05 Sep 2006
by Russell Levine
College football's new timing rules had a clear impact on the opening week of games, and much of the reaction has been unfavorable. In Michigan's game against Vanderbilt, for example, the teams combined to run 125 plays, about 20 fewer than a typical game from 2005. The math says that's about 17 percent fewer snaps, but I don't expect the impact to be quite that severe by season's end.
Mostly that's because coaches and players are still getting used to the changes, with many clearly failing to grasp the impact of a running clock on change-of-possession plays. There were some teams -- Michigan among them -- that failed to run the play clock down to the final seconds following a change of possession. In Michigan's case, this mean leaving an extra 20 seconds or so on the game clock during its final offensive possession of a 27-7 win. But by my very unofficial observation, there were as many if not more teams who let time tick off the clock while trailing at game's end, a situation that I expect will be rectified as the season goes on. Coaches will learn to have their offenses ready to go, play called on the sidelines, after a change of possession.
Coaches also need to adjust their thinking at the end of games when deciding whether to go for it on fourth down or punt, hoping to regain possession. The best example of this from the opening weekend came from Alabama-Birmingham coach Watson Brown, whose team had a chance to take Oklahoma to overtime. Trailing 24-17 with 2:53 remaining, out of timeouts, and facing a fourth-and-12 at his own 31, Brown elected to punt the ball.
Under any circumstances, this was a poor call by Brown. His best-case scenario under the old rules would have gotten his team the ball back with 20-25 seconds to play. That assumes Oklahoma would have begun its drive with roughly 2:45 on the clock and run three times. Figuring approximately 45 seconds per play (the 25-second play clock, plus five seconds to run the play, plus 15 seconds to spot the ball), the Sooners would burn a minimum 2:15 off the clock before punting. But under the new rules, Oklahoma's first snap didn't come until 2:22 remained. The Sooners simply ran three plays and watched the clock expire.
The play-by-play from this game reveals another terrible shortcoming of the college timing rules -- namely, the 25-second clock. In college football, the play clock doesn't start until the officials untangle the pile, spot the ball, and signal ready-for-play. All that time, the game clock continues to tick. And college officials are eternally slow to complete that process. Oklahoma's first snap of the above sequence came at 2:22, the second at 1:24, the third at 25 seconds. Assuming 30 seconds of each interval is accounted for by the running of the play (five seconds) and the play clock (25 seconds), that means the officials took 28 and 29 seconds to spot the ball! What were they doing for all that time? It's not like the Sooners were running 40-yard pass patterns.
The NFL's 40-second play clock is far superior for these situations. It begins as soon as the previous play is blown dead, and prevents the variance of how long it takes officials to spot the ball from affecting the outcome. With a 40-second play clock, we can assume the Sooners would have snapped the ball at 2:22. 1:37, and 52 seconds. A fourth-down snap would have been necessary, and Oklahoma would have had to decide whether to punt or take an intentional safety.
As I wrote in analyzing these rule changes last month, they strike me as an attempt by college football to simply be different from the NFL, and with predictable results. There were many ways the NCAA could have shortened its games without affecting late-game strategy.
As an aside, Brown's decision to punt, effectively giving up on his team's last chance to pull off a monumental upset, would make him an obvious choice for the season's first John L. Smith Trophy if not for the antics of a certain MAC coach on Thursday night -- more on that below.
The other major rule change under widespread scrutiny this weekend was the adoption of a unified instant replay system, with the added wrinkle that coaches may now challenge one call per game.
I have always supported the use of replay in college to prevent obviously blown calls from determining the outcome of games. But the system as it currently exists simply does not work well enough. The combination booth review/coach's challenge is confusing for all parties. The challenge was added after coaches routinely found themselves having to call timeout in order to give the booth more time to decide whether to review a play.
But here, too, the NFL system is superior. Why review plays if the coach doesn't feel strongly about them? I would adopt the NFL system, but with one tweak: Give each coach two challenges per game. If the second challenge results in an overturn, give the coach another one. The booth takes over in the final minutes of each half.
I also feel the on-field referee should make the decision whether to overturn a play. I'm not sure who the replay officials are or where the conferences get them, but they seem to frequently misunderstand their role. Replay is supposed to overturn a play only when there is conclusive, indisputable evidence of a blown call. Time and again, you'll see replay overturn a call on far shakier evidence, almost as if the replay official pays no attention to the call on the field. I've also seen college replay officials fail to understand the tuck rule, which is the same in college as in the NFL, and rule a fumble even after the quarterback's arm has clearly started forward.
Another frustrating thing about replay -- both in college and in the NFL -- was pointed out by FO's Michael David Smith in the college comment thread this weekend. In the Georgia Tech-Notre Dame game, replay correctly overturned a catch by Tech's Calvin Johnson. However, that same replay just as clearly showed Johnson being held by the Notre Dame defender prior to the pass being thrown. Why is replay allowed to overturn the catch, but not call the penalty? In this case, I don't advocate the use of replay to call penalties -- except for non-subjective fouls such as 12 men on the field. I think this play is perhaps the best indication as to why replay should be scrapped altogether. Allow human error to be part of the equation. Errors tend to balance out in the end. By using replay to correct only some of those errors, we potentially upset that balance.
As mentioned above, the race for the season's first JLS Trophy was over as soon as Central Michigan concluded its game against Boston College on Thursday night. In fact, CMU coach Brian Kelly could have earned a season's worth of nominations for some of his decisions in that game.
The primary offense was of course his "swinging gate" play call, in which the guards and tackles never got out of their stance on the far hash while the QB took the snap from center on the near hash and threw a game-clinching interception while running for his life. For full details of Kelly's performance in the BC game, click here.
Being unconventional is fine. Steve Spurrier is unconventional. He's also Steve Spurrier, and if we forget the Redskins years, he's a pretty damn good coach. Kelly's team had a chance to upset Boston College when he called that swinging gate play. His team gave an incredible effort, only to have their last chance undone by that particular bit of coaching "genius." For that, Kelly gets the season's first JLS Trophy, and rest assured, we'll be keeping an eye on the Chippewas all season -- starting with this week's game at Michigan.
A note on the methodology here: I'll be the first to admit my preseason rankings were largely guesses. Insofar as we learned some important things about certain teams (ie, Cal isn't that great, Tennessee isn't that terrible) I made major changes in the rankings from last week.
19 comments, Last at 09 Oct 2007, 3:26am by fooloof