by Russell Levine
For many college football fans, the sport's appeal comes in part from what it isn't: namely, the NFL. From its overtime format, to the way it determines its champion, the NCAA has long resisted turning its brand of the sport into a replica of the professional game.
Through the years, some of those differences have disappeared -- remember the place-kicking tee? -- but others have remained, sometimes stubbornly so.
Chief among these differences is the way college football manages the game clock. As anyone who has stuck it out through a no-longer-rare four-hour marathon can attest, the length of games needs addressing. Some of last season's most noteworthy games, including the USC-Notre Dame classic and the Penn State-Florida State Orange Bowl, were games to be endured as much as they were to be enjoyed.
In moving to shorten games, an adjustment that is long overdue, the NCAA has not addressed the problem at the most obvious points. Instead, it has put into place rules that could have a dramatic effect on late-game strategy, perhaps in a misguided effort to remain distinct from the NFL.
Not many observers noticed "Rule 3-2-5-e, When Clock Starts" in the NCAA's rules-changes memo in June. It reads, "When Team B is awarded a first down, the clock will be stopped and will start on the ready for play signal," which doesn't sound significant. But in specifying "Team B," the rulebook is referring to change-of-possession plays, such as turnovers or punts.
Imagine this scenario: Notre Dame, out of timeouts, trails USC by five points when Brady Quinn throws an interception at the USC goal line with 24 seconds left to play. The referee spots the ball, signals ready-for-play, winds the play- and game-clocks, and ... nothing. With the game clock running thanks to the new rule, USC wouldn't even bother to send its offense on the field. Pete Carroll would simply jog to midfield and shake Charlie Weis's hand.
Or this: Ohio State, also out of timeouts, trails Texas by six when it forces a punt from deep in Texas territory. Ted Ginn is tackled at the Texas 38 with one second on the clock. Jim Tressel furiously sends his offense onto the field for a Hail Mary attempt, but after the ball is spotted and the clock is wound, the referee rules that Ohio State failed to snap the ball before time expired.
If you think a referee would always allow the offense to get off a play in this scenario, Ryan Leaf and the 1997 Washington State Cougars would beg to differ. In their Rose Bowl loss to Michigan following that season, Leaf appeared to have moved his team into position to throw one final pass into the end zone. Yet the officials ruled that Washington State failed to get a snap off with two seconds remaining after winding the clock following a first down.
"As a coach, I am appalled at the rule changes," said Oregon's Mike Bellotti at the Pac-10's preseason media day. "They are major and very severe, in my mind, and are going to change the game as we know it -- especially starting the game clock at the ready signal after change of possession.
"That changes a lot of strategy, a lot of opportunities at the end of a game. And I'm disappointed because I can't find anybody who says they were in favor of that."
In enacting the new Rule 3-2-5-e, the NCAA ignored several less-intrusive methods of trimming minutes off its average game. College football's unique time management rules, which include a 25-second play clock that doesn't start until the referee signals ready-to-play, and a rule that calls for the clock to stop to move the chains following any first down, would be a much easier target.
The NFL long ago went to a 40-second play clock that starts on the whistle ending the previous play. College officials often take longer than 15 seconds to spot the ball, during which time the players are huddling, so a 40-second clock makes sense.
Stopping the clock to move the chains is engrained in the fabric of college football, and it keeps final minutes of many games steeped in drama. Unlike the NFL, a team out of timeouts can still stop the clock without having to spike the ball. But is it really necessary on first downs in the first quarter? The stoppage should be eliminated except for the final two minutes of the first half and the final five minutes of the second. That would still allow ample comeback opportunities while shaving several minutes off the average contest.
Another change that should be considered affects out-of-bounds plays. In college football, the clock stops on all out-of-bounds plays and doesn't start again until the ball is snapped. Here too, the clock could be restarted after the ball is spotted except in the final minutes of each half, much as the NFL has done.
College football's timing rules worked in an era when the sport was dominated by clock-eating ground attacks, and four-hour games simply did not occur. But with the modernization of collegiate offenses, and the proliferation of pass-happy spread attacks -- not to mention more games on television, with their broadcast-mandated TV timeouts -- the NCAA is correct in moving to address the problem. Four-hour games not only stretch the patience of ardent fans (myself included), they wreak havoc with the typical 3 1/2-hour broadcast window, forcing many viewers to miss the start of their favorite team on television each week.
All the additional, and unnecessary, clock stoppages also lead to more snaps per contest -- as many as 30 more a game as compared with the NFL. In football, more snaps mean more injuries. One might reasonably assume the NCAA would want to protect its student-athletes by not exposing them to additional risk. However, reason doesn't always apply, especially with an organization that refuses to allow a championship playoff (citing additional missed class time for the players from the handful of schools that would be involved) yet passes over the objections of its coachs a rule extending the season to 12 games for every school.
When the NFL realized it had an issue with the growing length of games, it acted to curtail the problem. College football is attempting to follow suit, but it appears the NCAA believes that to copy the NFL's lead would be to sacrifice some of the sport's individuality. It's a misguided line of thinking.
Meet Russell, along with Aaron Schatz, Al Bogdan, and Bill Moore, Monday night at 6:30pm at Coliseum Books in New York City, 11 W.42nd Street.
Note: This article first appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.