April 7, 2011

Oversigning and the Big Ten: Walking a Fine Line Between Hypocrisy and Reasonable Solutions

Oversigning. If you're reading this or any sports blog that has even a remote connection to college football, you've heard the word. It refers to the seemingly common practice of some schools and conferences to sign more players in a given recruiting class than there are scholarships available. As outlined in a recent Detroit News story, the most blatant perpetrators come from the Southeastern Conference.
Over the last 10 years, the SEC has averaged 25.2 signed recruits per season among its 12 institutions, according to statistics compiled by The Detroit News from data on Rivals.com.

25.2 per year might not sound like much, but consider the nature of the college football scholarship system. Each player, barring the uncommon sixth year of eligibility, has five years to play four seasons of college football. In 2011, Penn State will have scholarship players ranging from true freshmen to redshirt seniors (and even one likely candidate for a sixth year of eligibility in Pete Massaro). By the current count, Penn State has 87 scholarship players, a topic for a later debate, but transfers and injuries make the 85 scholarship limit easily within reach.

By contrast, with the 25.2 average, each SEC school has, on average, 126 scholarship players! Now we all know that's not true; none of these schools actually have 126 scholarship players. Early departure to the NFL, "medical hardships" and JUCO transfers cause that number to be slightly inflated. But you can see how averaging 25.2 scholarships per year can get a school into hot water quickly. That is, if the NCAA really did anything about these numbers.

Oversigning has been around a long time, but it is just now getting to be a hot button issue, one that hopefully pervades the spring and summer conference meetings and social commentary around the country. However, the issue is not solely an SEC problem.

Beginning in 2003, the Big Ten, which some view as the strictest among the six automatic BCS qualifying conferences in terms of recruiting, allows member schools to oversign by three players per year. Schools must comply with strict monitoring regulations, but once they show the league office that they can fit 20 scholarships, they are permitted to sign 23 recruits. The rationale behind this, according to Big Ten associate commissioner Chad Hawley, is competitive advantage.
"It's just logical to think that if we're playing five-card stud and I get five cards, and you get dealt eight cards, you're going to be in a better position. I think that's a pretty decent analogy. We haven't focused on the competitive impact and, frankly, we've been pleased that this issue has picked up speed as a topic of conversation nationally."
Some people, however, don't see it that way, and view any form of oversigning as wrong. Marc Bailey, Director of Business Development for Oversigning.com, told Linebacker-U that "[w]e regard oversigning in any quantity in any institution as an exploitation and we oppose it. We are disgusted by the excesses of the SEC but we don't like the way the Big Ten is beginning to waiver on its historical ban on the practice."

As I outlined here, Penn State has 72 scholarship players in spring camp, with 15 more expected in the fall. It doesn't take a math major to see that Penn State must lose two scholarships somewhere. Whether that comes from transfers (Bolden, Newsome), medical hardships (Szczerba), or some other form of attrition remains speculation.

Linebacker-U will have more on this topic throughout the offseason, but we hope, for everyone involved, especially the exploited recruits and their unsuspecting loved ones, this topic remains on the front burner. With little football to discuss for four months, the summer commentary undoubtedly turns to some major topic (see 2010's obsession with conference expansion/implosion/creation). Here's to making oversigning 2011's ExpansionGate.

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