Generally speaking, I think that Big Ten fans make too much out of oversigning because they have a psychological need to dismiss the SEC’s recent dominance. It can’t be that SEC programs sit in more talent-rich states, a disparity that will only get worse as current population shifts continue, and place a greater emphasis on hiring coaches with top resumes. No, let’s dismiss all of that and instead infer that an unethical practice employed by SEC coaches must explain the difference. I can imagine Nick Saban bellowing “you need people like me so you can point your fuckin' fingers and say, ‘That's the bad guy.’ So ... what that make you? Good?”
That said, John Pennington’s attempt to show that oversigning does not produce a competitive advantage (HT: Blutarsky) seems weak to me. The teams that have the greatest incentive to oversign are the middle class or lower class programs that struggle to recruit top players and therefore have to make up with quantity what they cannot acquire in quality. Thus, we would expect that the most successful teams in the conference would not oversign because they don’t have to do so. Therefore, looking at results and recruiting quantities is a fool’s errand because Pennington is not normalizing for program status. In other words, if Florida signs 85 players over a four-year period and Ole Miss signs 105, we wouldn’t expect Ole Miss to have a better record because the extra players will not trump all of the other advantages that Florida has over Ole Miss.
The Big Ten illustrates this perfectly. Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State have sufficient prestige that they do not need to engage in oversigning because they generally have dibs on the best players in the Midwest. Having to compete with these more popular programs, the proletariat of the Big Ten then needs to sign more players, but signing additional players doesn’t trump all the other advantages that the Big Ten elite have. This doesn’t mean that oversigning isn’t an advantage; it just means that it is one of a number of potential advantages and it can get trumped.
Where Big Ten fans have a point is here: as between elite programs, oversigning is an advantage. It’s one thing for Ohio State to play Arkansas, a team with a limited recruiting base and a medium recruiting profile. Ohio State has numerous advantages over Arkansas, so all things being equal, Ohio State should expect to bring more talent to the table. It’s another thing for Ohio State to play LSU or Alabama – teams with similar profiles and recruiting bases – and then to have to deal with the Tide and Tigers having the extra advantage of their coaches having signed more players and cut guys who did not pan out. This has always been my point about oversigning: LSU and Alabama have no business engaging in the practice and they deserve the media criticism they get on the subject.