In which an SEC school that is not Vanderbilt vies for academic superiority, with predictable results.
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Just to clear up some of the debate, as it were, over five-star OMG all-everything wide receiver DeAndre Brown's shocking commitment to Southern Miss over LSU and Ole Miss over the weekend. There is no precedent for my alma mater beating out any SEC school for a target of Brown's caliber, even one in its own back yard, and Monday I chronicled a small sampling of LSU fans' initial disbelief. Because it's no secret Brown is a grades risk who is not guaranteed to be eligible next fall - he's certainly not ineligible at this point, but he has to make his test scores before he can enroll in the fall semester - their dismissal predictably centered on Brown's grades. See:
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Emphasis added (Hat tip: Reader and frequent commenter Shawn)
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Here are the NCAA's basic eligibility guidelines for incoming freshmen. If you go to the linked page, specific required core courses are outlined in detail, as is the sliding scale used for Division I athletes to determine the ACT or SAT score necessary to qualify with a given GPA; the lowest possible GPA is a 2.000, if the test scores are good, and a kid can basically bomb the tests if his GPA is above a 3.000.
For our purposes, though, the specifics don't matter - it's what the standards don't specify: the only distinction made between tiers of programs is between Division I and Division II. It doesn't even specify between schools classified as I-A and I-AA (FBS and FCS, in NCAA parlance), much less between schools in different conferences within those classifications.
So from the NCAA's perspective, the eligibility standards for Southern Miss and LSU are exactly the same. If there is a higher or lower academic standard at either school, it's imposed by the institution itself. Here are general freshman admissions requirements for Southern Miss; here are the requirements at LSU. The latter, despite listing "recommended" scores for the average student, does not have a minimum GPA, but the minimum ACT score for all students entering LSU is an 18. Southern Miss uses a sliding scale: for students with a 3.2 GPA or higher, pretty much any ACT score will do, as long as there is one and it's not in the single digits. For a 2.5-3.1 GPA, it takes a 16 ACT; for a 2.0-2.4 GPA, the minimum ACT is an 18. Under these guidelines, the only way Brown could be eligible at USM but not LSU is with a GPA above 2.5 and a composite ACT within a two-point window, i.e. a 16 or 17. I don't know Brown's grades or test scores, but if he is currently within this sliver of a gray area that leaves him eligible to enroll at USM but not LSU, he would still have months (probably the summer as well) to make up one or two points on the test needed to play for the Tigers. LSU (or any other school) would never pass on a kid it wanted under these circumstances, and it is foolish and deserved to lose him if it did. If Brown's GPA is between a 2.0 and 2.5, which makes him an enrollment risk at both schools (again, LSU lists no minimum GPA), the minimum ACT score (18) is the same for both.
Re: partial qualifiers, per the Southern Miss athletic department's Director of Academics, Stacy Breazelle:
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As for C-USA, I was told flatly, "Conference USA doesn't have a specific policy as it relates to non-qualifiers. We default to institutional standards," meaning the individual schools can seek a waiver per NCAA rules. The institutional standard at Southern Miss in the past is pretty clear: USM has not allowed a "partial qualifier" or any player through any alternate admissions route since joining Conference USA. Larry Fedora might be planning to break this precedent with Brown (which is fine by me), but the same route is available to LSU - not that anyone is in any position to make that leap right now, anyway, as noted by my C-USA source:
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I'd like to stress this point. Rivals.com's recruiting database goes back to 2002. The number of five-star commitments to Conference USA during that span prior to Brown: zero. The number of five-star commitments to the Mountain West during that span: three, all Mormons to BYU, and none of them since 2004 (and one of which, Ben Olson, is now at UCLA after bailing on the Cougars following his mission). The number of five-star commitments to the MAC: zero; prior to landing a couple four-star guys this year, the conference went five years without signing a single prospect rated above a three-star. The number of five-star commitments to the WAC: one, a JUCO linebacker returning home to Hawaii in 2002; the WAC, too, has now gone three full recruiting cycles without signing a single four-star prospect.
In other words, there is no precedent for major recruits signing with a mid-major conference team for academic reasons. Or for any reason at all outside of the Mormon religion or Polynesian solidarity. Literally zero precedent in the last seven years. Big-time kids fail to qualify at major progams on a regular basis, and when they do, they're shipped to junior college or a prep school, where the big boys have a chance to get them back in a year or two. None - again, literally none - have wound up playing at non-BCS schools. The reason: they can't. Eligibility is eligibility.
All of this is external, really, to DeAndre Brown, who may or may not be eligible in the fall. The point is that the question of whether a player can get into school and play or he can't play doesn't change because he chose Southern Miss, or a Conference USA school; he's just as eligible or ineligible no matter what school he attends, in any I-A conference, and aside from a few supposed academic bastions (Notre Dame, Michigan, Northwestern, Cal, Stanford, et al), enrollment standards virtually never stand in the way of an eligibile player (people get really cranky when they do). The same alternate admission routes are open to every school. Either LSU decided against all historical precedent that he wasn't worth the risk and Southern Miss - again, against all historical precedent, and common sense, too, if there is no chance of his enrolling at LSU - decided he was worth the risk, or Brown just chose Southern Miss for the reasons he said he did: it's close to home and he likes the coaches.
It was bound to happen eventually.