What Is Going On With Patriot League Football?

Credit: Worcester Telegram-Gazette

We are two weeks away from the end of the Patriot League regular season, and there is a very distinct possibility that the winner of the League is going to have a losing record.

Currently sitting on top of the Patriot League standings, with a tiebreaker, is 3-7 Lafayette – all three wins coming against conference opponents.  The Leopards are tied with the only team in the conference that can get to seven Division I wins – Holy Cross, who is 5-5.

Sitting right behind those two teams, still alive for shares of the Patriot League title and autobid are Bucknell, who are 2-7 but have two conference wins, and Lehigh, who are 4-5 overall and 3-1 in conference play.

In other conferences, winning the conference and autobid with a team with a losing record is something that never even crosses fans’ minds.  But in the Patriot League, there is a real chance that the conference champion and FCS autobid entry will not have a winning record at all.  All four teams still in the running could finish at .500 or worse, and still win the autobid.

And this isn’t the first time this has happened.  In 2013, Lafayette won the Patriot League with a 5-6 record, and in 2017, their bitter rivals Lehigh did the same.

The Patriot League, over the last decade, has had some genuinely tremendous teams make it into the playoffs.  In 2011, Lehigh upset Towson who two years later would make it to the FCS National Championship Game with much of the same roster.  Colgate fielded a couple of all-time teams who happened to eliminate James Madison twice in the playoffs (in 2015 and 2018 – the Raiders are undefeated against the Dukes all-time).  And Fordham, under then-head coach Joe Moorhead, fielded some Ram teams that nobody wanted to face.

But why does the Patriot League have this issue of feast or famine?  Why does the Patriot League every couple of years have this issue of fielding teams that have losing records heading to the playoffs – a situation nobody wants – and what can the teams of the Patriot League do about it?

Academic Index

The problem with the Patriot League is not one, singular issue that can be tweaked or repealed and then all the league’s problems are solved.  It is actually a variety of issues and policies when, taken together, put the teams of the Patriot League at a disadvantage.

The first policy involves recruiting.

The Patriot League recruits athletes via an “academic index”, very similar to the academic policy that the Ivy League uses.  The short description is that the academic standing of the incoming athletes have to be “representative of the rest of the class”.  There are lots of details around how that’s done, like a certain number need to be in certain academic “bands”, an that there is peer review of academic criteria of recruits, but in broad strokes the teams of the Patriot League need to have a higher percentage of student-athletes with top grades than other schools.

There are certainly a lot of football players with great grades.  But the issue for the Patriot League is that it’s not just Patriot League schools that are recruiting them – “everyone wants those kids,” former Patriot League executive director Carolyn Femovich once told me.  Penn State, Alabama, Navy, Harvard, North Dakota State – everyone wants athletes with a 4.0 average.  Good student-athletes that can play Division I football are in small supply, and are in very, very large demand.

I see why the policy was implemented.  When the Patriot League was founded, the presidents of those schools were making a pledge to field teams with kids that could do the academic work, and looked to the Ivy League at the time as to how they were ensuring their student-athletes were actual student-athletes.  They adopted a version of their academic index – an index that has changed and evolved from the original iteration in 1986.

But many of the competitors for Patriot League talent do not have such a restriction.  Villanova doesn’t.  William and Mary doesn’t.  Sacred Heart doesn’t.

This recruiting policy alone does not prevent Patriot League schools from getting great athletes.  After all, the process brought Bucknell P Alex Pechin to Lewisburg – who, barring injury, is more than talented enough to become a first-string punter in the NFL.  But it does prevent the Patriot League from giving more opportunities to kids who might be able to do the academic work in Patriot League institutions, if given an opportunity, because their grades or board scores were merely “very good” instead of “perfect”.  It chips away at the number of athletes Patriot League schools can get.  And it has an effect.

It’s worth asking the question – has the Academic Index outlived its usefulness for the Patriot League?  Does, say, New Hampshire’s lack of an academic index make them any less prepared for college than any Patriot League school?

Patriot League schools routinely are at the top of all NCAA institutions in football in terms of the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate, as are the members of the Ivy League.  The NCAA routinely honors schools with the best APR rates every year, which is the way NCAA tracks academic progress towards getting degrees.  Every year, Patriot League and Ivy League schools top the list.   Then again, so does Villanova.

Redshirting

Another policy the Patriot League implements involves redshirting.

The Patriot League allows medical redshirting of athletes that suffer a season-ending injury during the earliest part of one or sometimes two of their season, which is also a redshirting avenue pursued by every other FCS school.

However, the Patriot League still does not do what Brad Wilson of The Express-Times called “routine redshirting” – redshirting players, mostly freshmen, to prepare them for academic and athletic life at a Division I school.

I see why the policy was implemented. When the Patriot League was founded, the presidents looked to the Ivy League model for guidance, who had a no-redshirt policy at the time.  It made sense to pursue a similar policy if that was the goal of the Patriot League – to compete primarily against the Ivy League, and to be their sister league.

But over time, the Patriot League and Ivy League have both evolved.

The Ivy League’s 1986 aversion to 5th year players has changed a lot in 2019, with medical redshirts but also an expansion of the awarding of “grayshirts” (extra semesters which have the effect of extending football athletes’ eligibility an extra year).   Currently, Dartmouth is currently 8-0; they have five fifth-year players on the roster, including two starters on the defensive line, one starter on the offensive line, and a first team all-Ivy League linebacker LB Jack Traynor.  Their quarterback, Jared Gerbino, is listed as a senior, but played on the scout team his freshman year – the same as Traynor.

But the Patriot League largely plays by the same redshirting rules as in 1986.  There are fifth-year players, but it’s not enough to have “played with the scout team” on the official roster bio in order to be granted a fifth year – athletes need to petition the NCAA, and have it granted.  There is also an issue that several of the schools in the Patriot League are colleges, not universities.  This matters; a school like Lehigh can have a student stick around and take graduate school classes on campus.  Holy Cross does not have a graduate school, though they have had fifth-year players in the past.

Lack of redshirting also effectively dilutes a scholarship offer from a Patriot League school.  If a student-athlete is offered a scholarship by Villanova, and they are offering to redshirt the player, the student could potentially have five years of college tuition paid for by scholarship instead of four at Fordham.

It also hurts the competitiveness of Patriot League teams, especially early in the season.  This season, Lehigh had a team comprised of more than 2/3rd underclassmen, with no redshirted underclassmen.  After preseason camp, their first game was against St. Francis (PA), who currently have 61 players on their roster listed as redshirted players.   Lehigh lost, 14-13.

It is not just the Ivy League and power conferences.  Every FCS school – HBCUs, members of the non-scholarship Pioneer Football league, members of the limited-scholarship NEC – have some sort of redshirting policy, some of them extensive.

It’s worth asking the question – should the Patriot League offer resdhirting, to put them in line with the rest of FCS?

Lack of redshirting does not prevent the Patriot League from occasionally fielding great teams and great players.  Colgate DE Nick Wheeler is one of the best players in the Patriot League, getting on the field his freshman year and will probably finish the season as a first-team, all Patriot League player – without using a redshirt.  But especially early in the year, when a Patriot League team lines up against, say, an FBS Service Academy like Army, Navy or Air Force or even a high-level FCS team like Villanova or New Hampshire – it’s frequently a game where 19 year olds are lining up against 21 year olds.  It makes it that much harder to win early-season games against teams who willingly do not allow themselves to compete with the same restrictions.

Roster Restrictions

A third issue that teams of the Patriot League have to deal with, unnecessarily, are artificial caps on their teams’ roster sizes.

“The Patriot League will begin using instant replay for basketball and reduce the size of football rosters in future seasons,” the Patriot League Council of Presidents announced back in 2012. “According to the league, football roster sizes will be reduced in the future. The maximum roster sizes will be set at 95 players in 2013, 92 in 2014 and 90 in 2016.”

It seemed like a small move at the time, made by the Patriot League presidents alone.  There was no mandate or hint from the Ivy League, or the other schools of the FCS, to do this.  Perhaps it was a cost-saving or competition measure, to accommodate a football scholarship world.

But it doesn’t seem like the League thought of the ramifications of that decision fully.

In the rest of FCS, football rosters are routinely much larger than ninety student-athletes.  In the Ivy League, rosters used to be in the 90-100 athlete range, as they were at many other FCS schools.  But recently, the Ivy League has changed the way they calculate the aid available for all of their students, thanks to the fact that the richest of them have endowments that are larger than the GDP of some countries.  This extends to athletes – a walk-on is technically offered no different an aid package as a fifth-year starter.  If you can get into the school, you get the generous financial aid package that no other Division I institutions can match.

This matters.  Players who used to perhaps be offered a partial scholarship at Lafayette or an aid package at Georgetown are now offered admission slots at Ivy League schools.  Players that might have taken a shot at a Patriot League school and developed into first team all-Patriot League players instead might decide to go to an Ivy League school for what amounts to a walk-on opportunity – but with a more generous aid package than a partial scholarship.

There’s more.  Ivy League teams have also quietly abandoned any self-imposed “caps” on roster sizes.  This has the effect of creating roster sizes that are sometimes up to 40 more athletes than Patriot League teams.  This doesn’t only mean that the Ivy League gets good top-end athletes.  It also means that they can do things in practice to develop their players that simply can’t be done at Patriot League schools due to lack of personnel.

The way to see this is a Patriot League football team today has a pool of 90 players they can suit up in August and say “these guys can be football players”. The staff doesn’t know at that point whether the players beyond the 90th athlete would never see the field or become a future all-Patriot League starter. But this has an impact in practice beyond the starting two-deep – on the scout teams, who are the people that challenge the starters to become the best they can be.

At Lehigh this year, expected starting OL Drew Rosen got a season-ending injury in the first game of the season.  That forced the Mountain Hawks to already tap their underclassman-heavy roster to find the next man up.  This is a problem for every school that plays football, but in the Patriot League, with 90 man rosters without redshirted players, it’s critical to not get injuries.  A few players like Rosen go down, and the greener and less prepared their replacements are going to be.

Injuries are not the only attrition that happens in college football programs. Kids get homesick, quit the team, or get in trouble. In normal FCS programs, the pool of players on your roster is deeper, so you’ll at least be able to have enough bodies to compete in football games if something like that happens. But at Patriot League schools, that can end up being a full-blown crisis. What if mono took out the entire starting offensive line? Would any Patriot League school be able to have a full two-deep in that eventuality?  What if a player, or two, or three, decides to enter the transfer portal?  How many athletes are left?

It cannot be emphasized enough that this is a self-inflicted wound by the league.  Limiting the roster size to 90 – and artificially keeping the cap of scholarships at 60, instead of the NCAA maximum of 63 – is something only the Patriot League chooses to do.  It chooses to run with smaller rosters, and it chooses to not offer the full complement of scholarships -yet it plays against teams that play with bigger rosters and 63 full scholarships.

It’s worth asking the question – why?  Why not allow schools to use all 63 scholarships at their disposal, per the NCAA?  Why artificially limit the number of athletes on the football team?  Giving teams 10 or 20 more athletes can’t possibly cause the Patriot League to allow rogue, semi-professional programs – most of the athletes on the team are likely to be underclassmen or walk-ons.  Same with adding three more scholarships – it would likely be turned into partial scholarships, to allow perhaps a local kid who wants to play football a chance to play on the scout team and to have some of their college costs defrayed.

Limited roster sizes and sixty scholarships does not prevent the Patriot League from occasionally fielding great teams and great players.  Lafayette QB Keegan Shoemaker, a true freshman, started the season down the depth chart, but quietly worked his way up to No. 1 as Lafayette was searching for answers during their 0-7 start.  After beating Holy Cross this weekend, he has his 3-7 Leopards two wins away from winning the Patriot League at 5-7.

But it’s worth asking – if Lafayette had redshirting available, if they had a full complement of 63 scholarships at their disposal, if they had a roster of 100 to 110 athletes, and if they, say, had more academic leeway to offer scholarships to athletes that the coaching staff feels could do the work at their school – what would their record be?

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