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February 20, 2014

Tom Lindley: Rule change would make major impact on college football

The NCAA Football Rules Committee will take a hard look at a simple question when it meets on March 6: More plays or less?

A proposed rule would prohibit offenses from snapping the ball into action until 29 or fewer seconds remain on the 40-second play clock. The current rule permits a center to hike the ball immediately after it has been set for play.

Head coaches who are proponents of the change — namely Alabama’s Nick Saban and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema — say it’s a question of player safety. The current rule makes it difficult for defenses to make substitutions. There’s simply not enough time to get players off and on the field against a no-huddle or hurry-up offense.

Limiting how quickly plays begin will benefit the defense, especially one stacked with talent that can be inserted into the game against various down-and-distance situations. And that explains the furious reaction from coaches who have employed quick-striking, elaborate offensive schemes designed to score points in bundles.

Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Washington State’s Mike Leach have dismissed the idea to slow the pace of the game as a joke. How can you blame them? They want a chance to score before the defense gets set.

The difference between teams that employ fast-paced offenses and those dedicated to defense are significant. Texas Tech led the nation’s offenses this past season, averaging 90.3 plays per game, followed by Brigham Young, which averaged 89.9 plays. Contrast that with Saban and Bielema’s teams. Alabama’s offense ran on average 65.9 plays, while Arkansas ran 67.7.

The difference offers a clear insight into the coaches’ strategic thinking and approaches to managing football games. The offense’s advantage is twofold: It knows the play and when it’s coming. The defense’s strength is that players can continuously move to different spots on the field to enhance their chances of stopping a run or pass.

The push behind the change officially falls under the claim of player safety. That seems logical at first blush; more plays would increase the risk of more injuries. However, there’s no definitive evidence either proving or refuting that assumption.

Research suggests the number of injuries to offensive and defensive players aren’t that much different. Dave Bartoo, founder of the trend analysis website The College Football Matrix (cfbmatrix.com), cites size and speed as the primary factors that lead to player injury.

One point in his analysis seems most noteworthy: From 2009 to 2012, teams in the Big 12 Conference averaged more snaps played on offense and defense than any other conference — yet they had the fewest player starts lost to injury on offense and defense, as well as the lowest injury rate per play on offense and defense.

It’s easy to see that programs built around strong defensive units favor a more controlled game. Opposing coaches looking for an edge — or an offense built around a surprise play or trickery — must be more imaginative to get that edge.

Coaches of teams favoring no-huddle offenses are always devising new ways to outscore the opposition. Defensive-minded coaches — more conservative by nature — play to get the lead and then let their defense take over.

In the end it is a balancing act. Some teams score so quickly (or turn the ball over on downs just as fast) that their defense gets little time to rest and subsequently wears out.

Former Louisville coach Charlie Strong received criticism for intentionally slowing down star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Once his team got a lead, Strong preferred to let the clock run and allow play calling to become more conventional. His harshest critics said his style may have cost Bridgewater a chance at winning the Heisman Trophy. Strong’s 12-1 record at Louisville and a lopsided win against Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl, though, are strong evidence that his plan works.

The matter now goes to the NCAA’s Playing Rules Oversight Panel, where it faces an uncertain fate. A case for change built around safety isn’t overly convincing. The notion that defenses can’t substitute between plays has merit.

Break it down this way: Do you favor more offense from those who play the game like Johnny Manziel — or less?

For me, that one’s not even close.

Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. You can write to him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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