“I can tell you this,” Bielema said in February 2012, according to Matt Hayes of the Sporting News. “We at the Big Ten don’t want to be like the SEC—in any way, shape or form.”
The old-school Big Ten may have had that attitude, but with Urban Meyer leading the new school of coaching in the conference, things appear to be trending toward utilizing more SEC-like practices in recruiting.
One practice in particular, oversigning, is close to becoming prevalent in the Big Ten.
The one difference is, oversigning as it's known in the SEC has been outlawed in the Big Ten since 1956. However, since 2002 there has been a bit of a change in how schools can recruit in the B1G.
As Andy Staples of SI.com pointed out in 2011, the Big Ten imposes its own rule that's a bit easier to understand than the NCAA's or that of other conferences:
The Big Ten has no issue with oversigning because it banned the practice in 1956. The conference actually loosened its rule in 2002 to allow schools to oversign by three players, but even that rule is drastically different from the NCAA rule now in effect. According to Big Ten associate commissioner Chad Hawley, schools are allowed three over the 85-man limit, not the annual 25-man limit. If, for example, Michigan ends a season with 20 open scholarship spots, then Michigan may sign 23 players. No more.
If a Big Ten program chooses to oversign, Hawley said, it then must document exactly how it came under the 85-scholarship limit. That way, coaches are less likely to cut a player who has done nothing wrong other than fail to live up to his recruiting hype. "If you've oversigned, you're going to have to report back to the conference," Hawley said. "Come the fall, you're going to have to explain how you came into compliance."
So while the practice of signing, say, 33 players in a single year (looking at you, Auburn of 2011) regardless of the open scholarships is not possible, Big Ten teams can oversign by three players based on open scholarship numbers.
However, even going above the open scholarship limit was a practice long frowned upon by the old guard in the Big Ten. Guys like Kirk Ferentz or Barry Alvarez weren't ones to oversign, and most of the time schools followed suit.
Ironically, Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel exemplified the prevailing thought in the Big Ten, telling Staples, "If you oversign and then get yourself caught in a predicament where a guy [doesn't have a scholarship], what are you going to do when you've got too many?"
Part of the difference is cultural in nature. The Big Ten and junior college transfers weren't very frequent and aren't all that common even today.
Oversigning players and being able to have them fall back on junior colleges in the area just isn't an option in most of the Midwest the way it has been out West or down South.
The other big change is the lack of long-term coaches in the Big Ten anymore. It just so happens that since Meyer's arrival in Columbus, the Big Ten coaching fraternity has turned into a young man's club.
Just four coaches currently at Big Ten schools have ever seen a full recruiting class of their own come and go on campus—Iowa's Kirk Ferentz (entering his 16th year), Michigan State's Mark Dantonio (entering his eighth year), Nebraska's Bo Pelini (entering his seventh year) and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald (entering his ninth year).
Just how much is the landscape changing? Well, here is how the Big Ten looked prior to Meyer's arrival at Ohio State:
oversigners.com and 247sports.com
(Nebraska kept off the list because it had different set of rules in Big 12.)
While numbers of scholarships are always fluid with injuries, players quitting, academics and much more, it's hard not to notice the shift in the Big Ten since the arrival of Meyer, and seven other new coaches, to the conference.
Of the seven schools (Penn State's sanctions make this calculation impossible) with new coaches over the last four years, only Minnesota and Wisconsin (which could change with a few more commitments in this class) have yet to sign more total players than they did the four years before this class.
To be fair, Meyer isn't alone in pushing the Big Ten to its limits. Over the course of the last three years, 11 of the 21 classes for those new coaching staffs have been larger than the class four years before it.
Wisconsin has 24 recruits in this class already and could add as many as three or four more names by national signing day. Should that happen, the Badgers have just oversigned as well—something they haven't done by the numbers since the 2008 class.
Other schools are getting close to that territory as well, including Penn State, which currently has 21 commitments, which is over the NCAA-imposed 20-scholarship limit. That means someone needs to grayshirt or leave the program for the numbers to work.
However, Ohio State has pushed the signing envelope more than any other team, and the 2014 class is a great example of that.
Some forget that Ohio State still has a reduced scholarship limit on the team (82 instead of the normal 85) thanks to the sanctions from "Tattoogate."
For the 2014 class, that limit has been hit with the verbal commitment of offensive lineman Brady Taylor. However, the Buckeyes continue to go after a few key prospects.
Is oversigning here to stay in the Big Ten?
What happens if those prospects chose to accept the Buckeyes' offer? You guessed it—Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes will enter oversigning territory for at least the second season in Meyer's three classes at OSU.
Conversely, only twice have the numbers not lined up for the three coaches (remember Nebraska wasn't under B1G rules until 2011) who have seen a full recruiting class go through. Iowa signed 20 players in 2009 while signing 23 for the 2013 class—but that's the exception to the rule for the longer-tenured coaches in the B1G.
While the current structure of the Big Ten doesn't allow for true SEC-style oversigning, it's clear that the new breed of coach in the Big Ten is much more willing to push the limit.
A lot of this movement has to do with following the trend set by one Urban Meyer, and it remains to be seen if this continued trend will bring what everyone dreams of—a national championship.