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February 6, 2011

Column: The real reasons why oversigning is an issue

On face value it's a simple assumption to make, that the practice of oversigning in college football is wrong and a clear attempt to get around the rules mandating that 25 players can be added to the roster each year and only 85 may be on scholarship at a given time.

That's the latest rallying cry against University of Alabama coach Nick Saban, who has become the prominent face of the issue because he may be better at jam-packing his roster than anyone.

Only Saban hasn't violated any rules and no one's been able to prove that he's even been callous except when asked about it during press conferences.

"When you look at the numbers without knowing all the facts and internal information, I think that is a little premature and unfair," Saban said last week. "Then for people to go out and use that against you in recruiting is even more unfair."

Andy Staples of SI.com recently added up the numbers and found that over the past five years Alabama has signed an average of 26.6 players per class. Those with a higher average over the same time period were Troy (32.8), Ole Miss (29), Auburn (28.8), Mississippi State (27.6), Kansas State (27.4), Temple (27.2), Southern Miss (27), Arkansas (26.8) and Kentucky (26.8).

All but three of those schools are within easy driving distance with five in the Southeastern Conference. If you're wondering about LSU, the Tigers averaged 26.2, and UAB was at 25.8 - so every program in the state has oversigned.
Ah, but Saban forces players out, critics claim, or rather assume.

B.J. Scott, the latest to leave the Crimson Tide by transferring to South Alabama, didn't say anything like that on his way out. His high school coach wasn't screaming at the top of his lungs and his family wasn't pointing fingers through the media.

Although Scott was rated the 28th prospect in the nation in 2008 and helped the Crimson Tide land other top recruits, he never landed a starting job and obviously wanted more playing time.

The two guys ahead of him were Dre Kirkpatrick, the No. 11 prospect in 2009, and DeMarcus Milliner, 23rd last year.

That's not to suggest that everyone who has left Alabama recently did so under such circumstances. With some there have been other factors, like they got in trouble or didn't keep up academically. We don't know because not only due to privacy issues Saban chooses not to take aim publicly even on those dismissed from the team.

But here are two very important facts that should be considered.

1) Scholarships are not guaranteed for four years.

That's not just for athletes, but in general.

We'll pick a random academic scholarship on the university's website, from the Alabama American Legion: "Offers the first place winner at the state level a four-year renewable tuition scholarship and the second and third place winner at the state level a $ 1,000 scholarship. Students must meet the university admission standards and maintain a 3.0 GPA or higher to be eligible for renewal."

In other words, if you don't perform at a certain level, or meet expectations, you're done.

What's the football equivalent of a 3.0 GPA?

2) No school has a 100 percent success rate.

Alabama's six-year graduation rate is 65 percent. It only makes sense that a recruiting class should be comparable _ at least that's the expectation since the NCAA starting keeping track of the Academic Progress Rate (APR).

For our purposes we'll go back to the Class of 2008, which many consider the best in Crimson Tide history.

Have gone pro (4): Terrence Cody, nose tackle; Marcell Dareus, defensive end; Mark Ingram, running back; Julio Jones, wide receiver.

Regular starters (7): Mark Barron, safety; Don't'a Hightower, linebacker; Barrett Jones, right guard; Robert Lester, defensive back; Damion Square, defensive lineman; Courtney Upshaw, linebacker; Michael Williams, tight end.

Contributors (10): Undra Billingsley, tight end; John Michael Boswell, offensive guard; Robby Green, defensive back (suspended 2010); Jerrell Harris, linebacker; Chris Jordan, linebacker; Brandon Lewis, defensive lineman (via junior college); Tyler Love, offensive tackle; Kerry Murphy, defensive lineman; Wesley Neighbors, defensive back; Brad Smelley, tight end.

Has not played (1): Glenn Harbin, defensive end/linebacker.

No longer on the team (7): Chris Jackson, wide receiver (transfer to Georgia Tech); Star Jackson, quarterback (transfer to Georgia State); Alonzo Lawrence, cornerback (transfer to Southern Miss); Ivan Matchett, running back (medical scholarship); Jermaine Preyear, running back (transfer to Alabama State); B.J. Scott, cornerback (transfer to South Alabama); Corey Smith, kicker (transfer to West Virginia).

Never arrived (3): Devonta Bolton, linebacker (junior college); Destin Hood, wide receiver (pro baseball); Melvin Ray, wide receiver (pro baseball).

With seven departures and three more having never arrived, that original 32 is looking a lot smaller, with the other 22 making up just under 69 percent of the class.

It would be pretty silly of coaches to recruit under the assumption that every player will work out, which even the Big Ten agrees. Although the conference banned the practice of oversigning it loosened the rule in 2002 to allow three extra players beyond the number of those being lost.

Don't be surprised if that idea is adopted nationwide in the near future, although there would be some negative side effects. In addition to limiting how coaches might sign players struggling academically and then place them in junior colleges/prep schools, or taking a chance on those who are considering playing another sport professionally, it could lead to fewer grayshirts.

Despite Florida president Bernie Machen's recently blasting the practice calling it "morally reprehensible," waiting a semester to enroll can at times be a good thing, just ask John Parker Wilson or Drew Davis, or someone who first had to get his priorities right.

Consequently, the real issue most critics have with Saban is that he doesn't feel the need to be accountable to them, especially when it may not be in his best interest. But that's the way it's going to be. As long as Saban continues to hold his roster numbers as tight as a poker hand, uses it as a disciplinary tool and anticipates that there will always be departures he's going to be open to attacks.

So be it.

The bottom line is that Alabama football, like everything else, is above all else an opportunity for everyone involved _ recruits, players and even coaches. Like in life there are no guarantees, except for death and taxes, of course.


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