Commentary: Proposed 2008 Rule Changes
by Jonathan Hodges

Just this week, the NCAA Football Rules Committee announced potential rule changes to start in the 2008 season.  Although they are only proposals and require additional approvals to be implemented, the recommendations from the committee are usually followed, so it is important to keep an eye on what is going on (the official rule book for this season comes out around May).  The changes may seem minor when announced, the fact is that these minor changes, especially when combined with other changes, can make substantial differences in what we as fans see on the field.  A perfect example would be the timing changes made before the 2006 season that adversely impacted the number of plays per game, and although they accomplished their goal of cutting down on the overall game time, NCAA football saw a drastic reduction in the actual amount of playing time and the ability for a team to come back late in the game - which meant that the game was altered significantly.

So, from the NCAA website, here are the proposed changes from the committee, grouped in general categories:

Timing Changes:

- After a runner goes out of bounds, except in the last 2 minutes of each half,
the game clock will start on the signal from the referee (to start the play clock) rather than on the snap.  (Previously, the clock would only start after the snap throughout the game).

- 40/25 play clock system: unless the game is stopped for administrative reasons (timeout, injury, change of possession, etc.), the offensive team will have 40 seconds to snap the ball after it is originally declared dead.  After an administrative stop in play, a 25 second play clock is started on the referee's signal.

Safety/Penalty Changes:

- Rules regarding helmet to helmet contact, head-down helmet contact, contact with a defenseless opponent (when contacting above the shoulders), and chop blocks will be revised to better clarify the rules and protect the players further.

- A rule regarding (and prohibiting) horse-collar tackles (tackles from behind where the tackler grabs the shoulder pads or jersey behind or around the neck).

- The 5-yard incidental facemask penalty will be eliminated, leaving only the 15 yard personal foul for pulling/twisting/turning the facemask.

- A yardage penalty will be implemented for sideline violations (this was previously a warning that carried no yardage penalty).

- Kickoffs that go out of bounds may be placed at the 40 on the acceptance of the penalty instead of the 35.

Instant Replay:

- Plays where a fumble leads to an immediate recovery may be reviewed.

- The coaches will now have 2 challenges allowed per game instead of 1.


Timing Changes

I was an advocate of the 40/25 clock system prior to this year and find it a good way to cut down on the playing time without adversely affecting the total number of plays per game while also providing more consistent timing between games and officiating crews.  In fact, it may help speed up the flow of play in some situations where a lot of time was taken between plays - thus eliminating more "dead time" when the clock is running.  The clock starting on the ready for play signal instead of the snap during most of the game (except inside the 2:00 mark at the end of the halves) will have a small impact on the timing of the game, but shouldn't have a huge impact on the number of plays.  And those last-minute drives are still possible thanks to the exclusion inside those 2:00 marks.  These should allow more consistent timing within games and also help the NCAA's apparent goal of appeasing TV by cutting down on game time (which is now around the 3.5 hour mark).

Safety/Penalty Changes

Rules improving the safety of the student-athletes on the field are never a bad thing, and most of the changes proposed here are good.  Again, clearer rules providing the opportunity for more consistent officiating for certain penalties are a good thing.  Banning horse-collar tackles seems to make sense (given that the NFL has already done it) - the only question will be if they implement the "jersey" restriction - currently the NFL only bans the pulling of shoulder pads (although this may not make a difference in most cases as the jersey is very tight against the shoulder pads and is difficult to separate).

Getting rid of the "incidental" facemask penalty will also allow more consistent application of the rules - since it is difficult, if not impossible, for the officials to determine intent when a facemask is pulled/twisted/turned.  It may lead to some additional penalties, thus forcing coaches to train the athletes to avoid grabbing the helmet/facemask even moreso than before.

The yardage penalty for sideline violations will actually give that rule some meaning now and some teams will really have to police the sideline to keep everyone back (only the coaches are allowed in the white area immediately adjacent to the sideline between the 25 yard lines), so we may see additional penalties called from time to time.

Finally, placing the kickoff on the 40 instead of the 35 after going out of bounds only makes sense after moving kickoffs back to the 30 last year.  This rule may have a slight impact for teams who resulted to kicking the ball out of bounds after the kickoffs were moved back last year - and we may see even more returns and good starting field positions as teams try to avoid kicking out of bounds or giving up the ball only 60 yards away from the end zone.

Instant Replay

Any changes that allow wider use of instant replay are OK in my book, and allowing more reviews of fumbles makes sense.  And giving coaches 2 challenges instead of 1 will actually give the opportunity for many coaches to take a chance and use the challenge - over the past few years coaches usually held the red flag in their pocket just in case something happened very late in the game: meaning you rarely saw it early on and only in cases of a big play.  Still, a major hurdle in the NCAA is the fact that coaches are not allowed to view any video equipment during the game, meaning that challenge has to be called only based on the viewpoint of the coaches and players when the play occurred (or luck out and see the play in instant replay on a video scoreboard in time).

Impact on NU

So, what does this mean for NU?  I would say most of these changes will HELP the 'Cats - especially given the increase in penalties and penalty yardage thanks to rule changes regarding safety and penalties.  Under Coach Fitz, Northwestern has been very disciplined, ending 2006 as the nation's least penalized team (in terms of number of penalties and yardage), and finishing very close to the top in 2007 (despite the game against Duke that was littered with penalties) - therefore, the advantage seems to go to NU who most likely will continue their low penalty level while the opponents who rack up penalties will see more losses.  Also in 2007, despite having a pass-heavy offense, NU managed to do a good job of controlling the clock - and these additional rule changes will benefit teams who can control the clock better.  If NU chooses to go to a no huddle type attack out of the spread (like what has been done in the past), the quicker starting of play won't hurt NU.

The only potential downside for the 'Cats will be on kickoffs, where NU was hurting for the latter half of 2007.  The good thing, though, is that Stefan Demos will hopefully return to full health for the 2008 season and will again be able to handle kickoffs (in addition to punts) - and he has shown that he has the leg to get kickoffs deep when not hampered by an injury.  Also, when utilized, NU's "pooch" kicks do a good job of limiting returns - but the key in the future will be avoiding having those kicks going out of bounds

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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