It was a season where two Patriot League schools would qualify for the FCS Playoffs, and Dan Hunt's Colgate team would have a one of the Patriot League's most epic runs through the bracket on the road - beating New Hampshire 27-20, then becoming James Madison's Kryptonite in an epic 44-38 win over the perennial FCS powerhouse.
A third straight road game ended their run at Sam Houston State with a 48-21 defeat, but the Raiders had nothing to hang their heads about.
At the time, there was no way of knowing that the 2015 season would be the high water mark for the league for the next six years - or that the drop would be so precipitous.
2015 was not only notable for its playoff success - it also featured four teams who finished above .500. Fordham won the Patriot League with a 9-2 record, while Colgate barely made it as an at-large team at 7-4. Lehigh (6-5) and Holy Cross (6-5) had plenty to be optimistic about, too, for the future.
But since then, the Patriot League as a whole suffered a surge of uncompetitiveness against the rest of the FCS. This is reflected in the number of teams who finished over .500 for the year after the epic 2015 season.
2016: 2 (with Colgate finishing 5-5), Top Team Lehigh (9-3)
2017: 1, Colgate, (7-4, did not win league)
2018: 1, Colgate (10-2)
2019: 1, Holy Cross, 7-5)
Spring 2021: * (Patriot League only played each other; 3-1 Holy Cross lost to Monmouth in the only out-of-conference game)
The fall 2021 season seems destined to follow a similar trajectory as the last four fall seasons, one, or perhaps zero, teams finishing above .500.
As a conference, the Patriot League is winless against the CAA and is overall 2-11 overall after two weeks (2-12 if you could Georgetown cancelling their game against Marist a forfeit.) The conference's two wins to date are Holy Cross' FBS win over UConn, a team which may rival one of the all-time FBS worst. and Georgetown's 20-14 overtime win against Delaware State. That's it.
Why is this so?
From the Lehigh side, 2015 definitely seemed at the time and felt like the start of a wonderful new era in Patriot League football. It wasn't just due to Lehigh offering football scholarships - it was also the athletes they were recruiting as well. The scholarship incoming class of 2015 was loaded with absolute studs like RB Dominick Bragalone, QB Brad Mayes, S Sam McCloskey, and way, way too many other starters to mention here. I've been following Lehigh recruiting classes for a long time, and the incoming class of this year as a whole was incredible.
Look at Lehigh's opponents this year, though, and you start to see part of the problem.
Certainly Lehigh, by all accounts, is a young football team, starting an inordinate amount of underclassmen everywhere on the two deep. There are a handful of 5th year players, but not many.
Contrast that to Villanova, who had six fifth-year seniors on their roster and six redshirt players bolstering an already senior-laden team. Richmond redshirts even more extensively - their entire first-team offense was either a 5th year senior or redshirted, and only three players on the entire depth chart didn't use a redshirt season.
Looking at Princeton's roster, you do not see the same number of 5th year players and redshirt players as you do at some Ivy League schools. (While the Ivy League has adopted a "no-redshirt" policy, many high-profile players throughout the league have used Ivy League-specific workarounds to allow for 5th year players in many cases.) However, you do see something else - a roster with more than 120 student-athletes on it.
It is not so much that what Villanova, Richmond or Princeton are doing is unfair. They are abiding by NCAA rules and conference rules, which allow them to do these things. But it demonstrates how Patriot League schools, by sitting pat, have put their student-athletes way behind the eight ball.
Redshirting has been around for a very long time, but it had certain restrictions on when you could "burn" your redshirt, as enforced by the NCAA.
In 2018, the NCAA passed an important, but largely overlooked, part of the rule change that set up the now-infamous transfer portal.
Previously, players were given five years to complete four seasons of eligibility – meaning one of those seasons had to be spent without participating in any games, often during a student-athlete’s first year on campus.
The same four-in-five timeline exists, only with a catch: Players can now participate in up to four games in a season and still retain that year of eligibility, a change that promotes “fairness for college athletes,” said Miami (Fla.) athletics director Blake James, chair of the Division I Council.
As always, this redshirt rule was wrapped in the hoary chestnuts of "fairness for college athletes" or "student-athlete opportunities," as they often are. One can debate the merits of whether appearing in one game should blow an athletes' eligibility for an entire year, or if it is just a cynical ploy to expand football rosters further.
But one thing that was a definite consequence: what this rule did was allow other Division I schools, including FCS schools, to explode the number of redshirt athletes they could pack onto their rosters, including 5th year players.
In 2016, Richmond's roster had 12 redshirt seniors on it. In 2021, Richmond has 19 redshirt seniors or graduate students on their roster, as well as the majority of their roster with the word "redshirt" in front of it. To put it in perspective, every junior on their roster has used a redshirt year.
Current Richmond head coach Russ Huesman knew this rule was going to be a big deal for his program. “Come by the office and you’ll see me doing backflips if that thing passes,” he reportedly said.
He also mentioned something that is of importance to Patriot League schools, who, like Richmond, are private (not public) institutions.
Huesman sees the benefits of a modified redshirting policy being very important throughout the FCS, and it stands to reason that private schools, such as Richmond, would be more positively impacted by the proposal’s adoption. Depth is commonly a greater concern at private schools. That’s because of relatively few invited walk-ons at private schools because of higher costs of attendance, and those schools’ reduced ability to attract players on partial scholarships.
Huesman is right that depth is a critical issue at all private schools especially. For Richmond and Villanova, the way they manage injuries and depth is by redshirting players, so that freshman who would originally have had to burn a redshirt year can contribute in up to 3 games and still get a redshirt year.
This is largely the way, especially at private institutions or public institutions with large out-of-state students, manage their rosters. There are still occasionally walk-ons, of course, but the days of massive numbers of walk-ons coming to school to fill out rosters are over, and it's not a roster management strategy.
This is not limited to scholarship schools, either. True non-scholarship schools like San Diego, Valparaiso and Marist of the Pioneer League have no restrictions on redshirting. As a result, their champions have had first-round success in the FCS playoffs. San Diego won first-round games in both 2016 and 2017 against Big Sky schools on the road.
The Patriot League's restrictions on redshirting, practically speaking, has translated into 18-19 year old true sophomores lining up against 22-23 year old men. In the COVID era, where every athlete has the option of a redshirt year, this has made matters even worse and has led to mismatches. Lehigh was outscored 88-6 by both Villanova and Richmond.
For Princeton, they have not extensively managed their rosters though redshirting. The way they've chosen to manage this risk is to expand their roster.
120 team rosters are not typical of FCS schools, thanks to restrictions on athletic aid to football players. FCS schools are limited to the equivalent of 63 scholarships across their roster.
But the Ivy League allows bigger rosters, because the NCAA doesn't consider the aid their football players receive as athletic aid.
Bylaw 15.02.5.1 defines "athletically-related financial aid" as "financial aid that is awarded on any basis that is related to athletics ability, participation or achievement. If an application process specifically requests athletics participation or achievements as criteria for consideration in determining whether an applicant receives financial aid, aid received pursuant to such a process is athletically related financial aid."
The Ivy League, famously, does not offer "athletically-related financial aid." Their policy has been that prospective student-athletes need to get admitted to the school academically, and that the athletes then can apply for the general financial aid from the school.
This is all in accordance to NCAA rules. What complicates matters athletically is that Princeton's financial aid policy for its students is one of the most generous in the world.
When you go to Princeton's financial aid website, you're greeted with a graphic that says "$0-65,000: Families with incomes in this range qualify for a grant to cover full tuition, residential college fee, room and board." "Students admitted to the Class of 2023 who applied for aid with family incomes up to $160,000 typically pay no tuition," says another page on their site.
Not every Princeton student or student-athlete qualifies for this generous aid - aid that most schools, including Lehigh and some fellow Ivy League schools, cannot match. But the fact that the NCAA considers this aid available to all of Princeton's students irrespective of athletics means that every athlete on the team could receive aid if they qualify.
At Princeton, there are recruiting rules that limit the number of recruited athletes per team. But when you look at the 120 team roster, and multiply that by the number on their financial aid website (61% of applicants qualify for financial aid), this would mean - in the most conservative reading possible - there are 71 or more students on the team that are receiving financial aid from the school. The actual number is likely to be higher.
At FBS schools, all athletes that are recruited receive "full rides", meaning all their tuition (and in many cases, full cost of attendance) is paid for through their athletics departments. But those numbers are capped at 85 scholarships per team. At FCS schools, the scholarships can be split, but the overall limit is capped at 63.
Suppose you're a prospective student choosing between a scholarship at, say, Buffalo and a slot on Princeton's roster. In one case, the athletics department is paying for your tuition and you're a counter towards your school's scholarship limit. In the other, the school itself is paying for your tuition and you're not counting towards a scholarship limit. In both cases - you're not paying tuition. How are they different? The answer is they're not, for the students and their families. But to the NCAA they are.
What this means is that Ivy League teams can carry as many athletes on their team as they want - and all those athletes may be eligible to go to Princeton with no tuition cost.
The practical result is that Ivy League schools don't really need to worry about depth. For home games, almost all players can dress and get into the game if required. “Last year we played nine defensive linemen in a game, and we played 20 to 22 guys in a game on defense,” Yale head coach Tony Reno once said, detailing something all other FCS schools cannot realistically do. “So our ability to play our style of aggressive defense was great. We had guys who could play in different packages." As mentioned, some - or all nine - could have been receiving financial aid that effectively means they pay no tuition.
For away games, Ivy League is subject to travel roster size limits of 62 players. But the depth is present in the week of preparation before a game. While not all 120 athletes will make the trip to, say, Lehigh this weekend, it must be very comforting for head coach Bob Surace to know that if his top five RBs all got hurt in practice, he would still have five RB from his roster to play on offense.
At Lehigh, there is a hard limit to the number of 90 athletes. On the current roster, five are listed as running backs.
Again - and I want to emphasize this - Princeton is operating within the rules of the NCAA and the Ivy League. Princeton is doing nothing illegal. The Ivy League is allowed to essentially allow massive amounts of institutional money to go to all students (and there's no limitations if the beneficiaries are football players). The NCAA doesn't consider them counters as long as the aid comes from the school directly and not the athletic department. And it's the Ivy League that chooses to allow Ivy League schools to field as many football players on their teams if they want. The NCAA allows, it, and the Ivy League allows it.
But in my estimation it makes for an unequal playing field for Patriot League schools. Lehigh does not share these same benefits Princeton has. At one time, whatever differences there were didn't seem to matter much. But they seem to be affecting things now. The last time Lehigh went to Princeton in 2018, they lost 66-7.
In a nutshell, Lehigh's first three opponents have some tools to be able to handle the depth required to field competitive FCS football teams - Villanova and Richmond through redshirting, and Princeton through huge rosters. These trends were not totally in place back in 2015, but the CAA and Ivy League took steps to take advantages of these rules as they came out - the CAA allowed its membership to use the new NCAA redshirt rules, and the Ivy League allowed its members to have huge rosters.
Lehigh, and other Patriot League schools did not, and you can argue it's put the league in a straitjacket.
I made this case back in 2019 as well, but it's worth going through again. Since the Patriot League allows athletic aid through the athletic department, it means that the league is limited by the number of athletic scholarships it can offer per year. But since there is a no-redshirt rule, combined with the straitjacket of limited roster sizes, it means that younger players will be pressed into service earlier - and in many cases, against players that have had a significant amount more physical development. This leads to mismatches.
If the Patriot League ditched football scholarships tomorrow and adopted the Ivy League's institutional financial aid model, it would allow Lehigh to circumvent the NCAA's limits on athletic scholarships and allow them to field huge rosters. It would certainly help Lehigh's football problems in regards to depth. But expanding their financial aid to mimic Princeton's would come at a huge financial cost to the overall university. Lehigh does offer a very generous financial aid package to the entire student body who make it through admissions, but it isn't as extensive as Princeton's, who is one of the richest institutions of higher learning in the world.
In 2015, the entire FCS landscape was different. The Ivy League was largely adhering to self-imposed rules on recruiting and roster sizes - those changed. The CAA was adhering to redshirt rules that had the practical effect of limiting the number of extra-year players - that changed. And while those leagues were expanding their rosters and opportunities, the Patriot League was doing the opposite - they were migrating towards restricting rosters and limiting extra-year players. And I firmly believe that explains the sudden, precipitous drop in competitiveness in the league across the board in the last five years.
So what should the Patriot League do?
My thought is the Patriot League should immediately drop its roster restriction of 90 athletes, or at a bare minimum increase the upper limit to at least 100 athletes, while also increasing the number of scholarships to the maximum allowed by FCS, which is 63. This wouldn't solve every problem, but it would at least give Patriot League schools an opportunity to field rosters that are consistent with the CAA 'sand at least approach those of the Ivy League's.
The League should also figure out some way to allow for redshirting of football players, possibly limiting the total number of redshirts but allowing it for a certain number of players. This would at least allow for teams to not have the sort of physical mismatches we have seen too frequently in the last five years with all members of their out-of-conference schedules.
I fail to see how these two moves would compromise the academic integrity of the League in any way, as other FCS schools like Villanova and New Hampshire (both of whom have won APR awards for their football teams) do so with no ill effects. (Additionally, redshirting has been worked out at other FCS schools, like Wofford, so Holy Cross and Lafayette, who don't have graduate schools, have a template to follow.) Other schools have identified this as a problem - including the Pioneer League - and have taken action. Only the Patriot League appears to believe this isn't an issue.
If anything it would be better for the health and safety of the athletes at Patriot League schools, because it would not be 19 year olds going against 22 year olds anymore. This isn't 2015 anymore. The game has evolved and moved on, and it's high time the Patriot League did the same.