Two days after the University of Alabama suspended five football players, including three key members of the offense, their playing status remains in question while an investigation into impermissible receipt of textbooks continues.
Offensive linemen Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis, both starters, were held out of Saturday's home win over Tennessee along with running back Glen Coffee and defensive backs Chris Rogers and Marquis Johnson.
Both the Southeastern Conference and the National Collegiate Athletic Association have been notified of the investigation, which remains open. Director of Athletics Mal Moore said in a written statement that the athletic department first became aware of the infractions on Thursday. Coach Nick Saban said he became aware of the suspensions on Friday, and was animated in a post-game assertion that the suspensions will not be a distraction for the team.
"We're going to coach the guys who are there to do the right things and that's what we're going to do, and it ain't a problem," Saban said. "… We could have went belly-up and said 'How can we play? We've got five guys suspended.' It ain't a problem, because we ain't going to let it be a problem."
How quickly any or all of the players are reinstated first depends on the speed of the university's own investigation. Whether or not the investigation expands to athletes from other sports will play a major role in its expedience. Once the findings are complete, they will be forwarded to the conference office and the NCAA, which then would conduct a review of their own. Typically, when an NCAA review finds that a member institution's own investigation is satisfactory, it restores player eligibility quickly. When it opts to conduct its own inquiry, the case, by contrast, can drag for months.
Reaction from players after the 41-17 win over the rival Volunteers was similar to that of Saban.
"We had a family meeting," said linebacker Darren Mustin. "And talked about what needed to be talked about, and after they said don't think about it or talk about it. After that, that's it – it's done. You can't change it, just play ball."
Offensive lineman B.J. Stabler filled in for Davis at guard as the offensive line allowed only one sack and blocked for a 510-yard effort. Mike Johnson played every snap at right tackle, and Terry Grant recorded a season-high 26 carries in Coffee's absence.
"You know, one man's mistake is another man's opportunity," added Mustin.
Alabama (6-2, 4-1 SEC) is idle this week, but faces a critical SEC West game on Nov. 3 at home against Louisiana State. The winner of that game will take sole possession of first place in the SEC West. LSU is also idle this week.
The status of Caldwell and Davis presumably would have an even greater impact on the LSU game than Tennessee, given the Tigers defense features All-American tackle Glenn Dorsey. Although Caldwell had practiced at right tackle prior to the Tennessee game, he is primarily an interior lineman, like Davis, and would almost certainly be played at center or guard in order to help contain Dorsey.
Saban, whose next meeting with the media is on Tuesday, said on Saturday he did not know if the players would practice with the team while the investigation is pending. However, a university release Monday confirmed the players will be allowed to practice while the investigation is pending.
Last week, Ball State was placed on probation by the NCAA and forfeited three scholarships for infractions related to textbooks, although that situation involved "a lack of institutional control," the NCAA buzz-phrase for a probation-worthy case. The Ball State case involved 89 athletes in 10 sports obtaining more than $26,000 over two years.
Whether Alabama's investigation turns up a larger problem remains to be seen, but presumably, Alabama would only be at risk for a penalty similar to Ball State's if the NCAA determined a similar lack of control. While there has been no initial indication of that, Saban's post-game remark that a system meant to prevent such violations failed suggests that a pre-emptive measure was in place but poorly managed.
"I don't think anybody feels worse about it than those players themselves," said Saban.