The Big 12 and Pac-12 champions each won 11 games last season, but with styles so different they barely seemed to be playing the same sport. Baylor raced up the field with a hurry-up, no-huddle offense, averaging more plays (85.2) than all but four teams. Stanford ground out fewer plays per game (65.0) than all but five. The diversity of attacks in college football, from Georgia Tech's triple option to Washington State's Air Raid, is a stark and refreshing contrast to the more homogenized NFL. And yet, as Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter laments, "It's another aspect of the game we're tying to legislate away."
This is an article from the March 10, 2014 issue
Last month the NCAA Football Rules Committee announced a proposal that would put the brakes on offenses like DeRuyter's, which ran 101 plays in a 61--14 win over Idaho last fall. The new rule mandates that defenses be allowed 10 seconds for substitutions each time the 40-second play clock resets, except during the last two minutes of each half. In an amusing oddity, officials would call a delay of game penalty if a team snapped the ball before the play clock hit 29. The Playing Rules Oversight Panel is scheduled to vote on the proposal this Thursday, though it could be tabled before then. Even if it doesn't pass, the debate isn't going away. That's because the purported rationale behind the proposal is player safety.
During a two-day meeting in Indianapolis, committee members reportedly expressed concern over defenses' inability to remove a fatigued player from the field. But cynical up-tempo coaches believe some of their peers are using the safety issue as a guise to push through a rule to benefit their teams. It hardly seems a coincidence that the rule's two biggest proponents are Alabama's Nick Saban (116th in plays per game) and Arkansas's Bret Bielema (121st). On Feb. 20, Bielema ignited a firestorm when he scoffed at those who say there's no hard data linking up-tempo offenses to higher injury rates by citing Cal defensive end Ted Agu, who died on Feb. 7 of unconfirmed causes during a workout. "Death certificates," he said, were the only evidence he needed. (Bielema released a remorseful statement the next day.)
Even if the committee's intentions are genuine, its solution is clunky. An ESPN poll of all 128 FBS coaches found that only 25 supported it. The panel needs to devise something less disruptive. Perhaps teams should simply be afforded an extra 30-second timeout each half for a safety-related substitution; whoever is removed from the game could not return for the rest of that series. It would offer relief but prevent coaches from using a timeout solely to slow the pace. While even the most frenetic teams infrequently snap during the first 10 seconds, the threat that they might is a significant facet of the offense-defense chess match. The quarterback uses that period to survey the defense's alignment and switch to a different play if necessary. Now he'll have to wait. "You're talking about changing the dynamics of football," says Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. "You would have to coach your quarterback completely differently."
Hurry-up offenses vex defensive-minded coaches by limiting their abilities to swap out personnel for specific downs and distances. It's no coincidence that average scoring (29.6 points) and yardage (412.3) hit record highs last season. But just as defenses adjusted to the rise of spread offenses, their response to this latest trend should emerge organically. "Up-tempo is not the end-all, be-all," says DeRuyter. "It's more fun to watch Oregon play Stanford, or Wisconsin play Oregon. Let's settle which style is better on the field."