Has the spring football game moved beyond its usefulness?
Spring football games seem to be moving into the winter of their existence.
Throughout the Big Ten, numbers crunches are forcing coaches to alter their spring game formats. Purdue and Nebraska didn’t have enough players to split their teams into 2 equal squads, so they enacted a modified offense vs. defense format. It’s a similar story at Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State.
The universal culprit seems to be a lack of offensive linemen.
“I think that we are a little light on the o-line,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said upon announcing Saturday’s format. “And so I think in order to keep it where we can roll guys in the depth and not running guys across the field and being more organized, I think this is a better way to control who’s in the game.”
Penn State coach James Franklin is also playing it safe with 11 offensive linemen on the roster.
“There’s a lot of programs across the country that are really struggling with depth and spring games across the country have been modified because they don’t have the depth to do a traditional spring game,” Franklin said. “There’s no doubt the landscape of college football has changed dramatically.”
The transfer portal is the primary culprit here, of course. If a player transfers after the start of the spring semester — and a surprisingly high number do — they can’t practice with their new program until August camp.
At most positions, it might be possible to cobble together enough walk-ons to still make things work. Not so much on the offensive line. Guys who played the position in high school are about 50-100 pounds lighter than their college counterparts.
That impact is especially being felt at Michigan State. Due to injuries, the Spartans only have 7 offensive linemen even available to practice this spring. As a result, Michigan State’s spring game will be a normal 15-period practice with some live scrimmage reps sprinkled in.
Why anyone would be compelled to drive from out of town to watch such a thing beats me. As Allen Iverson once said, we’re talking about practice.
Thing is, these programs are still treating this like a traditional spring game.
Ohio State is charging fans $7 a head to get in, and $30 for the fancy seats. Michigan State is broadcasting a practice — not even a glorified one, just a plain old practice — across its statewide radio network. Best of luck to the crew painting a compelling picture out of that material.
This is no longer a sustainable model. At least not if spring games are supposed to deliver anything compelling enough to demand an audience.
And given that the Big Ten Network is a shareholder, you can bet they want schools to demand an audience. Which means solutions may be in order.
Spring exhibition games?
A college coach in Louisiana once made an astute point to me.
College football is the only level of football without any preseason games. Indeed, it’s one of the few sports where this is the case at all.
The NFL and all other pro sports have lengthy preseasons. Many states allow high schools to play preseason scrimmages or jamborees a week before the season starts. College baseball and softball have fall ball before the season starts in spring. College basketball teams either hold “secret scrimmages” or host exhibition games against Division II opponents.
But in college football, there’s no prepping against a team other than your own. You can only speculate what will take place in Week 1.
The growing spring conundrum could provide a solution to that issue — and a few more.
For many fans, games against FCS opponents draw little-to-no interest. But those games are integral to the overall health of college football. They provide a cash injection that allows smaller programs to get by, in turn sustaining thousands of scholarship opportunities.
In the new world order of college football, these games could be replaced the rapidly diminishing spring game.
Schools could still charge admission, but slightly less than a regular-season game. FCS programs could still get a pay day, albeit slightly less than before. Maybe you even cut it down to 12-minute quarters like a high school game.
And none of it would count in the standings, much like a college basketball exhibition game. It’s not about the result; it’s about the reps.
This wouldn’t necessarily preclude teams from scheduling FCS opponents in the regular season. But it would make it a lot more rare. And that, too, is a good thing for college football. It’s one thing to have an FCS game Week 1, but to do it in late November like the SEC is a complete sham.
Removing the majority of FCS games from the fall schedule in turn creates superior non-conference scheduling opportunities across the country. Or maybe it opens up a week for an expanded College Football Playoff without lengthening the schedule. (Unlikely, to be certain. But theoretically possible.)
This isn’t a solution for every problem in college football. But it could be a relatively simple adjustment to modern issues that better serves the game.