College football administrators are looking at ways to reduce the number of plays in games in the name of player safety, with a tweak in clock operating procedures likely the first step.
The NCAA Football Rules Committee is meeting in Indianapolis this week, and recommendations it forwards and approved in the spring would take effect next season.
Steve Shaw, NCAA secretary-rules editor and officials coordinator, said the average number of plays per game in the Bowl Subdivision has hovered at 180 the past three seasons. NFL games average 154.
Conference commissioners would like to cut the number to reduce the players’ potential injury exposures. The issue has taken on urgency because some teams will be playing more games as the College Football Playoff expands. The playoff goes from four to 12 teams in the 2024-25 season, and further expansion is possible after that.
A proposal to let the game clock continue running when a team makes a first down, except in the last two minutes of a half, has broad support. Currently, the clock stops on a first down until the referee gives the ready-for-play signal. A rules committee study last season found about eight plays per game would be cut if the clock kept moving.
An eight-play reduction over a 12-game season would save 96 potential injury exposures per team, and there would be over 100 fewer exposures for teams that advance to the playoff.
“That probably has significant impact,” Shaw said. “Is that the right number? I don’t know. But let’s start with a conservative approach and see what this does and let’s keep looking at it.”
A more radical proposal would have the clock begin running once the ball is spotted after an incomplete pass. Currently, in both the college and pro game, the clock starts running once the ball is snapped.
Tulane athletic director Troy Dannen, who chairs the Football Competition Committee, said there is minimal support for the clock change on incompletions. The rules committee study showed a wide range in how many plays would be saved because of differing offensive styles, but the average was 17.
A drawback would be that coaches of up-tempo systems might try to further speed up their offenses to squeeze in more plays, thus defeating the purpose of the change.
The rules committee also is looking at a change to the procedure when there is a penalty at the end of a quarter. Currently, the following play is an untimed down if the penalty is enforced. The procedure would not change at the end of the second and fourth quarters, but plays that were untimed at the end of the first and third quarters would be moved into the following quarter.
Another proposal – more in line with reducing game lengths that averaged 3 hours, 27 minutes last season – would eliminate a team’s ability to call back-to-back timeouts during the same dead ball period.
Dannen, whose committee of athletic directors and faculty representatives provides input to the rules committee, said identifying the appropriate number of plays in a game will continue to be a topic for discussion.
“In the year or two ahead of us, there’s going to be a lot more data collected,” he said. “I don’t think there’s an answer that if you were at 150 plays it’s imminently more safe than 160 or 220. The big effort right now is, ‘How do we not increase plays with an increased playoff?’”