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Hot Reads: The Rule-Change That Could Change Everything

June 12, 2017

There are plenty of issues in college football that feel divisive, but most of those are just about schools protecting their advantages. Satellite camps? They’re terrible (if your school is located in a recruiting hotbed and doesn’t need them). Or they’re great (if your school wants an audience with a bunch of recruits it doesn’t have in its back yard). Early-signing period? It’s bad for kids (if your school recruits just fine under the current rules). Or it’s great for kids (if your school would benefit from being able to bring a Floridian to campus before he visits every school in his state).

These are simple, partisan divides based mostly on special interests. But one issue that actually gets to the philosophy behind the game — and thus seems to matter more — is what is going on at the line of scrimmage in college football.

Josh Kendall of The State in Columbia, S.C., breaks it all down in a great story, but to set the stage the question here is how far downfield should college offensive linemen be allowed to go on passing plays? Currently the rule allows for 3 yards (which quickly becomes 4 yards or more when officials have to eyeball it in real time). The NFL only allows offensive linemen 1 yard.

That may seem like something of a niche concern, but it changes everything and the NCAA rules committee is now polling coaches at all levels to get the lay of the land. Steve Shaw, SEC coordinator of officials, called the divide “like a Republican-Democrat thing,” in Kendall’s story, but that’s probably underselling it. Here’s how a couple of SEC coaches put it:

College football’s decision on which way to go with its rule, if it makes any changes at all, is as simple and as stark, Georgia coach Kirby Smart said, as this: “It depends on what we’re trying to promote. Are we trying to build NFL players or are we trying to get a lot of points scored?”

That’s because the extra distance is what allows for the flood of run-pass option plays that have taken over almost every college team’s playbook. With 3 yards to work with, offenses can go to the line of scrimmage with two play calls. The offensive line blocks for a running play, driving forward, and the quarterback makes the decision to hand off the ball (or run it himself) or throw a pass based on which way a particular defender commits himself.

“I coach the safeties,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “What do you tell those guys to do? You have an offensive guard running at you and a receiver.”

I disagree with Smart’s characterization there a little bit. I don’t think “trying to build NFL players” should be a primary concern of college football, but I get his point. What he’s actually saying is “do we want this game to look more like the pro game or less?”

Now that’s a fascinating question. I love college football but watch very little NFL football. One of the primary reasons, there are many, is because the game feels too much the same for my liking at the pro level. There rarely feels like a difference, at least to me, between watching say Cincinnati and Houston. But college has always offered a panoply of styles.

Or at least it used to, but it’s also fair to ask if this very rule has changed that. The 3-yard rule has made those run-pass option plays (RPOs) so advantageous that teams essentially have to incorporate them even if they might prefer to be prototypically pro-style. Nebraska, with its deep roots in traditional offense under Mike Riley, ran RPOs with Tommy Armstrong Jr. It’s the emergence of those plays that have brought this very specific rule into focus.

And what would happen if it changed? That’s a tough one to answer, but here’s a scenario that seems likely to me: The teams able to recruit the best offensive linemen — and those will be your traditional powers — will have an even bigger edge than they already do. RPO-heavy spread offenses can hide some deficiencies on the offensive line to a degree by consistently calling a play that confuses the defense and asks those linemen to block the same down after down. Remove that deception from the game and it becomes more about the quality of a team’s line. In short, I think this rule change, if it were to happen, could decrease parity in college football (which spread offenses have certainly spurred along).

That will make this polling of college coaches particularly interesting. In theory you could expect an offense-defense divide here. Offensive coordinators enjoy the advantage, and defensive coordinators hate it. But does that sentiment shift as you get further down the football food chain? Are Group of 5 defensive coordinators in favor of leaving the rule the same, even though it makes their own lives more difficult, because it gives their over-matched program the chance to level the playing field against a traditional power?

All of that stuff is wrapped up in this one simple rule, and I’m interested enough in it to make it our Hail Varsity poll question this week. Head over to the homepage to cast your vote.

The Grab Bag

  • Really interesting breakdown of what TV games mean to the bottom line at a program like Wyoming.
  • Former Michigan State defensive lineman Cassius Peat, who spent last year at a junior college, says he was blocked from returning to the Spartans four days before he planned to return to campus.
  • Which coach without a national title is most like to get one? Tom Fornelli of lists five candidates.
  • Not related to college sports, but this read from Bryan Curtis of The Ringer on the release of “The Jordan Rules” is fantastic.

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