Watch for the visiting tunnel in Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in the moments before Saturday night’s kickoff. There will be plenty of LSU Tigers packed together, ready to charge the field. There’ll just be fewer scholarship players, 69 — much fewer players than the NCAA’s 85-scholarship limit allows.
It isn't news that LSU is playing below the limit. Last year's team carried 81 scholarship players on its national championship roster. It's how low the team is below the limit now that has raised LSU coach Ed Orgeron's numbers issue to a critical level.
Orgeron told reporters this week that his coaching staff has roster management meetings every Monday to identify the holes and search for ways to rebuild the roster.
The main questions, he says: "Where are we at? What does the future look like?"
The numbers have been dwindling for almost a year now.
It all started with normal offseason attrition: NFL-bound seniors and juniors, plus one graduate. LSU tied the single-school NFL record with 14 players drafted in April, and six more immediately signed undrafted free agency deals.
Then, on February's national signing day, LSU signed 22 of its allotted 25 scholarship slots for incoming recruits — another Top 5-rated recruiting class, with room left to later sign Harvard center Liam Shanahan and linebacker Jabril Cox as graduate transfers.
Also came additional, but not uncommon, offseason departures: five transfers, including former five-star linebacker Marcel Brooks to TCU; three suspensions involving former linebacker Donte Starks (arrest), quarterback Peter Parrish (alleged sexual assault) and defensive end Ray Parker (arrest).
The coronavirus pandemic reached its peak. The NCAA permitted any player to opt out at any time. A turbulent season began for LSU, built upon unrest behind the scenes.
Seven players opt out, including star receivers Ja'Marr Chase, Terrace Marshall and Arik Gilbert. Three players enter the NCAA transfer portal: defensive linemen Justin Thomas (Alabama-Birmingham), TK McLendon (TBD) and Siaki "Apu" Ika (TBD). Three walk-ons are awarded scholarships.
More players are considering leaving, sources told The Advocate this week, and, had LSU not self-imposed a one-year bowl ban, more players would have likely opted out before any bowl game LSU would've played in.
Aside from any potential players considering leaving the program, LSU also has 15 seniors and 13 draft-eligible underclassmen who could graduate, transfer or depart for the NFL draft.
To make matters even more complicated, LSU self-implemented in October a reduction of eight scholarships over the next two seasons due to an ongoing NCAA infraction case that involves the school's football and basketball programs.
Simple math shows Orgeron is facing an uphill battle with limited solutions, restricted by the NCAA's current rigid rules that only allow teams to sign 25 scholarship players per season.
"Obviously, I wish I had more scholarships to fill the roster," Orgeron said. "But we don't. We're gonna have to use the best 25 initial scholarships according to what we need in the football team."
LSU is not alone in this issue. Mississippi State whittled down to 61 available scholarship players by mid-November, according to 247Sports. Meanwhile, head coaches across college football are calling on the NCAA to make rule changes that will provide more flexibility in roster rebuilds.
"It's not feasible anymore to say that the 25 (scholarship signing limit) is a realistic number," said Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. "Because you're going to have significant departures."
There are actually already a few related proposals on the docket for the NCAA's annual convention in January, but let's take a step back first. Roster management is always a fluid conversation, and it takes some recent history to understand what's going on today.
In April 2017, the NCAA passed a policy that limited schools to signing no more than 25 players per recruiting class. It eliminated several loopholes that allowed coaches to sign more than the limit. While some coaches understood the change, others weren't pleased because they were counting on using the loopholes to rebuild their rosters.
Orgeron, who was counting on signing 28 players in 2018, called the new policy "very unfair" when he learned he could only sign 25. In one case, the NCAA denied LSU's petition to recover a scholarship spot that was given to Seth Stewart, an offensive lineman who spent less than a week on campus.
A coach's control over a team's roster decreased even further when the NCAA transfer portal launched in October 2018. The portal was the NCAA's answer to giving more freedom to players, who previously needed permission from their school, thus their coach, to transfer to another program.
Consequently, the number of transfers spiked. More than 1,000 Division I football players entered the transfer portal within the policy's first year.
Players still had to apply for a waiver with the NCAA in order to play immediately, but, Berry said, players and coaches alike figured out pretty quick what magic words needed to be said for the player to avoid sitting out for one season due to transfer rules.
The modern era of college football free agency began, and schools like LSU, which had 10 scholarship players enter the portal in 2019, couldn't recover any of the scholarships due to the NCAA's strict signing limits.
Then once the coronavirus pandemic hit, the NCAA passed a policy that allowed any player to sit out of the 2020 season without consequence — a move that was widely accepted by head football coaches at first, but produced the unintended result of players using the policy to opt out in the middle of the season.
"I don't think it turned out to be a very good idea," Mississippi State coach Mike Leach said. "... I've got a lot of thoughts on this whole thing — most of it which is probably not in my best interest to share."
Yet another NCAA policy aiding player mobility — known as the "one-time transfer exception" — is likely to pass in January, Berry said. The policy says a player can be immediately eligible for their next school if it's their first time transferring and they remain in good academic standing.
Players in fall sports would have to submit intention to transfer by May 1 in this policy — a timeline that Berry says coaches fear will create a Wild West of a free agency period during the summer.
Say a team like LSU signs its 25-scholarship limit this recruiting cycle. Then let's say all of LSU's seniors, plus a handful of underclassmen, leave for the NFL draft — a total of 20 players.
That would give LSU 74 scholarship players before a hypothetical May 1 one-time transfer deadline. Then, if any LSU player transfers to another school in the summer, Orgeron would be unable to replace that scholarship slot, effectively losing a player on his roster.
Under the one-time transfer policy, "every team in the nation is going to be under," Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said.
"You've got to be able to replace those guys and not count to your initial 25," Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said.
Or, simply from a competitive standpoint, coaches are going to have to make the decision of whether to fill up their signing classes with high school recruits or leave spots open to pursue transfer players in the summer.
"It's like going into free agency being capped out with the salary cap," Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin said. "So you better leave some (spots open)."
There's a simple — perhaps too simple — solution for roster management.
Just keep your players from transferring.
"To do that, you certainly have to have communication with them," Pittman said. "You have to be honest with them about where they're sitting on the depth chart, where they can move up on the depth chart. The bottom line is, you don't have to worry about roster management if you're not losing players."
That may be just too idealistic in today's era. In any era, really. Transferring of some kind has been a constant in college football for decades.
But once policies for name, image and likeness are enacted — which will allow players to profit off their identities — players are going to want to improve their market value, Berry said.
It's not hard to see how players would make business decisions before a May 1 transfer deadline, search out their options during the summer, then ultimately decide whether to stay or leave.
In this case, a head coach doesn't "know who's gonna show up until preseason camp," Berry said. A coach could be in a bind come August, having lost a substantial portion of his roster that he cannot recover.
"There needs to be something else after that May 1 deadline when the transfers happen," Berry said, "to say, 'OK, now I know what my roster somewhat looks like."
The AFCA does not have legislative power within the NCAA, but Berry, who represents the coaches, said he's going to lobby in January that the NCAA creates another time frame — "let's say May 1 to June 1" — where a team can backfill the amount of scholarship slots that it lost, without it counting toward its initial 25.
Last year, the AFCA proposed the idea of allowing teams to go above the limit for situations such as medical disqualifications, players entering the NFL draft early or losses of graduate transfers.
Berry said coaches feel that this proposal has plenty of traction and might eventually make its way into NCAA legislation — especially the graduate transfer portion.
If there's any part of the transfer debate all sides agree on, it's that graduates should be allowed to transfer freely. Some coaches wish that was the one of the only ways players can transfer freely.
"If we're gonna make it so guys can transfer whenever they want, I think we've already done that with graduates," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "If you have a graduate, a guy that graduates, you've done your sort of job with the player. He's developed in your program. He's got another year of eligibility. He's graduated from school."
However, all signs point to more flexibility for player mobility. Whether coaches will be given extra scholarships to balance out the equation will be January's discussion.
"It's not my call," Orgeron said. "But hopefully in the future the NCAA changes the rule."
There's one final provision that's already in place that can help Orgeron solve his roster management crisis.
Back in August, the NCAA Division I Council approved a proposal that granted all fall athletes an extra year of eligibility. Even seniors could return for another year, if they so chose, and returning seniors will not count toward the team's roster limits.
So, returning to LSU's example: If all 15 seniors return for the 2021 season, plus all of its 13 draft-eligible underclassmen, LSU could legally have 90 scholarship players on its roster (accounting for the four scholarships it would deduct due to self-imposed sanctions).
This is Orgeron's best option for a roster rebuild, and he's been actively re-recruiting the seniors on the team — especially on the offensive line, with Shanahan and starting right tackle Austin Deculus.
LSU only has one offensive line commitment so far in its 2021 recruiting class: Garrett Dellinger, a four-star prospect from Michigan.
"I'm doing it, I promise you, on a daily basis," Orgeron said. "I talked to most of the guys about coming back. Some are dead set on going. Some are considering coming back. We still talk to them on a daily basis."
LSU's turbulent season is expected to shake up its roster further going into next season. Orgeron has also said that he will be evaluating the entire coaching staff once the season concludes against Ole Miss on Dec. 19.
Based on all that has happened this season, a reporter asked Orgeron why he has remained so bullish on the future.
"I still think there's fight," Orgeron said "I still think we have a great recruiting class. I love the freshmen we have on this football team. I think with one or two recruiting classes, we will build championship teams again."