Before I get into my planned column subject – college football rules that we need a Declaration of Independence for – there’s an elephant in the room. Major changes have been announced to the college football Fall schedule with likely a lot more to come. What started as announcements by Division III conferences and the Ivy League that fall play would be moved to spring has been followed by the Big 10 and PAC 12 announcing conference-only games will be played this fall. Due to the continued concerns about COVID19 there are more shoes to drop but these cancellations likely mean that big non-conference games like Notre Dame-USC (one of the rivalries I spotlighted recently), Ohio State-Oregon and Alabama-USC, won’t be played. Thankfully I had not yet written a “best games of 2020” piece! I’ll address the new outlook for the 2020 Season more in a future column once the dust settles a little more but the winds of change are certainly blowing.
Now for Independence Day continued…
Many of us who believe (correctly) that football is the greatest game – and has long supplanted baseball as the national pastime – also are aware that there is a constant danger lurking. What many of us love about football – the strategy, the teamwork, the need to perfectly choreograph brute force and skill – leads to an intricate set of rules and practices. As the rule book gets bigger the game can easily get bogged down. The precision of instant replay provides more illusion of absolute certainty in calls by officials which can lead to an absurd level of specificity – see “NFL catch rules.”
At the college level, the problem of too many byzantine game play rules is compounded by increasingly absurd or outdated NCAA regulations on amateurism. The rule book is hundreds of pages and forces athletic departments to have whole divisions dedicated to compliance. It’s one of many reasons a bipartisan group of state legislators and Congressmen and U.S. Senators have been pushing for the NCAA to allow athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness – including yours truly. But that’s another column.
For now, I am breaking down the rules that should be changed on the field.
1. The fumble through the end zone resulting in touchback - This is the rule that seems most hated because when it happens in a big, close game there’s always an explosion on social media of casual fans who wonder “what just happened!?”
In short, if Team A’s ball carrier fumbles the ball before it crosses the “plane” of the end zone and it goes through the end zone and out of bounds (either in back or on the sideline), Team B gets the ball out at the 20 yard line.
Why this makes little to no sense:
Nowhere else on the field does a fumble out of bounds result in a change of possession. There are rules about a forward fumble coming back to the place it was fumbled but not losing possession. It’s a crushing turn of events for a team, you’re about to score and instead losing possession and field position.
As an Alabama fan, we’ve been on bothsides of this in iconic rivalry games. The 2018 National Championship season of the Clemson Tigers was almost derailed early by Texas A&M until this happened. It’s time to change this rule to, yes punish the team for being careless with the ball, but not excessively reward the opposing team which has let them drive all the way down the field.
Options for a fix:
A. Having ball come back to where it was fumbled and stay in the offense’s possession. This is probably too generous to the offense (or interception return team). There should be some penalty consistent – if not on par – with getting tackled in your own end zone.
B. Practical – the fumbling team loses possession but the opposing team gets the ball at the 1 yard line (or at the spot of the fumble). Team A loses possession but it’s not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for Team B who starts backed up.
C. Zany – the fumbling team (Team A) retains possession but back at the 20 yard line or at the spot of the fumble whichever is further away from the goal line. This probably makes about as little sense as Team B getting the ball at the 20, but it would be a significant penalty of – usually – almost 20 yards.
My vote? I like option B.
2. Onside kick anti-climax: The NFL has completely de-emphasized the onside kick to the point where conversion was below 10% last year. College football hasn’t reached quite that low of a point as the skill level of players involved is a factor as is the fact that players can still get a bit of a head start before ball is kicked. Still, with the changes in football to de-emphasize kickoffs (and perhaps eventually get rid of them) for player safety, the onside kick is going to become less effective not more. Now, I’m not suggesting that you change the “live ball after it travels 10 yards.” As a person who loves surprise onside kicks I would never do that. I am suggesting giving a different and more exciting option that has a little better chance of success so that teams down by multiple scores have more hope in the final minutes of a game.
I could really only come up with one plausible fix here and, while not an original idea, I believe it makes the most sense.
The NFL has been evaluating a rule that would allow an untimed 4th & 15 down from the “kicking team’s” 25 yard line up to twice a game. The NFL has laid out the statistical and analytical case that this would improve a team’s chances by a few percentage points but not make it so likely that teams would risk it much more often than a normal onside kick especially if failing means the team gets the ball at your 25 with a near-certain field goal.
For college football, I would suggest a 4th & 20 but from the 30. The down should be untimed. Offenses tend to be ahead of defenses at the college level – and onsides are statistically more successful, so a little harder distance is warranted in my view.
3. Replay putting one second back on clock then giving an offense with no timeouts time to set up and snap ball in a totally unrealistic live ball scenario: Also known as “what happened in the 2019 Iron Bowl” or “Auburn at home luck combined with professional wrestling quality refereeing.” I’m not bitter. Fortunately, this rule’s already changing.
4. Penalties “half the distance” to the goal: I’ve never understood how, if the offense for Team A is on their own 16 yard line and are called for holding, why it’s “half the distance” back to the goal. Conversely, if Team A’s defense is facing Team B’s offense at the 4 yard line and jumps offside, why it’s only a two yard penalty instead of three? This may seem a bit pedantic, but if the offense has to go a full five yards back on a false start from the 4 to the 9, then an offsides penalty or defensive holding should go from 4 yard line to 1 yard line in that scenario.
5. Ball going out to the 20 yard line after a missed field goal inside the 20: As an Alabama fan these past few years I’ve got a lot of experience with inexplicably missed short field goals (and no I’m not hyperlinking any examples due to FGPTSD). If the ball was snapped inside the 20 yard line and the field goal is missed, the other team gets the ball at the 20. In my view, it should be treated more like an incomplete pass on 4th down with the ball coming back to original line of scrimmage.
The last two rules changes, to me, are not as major as the first three. There are other irritations I know exist (and even more in NFL football). I would love to hear from you – hit me up @justinready on Twitter or in the comments. Next week we may have more clarity on the Fall college football schedule – or if it will even be in the Fall. I’m hoping for the best!