Ron Morris

College ticks off as clockwork NFL runs smooth

COLLEGE FOOTBALL CAN’T seem to get it right. The powers that be are getting closer, though, when it comes to clock management. They might some day figure out that NFL rules work, so why not adopt them.

This marks the third consecutive season college football has tinkered with the rules in an attempt to shorten the length of games. Frankly, it has become a little maddening, particularly for coaches.

“Whether the rule works, I’m not really concerned about that,” Florida coach Urban Meyer said during SEC media days. “You keep moving that hat around a little bit. Now the coaches have to re-learn a rule. I think that’s going to have an impact on the game.

“How significant? I have no idea. Is it more significant than two years ago than last year or it will be the year after? I don’t know. It just keeps changing. It bothers me.”

The difference this year is that college football is adopting the greater part of an NFL rule that keeps the game moving. It is called a 40-second clock. As soon as one play ends, the 40-second clock begins. The next play must begin before that clock expires.

Under the previous rules, a 25-second clock began when an official put the ball in play. The 25-second clock will remain in the game only after play has stopped for timeouts, penalties and changes of possession.

Additionally, when the ball goes out of bounds this season, the game clock will begin when the ball is put in play. Previously, the clock did not begin until the ball was snapped from center. This rule does not apply in the final two minutes of each half.

On the surface, those changes do not seem like much. But if you ever have watched a college game and an NFL game on back-to-back days you have a greater appreciation for how the pro game moves. Most NFL games are played in three hours, give or take a few minutes.

When two teams tangle that feature the pass, the college game can be interminably long. In 2005, the average length of a college game was 3:21. Speed-up rules were instituted in 2006, and the average length of a game was 3:07.

The rules seemed to work, until coaches realized there were 13 fewer plays per game that season. So, a season ago, the rules reverted back to 2005, and the length of games grew to 3:22.

If you do not believe college games lasted too long under the old rules, let me give you a couple of examples from last season.

The first occurred in Baton Rouge, La., where LSU built a 28-7 lead over South Carolina through three quarters. As the fourth quarter began, the game entered its fourth hour. Apparently that was long enough for LSU fans.

Midway through that final quarter, one in which USC staged a mild comeback, most of the initial crowd of 92,530 already had headed to the parking lot. This mass exodus occurred while LSU was winning on a rainy Saturday afternoon/early evening.

The game lasted three hours and 33 minutes, and the stadium was virtually empty by the time the teams shook hands at the game’s conclusion.

Then there was the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta that began at 7:42 on New Year’s Eve and, thanks to overtime, ended 24 minutes before 2008 began. It did not help matters that Auburn employed parts of a new spread offense, which generally stretches a game’s length.

Following the game, Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said he could not remember such a lengthy game. He joked to reporters that he nearly fell asleep because of the game’s late hour.

The next step for college football will be to corral television networks and how they manage the game. When an NFL game breaks for a TV commercial, the game resumes in 60 seconds. If the network does not return to the game in time, tough luck.

Far too many times, college football games are held up during timeouts because TV networks conduct interviews, promote the upcoming games. Meanwhile, the fans in the stands sit and wait, and the game stretches on.

According to cfbstats.com, the biggest time eater among TV networks in 2007 was CBS, where the average game lasted a whopping 3:47. By comparison, ESPN games lasted 3:28, which is better but still above the season average for all games.

College football will continue to test rules in search of the perfect balance of keeping the length of games in check while allowing an adequate number of plays to satisfy coaches.

The time can’t come soon enough for college football to stop tinkering and adopt all NFL clock management rules. NFL rules work, and everyone leaves games happy three hours after they arrive.

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