It’s Time to Rethink College Football’s Bloated Roster Sizes

As settlements loom in a handful of court cases involving the NCAA, curtailing expenses is an agenda item for every athletic department.
College football rosters are the biggest of any Division I sport.
College football rosters are the biggest of any Division I sport. / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

My question for Florida Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin was simple: Why do football teams need 100-plus players? His answer was a folk tale.

A man complimented his wife on the ham she cooked for dinner, but asked why she threw out half of it before she started. The woman said she didn’t know why, that’s just the way her mom prepared a ham and she learned it from her.

So she called her mom and asked her why she did that. The mom’s answer was that she didn’t know, that’s just how her mom prepared a ham.

Then she called her grandmother and asked the same question about the family history of cooking half a ham. The answer: She didn’t own a pan big enough to cook a whole ham.

Moral of the story: Sometimes people just get used to doing things a certain way because they’ve always done them that way, without ever questioning whether there is a better way.

“Whether we have X number, or X-plus-20 number as a roster limit in the sport of football, I don’t know that that sport is going to generate any more revenue for every person added to that sport,” Stricklin said.

Stricklin and his administrative peers nationwide are bracing their football coaches for change from the way they’ve always done things. A reckoning is at hand, and it’s causing some tension between coaches and their bosses. The tension specifically relates to roster sizes, which have bloated beyond reason.

Stricklin and other athletic directors across the country are bracing for a major change to football rosters.
Stricklin and other athletic directors across the country are bracing for a major change to football rosters. / Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun / USA

With the college sports industry preparing to pay billions of dollars in lawsuit settlements, curtailing expenses is an agenda item for every athletic department. An expected element of the resolution of the House v. NCAA, Carter v. NCAA and Hubbard v. NCAA cases are rosters that expand the number of full scholarships awarded but restrict the total number of athletes in each sport. And no sport has more athletes than football (we’ll get to some actual numbers shortly).

Fat must be cut—even in the sport that is accustomed to getting everything it could ever wish for, and some things it couldn’t even imagine. (Nice miniature golf course at the football facility, Clemson.) While most programs aren’t going to reduce salaries of their coaches—certainly not the successful ones—they will reduce their manpower.

“Tap the brakes before you start focusing on a particular number,” Oklahoma Sooners athletic director Joe Castiglione says. “But it’s very fair to say that those programs that had 125, 130 players on the roster probably will have to get used to having fewer.”

Yes, that’s a real roster number. Scholarships are limited to 85, but power-conference football teams are much larger than that.

In response to this warning shot about roster reductions, coaches are getting sentimental (and protective) about the plight of the walk-on player. Stitched as they are into the lore of college football—“Rudy,” etc.—coaches are united against anyone who wants to force walk-ons to walk off. Hands were wrung and teeth were gnashed at Southeastern Conference spring meetings last week in response to the very notion of trimming rosters.

“I don’t know anybody that would be against having walk-ons,” said Kirby Smart, who won two national championships with the Georgia Bulldogs with a former walk-on quarterback in Stetson Bennett. “At what cost does that bring us? I think it hurts high school football, and football as a whole, when kids can’t even dream [of being a walk-on].”

“I was a walk-on,” Vanderbilt Commodores coach Clark Lea says.

“I think it’s absolutely against college football—what it stands for, what it’s about,” said Texas A&M Aggies coach Mike Elko, whose school’s “12th Man” walk-on tradition dates back more than a century.

There are just two problems with this line of coaches’ thinking: It presumes football walk-ons are somehow more special than those in other sports, where they tend to make up a far larger percentage of the actual contributors to a team; and it ignores the numerical reality of football, wherein most walk-ons rarely and barely play. Check the participation numbers.

SEC teams (including the new members Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma) in 2023 averaged 121 players on the roster, according to their own websites. That ranged from a high of 137 (Alabama Crimson Tide) to a low of 105 (Missouri Tigers).

How many of them played? According to participation lists from each game, SEC teams averaged 58 players used per game. That ranged from a high of 66.5 (Tennessee Volunteers) to a low of 54.9 (Missouri). And for most teams, those averages were inflated by using a large number of players in one or two blowouts against non-power-conference competition—for example, the LSU Tigers, Oklahoma, South Carolina Gamecocks and Tennessee all had one game in which they got 80 players into action.

If the average SEC team had 121 on the roster and played 58 of them, 63 weren’t participating. That’s a lot of excess baggage.

Some players, obviously, are out with injuries on a given week. But not 52% of the roster. Most SEC league games featured teams using roughly 55 players each, and several of those 55 were on the field for just a handful of snaps.

Point being, coaches aren’t overly interested in having a flotilla of walk-ons who actually impact the depth chart and take playing time—they want the flotilla for practice fodder. They want two sets of live drills going at all times, known as “two-spotting.” That means starters on one field and second-stringers on another, both of them getting reps against the “meat squad” guys who don’t see the field on Saturdays.

That’s all well and good in an era of limitless resources. Now? Not so much. Outfitting, feeding and providing medical care to 120 players is expensive, even if scholarships are capped at 85.

The NFL, built upon a tighter business model, has a 53-man roster and a 16-man practice squad. NFL teams can conveniently sign free agents as needed throughout a season to make up for injuries, a luxury college teams do not have (unless they want to conduct student tryouts). But even then, it’s hard to imagine an NFL franchise running through 100-plus players in a season.

There is more of a developmental nature to college football, with some younger players still maturing physically and thus needing more time before being thrown into a game. That’s why redshirts exist (that, and stockpiling players). But redshirting is a tougher sell in the day of constant player movement. Use ’em or lose ’em—or even use ’em and lose ’em—is the operative mindset.

In the end, scholarships might actually increase—say, from 85 to 90?—but roster sizes are likely to decrease significantly. That could mean that five hallowed walk-ons per season actually get to pay for their room, board and tuition via the athletic department. It also could mean that the other 30 non-scholarship players who never see the field find a lower level at which to play—or they simply attend school as a regular student.

The days of operating the way football programs always have are coming to an end. It’s time to stop throwing out half a ham while joining the unfamiliar world of (some) fiscal restraint.


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Pat Forde

PAT FORDE

Pat Forde is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, covering college football and basketball as well as the Olympics and horse racing. He co-hosts the College Football Enquirer podcast and is a football analyst on the Big Ten Network. He previously worked for Yahoo Sports, ESPN and The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. Pat has won a remarkable 28 Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest awards; been published three times in Best American Sports Writing; and was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. A past president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and member of the Football Writers Association of America, Pat lives in Louisville with his wife. They have three children, all of whom were college swimmers.