How College Football Should Settle the Debate over Defensive Sub Rule

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How College Football Should Settle the Debate over Defensive Sub Rule
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The NCAA's controversial proposal to change defensive substitutions is an example of what happens when you take birdshot to target practice. 

Officially, college football will settle the debate over the proposal this Thursday, Mar. 6. That's when the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel will vote on whether defenses will get 10 seconds to substitute players after the 40-second play clock has started. 

(The NCAA Football Rules Committee will also reconsider the proposal this week, which is standard operating procedure.) 

Opponents of the hurry-up, no-huddle offense, like Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and Alabama coach Nick Saban, have cited player safety as a primary concern. Since 2014 is an "off-year" for NCAA rule changes, the proposal could only be implemented via this route. 

Still, the problem with that argument is there's little-to-no evidence suggesting uptempo offenses directly result in more injuries. However, intuition says it certainly increases the opportunity. 

Danny Johnston/Associated Press

It seems unlikely, then, that the proposal will be approved for the 2014 season. 

The concern over player safety isn't misplaced; it's a topical issue in today's game, from Pop Warner to the pros. The way the NCAA Football Rules Committee went about addressing it, however, was. If college football wants to alter the game for player safety, don't limit the offense itself. 

Limit the offense's opportunities instead. 

Enforce a running clock while allowing a two-minute warning at the end of each half, just like the pros. College football serves as a de facto D-league for the NFL anyway, so borrowing the concept makes sense. 

Without suggesting it himself, the idea stems from Saban. Breaking his silence on the proposal last Friday, the Tide head coach made an interesting point buried in a mound of player safety rhetoric: 

"College football is the only game in the country, of any kind, that the college game is longer than the pro game," Saban said via Joel A. Erickson of

Not longer in terms of actual gameplay, of course—it is still 60 minutes—but longer in the time it takes to complete the game. Stopping the clock after every first down can add up over a 12, 13 or 14-game season. 

Citing, Aaron Gordon of Sports on Earth says the average NFL game takes about three hours and ten minutes to complete. In that span, NFL teams average about 67 plays a game on 12 possessions. 

According to, the Denver Broncos ran a league-best 72.3 plays per game during the 2013 regular season. The Dallas Cowboys ran the fewest with about 60 plays per game. 

(Interestingly, the Philadelphia Eagles, led by former Oregon coach Chip Kelly, averaged about 66 plays per game. That's just under par for the league and roughly the same number of plays per game as Saban's "slowpoke" offense at Alabama.)

For comparison, Texas Tech ran the most plays per game in college football last season (90.3). According to, 74 teams, or about 59 percent of the Football Bowl Subdivision, ran more plays per game last season than the Broncos. 

Most plays per game in the NFL
Team Plays Per Game
Denver Broncos 72.3
New England Patriots 71.1
Buffalo Bills 69.8
Washington Redskins 69.2
Detroit Lions 68.9

Most plays per game in college football
Team Plays Per Game
Texas Tech 90.3
BYU 89.9
Cal 88.7
Fresno State 85.4
Baylor 85.2

The uptempo style gives the offense an even bigger advantage because it can continuously attack a defensive weakness once it's been identified. Other than faking an injury, the defense is helpless to do anything about it. 

The NCAA wouldn't be taking away that advantage by starting a running clock. 

Keep in mind there are other uses for tempo beyond driving the length of the field in a minute or less. Oklahoma, for example, was an average-paced offense at about 74 plays per game, but used tempo perfectly at times in a 45-31 win over the Tide in the Sugar Bowl. Quick snaps are also utilized in quarterback sneaks and fourth-down attempts. 

Point being, it's a strategy not limited to the Auburns or Baylors of the world. 

Using a running clock would also have a secondary benefit in blowouts. Remember when Savannah State lost to Oklahoma State and Florida State by a combined score of 139-0 in 2012?

Not even the most psychotic college football fan wants to see that kind of blood bath (hopefully). Games like those never should have taken place to begin with, but at least with a running clock, it doesn't drag on any longer than it has to. 

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When Baylor led Louisiana-Monroe 49-7 at halftime this past season, the game was over and it had been for a while. Start running the clock from the opening kickoff and get out of there. 

But back to the crux of the argument: player safety. 

Since more plays don't necessarily equal more injuries, the defensive substitution rule is hard to get behind. A running clock makes no such accusation. 

Every play in football is an opportunity for injury. That's universally known and accepted. All a running clock does is limit those opportunities for both teams. 

Player safety deserves more attention beyond NCAA-imposed rules. It needs sideline neurologists, better equipment and revised tackling techniques—and it needed it yesterday. 

Until that changes, though, all college football has are rule adaptations. The NCAA better make them ones it can actually pull off. 

Ben Kercheval is the lead writer for college football. Follow him on Twitter @BenKercheval. H/T @TJCarpenterWHB

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