College football leaders are meeting this week in Indianapolis to consider three rules changes that could shorten game times and reduce the number of plays during games this upcoming season, a continued push to monitor player safety as the sport prepares for a 12-team College Football Playoff beginning in 2024.
The rule changes under consideration include: running the clock after a first down is awarded, except in the last two minutes of either half; eliminating the option for teams to call consecutive team timeouts; and carrying over any fouls to the next period instead of finishing with an untimed down.
Steve Shaw, NCAA football secretary rules-editor and officials coordinator, told ESPN on Tuesday that the combined changes are estimated to shorten average length of games by seven to eight minutes and eight plays.
According to Shaw, college football games have averaged 180 plays per game over the past three regular seasons and typically last three hours, 21 minutes.
“A year or so ago, we began to pivot away from just worrying about the clock to the number of plays per game, student-athlete exposures, and that has really become more the direction now, led by our commissioners,” Shaw said. “With the focus on player health and safety and the CFP and extended playoff, which could create more games for players, it’s appropriate to look at what are these numbers of student-athlete exposures?”
The rules committee and competition committee are meeting jointly this week, and the rules committee is expected to make public on Friday any proposed changes that ultimately have to be approved by the playing rules oversight panel in April.
Shaw said the idea surrounding the first-down change was to keep the game moving but preserve the uniqueness of the last two minutes of the half.
“To me, that’s a beautiful difference between the college game and the NFL game that lasts two minutes,” Shaw said. “Even though you may not have a timeout, if you make a first down, you have an opportunity to get to the ball and get a snap. It makes for an exciting end to the game.”
What’s not exciting is when the defense uses all three of its remaining timeouts to ice the opposing kicker’s manageable 40-yard field goal attempt and he ultimately makes three straight kicks anyway. By eliminating a team’s ability to call consecutive timeouts, this scenario would disappear.
The proposed penalty change would impact the end of the first and third quarters by not extending them if a foul is accepted. Currently, if there is an accepted penalty for a foul on the last timed down of any quarter — by either team — the officials extend the quarter. Under this proposed change, they wouldn’t do that in the first and third quarters; instead they’d walk off the penalty and start the next quarter.
“That doesn’t happen a lot,” Shaw said. “But when it happens, you save time and you save a play in the game.”
Tulane athletic director Troy Dannen, the chair of the NCAA’s competition committee, told ESPN that there is “very little opposition” to the proposed changes but that more research needs to be done.
“While the idea of reducing plays makes a lot of sense, I don’t know that anyone knows what the nominal number of plays is,” he said. “I consider the three proposals that are alive here as maybe a starting point, not necessarily the end.
“There needs to be some more [data on] injuries to figure out — are there more injuries in Game 12 than Game 1? Are there more injuries in the fourth quarter than the first? That I think can be done over the course of the next season to inform if there are more steps that need to be taken.”
While targeting remains one of the most debated rules on fall Saturdays, Shaw said there aren’t likely to be any major changes to the rule this spring. He pointed to the fact that there were 16 targeting fouls enforced last year as evidence the rule is working.
“That means there are less high hits,” he said. “That will be an area we’ll continue to look at and talk about. Targeting isn’t going away. But the big picture, the targeting rule is doing what we want it to do.”
One other potential rule change that has been discussed but hasn’t gained overwhelming support is restarting the game clock after an incomplete pass when the ball is ready for play. Currently, the clock stops on an incomplete pass — and that would continue — but it would restart when the ball is set down and the official steps away.
Shaw said that this concept “could be more volatile” and that, unlike the other proposed changes garnering the most discussion, the incomplete pass idea could force teams to change their strategy after an incomplete pass to avoid losing plays.
Shaw said nobody is aiming for college football to reach a certain number of plays per game.
“We don’t have that,” he said. “I think there’s a recognition that reducing student-athlete exposure is the right thing to do, especially if you have potential for more games, and let’s look at it after a year and see: Did this hit the mark? Do we need to do more? It gives us an opportunity to not dramatically change the game but continue to look and study it.
“I don’t think this is a one-time topic that will go away after our rules committee meeting. I think this will be something [people] — especially the commissioners — will continue to look at from a player health and safety standpoint.”
When the CFP expands to 12 teams in 2024, it’s unlikely but possible that a team could play 17 games in one season, including the conference championship game, a first-round game, quarterfinal, semifinal and national championship — plus the 12-game regular season.
Dannen said player safety needs to continue to be the top priority regardless of CFP expansion.
“The fact that we’re going to be adding a game or two for two to four schools, maybe, I think, gives, maybe it’s a push to look at this particular aspect of the game because it really hadn’t been looked at before,” he said. “… It seems like no matter what rules you alter, coaches find a way to get what they want and adapt and so the rules try to catch up to the coaches. So I think this is a good step forward, assuming that it continues to advance, but it is not an endgame by any means.”