December 31, 2008

The Five Rules that Make College Football Great

Rational overtime, unlimited replay, tightrope catches, and other rules that make college football more exciting than the NFL.

Joe Horton

It is at this resplendent time of the sporting season, when a parade of big bowl games dominates the airwaves and the NFL playoffs are just getting underway, that we must all admit, once and for all, that college football is definitely better than the pros.

As the year winds down, we can bask in the memory of some outstanding college games—a last second touchdown from the Red Raiders to beat the unbeaten Longhorns, a furious 28-point second half comeback from LSU against scrappy Troy, Ole Miss playing tough on the road against second seeded Alabama to the tune of 17 unanswered points with a fake field goal-turned-touchdown to boot, the defensive battle between Ohio State and Penn State in The Horseshoe. There were stellar teams across the country, from Texas to Texas Tech, from Alabama to Utah, from Oklahoma to Penn State. And this year is not an anomaly.

So how is it, season in and season out, that college football delivers the goods?

Michael Crabtree's grab against Texas is just one incredible moment from the 2008 season.

The answer is more than just the fraternal, feverish atmosphere. The bands ("The band is out on the field!"), the rabid students (when was the last time Panthers or Seahawks fans ripped down the goalposts?), the male cheerleaders (there’s no one getting more play on campus…from either gender), the deep-seated rivalries (where Oregon, a state that was two years old when the Civil War began some three thousand miles away, gets the "Civil War" tag for its Oregon-Oregon State annual match up), the legit mascots (the bizarre Stanford dancing tree owns this category) all add color to the sheer number of teams, the excruciating-yet-mesmerizing obtuseness of the ranking and BCS systems, and the drama that comes from the unpredictable when two teams with completely different styles and philosophies from opposite ends of the country step onto the same field.

And yet, this is also the time of year when sportscasters, columnists, and even lawmakers make the argument that the college game should be more like the NFL and institute a playoff system. Well, maybe it’s the NFL who should be changing things up to be more like college football. Critics often miss the fact that the fundamental structure of the college game is superior to its professional counterpart. There are five principle rule differences between the NCAA and NFL that make college football, in its structure and drama, a better game to watch and play: Variations in rules governing overtime, clock management, pass interference, in-bounds catches and replay reviews.

First, most importantly and most evidently, the college overtime system is the greatest creation in the history of American sports. Instituted in 1996, it calls for the two teams who have battled to a draw over sixty minutes to get an equal opportunity to ram the ball down each other’s throats from the 25-yard line for as long as it takes to decide a winner. There’s so much strategy and action crammed into the "fifth quarter" that there’s scarcely a moment to stop and reflect how much better this back-and-forth is than flipping a coin to decide who wins.

Compare the scenario of two teams, each guaranteed a short-field stint on offense and defense, to the 30 percent chance that the NFL team who wins the coin toss will go on to win on their first offensive possession. Think of that. Almost a third of the time, one team never touches the ball in an NFL overtime. Moreover, from 2000 to 2007 in the NFL, even if both teams do touch the ball, the team that wins the coin toss ends up winning 60 percent of the time.

There’s so much action crammed into the "fifth quarter" that there’s scarcely a moment to stop and reflect how much better it is than flipping a coin to decide who wins.
Now go back and consider the outstanding ante-upping of forcing college teams to go for a two-point conversion at the start of the third overtime to really push manic nail-biters in the crowd down to the cuticle. Compare the marvelous seven-overtime marathons of Ole Miss/Arkansas in 2001 or Kentucky/Arkansas(again!) in 2003 to this year's tie between the Bengals and Eagles after one 15-minute extra quarter in the pros. You don’t have to be Donovan McNabb to wonder: A tie? A tie? Americans, as we know from their venomous dislike of soccer and ruthless berating of Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig after the deadlocked 2002 All-Star Game, really do hate ties. But why do we as fans put up with ties and coin-flips in the pros? The most common arguments are the spoiled plea to avoid the extra beating inflicted on rich bodies, and that the networks would get upset if football cut into their Sunday night programming. You'll notice neither of those have anything to do with gameplay or the fans' enjoyment of the game.

The second point, one more structurally important to an average game, is the difference in clock management rules. Specifically, the college game allows for a short stoppage in the game clock as the down marker moves to the new line of scrimmage and the chain gang resets along the sidelines after a first down. Never taking more than 20 to 30 seconds, depending on the length of the gain, this stoppage makes moving the ball at the end of the game a much more feasible and exciting prospect. Nearly the entire playbook is still open to a team. Consider the stunning hook and ladder play from the 2007 Boise State-Oklahoma Fiesta Bowl that was run with 18 seconds left in the center of the field. The college game most often allows for the fair and dynamic play of the teams, aware of the time but not totally hamstrung by it, to decide the outcome of the game.

In the NFL, with no such rule, teams are forced to "work the sidelines," to get out of bounds and stop the clock, naturally limiting the scope of plays that can be called. Strategically, perhaps this is a fitting challenge for a team that finds itself trailing at the end of the game without enough timeouts to stop the clock. But for an audience, this becomes a dreadful proposition, as the losing team must spike the ball, which reduces the number of downs to work with, while confining its offensive options to plays like out routes with little or no chance to run the ball. This reduces variety and interest at the climax of the contest and places the advantage clearly with the defense that can shift its coverage to pass-heavy protection along the sidelines. Hardly the most exciting display on either side of the ball.

Variation in the penalty for pass interference is the third rule that the college game has going for it. On the university gridiron, as a spot foul up to a 15-yard penalty, pass interference is simultaneously less detrimental to the guilty team, and more likely to be called by officials. The college rule protects receivers and ensures that no single call dramatically influences field position. A 15-yard penalty also affirms the seriousness of other, more injurious infractions like horse-collar tackles, face-masking and cut blocking that are disciplined with equal gravity.

The NFL version, the unlimited spot-foul theoretically ranging anywhere from one to nearly 99 yards, is grossly overreaching and harmful to gameplay. No team should have the opportunity to move the entire length of the field on a single, subjective call by the officials, just as officials should not feel pressured to swallow a whistle on a long pass fearing that it will significantly alter the game. There’s also a nasty feeling of hubris that goes along with this call, insinuating an underlying assumption that NFL receivers are so talented that they will always catch a ball thrown in their catchable vicinity if not interfered with. Perhaps Buffalo Bills fans will remember a certain pass interference call on a Hail Mary heave at the end of a game against New England in 1998 where flags flew amidst a brawl of bodies all jumping for the game’s final act of desperation, and resulted in New England’s bailout with a fresh down on the one-yard line.

While we're on the subject of receptions, the fourth difference is the bedeviling rule in the NFL requiring two feet to drop in bounds for a legal catch. The league, whether to set a higher degree of difficulty for its receivers or to level the field for defensive backs facing pinpoint accuracy from quarterbacks, has sapped the game of yet another appealing aspect found on the college field. Yes, a receiver falling out of bounds and managing to get two toes in the green is a remarkable moment, but it does not outweigh the far more common occurrences of similarly stellar, one-foot-in-bounds grabs of the college game. As discussed above, if the league is already forcing teams to work the sidelines at the critical finales of close contests and refusing to consider equal-time overtime scenarios, why should tightrope-walking catches be made more difficult than they already are?

And if you ever doubted the difference a single foot, heel or pinky toe can make, look no further than Chris Moore’s catch for Western Washington University in 1992, the winner of the ESPY for best college play.

Now imagine Chris Moore's catch is ruled incomplete in an NFL game. Television replays clearly show the ball never hit the ground, but the coach doesn't challenge the ruling because he's afraid of losing a time-out. In the NFL, coaches must gamble their timeouts to challenge a ruling on the field. There is no penalty if they are correct in their assertion, but even then, they can only challenge twice during a game, and only outside the last two minutes of each half at that. These rules once again speak to the hubris of the NFL and its obsession with what is most marketable and financially viable rather than what is most correct and enjoyable. League officials have stated that they do not want to slow down gameplay with excessive challenges, yet they have no problem with consuming nearly half of some broadcasts with media timeouts for commercials. In his "Musings from the Coast" Ad Nauseum blog, Mike Harding charted two early 2007 games—the Rose Bowl and an NFL playoff game—and concluded that 34 percent of the entire broadcast of the Rose Bowl was strictly advertising content and a whopping 48 percent of the NFL playoff game consisted of ads.

By capping the number of challenges per game, regardless of situation, the NFL is suggesting that mistakes will happen so infrequently on the field that there shouldn’t be a course of action if an error occurs more than twice to a team or four times in a game. Furthermore, coaches must specify precisely what they wish to overturn, "the runner was down by contact," "the catch was completed." Video replay should not be used to prove or disprove a narrow assertion, but to look at the play in question with the broadest scope and determine the most correct outcome.

In college, a review official in the booth above the field has the ability and responsibility to review all plays, automatically stopping the game for a review if he or she deems it necessary. This can be a slow and flow-interrupting process for the viewer, but it is the fairest and most transparent means of ensuring the correct call on the field. College coaches do get one challenge per game by offering up a timeout as a last resort, but the weight of responsibility falls primarily on the officials, as it should in the first place.

Both college and pro ball have their share of memorable, remarkable moments, and it would be foolish to compare the pantheons on face. But unlike the NFL, so many of the great college scenes come as direct results of these rules that have remained different. Would we have seen the epic back-and-forth national championship game between Ohio State and Miami in 2002, or Boise State’s stunning upset of Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, a game many consider the greatest college game ever played, without the new overtime rules? What if John Elway’s final drive at Stanford in the Big Game of 1982 and the one-foot grab along the sidelines that ultimately led to the "most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heartrending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football" was disallowed because two feet didn’t touch the ground in-bounds?

As a spectator, the choice between college and professional football is a personal and ultimately nonexclusive one. But if you like excitement, drama, the pursuit of perfection matched with the triumph of the underdog, stick to Saturdays. Wild overtimes, one-foot grabs and the chance to drive the entire length of the field with no time outs in the last minute of the game matter because every Saturday means something. Sundays are for church, home repair, bike rides through the country and whatever else we’re supposed to be doing.

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- Sports
- posted on Jan 03, 09
Rick Horton

great article on on why I don't watch the NFL any longer and am glued to the TV on saturday afternoons.. i like your last name too...

- Sports
- posted on Jan 05, 09
Jim Hale

Joe horton is my collegew roomates grandson. A great article, really well thoght out and well articulated. good going Joe.

- Sports
- posted on Jan 08, 09
Jim McCaffery

I am 80% in agreement with this article. Unlike the author, I have nothing against tie games. Some of the most exciting games in history have ended tied. That's what happens when two teams give their all and play equally well--in many cases, it's the fairest possible outcome.

In my mind, the most satisfying way to break a tie is with a rematch. One year later, ten years later--doesn't matter.

- Sports
- posted on Jan 08, 09
Dan H.

With College review by a video official, and not requiring the on-field official to run to the side line, put on the headphones, find the video feed hood, then make a determination that one of his on-field officials team (or the referee himself) made a bad call, the speed and accuracy of reviews is much better than in the pros. But how can you beat the drama of the Dallas Cowboys with Pacman Jones, T.O. and Tank Johnson, or the Giants' Plexico Burress (he actually shot himself, what he couldn't find Pacman?) Good article, good to see Texas Tech's absolute last second victory over Texas made it in.

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