Originally posted on The Sports Bank  |  Last updated 1/11/12

As Wes Bynum’s 19-yarder sailed through the desert air to split the uprights and down Oregon in the Tostitos BCS national championship there was no question Auburn was the best team in college football.  There was also no doubt which conference was at the top of the summit.  The cheers of “S-E-C” that rained down like ticker-tape on the Auburn players and coaches was evidence enough.  Fans chanting the conference’s moniker knew, and so did the rest of the nation, the SEC, with victories in the last five national championships, was college football’s king.

Fans, writers and even coaches have sought to explain this domination.  Many pegged blazing SEC speed as the reason, asserting that kids from Florida and Georgia just have better wheels than farm-boys from Ohio and Wisconsin.  For years, that reasoning has been widely accepted, but lately a new explanation has bubbled to the surface: oversigning.

By: Jeff Beck

Unlike the speed argument, which the SEC has welcomed with open arms, the act of signing more athletes to scholarships than the team has room for has been the dirty secret of the conference and college football for years.   Oversigning gives teams an unfair advantage and hurts athletes whose promise of a scholarship is broken in the wake of a coach’s pursuit of a championship. While hardware has been piling up in the Southeastern Conference lately, so have recruits.  The SEC has been the biggest offender of oversigning for the past five years.

In any given year, a team is allowed a total of 85 players on scholarship, and is only able to bring in 25 new recruits signed to a scholarship at the start of each season. The act of oversigning occurs when coaches hand out more scholarships than they have room for on their roster

Andy Staples, a writer for Sports Illustrated, compiled a team-by-team list of new signee class sizes for 120 FBS teams over the past five years.  What he found is that 25 teams averaged more than 25 signees per season over the five-year period.  While other conferences, particularly the Big 12, took part in oversigning, eight of the 25 offenders came out of the SEC, more than any other conference.  Even more damning is that six of the top 10 oversigners on the list were SEC schools.

So how does oversigning work?  Let’s say a team has 75 players on scholarship, meaning that particular team only has room for 10 players in their scholarship budget before they hit the 85-scholarship limit.  If the team extends scholarships to more than 10 recruits in that year, then they must cut players to make room for each player signed over the 85-scholarship limit.

Often a cut takes the form of a coach telling a signed recruit that a previously promised scholarship is no longer available.  The news might arrive after a recruit has moved into a dorm or has started taking classes on campus, as was the case with Elliot Porter, an offensive lineman recruited to play for LSU in 2010.  When LSU oversigned by three players, they released Porter from his scholarship, according to NBC sports. Porter was lucky; he was picked up by the University of Kentucky.

Others aren’t as fortunate.  Since scholarships are renewed annually, a player already in the system can have his scholarship cut unexpectedly to make room for a more talented incoming recruit.  Often the cast-aside player will not be afforded the luxury of an offer from another team.

Another method for getting under the limit is asking a player already offered a scholarship to grayshirt.  The NCAA says that a player has five calendar years to complete four seasons of play.  A coach can ask a player to pay for school for the first year, workout on their own, and then receive their scholarship the following year.  That player is not counted toward the scholarship total until the following season, even though they are already on campus and committed to playing for the team. But grayshirting is a risky business for the player because there is no guarantee a coach will stick to his promise of a scholarship next season.

Finally, there is the medical hardship, where a team can declare a player medically ineligible, take them off of their football scholarship and put them on a medical hardship scholarship.  The player will still have his education paid for, but his football scholarship is freed up for another player.  A September Wall Street Journal piece chronicled the plight of three ex-Alabama players who claim they were pressured into taking medical hardship scholarships by head coach Nick Saban and his staff in order to make room for more talented recruits.  The players say they were forced to take these scholarships even though their injuries were not significant enough to be taken off of the team.

These off-field practices offer the SEC a significant on-field advantage.  When a team oversigns, they have more room for failure in the recruiting and evaluation process.  If you oversign by six players, you can then cut six players that didn’t perform as expected before the season starts.  On the other hand, the Big Ten, which has banned the practice, must live with the players they sign, regardless of their on-field maturation.  It’s simple: if you collect more players in your recruiting pool, you have more talent to choose from.

The SEC moved to crack down on the practice in May of 2009, limiting each of its schools to 28 signees per class. But last year, Auburn still managed to sign 32 players to scholarship. The NCAA followed suit this year and announced that it would limit all teams to 28 signees between national signing day, Feb. 2, and May 31.

But Staples says the rule is mere window-dressing.  He believes teams will find a way around the restriction like Auburn did in 2010, by bringing players in early and adding to their signing total before the Feb. 2 date.  2011 signing numbers indicate he is correct.  Five of the top 25 recruiting classes listed on Scout.com have more than 28 commits, and two of them, South Carolina (32 signees) and Arkansas (30 signees) are SEC schools.

While there may not be an easy answer to the oversigning dilemma, it needs to be discussed.  Increasingly national sportswriters have shed light on the subject, and a watchdog group, oversigning.com, has made exposing the practice its sole cause.   The hope is that with increased coverage, the NCAA will be forced to draft a rule that closes the loopholes and hands out real consequences for teams that choose to oversign.

When Auburn took the field to play Oregon for all of the Tostitos last January they did so having signed 23 more players to letters of intent than Oregon had over the past five years.   Four of Auburn’s past five classes had signed over the 25 -player limit, including the class that brought in Heisman trophy winner Cam Newton. The victory further legitimized what the SEC knows better than any conference in college football.  Oversigning wins championships.

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