When the NCAA’s annual Academic Progress Rate numbers are released next week, it will be something of a watershed moment. The APR benchmark for postseason eligibility will rise from 900 to 930 (with one more year of an exception). That change is expected to catch out a significant number of teams, enough so that there is fear of a shortage of bowl-eligible football teams.
It is true that a disproportionate amount of APR penalties fall on low-resource institutions, many of which are also historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). But has occasionally happened to the big boys. Eight power conference football teams have received APR penalties (2014–15 affiliation), so an average of about one per year:
- Washington State
All of those were immediate or contemporaneous penalties, which punished institutions for not just low overall APR scores but also have “0-for–2s”, cases where athletes were not retained while academically ineligible.
Beyond the academic support resources the haves can muster, questionable activities like clustering athletes in certain majors, and at least occasional cases of outright academic fraud, penalties in FBS football are harder to fall into than other sports, all things being equal. The 85 scholarships a football team gives out creates huge APR cohorts. A football team’s multi-year APR will likely include well over 1000 possible points. Each point dropped by a football team has much less impact than each point dropped by a basketball team.
Football’s APR struggles have also traditionally been on the eligibility side rather than the retention side. There is only so much a basketball coach can do to keep an athlete who wants to leave, especially if junior college is an option. But all the tactics/tricks above can be used to help keep athletes eligible. And the NCAA’s recent reforms in football (nine-hour rule) should have a more direct impact on APR scores than basketball’s more indirect changes regarding access to athletes and recruiting evaluations.
But 930 is a higher bar and after this year, there are no filters or second chances for FBS schools. A football program chugging merrily along just above the benchmark (930–940 range) could easily fall below 930 with two bad years or one terrible year. Carrying sub–900 single-year scores will reduce the margin for error even more. It seems like just a matter of time before a power conference football program misses the mark and gets banned from the postseason. But could it happen sooner rather than later?
Four power conference teams sat below 930 for their 2011–12 multi-year APR. Three of them are not in as much danger as it seems. But one team must be exceptionally careful over the next couple years. I’ll explain why that team needs to watch out while the others can breathe (just a little bit) easier:
Tennessee – Multi-year APR: 924
Single Year Scores:
* 2008–09: 928
* 2009–10: 921
* 2010–11: 934
* 2011–12: 909
Tennessee is in the biggest danger for two reasons. First, it needs to carry its lowest APR for the next three years including this one. Second, the 909 single year score in 2011–12 will make it difficult if not impossible to post a two-year APR score of 940 for 2011–12 and 2012–13. On top of that, the Volunteers drop their second highest score for the 2012–13 multi-year APR.
To avoid penalties, Tennessee needs to post consistently good scores over the next few years, 940s or higher. And Tennessee has not had APR numbers like that since the end of the Phil Fulmer era. Tennessee also went through a coaching change in 2012–13, and while they do not hurt the APR as much as basketball coaching changes, they generally are not positive events.
Louisville – Multi-year APR: 924
Single Year Scores:
* 2008–09: 912
* 2009–10: 869
* 2010–11: 948
* 2011–12: 971
Louisville was tied with Tennessee for the lowest 2011–12 APR score among power conference teams, but is in much better position than Tennessee. The reason has everything to do with the single year scores. Louisville drops its second lowest score this year and its lowest next year. The 971 single year score in 2011–12 will also make it much easier for Louisville to post a 940 two-year score this year, avoiding the postseason ban. Next year, when that exception is no longer allowed, Louisville drops its lowest score. A decent score this year will buy Louisville a bit of breathing room for the following year or two.
Oklahoma State – Multi-Year APR: 926
Single Year Scores:
* 2008–09: 941
* 2009–10: 913
* 2010–11: 903
* 2011–12: 947
OSU’s saving grace is the 947 score posted in 2011–12. That means despite dropping its second highest score this year and carrying a 903 for another two years, OSU can avoid penalties with just solid scores rather than particularly good scores. Oklahoma State is well placed to avoid a postseason ban this year with a 940 two-year score. A couple more years like 2011–12 will pull the ’Pokes out of the danger zone completely.
Iowa State – Multi-Year APR: 928
Single Year Scores:
* 2008–09: 889
* 2009–10: 946
* 2010–11: 942
* 2011–12: 934
Iowa State’s APR numbers are being dragged down below the benchmark by one single year score, the second worst score posted by any of the four teams studied. That number falls off this year, giving the Cyclones a big boost even before seeing their score for 2012–13. The downward trend is a bit concerning, but ISU would still not be in trouble if it was not corrected in 2012–13 so long as it does not accelerate.
The problem with trying to project APR penalties is the answers to these questions are more or less known already. All the points from 2012–13 have been counted up, adjustments made, waivers sought, and appeals almost done. All that is waiting now is the release of the numbers and penalties. These schools already have a good idea whether they are eligible for the postseason next year, not to mention early indications of how they will fare the year after that.