NCAA Proposing Rule Changes/Adjustments to Targeting and Tempo

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Troy Calhoun, head coach of Air Force, leads a committee discussing the rules on targeting and high tempo offenses.

The NCAA made waves during the 2013 college football off-season when they announced the new targeting rule that would result in a player being ejected from the game if targeting to the head and/or neck took place. Rules in the NCAA have also become stricter with regards to pass interference and roughing the passer. The NCAA typically cites "player safety" as rationale for most rule changes.

Earlier this week, the NCAA Football Rules Committee, led by Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, met to discuss possible rule changes regarding targeting and defensive substitutions. The committee proposed that two changes to the NCAA rules be made.

The first is that targeting is essentially reviewable by instant replay. As many saw throughout the 2013 season, this was clearly not the case previously, as all targeting penalties were based solely on the judgement of the officials and were not able to be questioned. Now the NCAA is saying that if instant replay shows that targeting did not occur, then the penalty should not be enforced -- i.e. the player should not be ejected. The NCAA also stipulates that if an additional personal foul is committed, then that penalty is still enforced even if targeting is not.

Via the NCAA's official site:

Last season, the targeting rule was implemented and any player committing the penalty would be ejected and his team assessed a 15-yard penalty. The committee recommended that if the instant replay official rules that a disqualification should not have occurred, and if the targeting foul is not accompanied by another personal foul, the 15-yard penalty for targeting should not be enforced.

However, if the targeting foul is committed in conjunction with another personal foul, the 15-yard penalty for that personal foul remains. For example, if a player is called for roughing the passer and targeting the head and neck area, but the instant replay official rules that targeting did not occur, the player flagged would remain in the game, but the roughing the passer penalty would still be enforced.

The second proposed rule change, however, appears to be creating much more ripples than the targeting adjustment. The NCAA is proposing that offenses not be allowed to snap the ball within the first ten (10) seconds of the play-clock, which would allow defenses ten seconds to substitute players between plays. High tempo offenses would have to wait until the play clock hit 29 before they could snap the ball, otherwise they would draw a 5-yard penalty. The NCAA notes that there would be an exception for the final two minutes of each half, in which this rule would not apply.

Via the NCAA's site:

The committee also recommended a rules change that will allow defensive units to substitute within the first 10 seconds of the 40-second play clock, with the exception of the final two minutes of each half, starting with the 2014 season.

...

Under this rule proposal, the offense will not be allowed to snap the ball until the play clock reaches 29 seconds or less. If the offense snaps the ball before the play clock reaches 29 seconds, a 5-yard, delay-of-game penalty will be assessed. Under current rules, defensive players are not guaranteed an opportunity to substitute unless the offense substitutes first. This part of the rule will remain in place in scenarios where the play clock starts at 25 seconds.

The committee discussed the issue thoroughly before coming to the conclusion that defensive teams should be allowed some period of time to substitute. The committee believes that 10 seconds provides sufficient time for defensive player substitutions without inhibiting the ability of an offense to play at a fast pace. Research indicated that teams with fast-paced, no-huddle offenses rarely snap the ball with 30 seconds or more on the play clock. This rules proposal also aligns with a request from the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports that sport rules committees review substitution rules in regards to player safety.

Again the NCAA and Calhoun cite "player safety" as the rationale for this rule adjustment, which seems dubious* at best. Although the NCAA appears to claim otherwise, there doesn't appear to be any evidence linking high tempo offenses to injuries for defensive players trying to keep up.

Unless, of course, you count a player lying down on the field to catch his breath as an injury. That was a subject of controversy in a few games, most notably the Northwestern-Cal match, where Sonny Dykes repeatedly complained to officials that Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern players on defense were faking injuries in order to stall Cal's tempo.

If anyone is surprised that both offenses and defense have been trying to exploit this, don't be. Even Greg Mattison admitted that if an offense's tempo is getting too fast, he tells his defensive players who tweak something to stay down so that the officials will stop the clock.

The real reason for the rule change appears to be that the NCAA wishes to create a competitive balance between both offense and defense. Only the most ridiculously fast-paced tempos snap the ball before the play-clock hits 30, and most no-huddle offenses snap the ball after 29 seconds anyway. This doesn't outlaw no-huddle offenses altogether. It simply allows defenses 10 seconds to substitute players, which should be plenty of time.

Would this rule change be a good thing?

Depends on who you ask. Your spread aficionados who want to go at an insane tempo will obviously hate this. The coaches who would primarily be affected are guys like Gus Malzahn, Sonny Dykes, Mike Leach, Kevin Wilson (Indiana), and Rich Rodriguez. For them, the super-fast tempo is a key component of their offense and one of the main reasons they believe their schemes possess a competitive advantage.

Defensive coaches such as Brady Hoke and Nick Saban will probably love this. Coaches who believe that football should be decided by individual one-on-one match-ups rather than schemes can now stop bitching when their defense draws a substitution infraction when facing a high-tempo offense. And frankly, if ten seconds is not enough time to substitute in a few players, then you probably need to hire a different strength/conditioning coach.

For most of college football, however, this doesn't seem like it would be as far-reaching as most critics fear. It wouldn't outlaw the spread offense. It wouldn't slow down most of college football's no-huddle teams. No-huddle spread teams like Northwestern and UCLA, for instance, both typically snapped the ball with around 15 seconds on the play-clock, which was on par with most pro-style offenses. If memory serves, Ohio State generally snapped around 28, and although Notre Dame went no-huddle they usually didn't snap the ball until the play-clock hit 10.

Perhaps most importantly, it wouldn't have a negative impact on Michigan. While new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said that the offense would go fast if it needed to, there was no indication that they would become as fast-paced as Kevin Wilson's Indiana, even if a slight increase in tempo (really, anything better than snapping the ball with 3 seconds or less left on the play-clock) would be a welcome sight. After running one of the slowest tempos in the country in 2013, it'd be nice to see them get to a moderate, average tempo without necessarily becoming the insane extreme.

It's important to note that both rule changes are not yet official. These are both proposals by the NCAA Football Rules Committee that must first receive feedback from members throughout the NCAA -- you can bet Rich Rodriguez and Sonny Dykes will have some choice words -- and then it has to be approved by the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel. The decision is expected to be made on March 6.

*Dubiousness. You want to know why everyone hates you, NCAA? That's why. Citing "player safety" when there doesn't seem to be any connection between tempo and ACL-tears makes it look like you're making a rule change just for the sake of making one. It's not like trying to find a balance between offense and defense is unreasonable. Sure, your spread zealots will bitch until the end of time (what else is new?), much like defense zealots do because of flagrant pass-interference calls, but in general you have a decent reason for doing this, so just be honest.

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