What do you do with a near-perfect product? You continue to tweak it, of course. Never one to leave well enough alone, the NCAA has instituted some rule changes for 2008, for which every fan needs to prepare.
1) Game clock goes from 25 seconds to 40 seconds
The rule change that everyone will notice first will be the change in the play clock. Gone is the 25-second play clock, replaced by the 40-second play clock used by the NFL. In the past, the 25-second clock didn’t start until the ball was marked ready for play. Now, as in the NFL, the 40-second clock will commence as soon as the previous play ends.
Why? The stated rationale is that the move will speed up the game. This from the folks who brought us rules changes which led to the disastrous 2006 season, when clock management rules changes designed to shorten games cost teams (and their fans) 25-30 plays per game.
What the rule change really does is take out one more human element from the game, and that is a shame.
Ask almost any long-time fan of college football, and they will quickly recall for you a crucial game when, in the waning seconds, the eyes of thousands of fans were riveted upon the white hat of the referee. Some in the stands were hoping for a slow restart as the game clock continued to tick down, the remainder impatiently demanding that the ball be deemed ready for play.
The outcome of the game could well hinge on the subjective judgment of the referee—a tension that was a part of the beauty of the game.
Can you remember such a game?
For fans of the offensive team trying to run out the clock, it was humorous to watch as players slowly gathered themselves up from the pile, as if the mere act of standing was beyond their capabilities. These players were very much encouraged by the fans in their sloth.
It was almost as if everyone hoping for a slow start of play was channeling Burgess Meredith in Rocky ("Stay down! Stay down!").
Meanwhile, on the other sideline, the frantic fans of the defense were imploring their players to get up and onside so that the referee would deem the ball ready for play, starting the 25-second clock.
Ever see a 180-pound safety rush into the pile at the line of scrimmage to assist an opposing 300-pound offensive lineman to his feet? Only in college football would you see such a sight.
2) Game clock to restart on ready-for-play after the ball is taken out of bounds
Similar to the "speed up the game" rules change above, there will be a second noticeable change in clock management very early in your first game back at the stadium. For decades, when a player with the ball went out of bounds, the clock stopped, with the clock not starting again until the ball was snapped for the next play.
This too, will change in 2008. Under the new rules, the clock will again stop when the ball is taken out of bounds. However, instead of waiting for the snap, the clock will again begin to run when the ball is marked ready for play. Be the first in your section to point this new rule out during the first quarter of your first game, and you’ll be deemed the guru of the section for the remainder of the season!
Mercifully, this equally unnecessary rule will not be in effect during the last two minutes of each half, so there will at least still be the chance for some memorable two-minute drills this fall.
3) The "Incidental" face mask penalty a thing of the past
Perhaps no new rule will result in as many derisive comments from the 78th row as the elimination of the five-yard incidental face-mask penalty.
Prior to 2008, there were two face mask penalties. There was the 15-yard personal-foul variety, when the head of the player was put on a spindle and yanked in an unnatural direction. This penalty was usually obvious from almost anywhere in the stadium, and carried with it an automatic first down in addition to the 15 yards.
The second face mask infraction was the "incidental" face mask penalty. Yes, the perpetrator did grab/touch/brush by the face mask of the opponent, but the infraction was not deemed to be life-threatening, and carried with it only a five-yard penalty.
The logic behind the change rule eliminating the five yard penalty is indisputable—player safety. The net effect of the rule, however, is to once again remove subjectivity from the game.
Want to watch the blowhard two rows over pop a few blood vessels in his neck? Wait for the home team's linebacker to graze the face mask of the opposing quarterback on his pass rush, only to be flagged for a personal foul for his efforts.
No one can argue the desire to cut down on face-mask penalties. However, the severe penalty was already on the books. With the new rule, all the NCAA is telling us the referees aren’t calling enough personal fouls.
In choosing not to trust the zebra a few feet from the infraction to determine what a constitutes an egregious—and potentially injurious—face mask, as opposed to an "incidental" act which had no effect on the opposing player or his progress, the game has taken another step backwards.
4) You have been warned! No more sideline warnings!
One of the more useless rules in the past has been the "sideline warning". You know the problem. The game is tense. The offense runs its play. There is celebration on one sideline and consternation on the other.
But wait! Hold everything! There is a flag on the field! No one knows the outcome. Will the play stand? Will the home team suffer once again from bias of the officiating crew?
No. It’s a sideline warning. The referee announces to the world, by way of flapping his arms like he is herding cats or trying to create his own breeze, that the players of one of the teams have encroached too close to the field of play, and their infraction must be made public.
No penalty. No harm done. Just a stop in the action, annoying to all involved.
What could be worse than the "sideline warning"? Try removing it. Now, instead of warning the team of its infraction, a five-yard penalty will be assessed without a warning. Think this won’t have an impact?
I cannot wait for a 4th-and-goal at the one to turn into a fourth-and-goal at the six just because the players on the sideline wanted to get closer to the action. That will be fun....
5) Other less offensive rules changes
Coaches have gained the possibility of a second instant-replay challenge. Before, coaches got one per game. Now, if a challenge is upheld, the head coach will be granted a second challenge. (No opinion—no interest.)
When a kickoff goes out of bounds, the new line of scrimmage will be the 40-yard line. Before this season, it was the 35. (If this encourages teams to kick to returners, it sounds good to me.)
Three other "safety" rules will go into effect this season: 1) A horse-collar tackle—grabbing the back of the shoulder pads of a runner and jerking them down—will now be a personal foul; 2) Targeting and initiating contact with the top of the helmet will be a penalty (spearing re-defined); and 3) the definition of a chop block has also been broadened and simplified. (These are safety rules for which I have no issue.)
Enjoy the season! Go Buffs!