After the Mountain West announced that it was postponing fall sports to include football, there was may questions about the decision that was made. The question of eligibility may be one of the most important questions to answer. What happens to the seniors that want to play but are not given the opportunity? Are they given another year of eligibility? The Mountain West has made no official statement about giving eligibility back to players, but it would seem wrong to not do it.
In the Spring, the NCAA voted to grant an extra year of eligibility to all student athletes in spring sports whose seasons were cancelled because of the COVID-19. This included basketball, where many teams were in the process of competing or had already finished their conferences tournaments, which means the season was near an end. Giving eligibility back to athletes in fall sports who did not get to play at all during their specified season seems logical, but there are a lot of complications, especially when considering football.
One of the complications is that football teams typically have a total number of players that they cap at, around 60 to 70. This may create complications because there is a possibility of having to cut more players off the team than previously needed. Incoming recruits can often provide valuable skillsets and with a team that already returns many players, programs would need to reconsider what roles particular incoming recruits would have.
For Utah State, quarterback may not have been affected by incoming recruits as much but positions such as defensive line and wide receiver would certainly be affected. The safety position could also be significantly impacted if seniors Troy Lefeged and Shaq Bond, two leaders for Utah State, decide to opt out and prepare for the NFL. Junior linebacker Kevin Meitzenheimer could also decide to opt out as well. Jalen Warren is poised for a breakout season for the Aggies and he is another player that could decide to forgo a shortened season and extended eligibility.
The question becomes how many players are willing to play a shortened Spring season then have a grueling turnaround and prepare for the next season? This is a reason why eligibility should be extended, to accommodate those who would still like to play but are not comfortable with the risk of COVID-19 and a lot of unknowns, plus a short turn around to prepare for Fall.
Another complication is the playing time of incoming recruits. If players that are eligible and already have playing experience are given another year of eligibility, then incoming recruits that may have an important role with the program in a later season may choose to transfer as playing time could become more sparse. One interesting scenario is that if incoming freshmen and potentially sophomores choose not to transfer and are given another year of eligibility, then the depth of any particular roster could be greatly increased and a team such as Utah State, who only has five returning starters on defense this season, could greatly impact from more depth. This is assuming, however, that players decide not to transfer.
Scholarships are a big complication because not only do incoming recruits need to be considered, but so does the rest of the team. If players are given another year of eligibility (specifically seniors) then that would reduce the number of scholarships that could be given out. Division 1 FBS schools are allowed 85 scholarships and with many scholarships potentially already out, paying to go to college may become more burdensome for some and may even result in more transfers. Another factor is that all programs at the present moment, not just Utah State, are going to be hurting financially with the loss of a proper college football season as it typically brings in millions of dollars in revenue. This may result in less scholarships being given when looking at 2021 as programs attempt to recover from the big financial losses, which is a problem that will not be solved in one year. As an example, fellow Mountain West member Boise State is estimated a $20 million loss without football in the fall, which is 40 to 50 percent of the programs athletic department budget. This goes to show just how much colleges and athletic departments depend on football in the Fall.
Another aspect is conferences such as the AAC, which plan to play a full schedule (very unlikely). If some conferences get to play significantly more games than others, do those players get eligibility back as well? Or will the NCAA leave it up to the conferences to determine player eligibility? Leaving the conferences to decide how to proceed with fall sports going forward was logical enough as conference had different ways of proceeding, but player eligibility does not seem like a conference by conference decision, it seems more like an overall decision that the NCAA should be making as they did in the Spring.
By giving eligibility back to players, there is no guarantee that players will even want to accept the eligibility. For example, juniors might choose to forgo the extra year and go to the NFL Draft. With a potential condensed season in the Spring, a fair number of seniors may make the choice of forgoing their senior years and entering the draft.
Either way, players should be given another year of eligibility. While some conferences will want to play more games than others, the fact of the matter is that conferences will not be able to participate in a normal season and the conferences that do plan on playing sports such as college football this fall will likely have their seasons interrupted. The Spring season will likely not be a 12-14 game setup and because of this, players are being deprived of the amount of time they get to play. If the NCAA can give eligibility back to basketball players who had already reached the end of the season and were entering March Madness, it only seems reasonable to also give eligibility back to athletes participating in fall sports as they did not get a full season either.
Again, the Mountain West (or NCAA for that matter) has made no decisions on the eligibility of players participating in fall sports but news should arrive in the coming weeks about the eligibility of student athletes participating in fall sports.