On Friday, college football executives took a step toward shortening games and reducing the number of plays per game. It’s an issue that has been on the back of minds for a number of years, but became more pressing this offseason as the sport is a year away from an expanded 12-team College Football Playoff, which will lengthen the season for some teams and increase potential injury exposures for players .
The NCAA Football Rules Committee officially recommended adoption of three rule changes, which must be approved by the Playing Rules Oversight Panel in April. They are the following:
- A running clock after first down (like the NFL), except for the last two minutes of each half.
- Prohibit the use of consecutive timeouts by a team.
- Transferring a foul to the second or fourth quarter instead of playing an untimed down.
What you should know about the recommendations
The recommendations come after the rules committee’s annual meetings in Indianapolis this week. The Division I Football Competition Committee also met this week to discuss the topic. These three rule changes received broad support. Other more dramatic ideas – such as running the clock after incomplete passes – did not have enough support to move forward at this point.
Tulane athletic director Troy Dannen, who chairs the competition committee, said The Athletic this week, he expects the three combined rule changes to eliminate seven to 10 plays per game.
“This is a first step,” Dannen said.
The question of game length is twofold. College football games take too long, much longer than their counterparts in the NFL. And, perhaps more importantly for this discussion, they average many more plays per game.
College football games average about 180 plays per game, compared to about 155 in the NFL, according to an NCAA study of the 2022 season (which included special teams). It’s both a player safety concern with an expanded CFP on the way and a fan engagement concern, as FBS games average closer to three hours and 30 minutes, while the NFL average is 3:10.
With so many plays per match, there are more opportunities for collisions and injuries. Experts call them “exposures”. Commissioners, perhaps most notably the SEC’s Greg Sankey, have said for over a year that there are ways to safely expand the CFP by looking for ways to reduce exposure.
“It’s not a game,” he said last winter after expansion talks had initially stalled. “There are exposures. There are contacts. So then you think, how can we adjust the game in modern times to meet a different set of requirements?”
ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips took the lead this past year to look at college football holistically before making changes in a particular area. Colloquially, it has been called the 365-day review, and it includes, among other things, a look at the number of plays per game. Phillips supports the three proposed rule changes and said they have the support of all 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences.
“With the expansion of the playoffs in 2024, a thorough review of options to reduce the total number of plays has been a high priority among the FBS commissioners,” Phillips said. “If you’re going to expand the playoffs, it can’t be the same number of games. You must try to call it back.
“This is the first step. It’s not the only step, but it’s something we hope will be incorporated into the upcoming 2023 football season.
Why this? Why now?
It would be essentially impossible for college football executives to add games and then get paid much more money without doing anything else, especially in the current climate. Schools and conferences know they need to do more for athletes, whether it’s in the form of health and safety protocols or ultimately putting more money in their pockets.
You can’t ask college football players to potentially play 17 games in one season without doing something to mitigate the risk associated with multiple snaps. The three rule changes that have been recommended won’t make drastic changes — Dannen estimated they would affect seven to 10 plays per game — but something helps. The NCAA continued to tweak the kickoff rules to make the game safer until it found what worked best. This process can be similar.
Some of these proposals were considered a year ago, but did not have enough support to be approved. What changed? Well, the presidents and chancellors who oversee the CFP officially approved expanding from a four-team field to 12.
“Maybe that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, because now we know for sure that there are scenarios where games are added to people’s schedules,” Dannen said. “Another thing that triggered this was the call from the ACC to take a holistic look at football. We have gone through recruitment rules, calendars, the role of coaches and analysts. This was also one of the areas.”
Dannen said there was “really no support at any level” for the idea of running the clock after incomplete passes.
“We will investigate anything that takes play out of the game,” Dannen said. “(Running the clock) would have taken a lot of plays out of the game — probably 15 or 20. But it’s hard to wrap your arms around it when it’s so contrary to how we time the sport of football.”
Dannen expects the concept to continue to be explored as well as other ideas that come up over the next year.
“The steps we take are measured in terms of the clock,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, co-chairman of the rules committee. “We’re going to find out a lot this year how much that changes. But I think it’s a smart decision to look in that direction as we look to take more games.”
(Photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)