In college football’s NIL and transfer portal era, does the 85-scholarship limit matter?

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In college football’s NIL and transfer portal era, does the 85-scholarship limit matter?

By Austin Meek, Seth Emerson and Mitch Sherman

At almost any college football program, Cam Goode would have been among the 85 players receiving a full-ride scholarship.

Goode played at Michigan, which had one of the deepest rosters of any team since the 85-man scholarship limit took effect in the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1994. Before the 2023 season, Goode was asked to give up his scholarship to make room for another player. Instead of transferring to a school that could offer him a scholarship, Goode chose to stay at Michigan and pay for his tuition through name, image and likeness deals.

“I was totally open to it,” said Goode, a defensive tackle hoping to hear his name called in the upcoming NFL Draft. “I’m not a selfish person at all — if anything, selfless. It was all for the better. I knew they were going to take care of me. I’m a good player, they love me, I’ve got a great personality. I knew they’d take care of me, for sure.”

Because he was a graduate student, Goode’s tuition expenses weren’t as high as those of younger players. He said he was offered the chance to participate in extra NIL events, which helped defray the costs. Though he didn’t have “the craziest NIL opportunities,” he said, Goode was part of a team that went 15-0 and won the national championship, which was everything he wanted when he transferred from UCF to Michigan two years ago.

“I’m just thankful I had that experience,” Goode said. “It opened the doors for everybody.”



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Goode is far from alone: At many programs, players are receiving NIL as a way of going above the NCAA scholarship limit of 85 per team. It’s a way to have a deeper roster and keep veteran players around.

But not everyone is doing it. Some programs that typically bring in top-ranked classes, such as Georgia, and the ones doing well in the transfer portal, like Ole Miss, seem to prefer to focus on the top 50 or so players, rather than send NIL money to the 86th, 87th and 88th players on their rosters.

“We are focusing on our two-deep roster, with a few position groups stretching to three-deep for depth,” said Walker Jones, head of the Grove Collective at Ole Miss, which signed some of the top players out of the transfer portal in the winter cycle. “Dollars are just too hard to come by right now to spend that far down the roster.”

There is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Craig Bowl, the former Wyoming coach and now executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, said going over the 85 limit was a discussion point at this year’s AFCA convention. Some coaches don’t want to have a large roster. Others would go up to 150 if they could.

“It all comes back to how a head coach wants to build their roster,” Bohl said.

Matt Rhule is in his second year at Nebraska after a 5-7 debut. (Dylan Widger / USA Today)

When Matt Rhule contemplated a coaching return to college 18 months ago after two-plus seasons in the NFL, he first assessed the NIL landscape. It did not exist when he left Baylor in 2020.

At Texas Tech, coached by Rhule confidante Joey McGuire, Rhule noticed that the Matador Club collective signed 100-plus Red Raiders to $25,000 annual NIL deals.

Rhule saw an opportunity. When he accepted the Nebraska job on Thanksgiving Day 2022, that opportunity multiplied. The Huskers have long cultivated the Midwestern recruiting ground into more than 85 spots for scholarship-caliber players.

A robust walk-on program helped define Nebraska’s championship pedigree for decades. But the rising cost of education, a conference-title drought in Lincoln of longer than two decades and the success of FCS programs in the Dakota states chipped away at the Huskers’ ability to build depth with non-scholarship standouts.

“Anytime you’re upgrading the bottom of your roster, the football is going to be better,” Rhule said, “and the overall talent is going to be better.”

While a program like Georgia doesn’t benefit from prioritizing roster spots 85 through 95, Nebraska does. The Huskers’ collective, the 1890 Initiative, dealt them back into the game. With NIL resources at Nebraska’s disposal, gone are many of the offseason worries about cutting the roster to 85 scholarship-caliber players.

“If you’re at 85 and they’re good enough,” Rhule said, “85 is probably enough. But I think 95 is probably a little better.”



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Nebraska added multiple recruits in its 2024 class who accepted deals from 1890 to cover the equivalent of a scholarship.

At Baylor, Temple and now Nebraska, Rhule has dealt with having a walk-on who outperformed a scholarship player. In the Big Ten, scholarships, by rule, cannot be canceled for athletic reasons while an athlete continues to pursue his or her degree.

It can leave a coach in a crunch. Rhule said he heard this spring from an NFL front office that its team wants to bring former Nebraska defensive back Phalen Sanford to training camp. Sanford, a standout on special teams at Nebraska and five-game starter as a senior in 2023, spent the final two semesters of his time with the Huskers on scholarship — but the financial aid last fall came about only because of an unplanned departure.

“This is an NFL-caliber player,” Rhule said, “who’s not on scholarship” for the majority of his collegiate career.

“So I think NIL allows you to even out some of those things,” he said. “When a great player comes along or a guy in the portal comes along, if you don’t have a scholarship, there are still other means for that player to pay for school. I’ve never apologized for using any funds available to help someone pay for school.

“We’re talking about an education, which is valuable.”

The added roster flexibility has eased pressure, Rhule said, “in a world where everything got harder.”

“From a personal perspective, to watch guys who aren’t on scholarship,” he said, “when I do know they’re getting some opportunities via NIL, that makes me feel good about them being here.”

Cam Goode was part of an experienced Michigan team that won the Big Ten and national titles. (Michael Allio / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Michigan’s 2023 season was a testament to the power of a deep roster. The Wolverines had 18 players invited to the NFL Scouting Combine and have a chance to break Georgia’s record of 15 players selected in a single draft. Of the 143 players listed on their roster, 96 either signed with Michigan on scholarship out of high school or transferred from programs where they were on scholarship.

Michigan didn’t have as many five-star recruits as Georgia, Alabama or Ohio State, but the Wolverines had draft picks at almost every position and the depth to rotate heavily without a major drop-off. Thanks in part to a “One More Year” NIL campaign sponsored by the Champions Circle collective, Michigan brought back a large group of seniors, including a handful who used their extra years of eligibility from the COVID-19 pandemic. Michigan also added nine players from the transfer portal, all of whom contributed to the Wolverines’ run to the national championship.

“At Stanford, you’d play other Pac-12 teams, or even Kansas State and stuff like that, you’d play (against) their starters and be like, ‘Damn, these guys are good,’” said Drake Nugent, who started for Michigan at center after transferring from Stanford. “Then they’d go out, and I feel like it was always a big drop-off. Here, there’s no drop-off. If there is, it’s very minimal.”

NIL collectives decide what they want to spend, but coaches decide what kind of roster they want to build. Some programs see value in using NIL funds for players outside of the top 85. Others choose to narrow the scope of their NIL focus.

“We are not (using NIL to go beyond the 85),” Jones said. “I have heard this at some schools but not with us. Obviously it does have a trickle-down effect which helps stretch the roster but we are not paying anyone outside the 85.”

A big reason for that is there isn’t as much money in the NIL system as people may think. In part because of donor fatigue, it’s not like all collectives are swimming with money.



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Another person who works at an SEC school, granted anonymity to talk candidly, echoed that he hasn’t heard much about conference schools going over the 85. The concentration — as in, the money — is on the top half of the roster. The Georgias, Alabamas and Ohio States of the world are recruiting so many blue-chip prospects that the odds are lower that someone would be willing to go there as a walk-on.

Georgia, which just finished with the No. 1 recruiting class and has seven transfers, is still adhering to the 85 limit. But it is using NIL to keep key walk-ons, including safety Dan Jackson, a potential starter this year who was on the field for the pick six that clinched the 2022 national championship game.

“That’s my standing right now, and how I’m getting school paid for,” Jackson said this spring, adding that he’s paying nothing out of pocket.

Michigan took a more egalitarian approach than other schools, using NIL to fortify the middle and the bottom of the roster rather than concentrating it at the top. A few players, including quarterback J.J. McCarthy and running back Blake Corum, had high-profile endorsement deals, but the perception in the locker room was that Michigan had fewer players earning seven figures than some of its direct competitors.

“I will say, we did not put as much into it as a ton of the top teams did,” left tackle LaDarius Henderson said. “I think that was one of the things that even fueled our fire a little bit more. We didn’t have 10 guys making a million dollars. We were taken care of, but it wasn’t like we felt like we’d already made it.”

But it may have more of an impact, the SEC source said, in non-revenue sports such as baseball, which have lower scholarship caps. It’s going to make it much easier for schools with passionate baseball fans, for instance, to have fans pay NIL for scholarships and allow teams to go over the limit.

Being on scholarship means getting free tuition, room and board, books and cost of attendance. It also means so-called Alston payments, which are up to $5,890 annually. Those came into being after the 2021 Supreme Court case, and those payments are supposed to be tied directly to education.

The cost of not being an official scholarship player varies from school to school: At Georgia, it ranges from the high $20,000s per year for in-state students to the high $40,000s per year for out-of-state students.

Regardless of the cost, Rhule said this system “feels like a workaround.” He is not allowed by NCAA rule to participate in the negotiation of NIL deals with prospects or with members of his team.

“To be honest with you,” he said, “I never want to be the one talking money with players, because I want their relationships with me to be about football. But the way things are done, I’m recruiting someone here who’s dealing with a third party. And then I’m beholden to a third party.

“It’s definitely backwards. There’s no transparency to it.”

It’s a situation that Bohl called challenging, but he believes college football is still in a healthy place in terms of visibility and interest. It’s just a matter of figuring where the sport is heading next as NIL and transfer rules continue to evolve and make roster construction an endless puzzle.

“As coaches, we don’t see this NIL initiative from a negative standpoint,” Bohl said. “There’s more opportunities for student-athletes to receive compensation, and we’re all for that.”

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories examining the transfer portal, NIL and their impact on college sports. The spring football transfer portal window is open from April 16 to April 30. Find all transfer portal stories here.

(Top photo: Bob Kupbens / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)