All over the country coaches are doing away with spring games. Texas A&M was forced to by renovations to Kyle Field. But Oklahoma State and Pitt did so voluntarily. This is becoming a trend and it will likely be a terminal one for this annual spring tradition.
The thing about a spring game is that it is only sort of a game. The spring game is included as an exception to the NCAA’s limit of 12 football games because it could be either an intrasquad scrimmage or an alumni game. But it is not counted as competition. For example, it does not use a season of eligibility if a player redshirted during the regular football season.
The spring game is counted as one of the 15 practice sessions that make up spring practice. In addition to the o
verall limit of 15, no more than 12 sessions can include contact. Of the 12 contact sessions, only eight can including tackling. And of the eight tackling sessions, only three can devote more than 50% of the time to 11-on–11 scrimmaging. Spring games obviously count as one of those three scrimmages.
So it makes sense that coaches are moving away from a fan- or competition-focused spring game to an open practice or doing away with it entirely. Coaches have precious little time to work with their team in the spring. Unlike other sports this is the only skill instruction coaches can provide between the end of the football season and the start of fall camp. Not only does a spring game take away from this time generally, it takes away from the most limited subset of this time, 11-on–11 scrimmaging that includes tackling.
As limited as that time is, it could be getting even more limited as well. If contact during practice needs to be reduced for safety reasons, one of the easiest places to try and reduce it will be in spring practice. 12 sessions with contact might become eight, eight sessions of tackling might become four, and three scrimmages might become two, one, or none.
The only way to revive the spring game would be to make it an actual game against another Division I team. Like basketball’s closed preseason scrimmages, except open to the public. But beyond the player safety issues, football coaches seem unlikely to risk giving more potentially negative information about their team to a selection committee when they are fighting for so few spots in a sport that provides such a small sample size.
The spring game will not go quickly, but it will go. A few schools canceling spring games will become a handful, a handful will become a bunch, and a bunch will become most. They will never go away entirely, some programs, especially those with new coaches, will hold spring games to rally the fan base. But they will be one-offs rather than annual events. Schools will use similar events like open practices or meet-the-team days as a replacement. Institutions with big spring game traditions will look back nostalgically to when they were a regular occurrence. But everyone else will wonder why spring games became such a big deal in the first place.