Brett's take on the change in college timing rules.

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Over the last few decades, college football has become the second most popular sporting event in the United States, lagging behind only the National Football League (NFL) in fans and television viewership, and surpassing it many would say in passion and pageantry. With this growing success, however, came growing problems with some of the structural aspects of the game. One of these problems that has become particularly acute in recent years deals with the rules mandating the way the time clock is run during the games, regulations that have lead to increasingly long contests. In 2006, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), at the behest of the Coach’s Rules Committee, instituted minor changes in the timing system in college football. This was the first such change in decades. The Rules Committee made two recommendations. First, the clock would start at kickoff. Previously, the clock would not begin to run until after a player from the receiving team touched the ball. Secondly, after a turnover or change of possession, the clock would begin to run as soon as the ball was set. Previously, the clock would not start until the ball was snapped. These changes were designed to speed up play and reduce the length of games. Despite the seemingly minor nature of these changes, they were met with howls of protest from virtually every corner of the college football world. The rules changes were lambasted by sports commentators. Fans inundated the NCAA head office with letters, faxes, and emails demanding that the new rules be rescinded. Coaches called them the worst changes in the history of college football, even worse than banning the ever popular “fumble rooskie.” As the season progressed, coaches even began to blame losses on the new clock rules, and events were soon put into motion that assured the virtual certainty that the clock rules would be revoked. This, however, would be a terrible mistake. The purpose behind the new clock rules was simple. Games were steadily growing in length as teams moved from strategies involving a focus on the running game to more pass oriented offenses, increasing the number of time stoppages and consequently the length of contests. As these offenses became more prevalent, a four hour college football game became the rule rather than the exception. This situation was exacerbated by college football’s unusual overtime system. In professional football, overtimes can last for a maximum of fifteen game minutes, and often run much shorter because of the sudden death system that awards victory to the first team to score. In college football, on the other hand, games can theoretically run forever, as both teams get an opportunity to score from the 25 yard line during each overtime period. With the increasing length of games, several disturbing problems began to emerge that could only be remedied through shortening the length of games. First, long games generally result in more injuries. Every play in football can result in an injury, and it naturally follows that the more plays teams run, the more likely injuries are too occur. Over time, the wear and tear of the game begins to build. Players get cramps, and their muscles tighten up. They are then more likely to tear, ligaments are more likely to be pulled, and ankles are more easily sprained. These dangers are just the beginning. Catastrophic injuries occur at random intervals throughout the game, and are often season, if not career, ending. Furthermore, with the beginning of the season in the summer and the end in the winter, playing in extreme heat and cold can take a toll on players’ bodies, further worsening the injury situation. Four hours was deemed simply too long to expose 18-22 year old athletes to these conditions. There are also business considerations to make. The attendance span of the average American is not very long and seems to be seem to be shrinking. In recent years, the fast paced style of the NFL has supplanted baseball as the American pastime, primarily because of that sports lack of action and slow play. College football also faced the very real threat that it might lose significant numbers of fans if the games continued to drag on. Given that college football depends on television revenues for much of its funding, long games, many of them blowouts, would likely not hold viewers attention, causing losses for the networks and decreasing the likelihood that games would continue to be televised. Advertisers, after all, were unlikely to spend large sums of money to produce commercials and purchase airtime when no one would ever see their product. In fact, the higher profile the game, the greater the problem would often be. In many cases, high profile matchups would result in a greater number of commercial breaks. This extended the games even longer then normal, making even the most exiting exhibition half a day’s undertaking for any fan interested in viewing the contest from start to finish. Shortening the games, therefore, became critical for continuing the success of college football. With the problem identified, the question for the rules committee then became how best to adjust the rules to deal with it. College football has several timing rules that result in extending the game. First, unlike in the NFL, the clock stops after every first down. Also, if a player steps out of bounds, the clock stops as well, no matter the point in the game. In the NFL, going out of bounds only stops the clock when a few minutes remain in either half. Changing either of these rules to match the NFL would have resulted in the dramatically shorter games much more common to the professional leagues. Two considerations prevented these adjustments from coming to pass. First, college football prides itself on not being simply a clone of the professional league albeit with less talented players. The desire not to mirror the NFL can be seen in college football’s decision not to imitate the professional overtime rules. Therefore, simply copying the NFL was not the most desirable option. Furthermore, changing these particular rules would greatly change the strategic considerations of college football, particularly in last minute drives. The ability to stop the clock on first downs allows for a more open playbook in tight situation, producing far more exciting endings than in the professional league where last minute drives are virtually impossible to accomplish. The changes that were selected were meant to be minor and unobtrusive in nature. They were intended, as much as practicable, to not interfere with the strategic considerations of college football coaches. While it was necessary to shorten the games, every effort was made not to take away from the sport. Given the importance of shortening the game and the considerations that prevented the application of other time saving methods, the clock rule changes made by the coaching committee were both necessary and well tailored to affect the desired result. They should not, therefore, suffer the ignoble fate of abandonment after only one year of implementation.

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