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2019 Football Rule Changes

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The NCAA keeps finding ways to add to their expansive rule book!

NCAA Football: SEC Media Day
Steve Shaw makes his presentation at SEC Media Days.
Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Today is the second day of SEC Media days. As is tradition, the second day has a visit from everyone’s favorite person at the SEC Office, Steve Shaw. Shaw is the Coordinator of Football Officials for the SEC along with holding the title Secretary – Rules Editor from the NCAA Football Rules Committee. Officials are often the first target when angry fans want to explain why their team lost a game. Every conference thinks their officials are the worst, but watching plenty of other college, and pro, football can build an appreciation for the zebras employed the by SEC. Shaw’s elevation to his role with the NCAA Football Rules Committee shows the respect they have from their peers.

Steve Shaw’s annual appearance at media days is not about past mistakes though. He is there to present rule changes. This season six notable adjustments were made to the NCAA Football Rulebook. Most of them had been announced previously, though this was the first time to really get into the nuances of these changes. Each of them will have a varying impact on games this fall. That impact will include the intended consequences, but the unforeseen effects can be the most significant.

The rule change that will garner the most media attention has to do with games that go into overtime. Essentially, after the 4th overtime period, the game will become a battle of 2-point conversions. The NCAA explained, “This rules change was made to limit the number of plays from scrimmage and to bring the game to a conclusion.” The odd part is that only 11 games have gone to 5 or more overtime periods since the NCAA adopted an overtime rule in 1996. These have all occurred since 2001 with 4 in the last 3 seasons. It seems pointless to apply a rule for such a rare occurrence where the media latches onto these events so strongly when they happen. The publicity generated by these games can drive college football storylines into the next year. Player safety is certainly an understandable concern, but the rarity of such long games means the benefit is minimal. Of course, a game decided in this fashion will also be an instant classic, but will it have the same feel as a game decided under the old system? The do-or-die nature of each play could even make the experience more enthralling for viewers. Even for the sake of not wanting football’s version of a soccer match decided on penalty kicks, a game that has gotten to 4OT has had enough hinge points that no team should feel hard-done by the chancery at play. In the end, it will take a game to test out this rule before we can see how the fans and media react to a game that goes this long.

A second slight modification was made to overtime. A mandatory 2-minute break will take place after the second and fourth overtime periods. This addition is mostly inconsequential in the SEC. With every game broadcast, whether through television or online streaming, those breaks were already allowable media timeout moments. This addition is likely just to allow coaches in non-televised games to have some strategic planning moments for these vital moments.

Another change intended to prevent injuries is the addition of a 15-yard penalty for blind-side blocks. The new penalty will make it a foul for any player to make forcible contact from an angle at which the player being hit cannot see the impact coming or properly defend himself from the contact. This addition protects players from vicious hits where the initiating player gets to line up an unsuspecting opponent and deliver massive force. The intention is to prevent head and neck injuries that can result from the sudden whiplash of these unexpected hits. It should be noted that blockers do not have to avoid making any contact in these situations, but they will have to show restraint and not tee off on their unsuspecting targets. The only concern with adding this infraction is where officials will determine the line of “forcible contact.” It should not be too much of an issue though as these hits are fairly rare.

Kickoffs were impacted yet again with the outlawing of a two-man wedge when attempting a kickoff return. Similar rules have been implemented in the past few years where things like blockers interlocking arms to form a wall have been addressed. In fact, this exact rule has been part of the NCAA Football Rules with the difference being that a two-player wedge was legal while a three-player was illegal. The way this rule will be enforced is going to be intriguing. The rule states, “A wedge is defined as two or more players aligned shoulder to shoulder within two yards of each other.” Players block within two yards of each other all the time. However, the rule goes on to expound, “Free-kick down only: After the ball has been kicked, it is illegal for two or more members of the receiving team intentionally to form a wedge for the purpose of blocking for the ball carrier.” The real thrust here seems to be an attempt to prevent blockers from retreating and forming in front of the ball carrier. Blockers on the kick return will be forced to go from their starting spot to make their block instead of creating a greater gap between them and the player they block by retreating. Intended or not, this limitation will also make it harder to effectively block for kick returns and make touchbacks more and more enticing. It is just another small but nontrivial step towards eliminating kickoffs, or at least kickoff returns.

Last, but not least, the targeting rule has two changes in enforcement. The first change is that players who have been penalized 3 times for targeting in one season will have a mandatory one-game suspension added to the existing punishment. When a rule is intended to protect players, it makes perfect sense to add supplemental discipline to players who repeatedly commit the foul. My one question, and it is not clearly addressed in the rulebook, is whether this is an extra 2 halves or a full game and how it combines with the already existing suspensions. This becomes important if a player commits a targeting foul in the second half of a game. The current disciplinary policy would have that player missing the first half of the next game already. The rule book states, “The player will receive an automatic one-game suspension in his team’s next scheduled game.” It seems to be that the first half suspension would be voided and replaced with simply missing that entire next game. This change makes sense, and it will be even better thanks to the second tweak to targeting enforcement.

In previous years, targeting existed in a weird place for officials. They had been instructed to throw the flag any time they suspected targeting had occurred, especially after the booth review was added for targeting. The problem stemming for that directive was the instruction for replay to, in all reviews, only overturn calls where indisputable video evidence showed the call on the field was clearly incorrect. The combination of these two courses of action meant that a grey-area targeting situation would almost always be allowed to “stand” as called on the field and result in a 15-yard penalty and player ejection. No longer. The officials’ flags are now fundamentally signals to the replay booth. The video review will now have to confirm or reverse the targeting call with no option for the “stands” option. The rule now states, “For a player to be disqualified and the Targeting foul to be enforced, all elements of a Targeting foul must be confirmed by the Instant Replay Official. There is no option for stands as a part of a Targeting review. If any element of Targeting cannot be confirmed, then the Replay Official shall overturn the targeting foul.” Those elements are unchanged. Now, with the new language requiring all elements of targeting to be confirmed, each situation will have to meet one of the targeting scenarios fully. This adjustment should allow the replay officials to get these calls right especially in cases of “bang-bang” plays where at full time an official might think it was targeting, and the replay official would have previously had to allow the call to stand since it was a borderline scenario.

As an extra aside, the Southeastern Conference has added some avenues for them to interact with fans and media for officiating purposes. The one that will be most popular is an SEC Officiating Twitter account. They have already posted in-depth clarifications of these rule changes. The other resource is a landing page on the SEC website.