NCAA recommends eligibility clock be frozen for fall athletes, which could have huge implications at Utah

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham watches the action between the Utah Utes and the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019.

Jake Bentley committed to the University of Utah in December with one year of eligibility remaining, but imagine a world in which the South Carolina graduate transfer quarterback was given a second year to play in Salt Lake City.

That is essentially what the NCAA Division I Council did on Wednesday afternoon when it recommended that fall sport student-athletes can compete in any amount of competitions this year and it will not count as a season of eligibility. Under NCAA rules, four or more football games played counts as a season of eligibility.

The Division I Council’s recommendation still needs to be approved by the college sports governing body’s Board of Governors on Friday afternoon.

On Aug. 11, the Pac-12 announced it was postponing all sports until at least Jan. 1. Utah sponsors football, women’s soccer, women’s volleyball and women’s cross country in the fall, while men’s and women’s basketball, both of whose seasons were to begin in early November, are heavily affected by the Jan. 1 mandate. The Pac-12 is hoping to play a winter or spring football schedule, but that remains to be seen.

Bentley’s eligibility situation is one example of what may now go on inside the Utah football program. The Utes listed 17 players with senior eligibility on their spring roster. Assuming the Board of Governors rubber stamps the Division I Council recommendation, all 17 would be able to return in the fall of 2021. Among them are projected starters Maxs Tupai, a defensive end, and center Orlando Umana.

The expectation upon approval is that current seniors would not count against scholarship limits in 2021. Not having seniors count against the scholarship limit wins out over the other option here which would be for the NCAA to temporarily raise the FBS scholarship limit, which is 85 in a given year.

The affordability of increased scholarships for fall athletes at Utah will now come into question, but the athletic department is already in a tough spot financially. The day after the Pac-12 announced it was postponing sports, Utes athletic director Mark Harlan estimated a $50-60 million loss if football is not played during the academic year.

Also on Wednesday, the Division I Council approved a Football Oversight Committee recommendation to allow teams impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic 12 hours per week of football activity. Twelve hours per week is viewed as a middle ground between the 20 hours per week allowed in season and the eight hours per week allowed out of season during the academic year.

The Football Oversight Committee, which includes Harlan, made its recommendation to the Division I Council on Tuesday.

The Pac-12 and the Mountain West, home to Utah State, are two of the four FBS conferences thus far to postpone football to the spring. The Big Ten and MAC are the others. All four conferences are currently operating under 20-hour rules, but will switch to the 12-hour model beginning Monday. Twelve-hour rules will run through Oct. 4, at which point the NCAA intends to reevaluate.

BYU, one of seven FBS independents, continues to plow forward with plans to play in 2020. The Cougars currently have five games scheduled, beginning Labor Day against Navy in Annapolis.

Within the 12 hours per week of football activity, five can be spent doing contactless drills, including work with a football, with the other seven spent on meetings, plus strength and conditioning.