Oversigning is an issue that has been creeping up in prominence over the last couple of seasons, and with pieces like the SI article I highlighted earlier this week, it seems to be gaining critical mass this year. It's a very complex issue with many layers of nuance.
As a result, it's very easy to make any kind of argument that you want by limiting your scope of coverage. Here are ways to talk about oversigning that I've seen, and what's right and wrong about them.
BAD: Looking at raw numbers
The most common approach is to put together numbers like what you see in this chart. It's a table of how many players that each I-A program has signed over the last five years with an average given.
That's a nice way to dip your toe in the waters of the oversigning issue, but it's very limited in view.
The benchmark is usually 25 scholarships per year, the limit allowed by the NCAA. Above 25 is bad; 25 or below is good. That kind of thinking is woefully inadequate though. Redshirts extend the expected scholarship length for a player from four years to five. Junior college transfers and prep school transfers reduce the expected scholarship length from four years to three or two. Those raw numbers are misleading at best and useless at worst.
Of course, putting together such a chart using a recruiting database is fairly easy. That's probably why people do it.
BETTER: Adjusting for complexities
All right then, how do we make that table better? By adjusting for the number of JUCO and prep school transfers who come in with fewer than four years of eligibility. If a guy comes in with two years of eligibility, make him worth 0.5, and assign a value of 0.75 to the players who come in with three years of eligibility.
Schools like Ole Miss and Kansas State tend to look bad in the overall charts, but they also sign more JUCO transfers than most schools. I'm not trying to defend Houston Nutt's 37-member class from a couple years ago, but the point is, they're naturally going to sign more players thanks to those higher JUCO numbers.
BEST: Go on a year-by-year, case-by-case basis
The best way to go about quantifying oversigning is probably the Oversigning Cup method currently found on oversigning.com. I'm not giving a blanket endorsement to the site, as it has issues with number accuracy and bias as pointed out by And the Valley Shook.
Anyway, the approach is to look at the number of scholarship players at the end of a season, and then subtract out graduating seniors, early draft entrants, and all players who transfer before signing day. However much lower than 85 that number is, that's the "budget" for the class. If a coach signs more players than are in that budget, then they have oversigned.
Looking at the budget overages and shortfalls over time is probably the best way to quantify things, but that's more complicated than just copying and pasting numbers from Rivals or Scout. For most programs, the data are simply not readily available prior to this year. In short, it's impossible to do this kind of analysis over a sufficient number of years for a sufficient number of programs to make any broad, valid conclusions. Plus, quantitative analysis alone doesn't cover everything, so making a perfect numerical chart wouldn't cover everything anyway.
There are other ways of doing investigation. Take, for example, the Wall Street Journal's inspection of the use of medical hardships and how Alabama gives out more of them than any other program. I know that rebuttals to that piece have come from all over the Alabama blogosphere, many of which came to the conclusion that the medical hardship scholarships were fair and justified.
If that's true, then why not investigate what it is about Alabama's program that causes more players to become medically unfit to play football than most programs? Or is it just that Alabama's standards are different? Are the coaches and doctors there more in tune with medical research into when to sit a player down for good? Or are the coaches just more willing to give out medical hardships than other coaches?
As you can see, if you didn't already know, oversigning is a complex issue. Coaches can easily oversign year after year without doing anything sketchy thanks to JUCO transfers, early NFL draft entrants, and applying harsh justice to law breakers (an action the media that demonizes oversigning nearly always celebrates). They can also mistreat players without necessarily running up against the 85 scholarship limit.
Oversigning is an issue that's here to stay. It's going to be discussed and dissected every year. Hopefully each passing season will raise the standards for the discourse, not just the volume of it.