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College football wants to shorten games without addressing the actual problems

Four-hour games don’t happen because the clock stops on incompletions.

Syndication: The Tennessean George Walker IV / / USA TODAY NETWORK

Earlier this week, the powers that be in college football floated some changes to the rules designed to shorten the length of games, and... let’s just say that they’re looking in the wrong place, but then that’s to be expected when television basically runs the sport.

The first two, in the grand scheme of things, are about as inconsequential as it gets. Using consecutive timeouts occurs basically only in the context of trying to ice the kicker on a game-winning field goal; untimed downs at the end of a quarter happen once in a blue moon. The more significant proposals are to run the clock on first downs and incompletions. Per the article:

College executives have been told the average offense would lose about seven plays per game if the clock was allowed to run after first downs. That’s less impactful than letting the clock run after incomplete passes, which projects to remove 18-20 plays from each contest, fundamentally changing the game’s structure. Especially in a sport where a record 46% of snaps were passing plays in 2022.

You can see where this is going.

Four-hour college football games have been a problem for a while, and that problem is only growing with pass-happy offenses and 49-42 games becoming more commonplace. And yes, it’s a problem, because the reason why games take so long isn’t entirely because of this; in fact, it’s probably not even the biggest reason. Because:

That variance may be enough to keep the changes from passing. With fewer plays, Division II and Division III games could be reduced to less than 2 hours and 20 minutes, according Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and ex-member of the committee.

“Division II and Division II will probably revolt,” Berry told CBS Sports. “Their game times are still underneath 3 hours. They’re running the exact same offenses. … I think one of the beauties of the college game is that our rules are the same across the board.”

What’s the biggest difference between high-level college football and Division III? Well, Division III games aren’t televised — which means that there aren’t commercial breaks or replay review. And that, obviously, adds a whole lot of dead time to college football games. (It’s worth noting here: college football’s replay system is markedly worse than the NFL’s, because the absence of coach’s challenges mean that a lot more time gets wasted reviewing plays that aren’t likely to get overturned and/or have a minimal impact on the game’s outcome. It’s also markedly worse because college football games don’t go to commercial during replay reviews. How much time could be saved if the networks simply took their commercial breaks while the players are milling about and the referees are staring at a screen?)

The dirty secret of all this is that when people complain about games taking too long, what they’re really complaining about is the amount of dead time during a game. MLB has a problem with the length of games, and as Grant Brisbee documented a while back, the reason they’ve gotten so long is because there is considerably more dead time in between pitches — something that MLB addressed by implementing a pitch clock.

What didn’t happen was MLB looking at the situation and deciding “you know what, the reason why the games have gotten so long is because there are too many homers.”

I am as opposed as anyone to the current defense-free iteration of college football as anyone could possibly be; I hate football games that end with plausible basketball scores. But I seem to be in the minority in that, and anyway, nobody is looking at the length of college football games and deciding that the problem is that there’s too much football being played. There is way too much dead time; SEC football fans have been complaining about the length of CBS broadcasts for about two decades, and there really are more and longer commercial breaks on those broadcasts.

But then, this isn’t really about the fans. If it were about the fans, there would be fewer commercial breaks.

More than one source called the difference in exposures between NFL and college being a possible inflection point. NFL games average 155 plays per game (including extra points, kickoffs, two-point plays). In the FBS, the average is around 180.

Some question whether that delta should exist with young adults, non-professionals (many of whom are teenagers) facing 16% more plays than paid professionals. Add to that the expanded College Football Playoff creating the possibility of a 17-game season and some college football players could be on the field for the equivalent of an NFL regular season.

Here’s how you know this is horseshit: they’re talking about player safety.

This isn’t to say that player safety isn’t a valid concern. Football is, after all, a violent sport, affecting the quality of life for the people who play the sport long after their careers are over. But any time “player safety” is brought up in the context of rule changes, I instinctively assume that’s just being used as a crutch, as a way to make it look like you’re doing what you’re doing for altruistic reasons.

Back to the increasing number of 49-42 games: a lot of the reason why that’s happened is because a lot of rule changes that were ostensibly done in the name of “player safety” have in fact made it next to impossible to play defense. Twenty years ago, throwing a pass over the middle of the field might get your receiver killed; today, your receiver will more than likely be allowed to catch the ball uncontested by safeties terrified of getting ejected for targeting. And, again, this is a legitimate concern. But it’s also putting the thumb on the scale in favor of more offense. (Other rule changes, of course, are less plausibly connected to player safety but still favor the offense, because of course they do.)

Here, what you have is a sudden concern about player safety in the context of seasons that might extend to 17 games because of the expansion to a 12-team playoff. How you know this is horseshit is that coaches like Kirby Smart and Dabo Swinney are blaming this on playoff expansion.

In 1990, sure, there wasn’t a playoff and there were only like five bowl games; the regular season also consisted of 11 games and there were no conference championship games. Somewhere in the early 2000s, the season went to 12 games for no particular reason (no, seriously, nobody ever gave a good explanation for it.) You might be thinking “more football good,” except that right around the same time, the NCAA also started allowing teams to count a win over an FCS team toward the six required for bowl eligibility. In other words, that extra game was almost universally a low-quality walkover against an FCS team. And conference championship games became a thing when the SEC split into two divisions in 1992; the Big 12 (an unholy alliance of the Big 8 and the portion of the SWC that no longer wanted to be associated with SMU and Rice) got one in 1996, and the Big Ten, ACC, and Pac-12 eventually came along; hell, the G5 conferences all have one now, too. It’s now worth noting that conferences splitting into divisions is very nearly a thing of the past, making conference championship games a pointless exercise (but a massive revenue grab, because of course.)

If this were a legitimate concern, there would be talk of reducing the regular season as a trade-off for playoff expansion. Instead, it’s a thin veil over a proposal to let television networks keep their games inside of neat three-and-a-half-hour windows without actually costing themselves any advertising revenue. (The reason why they won’t get rid of conference championship games and lop a game off the regular season is that for all the conference realignment influenced talk about marquee matchups, at core college football and college sports in general are a volume play for networks, who want to be able to fill air time from 11 AM to midnight on a Saturday.)

In short, this is all disingenuous bullshit, and it should be called as such.