Bret Bielema saw a unique opportunity to accelerate a turnaround at Illinois when he returned to college football as head coach of the Illini in December.
The NCAA’s decision to grant every fall sport athlete who played through the pandemic an extra season of eligibility meant Illinois could bring back a large group of experienced players to be the foundation of Bielema’s first team in Champaign.
Schools are not obligated to bring back those players and give them scholarships, but Bielema said he made it clear at his first team meeting that all were welcome.
As major college football returns to normal in 2021, one of the lingering effects of the pandemic season will be the return of hundreds of extra, older players who choose to stick around for another year. With spring practice approaching, more than 1,000 scholarship players are expected to take advantage of the NCAA’s eligibility mulligan, according to an Associated Press review of rosters provided by 129 schools.
The number of these super seniors on each team is subject to change and likely to go down as players continue to assess the value of playing an extra year of college football, but their presence is likely to have a major impact on the 2021 season.
Normally, the top teams in returning production will be around 87%, said Bill Connelly, who created SP+, a metric used to measure returning production using everything from yards and points scored to tackles and interceptions. Currently, three teams are expected to have more than 90% of their production from 2020 back in 2021.
Illinois expects to have 17 scholarship super seniors, the most of any Power Five school.