Saturday, July 10, 2010

And the hits just keep on comin'

Here's a brief and chronological summary of things that happened to USC this week:

1. Junior defensive end Malik Jackson, a rotational player with 3.5 sacks last season, announced that he's transferring to Tennessee.
2. Seantrel Henderson was released from his letter of intent and signed with Miami.
3. USC issued letters of apology to five schools for claiming that they had inappropriately contacted freshman running back Dillon Baxter (which apparently never happened).
4. Junior fullback D.J. Shoemate, a former running back/receiver who's played sparingly in the past two seasons, announced that he's transferring to UConn.
5. The AFCA announced that USC is ineligible for this season's coaches' poll.
6. Redshirt freshman Byron Moore, listed as the backup at strong safety heading into fall camp, left the program and enrolled at a juco.

Wwwwhheeeeeee!!! A couple thoughts:

* On the surface, it doesn't look like the aforementioned transfers (Jackson, Shoemate and Moore) are particularly harmful. But this is what I said after the NCAA came down with the hammer of death a month ago:
Think about this: Since the NCAA recruiting-class limit is 25 players, USC's yearly limit has now been cut to 15. In 2014, there will be -- at the absolute most -- 45 non-freshmen on the roster (I suppose there could be a few fifth-year seniors still around, but I don't see how USC will be able to afford to redshirt anybody with that sort of personnel deficit).
Every player who transfers leaves a hole that has to be filled by somebody. And if it's a freshman, that's just one more guy who won't be around in five years when USC has half a roster.

That's obviously why Henderson's loss was so devastating: The sure-fire four-year starters are the ones USC absolutely must have in order to stay elite. There will be no depth, no more position battles between four former five-star recruits. Almost every recruit needs to turn into a good player or there will be a complete hole at some spot on the roster (the funny thing is that since Henderson eventually did sign his letter of intent, he took a scholarship that could have gone to someone else in this past recruiting class).

So when USC fans try to explain that so-and-so wasn't that good anyway and only left because he couldn't get regular playing time, just remind them that you'll be pointing at their depth chart and laughing in about three years.

* I'm torn on the idea of not allowing a team to be ranked. On one hand, it makes sense that a team that's ineligible for the BCS shouldn't get a ranking. Why does it matter how good people think they are when they can't play in a bowl anyway? On the other hand, the sole purpose of every week's poll except the season-ending one is to compare teams. If USC is 8-2 on November 27 and loses to an 8-3 Notre Dame team, I'd like to know how the coaches think that win stacks up. Did ND just beat the #10 team in the country or the #20 team? That difference could mean a lot to an opponent in terms of both ranking and bowl placement.

My solution: Now that the BCS is the determining factor for everything, allow every team to be ranked but simply remove any ineligible ones from the BCS standings. That still achieves the primary goal ... or at least what I think is the primary goal. If the goal is to embarrass USC a little more by not even acknowledging their existence on the field during their two years in college football's version of timeout, then yes, ignoring them in the coaches' poll is probably the way to go.

* The Dillon Baxter situation is just flat-out weird. To recap: Baxter informs USC's director of compliance on June 11 that he's been contacted by five schools about transferring. This is against NCAA rules, as freshmen are not eligible to transfer without penalty. USC then sends a letter to the Pac-10 and NCAA seeking to remind the five schools (Alabama, Florida, Fresno State, Washington and Oregon) that freshmen are not to be contacted. All five receive a letter informing them of such. A month later, they all receive letters of apology after USC announces that Baxter “has now confirmed that he did not receive a call from your institution."

Ummm ... so did he or didn't he? I've been trying to wrap my head around the whole scenario and just can't figure it out. If he wasn't contacted by those schools -- and he named them specifically -- why would he make it up? I don't see what the motivation would be. And if he was, why did he back down? There would be proof via cell phone records and/or text messages, so it's not like it'd just be his word against a bunch of athletic departments and lawyers.

Michael Lev at the Orange County Register threw out this idea:
A colleague of mine came up with a theory, which goes like this: At the time, all five schools seemed like prime candidates to poach USC juniors and seniors who could transfer without having to sit out a year per the NCAA sanctions. (We subsequently learned that they couldn’t go to other Pac-10 schools.) So if you’re USC and you’re concerned about that, why not float a story that might cause those potential poachers to back off?
Ehhhh ... maybe. It's plausible but a little far-fetched. If you're looking to scare away poachers, this seems way too complicated. Think about it. "OK, let's go to a freshman and have him come up with a story about how he's been contacted by these teams, which they can't do. But we can't just announce it -- it'll have to go through compliance, and then they'll have to file a complaint. Then the NCAA will tell those schools to back off and everybody else will be too scared to mess with us 'cause we're USC!" Sounds like a brilliant plan except for the 500 things that could go wrong AND the fact that it wouldn't stop any of those schools from contacting whichever juniors or seniors they wanted. Lane Kiffin might be sleazy enough to come up with something like that, but again, I don't really see what the point would be. And this theory seems really unlikely in light of the news that Tennessee faxed the USC coaching staff a list of every junior and senior on the roster, implying that the Vols would be recruiting all of them. If any school was in line for a warning shot, it was Tennessee.

The only logical explanation I can come up with is that Baxter was contacted by players for those teams but not necessarily representatives (read: coaches). Keep in mind that Baxter was a big-time recruit from San Diego; it's probably safe to assume that he knows somebody -- former teammates, former opponents, buddies from combines and camps, etc. -- on just about every D-I roster. And I imagine that there were a whole lot of texts and Facebook messages to USC players on June 10 saying something like "Dude, I can't believe what happened to you guys. You should come play with me." Except their messages had more typos and crazy words those damn kids use.

He probably got some texts and told the coaches about it, and the staff interpreted that as inappropriate contact. When USC actually investigated and realized that it was just talk between players and not contact initiated by coaches or boosters or administrators, they had to back away from the original claim without going into too much detail. The coaches can't just come out and admit that they told Baxter to report something that wasn't really a violation; they'd be hit with the NCAA equivalent of filing a false police report. Yeah, it's petty, but USC can't afford even the slightest hint of violations right now.

I could be completely wrong about the whole thing, of course. But when it comes to weird stories that are missing a big chunk out of the middle, Occam's Razor is our friend.

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