etc.


December 9th, 2018 at 12:08 PM ^

Agree. Depth is the big issue. Huge issue. "Missing" via star scout or just on the general high level 3 star, means teams like a Michigan, a Washington, a Penn State, any of the #6-30 or more programs have holes because of this scholarship limit. These holes get exploited year and year out by the 2-3 elites that don't have these holes and honestly don't give a darn about developing talent beyond QB and a couple other positions.

Anyone honestly think Alabama is "developing" a Najee Harris the way Harbaugh and team scouted and developed and improved a Karan H?

Mr Miggle

December 9th, 2018 at 4:00 PM ^

I agree most of your premise, but Rondale Moore was pretty highly ranked, above Michigan's average in any given year. He decommitted from Texas because he wanted to go to Purdue. The 4* players that choose to go to schools like Rutgers or Purdue still would. 

No doubt the overall talent gap between tiers would increase.


December 9th, 2018 at 12:32 PM ^

In light of Title IX, the 85-scholarship limit probably helps a lot of other men's sports survive.  The Alabamas and LSUs of the world would have 150 scholarship players if allowed to, and consequently could hardly field any other men's sports.


December 9th, 2018 at 1:32 PM ^

OP and a few others are viewing the current limit in isolation and calling it "arbitrary."  A more historical view acknowledges that "1973 brought about the first limitations on football scholarships in order to free up money for women's sports after Title IX was passed by Congress in 1972 as part of the Equal Opportunity in Education Act. This caused the NCAA schools' presidents and athletic directors to push through a limit of 105 football scholarships. Additional reductions were made in 1978 (95) and again in 1992 which brought the limit to its present number of 85 and 63 for Division I-AA."  (From a 2013 article.)

It's not as if one day NCAA schools got together and said, hey, let's place a limit on the up-to-now  unlimited football scholarships, and that number should be 85.  Before increasing the number of scholarships, they'd have to be convinced that the previous reasons for successive reductions either no longer apply or are outweighed by other considerations.


December 9th, 2018 at 2:24 PM ^

If you want to help equalize the talent level, here are two ways to do it without making overtly drastic changes:

1.) Eliminate oversigning

2.) Eliminate greyshirting

Those two things alone would spread the talen out more.


December 9th, 2018 at 2:44 PM ^

I fail to see how increasing the scholarship limit would help us. That would just mean we'd be competing with Alabama on a larger number of recruits.


I think dropping the scholarship limit down to only starters could help because then top recruits would pick the school where they're most likely to start immediately. This would mean schools only get top recruits if they don't already have top recruits which would be good for parity. I don't see such a change being politically viable however.



Mr Miggle

December 9th, 2018 at 4:21 PM ^

I'd like to suggest a change in transfer rules that could help a bit with parity and with fairness towards the players. It could be used now. Higher scholarship limits would make it even more impactful.

I'd like to see teams have to put out something akin to a depth chart. Have them list 48-50 players, essentially a two deep plus a few specialists. Anyone not on the list can transfer without restrictions and does not have to sit out a season. Anyone on the list can still transfer under the current rules. The lists could be published after spring practice, fall camp or both. Incoming freshmen could be exempt, although I could see making a case for including EEs.

I disagree that the 85 scholarship limit helps elite programs. They have an advantage in every system. I just don't see that it has gotten larger. One thing that's helped them is that recruiting has steadily gotten more national. 



December 9th, 2018 at 5:06 PM ^

You'll see complaints from the likes of Sparty fans that the only reason the Big 10 used to be the Big Two and Little Eight was because of the lack of scholarship limits, that allowed UM and OSU to stockpile talent 3 and 4 deep at every position, leaving everyone else with crumbs.  I'm sure you'll find plenty of fans of schools in other conferences that will make the same arguments about the teams that dominated in the years prior to the scholarship limit.  The problem with that argument is that it is premised on the idea that (i) the other schools were simply not able to recruit the top talent out of the HS Pool; and (ii) they couldn't even convince the second and third and fourth string talent that they'd be better off starting for MSU, etc. vs sitting buried on the bench at Michigan or OSU. 

I'm not at all convinced by that argument.  Schools like MSU and Minnesota and even Indiana were able to win Big 10 titles in the 60's.  I haven't studied the statistics, but I suspect that there was every bit as much parity as there is now.  What happened to disrupt things was that he southern schools were forced to desegregate, and that put the recruiting paradigm on its head.  MSU and Minnesota, which depended on a southern pipeline, found that it dried up, and they didn't adjust.  The lack of scholarship limits didn't do that - failing to adjust to the new reality did that.

Getting rid of the 85 scholarship limit would not, in my opinion, change things all that much.  You still have to identify and successfully recruit and develop  top talent, a couple of positions deep at each position.  If you can't do that, you're not going to be competing at the highest level.  Not being able to recruit the guys sitting at the end of the bench for Alabama is not going to change that, whether we're talking about 85 scholarships or 185 scholarships. Sure, with a lower scholarship limit some diamonds in the rough who wouldn't see playing time at the top schools may blossom into stars with the lower limit and the right coaching, but I don't see that as being a game changer.

That being said, I'm perfectly fine with the lower scholarship limits, with the sole caveat that for guys that would not be able to go to college but for an athletic scholarship, having 10 or 20 more scholarships available per school puts an awful  lot of kids in college that otherwise wouldn't be there.   That would be my only rationale to reconsider the limit.


December 10th, 2018 at 12:47 PM ^

I went back to look at what kind of parity the Big 10 had historically, and the "10 Year War" was the exception, not the rule:

1950's - 7 teams won or shared titles:  Illinois (2), Iowa (2), Michigan (1), MSU (1), OSU (3), Purdue (1), Wisconsin (2)

1960's - 9 teams: Illinois (1), Indiana (1), Iowa (1), Michigan (2), MSU (2), Minnesota (2), OSU (2), Purdue (1), Wisconsin (1)

1970's: 3 teams: Michigan (7), MSU (1), OSU (8)

1980's: 5 teams: Illinois (1), Iowa (2), Michigan (5), MSU  (1), OSU (3)

1990's: 8 teams: Illinois (1), Iowa (1), Michigan (5), MSU (1), Northwestern (2), OSU (3), PSU (1), Wisconsin (2)

2000's: 7 teams: Illinois (1), Iowa (2), Michigan (3), Northwestern (1), OSU (6), PSU (2), Purdue (1)

2010's (so far) 4 teams officially won the title: MSU (3), OSU (3), PSU (1), Wisconsin (2), but, ignoring the championship game, 7 teams have tied for the title using the pre-championship game of straight up conference record: Iowa (1), Michigan (1), MSU (3), OSU (6), Northwestern (1) PSU (1), Wisconsin (1)



December 10th, 2018 at 10:55 AM ^

good question. I was around at the change of this limit.

The did what it was supposed to at that time, and I doubt 85 was arbitrary, I'm sure on some level they determined depth, development, and what it would take at bare minimum to field a highly competitive team. I know in the days prior, teams like Michigan could load up talent for the sake of preventing OSU/MSU from getting them. Selfishly it helped the big teams stay big. In the end the shift allowed guys to go elsewhere and I think it did and still does help other programs remain competently competitive. It's fair to say the limit on scholarships doesn't make a team great. Even UM had some tough times with poor coaching etc.

The said, there are other factors, is making this more of a problem than a help. Teams in the SEC and otherwise are notorious for bagmen implications and it makes the high margin gap wider as all the 5* go to the best team. On one end, well, good job Bama, maybe we need to get better. We have all the other pieces in place. NFL talent, great coaches, great campus and tradition...EXCELLENT academics. We also have high academic standards thus...some stars may not make it or want that kind of play skool challenges.

The side effect. Due to Title IX the 85 limit has hurt many other men's programs at schools with limited resource. Northwestern dropped track and field because they had to maintain balance with men's and women's scholarships. Unlike big schools they couldn't just throw together extra women's teams to create balance. Track in particular, women had twice the scholarships available. Football at 85 is more than many women's teams combined...To me it should be taken out of the scholarship equation, football at many schools is the only financial reason other teams happen...they make the money. It's a tough deal. I'm not sure reducing scholarships is the answer either. Is it fair that a football player suddenly loses a scholarship to level the field? I guess they did it once but I doubt it's much of a fix at this point seeing what we have. Teams just need to get better and in my opinion., the NCAA needs to get off it's ass and figure out what's going on and level some punishments where appropriate.

Late Bluemer

December 11th, 2018 at 4:27 PM ^

the more liberal redshirting rules for freshmen make roster management interesting -- if more redshirts are granted and stay the full five years (i know this is not a given here w/ JH's policy) then there will be smaller recruiting classes at schools that take advantage of the rule.