EA Sports NCAA Football was released on July 9, 2013. The 17th video game installment of NCAA Football, and 21st overall installment after launching as Bill Walsh College Football in 1993) featured former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Since Robinson became the third Wolverine on the cover, Michigan football is tied for 34th nationally in total wins, is 0-6 vs. Ohio State, hasn’t sniffed a Big Ten Championship, and is routinely buried in college football national championship odds. It’s time for a change … for Michigan and everyone else.
On Tuesday morning, after an eight-year hiatus, during which the landscape of college athletics was flipped upside down with, among other things, name, image, and likeness (NIL) lawsuits and rulings, EA Sports announced the return of the highly popular video game series. They didn’t, however, announced a release date for the next installment, now called EA Sports College Football.
“For now, EA Sports is planning to move forward without rosters that include the names, images, or likenesses of real college players,” ESPN’s Michael Rothstein reported. “Current NCAA rules prohibit athletes from selling their NIL rights while in college.
“However, those rules are likely to be changed at some point in the coming year -- by the NCAA, state legislatures or Congress. It's not yet clear whether the evolving rules will allow for the kind of group licensing arrangements that would be needed for EA Sports to negotiate with athletes to use their names in the game.”
If EA Sports releases a game before NIL rules and laws change, the next game won’t feature a cover athlete. It could feature a stadium, mascot (like one version of the 2009 game did), or other non-player-specific images. Maybe they’ll be allowed to feature a cover athlete in 2022.
Quarterbacks dominated the first two decades of covers; twelve of 25 covers (not including the 2009 cover of Michigan State’s mascot) featured a quarterback. Running backs rank second (six), followed by receivers (four), defensive back (one), defensive end (one), and fullbacks (one). From 1997-2008, EA Sports released only one cover. In 2009, they released five different covers, followed by four in 2010 before a return to one from 2011-14.
After the game was rebranded NCAA Football in 1997 (for NCAA Football 98), the cover never featured a current player. The player was always at least one year removed from college football. New NIL laws may change that. If so, and if the first game with a cover athlete is released in 2022, who might land the cover?
Eligibility freebies in 2020 make this a more challenging process. Several headliner players might have remaining eligibility but opt for early NFL declaration. Bryce Young won’t leave college football before the 2022 season. A five-star dual-threat quarterback in the 2020 class, Young was the nation’s second-ranked recruit and appeared in seven games as a true freshman. Listed among the 2021 Heisman favorites despite only 22 career pass attempts, Young is destined for two seasons of stardom, the first of which could land him the cover of EA Sports College Football.
Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei and Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud are the other two clear favorites.
If Spencer Rattler returns for a fourth season, his third as Oklahoma starting quarterback, he’ll sit alongside Young, Uiagalelei, and Stroud, as a clear favorite. Same for North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell and Georgia quarterback JT Daniels. Rattler and Howell enter 2021 with three years of remaining eligibility while Daniels has two after playing two seasons with USC before last year’s freebie year at Georgia.
It wasn’t often that EA Sports picked players from down-ballot or Group of Five teams but it did happen, including Boise State quarterback Jared Zabransky for NCAA Football 98. If they pass on a blue-blood star or release multiple covers, UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel, Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels, and Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall could make a shortlist.
Iowa State’s Breece Hall could lead a running back group if he’s back in 2022. Others: Clemson’s Lyn-J Dixon, North Carolina’s Javonte Williams, Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams, Texas A&M’s Isaiah Spiller, Texas’ Bijan Robinson, and Utah’s Ty Jordan.
Elsewhere, LSU receiver Kayshon Boutte could be in the mix before declaring for the 2023 draft, as could Oklahoma receiver Marvin Mims. Same for Clemson defensive tackle Bryan Bresee, Alabama defensive end Will Anderson, Alabama defensive back Malachi Moore, and Clemson defensive end Myles Murphy.
And a few 2021 recruits: Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams, Georgia quarterback Brock Vandagriff, and Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord.
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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor by BetMGM, an NFL college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @DoughtyBetMGM