When Auburn unveiled its spread offense last December in the Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Clemson, some initial struggles were expected.
What wasn’t expected was being hindered by the officials.
“There were times where we were standing around waiting for them to spot the ball so we could go,” Auburn center Jason Bosley said at the SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. “We were like, ‘Get out of the way, please.’ Our coaches were yelling at us to go faster, and we couldn’t go any faster because they were in the way.”
For teams such as Auburn and Tennessee, which have new offensive coordinators seeking to quicken the pace, help could be coming soon.
In February, the NCAA Football Rules Committee voted to implement a 40/25-second play clock similar to what the NFL employs. Instead of using a 25-second clock that doesn’t start until officials mark the ball ready for play, college football will now use a 40-second clock that will start at the end of the preceding play.
The 25-second clock still will be used on the first play following a change of possession, as well as after penalties, measurements and timeouts.
“For all of our lives in college football, we’ve been used to the referee making the ball ready for play and starting the 25-second clock on every single play,” said Rogers Redding, the SEC’s coordinator of officials. “For the first time in the history of college football, that’s not going to be the case most of the time. The way it’s going to work is when the ball is dead without any signal from the referee, just a dead-ball signal from the covering official, the 40-second clock will start ticking down.
“The referee will not declare it ready for play. It will be ready for play when the umpire places the ball on the ground and steps away.”
The NCAA has implemented several rules changles this season, some of which affect the clock:
— Following a play that goes out of bounds, the game clock will now start on the referee’s signal and not on the snap, with the exception of the last two minutes of each half.
— The play clock will be set to 40 seconds and will start when the ball becomes dead on the previous play. A 25-second clock that will begin on the referee’s signal will be used after a penalty administration, measurement, change of possession and timeouts, whether they be charged, media or injury.
Other new rules
— A facemask penalty will be for twisting, turning or pulling and will result in a 15-yard penalty. The incidental 5-yard facemask has been eliminated.
— Players are prohibited from “horse-collar” tackles, in which they grab the inside back collar of the shoulder pads or jersey and pull the runner down. Any such tackle outside the tackle box will result in a 15-yard penalty, but the rule will not apply to a runner inside the tackle box or a quarterback in the pocket.
— Any contact initiated with the crown of a helmet will result in a 15-yard penalty. If it’s even questionable, then it’s a foul.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said the new rule, which is the NCAA’s third major clock-related change in as many years, favors no-huddle offenses and allows quarterbacks more time to read defenses. Georgia’s Mark Richt labeled himself “jealous” when asked about the change, because he tried to play fast earlier this decade with David Greene at quarterback.
Richt turned over play-calling to offensive coordinator Mike Bobo late in the 2006 season, and the Bulldogs continue to maintain a controlled approach.
“Seven years ago, I would have been thrilled about it,” Richt said. “My ambition was to play as fast as we could possibly play and run the no-huddle and get to the line of scrimmage as fast as possible and get the ball snapped in a hurry and run as many plays as possible. We were not allowed to do that.
“In my opinion, the officials in this league were more deliberate than in any league I had been. The SEC, to me, was grinding it to a halt. Now, all of a sudden, you can play as fast as you want to play.”
Offenses still can’t substitute freely or go from one personnel group to another and snap the ball quickly, and defenses still will get time to make their own personnel changes. Yet SEC coaches agree that offenses that want to go fast can go faster now, or they can stay at the line of scrimmage a lot longer.
“The officials are going to get out of the way, and there might still be 30 or 32 seconds on that 40-second clock, where before the most you would ever have is 25 at the line,” Richt said. “I think you’re going to see more teams quick-snapping it, and I think you’re going to see more teams also simulating like they’re going to quick-snap to try to recognize what’s going on and then sit there at the line of scrimmage and have literally 20 or 25 seconds to deliberate.
“That might drive some people nuts. I don’t know.”
Georgia receiver Mohamed Massaquoi and defensive tackle Jeff Owens admitted they expect to be better educated on the clock change at the start of preseason camp, but Tennessee tailback Arian Foster said the Vols experimented with it all spring. Foster said the coaches, especially new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson, preached tempo and emphasized getting in and out of the huddle more than they had in the past.
Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer likes the new rule.
“We managed it pretty well this spring,” Fulmer said. “That’s not at Auburn or Georgia, you know, with the crowd noise and the intensity that will be. But our system allowed us to work and maximize the potential that you can get from the clock, whether it’s fast-huddle or if you wanted to milk the clock.
“Some people say we’ll lose some plays from it, but if we play offensively like we did in the spring, I don’t think we’ll lose any plays.”
Trying to shorten games — because television networks aren’t reducing their commercial time — was the primary motive for the change. Another new rule that should have a bigger impact in that aspect is the game clock now will start once the ball has been made ready following a play that goes out of bounds.
Under old rules, the game clock would not start until the snap, and the old rules have been left in place for the final two minutes of the half and game.
Two years ago, sweeping changes that included starting the game clock after changes of possession resulted in the length of games going from 3 hours, 21 minutes to 3:07. There were roughly 13 fewer plays a game, however, and five fewer points per contest than the year before.
When the NCAA scrapped that plan and went back to the old rules a year ago, the number of plays and points returned to former levels. The length of games, to nobody’s surprise, ballooned to 3:22.
Now coaches are having to adjust again.
“The clock rule is the third one in three years, and I don’t want to get started on that because I don’t agree with it,” Florida’s Urban Meyer said. “You keep moving that hat around a little bit. Now coaches have to relearn a rule that’s going to have a significant impact on the game. How significant? I have no idea, but it just keeps changing and that bothers me.”
Said Kentucky’s Rich Brooks: “Every year now we’ve got to address new clock rules with the players. It’s just kind of foolish, in my mind, that you tinker with it in a three-year cycle like we have.”
Foolish, of course, unless you’re eager to run a new spread offense.
“I think it will really help us,” Bosley said. “We can just go, go, go, go, go as fast as we want.”
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...